Once the book is published a professional writer is expected to travel to promote the book, give talks, lectures and interact with readers. So all that is a part of a professional writer’s life and there is no point being coy about it
Acclaimed author, novelist and translator Musharraf Ali Farooqi was recently in Lahore to promote his new novel , Between Clay and Dust, published by David Davidar's Aleph Book Company in April 2012. His earlier novel The Story of a Widow (Knopf Canada/Picador India) was shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2010, and longlisted for the 2010 IMPAC-Dublin Literary Award. His children's fiction includes the picture book The Cobbler's Holiday Or Why Ants Don't Wear Shoes (2008, A Neal Porter Book, Roaring Brook Press) and the collection The Amazing Moustaches of Mocchhander the Iron Man and Other Stories (2011, Puffin India), shortlisted for the India ComicCon award in the ‘Best Publication for Children’ category. He is the author of the critically acclaimed translations of Urdu classics, The Adventures of Amir Hamza (2007, Modern Library), and the first book of a projected 24-volume magical fantasy epic, Hoshruba (2009, Urdu Project/Random House India). An illustrated novel, Rabbit Rap, with art by Michelle Farooqi will come out from Viking/Penguin Books India in July 2012.
Farooqi sat down for an in-depth interview with Ali Madeeh Hashmi. Read on:
Tell us about your new book.
Long before the story of Between Clay and Dust was conceived, came the idea which was a bit abstract. We have this tradition of pahalwani (wrestling) in the subcontinent, which has its roots in the Iranian and Greek wrestling traditions. The idea was this: What is this fighting machine which we call the pahalwan? What is his relationship with the world? It is only when he is in the ‘akhara’ (clay pit) that he is a pahalwan, outside its narrow confines he is a normal human being. He cannot exercise his immense strength beyond the akhara. Pahalwans are also the world’s strongest athletes. A boxer trains from three to six months to prepare for a bout and after that he can have a reprieve from his training regime, but a pahalwan remains in preparation for his entire career. I wondered about the persona that these oppressive exercises and the strenuous regime must develop, the existence they must shape. I wanted to explore that in my writing. But when I tried to read up on the pahalwani culture, I couldn’t find any books. Then I chanced upon a book on the pahalwani culture in the University of Toronto library while doing my research on Dastan-e-Amir Hamza and Tilism-e Hoshruba. This book was Dastan-e Shehzoraan: Barre-Sagheer Pak wa Hind kay Namvar Pahalwanon ki Dastan.
It’s a history of the pahalwans of the Indian subcontinent. That opened up for me the door to the pahalwani culture and the history of the pahalwans. I also learned about the history of the communal tensions in Punjab. I was under the impression that communal violence began only around the time of the Partition, but when I read the history of the pahalwans, I found out that even at an earlier time fights with communal overtones were held between the Muslim and the Hindu pahalwans, and these fights were promoted as such.
But I also learned how pahalwans lived. While reading about them I began to see the characters in my imagination. That led to visualizing the world in which these characters moved, and then the inner lives of these characters. On my Lahore visit this week, I stepped into an akhara in Lahore’s old city for the first time. Surprisingly, it looked exactly how I had imagined it. Ustad Ramzi, the protagonist of my novel, is a fictional character, but the name is historic. There was indeed a pahalwan named Ustad Ramzi pahalwan. It sounded right as the character’s name. The other protagonist of my novel, Gohar Jan, is also a fictional character, although there was a renowned classical singer of this name in the early 20th century.
What is your advice to young writers from the standpoint of doing what you are doing, which is making a living from writing. How can a young person start out in writing; how to get published, where to get published and how to support themselves with their writing?
You can’t support yourself with writing, that’s the truth for most writers. You have to have some sort of a regular or semi-regular job. When I was working as a journalist with The News International Karachi during 1990-1994, I started writing stories and fairy tales. I always had an interest in writing for children. Some of the stories I wrote were good, some of very questionable quality. After I had written about eight to ten stories, I obtained the addresses of publishers in the USA and the UK and sent out my submissions. The replies started coming in, all of them rejection slips. Only Penguin USA informed me in their letter that no publisher deals with the author directly these days, one has to come through a literary agent, and that if I wished to obtain information about literary agents and their specialties –Popular Fiction, Literature, Non-fiction etc – I should look up a book called The Literary Market Place which had a listing of all the agents. I did not make submissions to the agents at that time, however.
In 1994 when I emigrated to Canada, I knew that as a university dropout I did not have bright prospects at landing a well paid job and I would have to support myself with odd jobs, but I resolved that I would use my free time to write my first novel. I followed that resolve and by 1998 or 1999 I had finished my first novel. I sent it out to twenty or twenty-five agents and signed up with the first literary agency who wrote back to say that they liked the manuscript and would like to represent me.
After the manuscript was submitted, there was another round of rejection letters. The same uplifting experience! Such a spectacular piece of work and the world was blind to it! (laughter) Finally Harper Collins India published it and later it was published by Summersdale, a small, independent UK publisher. The combined advanced from both the publishers amounted to something like $3000 to $4,000 which would pay for two months’ living expenses and rent in Toronto. It was impossible to survive on these kinds of earnings in Toronto. Either I could continue writing or abandon it. It’s not like the world would stop turning if I did not write. But I felt that making and writing stories was my life. So I continued writing and faced whatever I had to face.
So we are back to the question about the balance between writing and making a living…
It’s hard. It’s very hard. But if you feel that it is something you really want to do, then you will be able to make time for it. And then, hopefully, everything will arrange itself around your writing life: Your family will adjust its routines, you will be able to have a job and carry on writing at the same time, and all the difficulties will resolve themselves too.
If you do it for the right reasons.
You should continue writing despite every hardship if you feel that it is something which makes you whole inside.
So let’s talk about two things. First of all, the creation of a work of art, such as a novel, or whatever you are doing, as a goal in itself, creating the best possible art that you want to, and then the second being selling it, which is a whole different art, or whatever you want to call it. One of your contemporaries described his writing as a commodity, and he asked why writers get holier-than-thou that they are doing something great, when in fact they are just selling their commodity; why such self-inflation? That was essentially his view. You create art and then you have to sell it too. What is your view on that?
There are two categories of novelists – those who write one or two books in their lives and those who follow writing as a career and produce a number of works. The latter are mostly professional writers. There are great novelists among both categories. Among the first category Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of The Leopard, is a good example. He wrote only one novel in his entire life, it is one of the greatest novels ever written, and I absolutely love it. But Lampedusa was an aristocrat and had no worries of bread and butter. Then there was Georges Simenon. He wrote hundreds of novels, all of them of great quality.
Some of us have to earn a living from our writings, while retaining an artistic engagement with the work. On my Lahore visit some journalists asked me how I felt about giving interviews. I told them that every writer likes fame and recognition, but some will not confess it openly. Some will even make a face when giving interviews but they will check to see how big was the photograph and the font size of the headline (laughter). I told them I see these interviews as a favor the media do me to help me get a wider audience, and get my message across, and I am very grateful for this opportunity. Once the book is published a professional writer is expected to travel to promote the book, give talks, lectures and interact with readers. So all that is a part of a professional writer’s life and there is no point being coy about it.
You were asked the other day whether any of the characters in Between Clay and Dust are autobiographical, and you said no. Later you talked about how Ustad Ramzi is a man of strict principles, something that you said also applies to you. So even though the novel is not strictly autobiographical, is there any contribution of your existence to the characters, and universally does this happen that characters reflect the personality of the writer in general.
The story of Between Clay and Dust is personal to me in many ways, and one of the ways in which it is personal is that I see a lot of Ustad Ramzi’s unforgiving attitude in myself. Imperfect as we humans are, we cannot be unforgiving towards others. And the principles which we sometimes adhere to with great doggedness and pride are, in the final analysis, man-made. Furthermore, no matter how strict and disciplined a person is, there are always occasions when he relaxes those rules to suit himself. Perhaps we can show the same flexibility when it concerns others, because being rigid about one’s principles more often than not results in our hurting others.
You have done a lot of translations. What is your take on that, translation, good translation, what gets lost?
This is more of a challenge with rhymed poetry. If rhymes are involved, much of the poem is lost in translation, only an impression is conveyed. But I have translated the prose poems of Afzal Ahmed Syed, whose work I really admire and whom I consider Urdu’s greatest contemporary poet, and they have been very well received. In translations of classical prose such as Dastan-e Amir Hamza I think that about 90% of the original can be communicated effectively if one has control over one’s medium. In my work I aim for an idiomatic translation and try to communicate the essence of the original narrative voice. Also consider this: We are often moved by reading literature translated from other languages. It means the story has been transmitted with its emotional force. So translation can be truly effective and powerful in its own right.
Tell us about your next project.
My next book coming out in July this year is the illustrated novel Rabbit Rap. It’s a twenty-first century fable about disaster prone rabbits who from their greed and love for new technologies invite all kinds of calamities on themselves. Another novel I am working on is A Heroine of Our Time, whose title is based on Mikhail Lermontov’s novel, A Hero of Our Time. The central characters of this book are a Karachi bookworm and a Russian artiste. Lermontov’s novel plays an important role in this book, hence the title.
I am also currently working on an online Urdu Thesaurus. It is part of my work on Urdu Project, a project to create online Urdu language educational and reference tools.
Talk about being an immigrant (to Canada). NM Rashed lived a substantial portion of his life outside of Pakistan and Faiz Ahmed Faiz once wrote that when one lives away from one’s home, in the larger sense, homeland, then that creates a bit of an estrangement from one’s own self, living in an alien culture. Are you concerned about that living in Canada?
It’s true that I don’t feel a sense of home either in Pakistan or Canada. But for that matter, even before I left Pakistan, I felt like an alien here. Perhaps it comes from growing up in a small city like Hyderabad or having a protected childhood. A lot has been written about the immigrant experience and how it changes one’s outlook, but I don’t feel that in my case an immigrant’s experience impacted my preoccupations as a writer or the direction which I took in my work. Just give me a desk anywhere, and I’ll be able to write (laughter).
(We would like to thank Dr. Awais Aftab for his help in preparing this transcript. This article was first published in The Friday Times, Lahore.)