The pursuit of letters

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By Pakistani author Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s new book explores the dynamics of human relationships, says Arundhati Basu
  • Published 13.05.12

Musharraf Ali Farooqi is a man who does not mince his words. If he bluntly states that he isn’t a fan of ‘clever’ writing by contemporary authors like Salman Rushdie and Haruki Murakami, he doesn’t stop short of deeming his upcoming novel ‘strange’.

The Karachi-based author, whose latest novel Between Clay and Dust has just been released, is quite easily distinguished from the other Pakistani authors. He does not write about the political situation in his country of birth. Instead, Farooqi is first and foremost a storyteller who deals with human relationships.

“I write about them because they are universal,” says the 43-year-old who did book readings in Delhi and Bangalore on his maiden visit to India. His parents, incidentally, were born in Saharanpur and Moradabad, in Uttar Pradesh and moved to Pakistan post Independence.

The salt-pepper haired writer is a multi-tasker who divides his time between painstaking translations of Urdu texts, writing novels and books for children. He even delivers simplified lectures on Ghalib’s ghazals once a week in Karachi. “I get easily bored with a single project at a time,” grins Farooqi who published his debut novel, Salar Jang’s Passion, in 2000.

His passion for storytelling comes through in Between Clay and Dust. It tells the story of a wrestler, Ustad Ramzi, and a courtesan, Gohar Jan, in the twilight of their lives.

It also happens to be the debut book of publisher David Davidar’s brand new Aleph Book Company. “What I loved about Musharraf is his finesse in grafting a lush style on to a spare style of storytelling. It is probably derived from his deep immersion in Urdu literature,” points out Davidar.

The book is about the choices one has to make in a lifetime. “Just like my protagonists, we try to hide behind our rules. I have seen an example of it in my own father. He advocated rationality even though he happened to be one of the most irrational human beings I have met,” says the author with an irreverent chuckle.

Growing up, his literary influence included authors like Alexandre Dumas, Charles Dickens, Guy de Maupassant and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. “Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment especially had quite an effect on me when I was about 19. I had to kill a chicken for cooking. How my conscience rankled right after, while reading the book,” reminisces the author who dropped out of engineering studies to pursue his passion for the arts.

After his debut in mainstream writing in 2000, Farooqi made a splash in 2007 with his English translation of Dastan-e-Amir Hamza (The Adventures of Amir Hamza) that can be traced back to dastangoi (the tradition of oral storytelling).

But it was his second novel, The Story of a Widow in 2008, that made readers sit up and take notice as it was shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2010. Pakistani author Mohammed Hanif attributed it with a Jane Austen touch. “If Jane Austen had grown up in a Karachi suburb, this is what she would have written,” he said.

Translations are Farooqi’s passion. Besides doing the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza he is also working on Tilism-e-Hoshruba, the subcontinent’s first Indo-Islamic fantasy epic dating back to late 19th century Lucknow. Farooqi has undertaken a 24-volume translation of the epic and already released the first volume in 2009. The translations of the remaining volumes are a work-in-progress.

His love for translation work has given birth to the Urdu Project, a collaborative effort with a group of poet and translator friends, to make Urdu more accessible to web readers and future translators.

Ironically his translation work was aided further by a huge collection of Urdu literature at the University of Toronto library.

“My wife Michelle and I had moved to Toronto, Canada, in 1994 when the political situation in Karachi was disturbed. We returned to Karachi in 2009 because of my father’s death,” says Farooqi.

He lives with his wife, Michelle Farooqi, in Karachi now. Michelle, an illustrator, cartoonist and book-designer, is at present illustrating Hoshruba’s children’s edition and Farooqi’s forthcoming graphic novel, Rabbit Rap.

The author (right) in conversation with writer and media personality Sunil Sethi

Ask him about his experience of returning to Karachi after years of living in Canada, and pat comes a candid reply, atypical of the man. He says: “When I got back in 2009, I saw more development and expansion, but in one fundamental respect the city has stayed the same. It is as dangerous and chaotic as it was in 1994. That has remained the essence of life in Karachi in the last 20 years. Perhaps because chaos as a state is stable, and this state seems to have embraced the city.”

If Farooqi’s words time and again emphasise a thread of mischievous humour, the titles of his children’s books reflect it too. There’s The Cobbler’s Holiday Or Why Ants Don’t Wear Shoes (2008) and The Amazing Moustaches of Moocchhander the Iron Man and Other Stories (2011).

Or take a look at his upcoming projects. The Goat Spy, his next novel, has already been published as extracts in Pakistan’s Express Tribune. “It is a hilarious experiment in writing a serial novel about Karachi. It is a comic satire,” says Farooqi.

Meanwhile expect a children’s book called Rabbit Rap and a book, A Heroine of Our Time, based on Mikhail Lermontov’s novel, A Hero of Our Time. Yes, Farooqi likes to offer his readers plenty of variety.        

Photographs by Jagan Negi