(This interview was conducted in the form of a Skype conversation in English and Hindustani; it was transcribed, translated and edited by the interviewer for publication in the Sunday Guardian.)
Q. It took you 10 years to write your latest novel Between Clay and Dust. How was the idea conceived? What took you so long?
A. This novel stemmed from a desire to explore certain abstract notions that had been in my mind for a long time. I wanted to explore them on the lines of a Borgesian parable or a philosophical statement about the place of the pahalwan in the world. I kept thinking about it for some time, and the story of the protagonist Ustad Ramzi started to develop – a simple story which did not feature the characters Gauhar Jan, Tamami or Malka. Then I stumbled upon Akhtar Husein Sheikh’s Dastan-e-Shehzoraan: Barre Sagheer Pak wa Hind kay Namwar Pahalwanon ki Dastan, a history of wrestlers of the subcontinent, that had been wrongly classified alongside the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza volumes at the University of Toronto Library. When you read non-fiction or period history, you begin to visualise the people; and when you begin to visualise the people you also create an outside world around them in which they move and interact with others. From that outside world emerges the inside world of the person or the character you are trying to create or explore. So this is how I started visualising the character of Ustad Ramzi. Then Tamami joined in, which completed the entire story. Later, Malka came into the story – this clarified the nature of Ustad Ramzi’s problem and Gohar Jan’s fate, and how their characters were different.
In the first draft I had included many wrestling scenes, though the story was the same as now. Over subsequent drafts I tried to make the emotional lives of the characters more thought out and panned out in a way. I experimented a lot with the narrative voice too, but I felt something lacking. I showed one of the drafts to Urdu poet Afzal Ahmed Syed. He really liked the novel and thought I should get it published, but I knew I had to get it absolutely right. So, I kept going back to the narrative voice I had employed in the first draft; once I decided to stick to that voice, the rest became very easy. It took me 10 years to write Between Clay and Dust because the novel was constantly evolving in my mind: I was thinking and rethinking the actions of the characters and their consequences. Had I rushed it, it may not have been as good a novel as it is. As a writer I am satisfied with my work. Maybe another writer would have done better, but as far as I am concerned this is the best I can do. I have no regrets whatsoever about my novel.
Q. Was the manuscript as long as the published book?
A. I worked on five or six drafts. I haven’t had a printer throughout; I kept working on the file in my computer and rewrote and crossed out sentences an infinite times. Between Clay and Dust could easily have been a very long novel: I could have inserted long dialogues and descriptions of the buildings or the weather, but that would have created impediment in the emotional lives of the characters. Characters do not breathe through structures. The reader would stop there and start thinking about the structures for the moment, and the locus would shift from the emotions of the characters. I could have related, say, an instance where Tamami goes to a kotha and sleeps with a tawaif. But that is something one does out of desire. I was only interested in his shortfalls as an artist and his life as a pahalwan, not his basic faults as a human being. His life as a person outside the akhara – the kind of food he liked, the films he went to etc. – would have had no bearing whatsoever on the story. I thought a lot about his life in the outside world, but I didn’t include all of it. This is a novel about the inner lives of people; the outer world does not really matter. Relationships play out and emotions take centre stage.
Q. A reviewer felt that you have been partial to Ustad Ramzi’s character and etched it in all its shades, whereas Gohar Jan has been sidelined to the ‘golden-hearted tawaif‘ we know all too well. Did you deliberately choose to be partial to Ustad Ramzi’s character?
A. In my opinion, Gohar Jan’s character is more important than that of Ustad Ramzi. That is, if you go by the ‘weight’ of the character; not how much they are focused on but the acts they perform that change the complexion of the story. Ustad Ramzi’s relationship with Gauhar Jan played out beyond his notice, yet he wasn’t fully unaware of it. Ramzi is essentially a selfish man, and my job as a novelist was to portray his entire flawed character. As far as the ‘golden-hearted tawaif‘ is concerned, I truly feel that women are more compassionate, conciliatory and understanding than men. The nature of their lives, especially in the subcontinent, creates a consciousness of suffering that creates awareness in them. Men have an understanding, too, but our ego is an impediment. We tend not to probe beyond our comfort level.
Also, there is an instance in the novel where people come to know that Ustad Ramzi has started frequenting Gohar Jan’s kotha, and she is said to be spreading rumours that he’s finally succumbed to the temptation. She was doing her job as a tawaif by teasing the uptight and disciplinarian Ustad Ramzi. Gohar Jan is shown less than Ustad Ramzi, and it is through four or five pivotal actions in the novel that we come to understand her character.
Q. In the novel, Gohar Jan is shown as a kind and humane woman who is deeply religious and philanthropic. But when she offers to make a donation to the mosque, the maulvi shows reluctance to openly use her name. What do you think led to this intolerance in Pakistani society over the years?
A. There is a mosque in Lahore called Masjid Moran Tawaif, now known as Masjid Moran Mai, which has been widely documented in books about the history of Punjab. It was built by Raja Ranjit Singh’s mistress, the tawaif Moran. So, tawaifs contributing to public and religious institutions is not an alien concept. It’s a part of history we tend to forget.
I wouldn’t say that this rigidity has something to do with Partition; it had already started creeping in by the early 20th Century or late 19th Century. The year of 1857 was life-changing for people; it also made people insecure about their religious beliefs and less inclusive of those of others. We don’t have a record of our elders’ emotions, but I think that respect for the composite faith of the community figured prominently in their lives. I have a 400 page-long collection of naatein, that is, poetry dedicated to Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him) – written in Urdu by Hindu devotional poets of the pre-Partition era. Today, people would object to Hindu poets writing about him. Now the composite faith of the community is no longer there; one’s immediate faith has taken precedence, which is painful and can take a violent form.
Q. What was the biggest challenge you faced while writing Between Clay and Dust?
A. Writing in the English language about people who live here is a problem. I thought many times about writing this particular book in Urdu. But I told myself: If you’re a self-styled writer writing in English, then you must accept this challenge. An important effect that I wanted the novel to achieve was that Ustad Ramzi’s actions should not seem questionable from a moralistic point of view and the reader should be complicit in this. I wanted the reader to go along with Ustad Ramzi and question his actions when he himself does that, so as to be a part of his remorse only at the very end.
Q. Tell us about contemporary Urdu or English writers you read with pleasure.
A. I mostly read Urdu writers. I don’t know why we make a fuss over Pakistani writers writing in English. How can the ideology of a nation-state become involved in the creation of literary work? Why aren’t Pakistani writers writing in Urdu, Punjabi or Sindhi given the same attention as their counterparts writing in English?
I immensely enjoy reading India-based Urdu writer Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. His novel Ka’i Chand the Sar-e-Aasman is one of the world’s greatest novels. Its translation will be published next year in January; it will be an international novel. I am a great fan of Naiyer Masud; I don’t like the way he constructs his stories, but the ambience he creates is beyond cavil. As far as Pakistani writers are concerned, there is Ali Akbar Natiq. One of his short stories A Mason’s Hand was translated by Mohammed Hanif in Granta. Muhammad Khalid Toor’s wrote a brilliant novella, Kanni Nikah, that I plan to translate soon. These are some of the writers that I really like and read to learn from. I can’t praise Afzal Syed’s poetry enough. Yoda Press will publish my translation of his complete poems Rococo and Other Worlds in India.
Q. Your first novel, Salar Jung’s Passion, is being reprinted soon under the title The Time of the Termites. What was writing your debut novel like?
A. I faced a lot of difficulty writing my first novel. But it’s also a favourite because I wrote it at my own pace. When I embarked on my first novel, I had read a thousand or so books, yet I did not know how to write one. That book is very close to my heart as it is reminiscent of my childhood days in Hyderabad. My maternal grandfather, who was a colourful character in his own right, also figures in the novel. I had in mind my father’s struggle to write in his later life while writing Salar Jung’s Passion. He wanted to write a book which would bring together the people of the world under one banner of humanism. He would compulsively write notes and research, but when the termites would strike his work would be disrupted. However, I had no idea where to start writing the novel, so I started writing sketches of individual characters and places, such as the Sessions Court building opposite our home in Hyderabad. And once I’d written fifteen or so sketches, I began to see the connections between different characters. This was a very important novel for me because it made me more confident as a writer.
Q. How do you think you have changed as a writer since your first book was published?
A. Now I have the complete plot in my mind when I sit down to write. When I’m writing things do tend to change, though. When that happens, I sit down to think about those changes and the ideas about the possible changes and how they might affect the overall story and plot. If it improves the plot or makes it more complex and more interesting, or I like that new change, I adopt it, otherwise I discard that idea.
I don’t consciously sit down to write during a particular time of the day for two or three hours. I’m writing all the time. That used to be the case when I started out as a writer. Now, if I’m not writing, I’m doing something or the other related to my writing – launching my book, doing media interviews etc. I’m constantly thinking about my writing, a new project or the background of a new story.
Q. You’ve collaborated with your wife Michelle Farooqi on a graphic novel, Rabbit Rap, which will be published by Penguin later this year. What was it like working with her?
A. Michelle is a brilliant and diverse artist. She’s a strong writer too, but she doesn’t write professionally. She has an exacting eye for shoddy sentences. She points out the shoddy passages in my work and tells me to rewrite them.
Rabbit Rap started out as a graphic novel but now it’s more of an illustrated novel. The story had become very text heavy, and if I and Michelle were to write it in the form of a graphic novel, it would easily take us two to three years more to complete the project. As a writer, I didn’t want everything to be conveyed through the illustrations. Michelle had her own projects too, and I couldn’t take her away from her personal art. But I think what we have now is a more interesting combination. What use is a book without illustrations anyway?
Rabbit Rap was an easy book to write: it took me three to four months to complete the story. I wrote the chapter outlines and then worked on the chapters themselves. One of the chapters had become very long, so I made two chapters out of it. Other than that I had the entire story in my mind when I sat down to write the book. I laughed a lot while writing Rabbit Rap. I like the story very much.
Q. You’ve lived in Toronto for than a decade. Has Canada’s literary heritage influenced you in any way?
A. I really like writer, singer, poet Leonard Cohen. I read his novel Beautiful Losers 25 years ago, long before going to Canada. It was an odd and intimate novel about human relationships. At that time I really liked it. I love his poetry too. I think he deserves a Nobel just for his poetry. He hasn’t influenced me, though; I admire him as a writer.
Q. Between Clay and Dust has received rave reviews in many publications. Do you think the 10 year-long toil has finally paid off?
A. I think so, yes. And I feel very good about it. I worked very hard on this novel; I sat on it for ten years because I didn’t want to publish it till everything was absolutely right about it. I knew that this was an important novel, and if I executed it correctly, it would become something really magnificent. I knew I could not afford to make compromises.
His translation of Dastan-e Amir Hamza (The Adventures of Amir Hamza) has been reissued recently by Aleph Book Company. You can buy it here.