For Pakistani-Canadian translator and author, Musharraf Ali Farooqi, writing has meant leaving his country of birth (Pakistan) to find order and calm in another country, working as an assembly line worker in a restaurant and writing late into the night. Musharraf, whose book, A Story Of A Widow, was shortlisted for DSC Prize for South Asian Literature Prize in 2011, recently released his new children’s book, Tik-Tik, The Master Of Time. Tik-Tik and his friend, Nib-Nib live on a planet called Nopter and want to find a way to grow faster. Guided by Tik-Tik’s grandfather Kip-Kip, they land up on a “twisted planet” called Earth. Farooqi speaks about the pleasures of writing for children, and how Urdu literature has taught him everything he knows about writing.
After translating epics such as The Adventures of Amir Hamza and Hoshruba from Urdu to English, and writing books for adults which speak of longing and loss, what made you start writing for children? And how different is from writing for adults?
I always wanted to write for children, much before I decided to start writing for adults. I grew up reading picture books and wanted to write one myself.
I don’t really have to switch mental gears while writing for children, because at any given point, I am reading a variety of genres in literature.
What did you read as a child? And tell us something about children’s literature in Pakistan today.
I was mostly into Urdu literature since childhood, and books by Ferozsons Publishers. I remember reading translations of Western literature, and Urdu adaptations of stories such as Robin Hood, Tarzan and Oliver Twist. But I loved Charles Dickens the most — I loved the way he wrote about terrible, pathetic characters but wrote it all so well. And, of course, there was Roald Dahl. Children’s literature is not taken very seriously in the subcontinent — it isn’t considered ‘important’ or ‘profound’ enough. We don’t have a strong, efficient distribution network even in large cities such as Karachi and Lahore — and this applies to adults books as well. I launched my publishing house, Kitab, to fill this gap to an extent because that was the only way to do it. There aren’t too many faces you can associate with children’s literature in Pakistan today. We had Ibn-e Insha, Sufi Tabassum and Ghulam Abbas, but no one after that. I think the problem is that people constantly feel the need to teach something to the children, instead of telling them a story through examples. I get it that you’re trying to teach, say, morality to young readers — but how can you say anything of value without giving them examples?
How did you start writing?
It was not my conscious decision to be a writer; I didn’t wake up one day and tell myself that I could be a writer. I dropped out of engineering in 1989, and continued reading literature as usual. I soon applied to the newspaper, New International, thinking reporting would be a good place to start writing. But they were looking for sub editors, and I got the job anyway.
In 1994, I co-founded Cipher, a literary magazine which published literary articles and some poetry. That was the time I really began jotting things down, thinking of characters and fantasy books.
How has Urdu literature shaped your writing?
I don’t have a degree in literature or writing, so whatever I do know about writing comes from the literature I read. I still believe contemporary Urdu literature in Pakistan is superior to contemporary writing in English. For instance, when I read Hoshruba and The Adventures Of Amir Hamza as a child, I read them for the joy of reading. But as an adult, when I went back to them as a translator, I could understand the power of their narrative structure and why they are considered to be the highest achievements of Urdu literature. They train you subconsciously. The more I read Urdu literature, the more alert I became to possibilities involved in writing. I think they made me a better writer, and I came to understand (through reading) that if you’re stuck somewhere while writing, it is for a reason. It is because you are aware that you are not seeing the full potential at that snag. Only reading can make you that alert
Many South Asian writers feel the need to write on subjects that will tell a story the West wants to hear — strife, unrest, political instability, the exotic Eastern story, in short. Do you feel it, too? And how much do you give in?
I know the expectation exists. It is easier to be published if you give in by pressing the right buttons. But it isn’t that a good novel will not be published. I believe that, at the end of the day, good literature does get the acknowledgment it deserves. It really is up to the writer and what he wants badly.
I don’t think I’ve written something specifically because the Western market wants to read it; neither have I bothered about how soon my work gets published. I worked on Between Clay and dust for 10 years and I don’t see that as a handicap. I think it is rather easy to write a Western narrative, and, partially, we have created this ourselves. However, once you lose sense of it, and allow yourself to aspire for something higher, the resolve shows in your books. You write for the artistry of it. Otherwise, you might as well sell towels, how does it matter?
You moved to Toronto in 1994. How did that affect your writing?
I moved to Toronto because my wife, Michelle, applied for a scholarship and it came through. Also, Pakistan was in deep turmoil in the ‘90s, and it was disruptive to my writing process. It isn’t easy when you have to think of storing water or your mother’s medicines because there may not be much available after the tension on the streets. That’s what Toronto gave me — a structure and a routine. I worked as an assembly line worker at a restaurant from 8 am to 5 pm, always knowing that the library will remain open for me in the evenings and the bus will run on time. Having a menial job left me fatigued, but also ensured that there was no carryover until the next morning, which meant I could sit late into the nights and read or write. That’s how I finished my first novel in 1998. Now, I shuttle between Lahore and Canada.