New Delhi: How do you start a serious discussion on contemporary literature with a Pakistani author who taught Argentine tango to Canadians in Toronto, flipped pizzas and worked at an assembly line to make a living while translating Urdu fantasy fiction to English in his spare time? You don't. You let him regale you with hilarious anecdotes from his tango teaching days as he tries to make light of his struggle and tells you what he thinks is most important to him - telling a good story. Literally.
I caught up with Musharraf Ali Farooqi who is in Delhi for the launch of his latest book 'Between Clay and Dust'. It is the story of two artists - wrestler Ustad Ramzi and courtesan Gohar Jan - approaching the end of their careers. Their internal conflict is reflected in finding the meaning of their lives in the backdrop of India's Partition. It has been published by the Aleph Book Company.
The author who says "you should not take yourself too seriously," has posted pamphlets of his dance lessons on lampposts, worked as a journalist in Karachi and taught English to Mexicans and Koreans in Toronto, a programme he laughingly calls "a complete scam".
"I went to a teacher of mine and said 'I want to teach tango'. He was a strict but a fun guy and said 'you only teach what you know'. Initially I would wait for the calls to come in. I was desperate by then," Farooqi recalls his early days in Toronto. The money he made of his lessons would buy him food for two months. "But throughout that time I was writing. I was constantly writing and translating since 1989," he says.
He translated Urdu classics 'The Adventures of Amir Hamza' and the first book of a projected 24-volume magical fantasy epic, 'Hoshruba'. His first novel, 'The Story of a Widow', was shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2010. He has written for children as well with titles such as 'The Cobbler's Holiday Or Why Ants Don't Wear Shoes' and 'The Amazing Moustaches of Mocchhander the Iron Man and Other Stories'.
Interestingly, Farooqi, who writes about the convoluted world of 'pehelwans', their clannish dominance and hierarchy, has never actually been to an akhara in his life and has written the book in Toronto.
Between Clay and Dust
"I wanted to write about the culture of pehelwans and when you enter their world you begin to see their lives, their relationships, their friends, their brothers... then it became a story. It took me this long to write it because I was not sure of the narrative voice in which it should be told it has a fable like feel to it. This is a story close to my heart and I did not want to rush it," he says. It took Farooqi 10 years to write the 'Between Clay and Dust'.
He describes central character Gohar Jan, a singer who loses herself in her art having married off her adopted daughter whom she tries to keep away from the life in the kotha whose discipline and hierarchy she has maintained throughout her life. "She is extremely proud. This was her life, not the hustle bustle of the kotha but her attachment to her art is the meaning of her life that she has led," he says. I tell him that in some ways the story reminds me of Arther Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha. "Japanese culture is very similar to our culture," he says.
We are all busy writing "clever" novels
Are books becoming author-centric and interesting characters fading into oblivion?
"It's a terrible thing. I keep saying over and over again that it's your ability to tell a story well with a set of memorable characters. How many of the modern novels do you want to re-read? Story telling is missing, interesting characters are missing, because we are all writing "clever" novels. Being clever can take you only that far in your career as a writer. O Henry, Guy de Maupassant, Leo Tolstoy, Feodor Dostoevsky, Charles Dickens never go out of print," he says. His favourite character out of classics is the Count of Monte Cristo.
His interest in Dastan Literature led to the translation of 'Hoshruba'. "It's a classical legend with origin in the 7th century, a legend based on Prophet Mohammad's uncle. The Dastan Literature is classical narrative with fantastic elements like djinns and 'pari' (fairy), magicians and enchantments."
Interestingly, Dastan Literature of the 19th century is no less than science fiction he says. "It has references of under-water conveyance in the 19th century, what is that but a submarine? It's really interesting.
Farooqi says he finds author Salman Rushdie "boring" and has no bone to pick with authors of best selling popular fiction. "If you are writing well and telling a good story then you don't have to have these crazy notions of how good you are. Do you have to take yourself that seriously?"