The Master Of Many Forms

Over a decade ago I did a regular column for Business World. It was on the business of publishing. Here is the original url.


Some years ago, I read Adventures of Amir Hamza, translated by Musharraf Ali Farooqui. It is a translation of the 1871 version of Dastan-e Amir Hamza by Ghalib Lakhnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami. It was a fascinating experience being able to read a collection of stories that have a strong oral tradition, but were equally strong in their storytelling when reading it in black-and-white print. His collection of short stories for children The Amazing Moustaches of Moochander the Iron Man is a truly scrumpdidlycious experience. The stories are charming (and nonsensical), with just the sufficient amount of repetition of “big words” for little readers. Between Clay And Dust is his second novel (and the inaugural title of Aleph Book Company). A fine piece of writing that took ten years to complete, but as the author emphasises there was little difference from the first draft to what was finally published.

Musharraf Ali Farooqi is known as a translator, a novelist, writer of children’s stories. He is also the founder and publisher of the Urdu Project. According to the website, “Urdu Project was created as an answer to the challenges of publishing translations of literary works of Urdu language in the North American market. Traditionally, works from other cultures have always been introduced through translations. But despite the interest in publishing original South Asian writing in English, there is no comparable interest from publishers in contemporary writings from the cultural languages of the region. The publication prospects of the classics face even greater odds; writings commissioned and chosen for translation as part of the colonial enterprise still guide the understanding about Urdu’s classical literature.” Farooqui has also translated some gorgeous poetry for children in Urdu, like the hilarious “Mouse Pickle” by Nazeer Akbarabadi (1732-1830). He is a popular author, who has a Facebook group.

I had met Musharraf Ali Farooqi in early April when he came to Delhi for his book launch. It was his first visit to the city. We had a freewheeling conversation about books, Between Clay And Dust, writing, translations and much more. Here is an excerpt from the conversation.

When we met, you said that “writing is a conscious exercise and that the craft is really important”. This comes through the novel extremely well. The placement of each word, each story frame seems to be well orchestrated. Is the structure of the novel a cross between a good nineteenth century novel and a refined, but meticulous arrangement of Ghalib’s poetry? Do you think you have imbibed some of these rules of writing for your novel?
This is a novel about human relationships. Even in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries we have great novels written about human relationships. The Spanish writer Javier Marias’s work is a fine example of this kind of novel. Ghalib’s poetry also talks of human relationships. Sometimes it becomes complex to the degree of abstraction which is the province of poetry, and Ghalib excels in that. But if I had chosen the path of complexity in describing one emotion or thought, I would’ve been forced to apply it to the whole novel for reasons of uniformity of style. It might have made the novel more abstract but I think that it would have also made it less effective. I did follow the classical novel’s narrative structure but reimagined it in our culture. This is how I will try to explain this experiment.

Does this attention to detail have anything to do with your admiration for the classical narrative structure of novels like The Count of Monte Cristo?
I think classical works such as The Count of Monte Cristo, which is one of my favourite novels, can teach us a lot about the importance of a good structure. Even if the intention is to create a diffused narrative, a consciousness of the intended effect has to be present at some level.

When we discussed Ghalib’s poetry briefly, you commented on how much of his poetry tackles the very ordinary existence of a person; the kinds of love he observes are common and mundane, but the beauty and the power of his poetry lies in his craft, the careful arrangement of his words. Do you think by making a wrestler and a tawaif the protagonists of your novel, you are using very “common” subjects to tell a story, a story that resounds at various levels?
The contours of the relationship that existed between Ustad Ramzi and Gohar Jan took very long for to fully emerge, it is true. The nature of the relationship that grew out of their regard for each other as fellow artists and contemporaries, their concerns as people rooted in their respective cultures of which I only have a secondhand knowledge were all challenges for me as the writer. More than the arrangement of words it was an arrangement of relationships of a certain quality that kept me occupied.

I found that this novel is extraordinary not just in its storytelling but in the manner in which you have opted to pare it off any geographical indicators. Except for fixing it in a moment of time, immediately after Partition, I find no other references to time or a place. It could be a story unfurling anywhere and in anyone’s life. Why did you opt to do this — of focusing only on the story?
While this novel had to be based in a cultural world, it was not any particularity that it sought to explore. I think this is one of the reasons of its appeal. Everyone is free to imagine the story from within their own world and identify with what is universal in human emotions and passions.

The genteelness with which you tackle the love (or is it admiration) between Ustad Ramzi and Gohar Jan seems like poetry. Is this an intentional technique of infusing a poetic form into prose? I cannot recall any examples immediately, but it struck me while reading the novel that the fluidity with which it moved, and the ease with which I read and wanted to actually re-read passages, was very akin to reading poetry.
In answer to this question, I will go back to my earlier reply about the challenges I faced in describing the delicate relationship between UstadRamzi and Gohar Jan. I think the narrative expresses this consciousness of the sensitivity of their relationship that you experience as a reader.

The horror of Partition and its immediate impact on the people is very well documented. The fact that you do so by not describing the violence, but actually show it by the slow and gradual deterioration in society is impressive. Whether it is the aggression and lack of courtesy shown by Tamami or MaulviYameen to their profession or their elders is exquisitely done. Did you have to delve into a lot of research by actually visiting akhadas and kothas, conducting interviews to show the slow and gradual deterioration of a structure? Or was it armchair research?
 It is all based on research. I have never actually met a professional wrestler. The earlier drafts of this novel were written while I was away in Canada. In the course of writing them, I planned several times to visit an actual akhara but there was no opportunity. And the kothas no longer exist in the form described in the novel. I wrote the final draft of the novel in Karachi and by then the novel was in its present form. I have acknowledged the work on the history of the pahalwans that helped me greatly in understanding the routines and daily life of the pahalwans. As to the deterioration in the value system of a society, I see it daily before my eyes. Radicalism, ethnic divisions, willful ignorance of one’s heritage and the accompanying self-righteousness is there all around us. We can see it in our families, in our friends. It is very painful and makes relationships difficult.

How would you classify your novel? What genre? Would you consider it historical fiction?
I am not clear about it myself. Sometimes I think it is a love story. Sometimes I feel it is a tale of a man’s redemption. I will go by a reader’s definition of the experience.

When we met in April, I had asked you if you wrote parts of the novel in other languages, especially since you are equally at home with Urdu. (Actually I never did ask if you also knew French. Do you?) To which you had replied: “At one point I did think of writing in Urdu, but I cannot claim to be an English-language writer if I cannot write in that language.” But don’t you think that the discipline of knowing another language and having learnt the discipline of being a translator from Urdu to English also informed the writing of this novel? Do you also translate from English to Urdu?
No French. I can barely make out basic sentences. Recently I had the occasion to edit and rewrite parts of the Urdu translation of my children’s stories published in The Amazing Moustaches of Moochhander the Iron Man and Other Stories. And I realised that I could still write in Urdu with some facility. I think more than my experience as a translator, my consciousness that the lives of these characters are lives that are expressed in a language which is not English informed the writing of this novel. It was important to me to capture the cadence of the original language, to have a kind of parallel expression for that in English, without it sounding odd. It works a little differently in translation where you have the source text before you.

What exactly did you mean by this book having “broken certain rules”?
I meant that in its structure it has disregarded the modern conventions and reverted to storytelling in the narrative style of the classical novel.

Do you think having written for children and being a professional storyteller for the little munchkins has also influenced your writing for adults?
Every exposure to narrative devices helps. Whether one is doing storytelling for children or adults, giving a lecture, writing a movie script or translating, all these contribute to an understanding of the writer’s art. It also helps to have one Robert B. Wyatt, one of the greatest editors in the world, as one’s literary guardian.

15 Jan 2021

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