Acclaimed Pakistani novelist Musharraf Ali Farooqi has a patient eye for domestic detail and a sweeping historical imagination, qualities that have earned him comparisons to both Jane Austen and Salman Rushdie. Though he writes in English, his prose maintains a deep connection to the Urdu language, from which he is also a distinguished literary translator. His latest novel, Between Clay and Dust, dramatizes the unfolding tragedy of those left behind by a society in transformation. Set at the time of Partition, Farooqi has written an elegy for the shared cultural traditions lost in the sectarian division of India and Pakistan. The book was nominated for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize.
He spoke to executive editor Joshua Ellison by Skype from his home in Lahore.
JE: Let’s start at the beginning. Tell me a bit about where you were born and a bit about your family.
MAF: I was born in Hyderabad, Pakistan and my father taught Philosophy at the local university. We stayed there until I was in my first year of engineering. I lost interest in that, so I came to Karachi, where the rest of my family was living. I spent time in Karachi, sort of still going to the university but wasting time. Well, I wasn’t exactly wasting my time: I was in the canteen having my breakfast and reading poetry. I studied French for a bit. I tried to study German but I couldn’t. Books are a destiny. Writing is not really a destiny; it’s your love of books. You might become a librarian, an editor, a publisher, anything. Anything related to books, even a second-hand bookseller maybe.
You just knew you wanted to be surrounded by books.
Yes. I’d read some fantastic books, and I’d read some very boring books, thinking: I can write better than this. A boring book, I think, is a great aid to a writer because that gives you the confidence that you might also be able to publish something.
If they were all masterpieces, you’d just never start.
What kinds of books were around you as a child as you were discovering your love of reading?
There were lots of picture books. There were books you’d call Young Adult today, but these were all in Urdu. One of my cousins was very big on bringing books as gifts; I devoured my sister’s whole collection. There was also a small neighborhood library where I would borrow books and so would some of my friends. The kind of books I read, some of them—I only later found out—were translations like Oliver Twist and the Urdu Robin Hood, Tarzan. I believe my first serious book—what you would call serious literature—was Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, and that had a great influence on me. It shocked me that a child could be abandoned by his parents. That was the first exposure to literature that could change your view of the world.
Did you read it in Urdu translation?
No, this was in English, from my father’s library. He would always tell me to read the classics. He would say, read A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield and Decline of the West and all of these books. But my English reading ability was not very good because I went to a terrible school. So it was all self taught: when I had exhausted all of the other languages and I wanted to read books in English, I would read the same books over and over again until all of the definitions became clear.
Did you feel disconnected from the world that produced these Western classics?
No, there was never that feeling. When we later moved to Canada, people would ask how different everything looked. With television, though, you see the whole world. We would watch programs in English, California Highway Patrol, CHiPS—you know that program?—and Knight Rider. Long before TV, it was the foreign books I read—for me, Poe only existed in Urdu. His work felt like an Urdu-language world, maybe a bit darker, but there was no effort in entering that world.
Why did you return to Pakistan from Canada?
I came back to Pakistan because my father was not well and I stayed. Before I left Pakistan, I was a journalist for Pakistan’s English-language newspaper. I wrote on different desks and finally they gave me the book review page. We used to have syndicated service from the Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times. I don’t know if The Los Angeles Times still has its book section, but in those days they had a big one. We could carry articles from that, we had a licensing agreement and that’s when I first started reading Michael Dirda. I am still a big fan of his.
Could you get the books you were reading about?
No, not the books. Just the reviews.
When we moved to Canada, I did not have a degree and, even though I had a lot of experience in Pakistan as a reporter, I knew I would have a hard time. I knew that I would have to do odd jobs, which I did. So, you know, working in Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Arby’s and you know all these places, just so that it could give me time to write. That was my idea, that in the three or four years it takes to nationalize, I would use that time to write my first novel, which I did in those days.
And at that point, were you writing in English?
When did you make that decision or transition?
I’d come to the decision that I wanted to be a professional writer and I may not be living in Pakistan, so it did not make sense to continue in Urdu. By then, most of my reading was in English. When you sit down to think, the expression that comes to mind is in the language that you read most. But, even now, sometimes I think that I could have written Between Clay and Dust in Urdu.
What do you think would have been different, besides the language?
Not much, really. People who know this culture intimately and have a grounding in Urdu literary history, when they read this novel, they tell me they feel like they are reading a novel in Urdu in English translation. That’s their feeling. But, at the same time, a friend of mine who is translating this novel now–he’s one of Urdu’s leading poets–he is having a very hard time translating it, although he has translated Marquez. He said, you know, if this weren’t so close to Urdu, I would have been able to translate it much more easily.
When I was writing, I felt in had to work in its own culture, there had to be no compromises on that. There are things an outsider might have trouble understanding. If so, at least this novel will remain true to the culture to which it belongs.
At the same time, there is a very deliberate kind of ambiguity to the novel’s setting. It doesn’t tell us if we are in Pakistan or India. It is set somewhere on a continuum between the two cultures, rather than on one side of the border or the other.
I made a conscious decision to give no indicators of a nation, or a country, or even a city. This novel is based in a culture that is common to both people. I had not been to India when I wrote this. I did not know what an Indian street looked like. But, you know, take any old alleyway on the subcontinent and most of them would like alike. The Partition is just a time even. It has not changed the geography; it has not changed how we live.
I had not even seen a wrestling arena when I wrote this, I just read about it. A few months after the book was published in India, I came to Lahore, where I currently live, and I saw an akhara for the first time. It was not very different from how I’d imagined it.
Do you feel that writers in Pakistan have a strong cultural voice? Do people pay attention?
I would say that people do pay attention, because you have a certain status as a writer. But this is a society where much bigger forces are at play. You can say, I support this cause and that cause, but in reality it’s about as significant as favoriting a tweet.
Are writers expected to be political?
I do have a political outlook and will write about it occasionally when called upon. But I usually avoid it because writing itself—even if you’re writing fantasy—is a kind of political statement. You are discarding reality as it is given to you and creating a different world, so that can be a political statement. But, of course, when you could possibly make a difference in people’s lives by supporting their cause, then that is something that has to be spoken about.