THE HERALD, October 1996
An Interview with Mustansar Hussain Tarar
If you meet him on the street and find him preoccupied with himself, don’t be too put off. What some may interpret as reticence is, in fact, just the other face of Mustansar Hussain Tarar’s professionalism. Although he became a writer without much deliberation, his decision to continue was a very well planned one. He lifted up the carpet of the book trade to survey every corner of the floor, and then set up an establishment of the pen which has proved to be one of the best kept ones in the country.
Since the publication of his first book in 1968, a travelogue titled Nikle Teri Talaash Mein, he has churned out several more travelogues, a few television serials and some novels. He is also an actor and an exceptionally popular compere. Ask any housewife.
Tarar’s success lies in his ability to appeal to the masses without compromising on the intensity of his work. His last novel, Bahao, published a few years ago, won international acclaim and was described on BBC as “as novel of international standards.” Some critics even go as far as to call it the Urdu novel of the century.
Here, Mustansar Hussain Tarar takes a break from editing his forthcoming novel, Raakh, to speak to the Herald. His publisher has sent back Raakh, asking him to tone down the allegedly “obscene” passages. Maybe he will and maybe he won’t…
Q. How come all your travels are so much packed with fascinating experiences? After reading your books, some people say ‘We went to that place too but nothing of this sort ever happened to us….
A. Let me begin by saying that I am not responsible for other people. Doubts (about authenticity) cropped up in some people’s minds right after the publication of my first travelogue, Nikle Teri Talaash Mein. These doubts crop up every time somebody undertakes a new experiment, because nobody has experienced that before. Everybody has his doubts, because this has not happened to him. Had it happened to them, they would have understood it. I would like to add that people who embark on a journey only for the sake of fashion, or even as a profession, but not as a passion, do not possess the emotion, the sense of pursuit, which is the source of all experience. One person sits in a dinning hall for three hours and all he does is finish his food. Another observes everything in the dinning hall – the people who have come to eat, a woman, her dress, her partner, his tie…. Yeh apna apna hisab kitaab hota hai.
I always say that I am a vagabond at heart. A vagabond sees things which others don’t. So, maybe, I have a special eye. A scene affects me in a manner which does not affect other people. I have experienced this. I have traveled with people who have said “This is nothing special.” I don’t understand what it is they want to see. I think I have a gift from God: the ability to see His grandeur and His beauty in this universe and to feel it, to experience it. Maybe others can’t. So, that is reason number one.
Now for reason two. A very old incident comes to mind. It was 1974. I read a chapter from Andalus Mein Ajnabi in a meeting of Halqa-e-Arbab-e-Zauq. Ashfaq (Ahmed) saheb was presiding. Ashfaq saheb, to whom I am very grateful for having encouraged me in my earlier days, said to me in one of his characteristically dramatic mannerisms, “Hum bhi Spain gaey thhay, laikin humarey saath to aisa kuchh nahin hua!” All I said to him was, “Ashfaq saheb, I was 28 when I went to Spain, and I spent six months there, hitch-hiking the whole of it from one border to another. You have written in one of your travelogues that you went to Qurtaba for only two days. So that is the difference; between six months and two days.
Q. The travelogue is not a literary genre. It belongs to the domain of geography. Right?
A. Wrong. No genre can be taken for granted. It is the creative artist who makes something acceptable as a genre. Quratul Ain Hyder’s laundry receipt could be creative. Ghalib’s scribbling of a note to leave a message could belong to literature as well. On the other hand, even a novel from a bad writer does not belong in the sphere of literature.
Q. I don’t know whether this question should be directed to you or to a critic. But I shall ask you anyway. Where do you stand in the tradition of travelogue writing in Urdu?
A. I do not want to get into that. I had no intention of pioneering anything. I wrote because I wanted to share interesting stories from my travels. As far as criticism is concerned, unfortunately we don’t have specialized criticism in Pakistan. Abroad, critics usually specialize in some particular genre because nobody can read everything. Here, however, we have assumed that the critic is a “know-all.” They begin with Meer and Ghalib and go on to write six books on Iqbal, and then they also write an article on me… They have certain terminologies which they utilize for everything. And that is why critics don’t enjoy much respect in our society.
Then there is the ‘grouping’ syndrome. Critics who belong to a particular group, such as the Wazir Agha group or the (Ahmed Nadeem) Qasmi group, they only write about the authors from their own groups and bypass the “others” altogether. I feel that a genuine write should just bypass the critic and go directly to the masses.
Q. Are you suggesting that the authors who sell better are the ones who write better?
A. Not at all, but it is an interesting debate though. Some would say that you can’t be writing serious literature if your books don’t gather dust on their covers. This argument is supported by the assumption that people in our country don’t have good reading habits. I think it is a historical fallacy that people over here don’t read books. I totally reject that. In Pakistan, people don’t read bad literature, with that I agree. If they are going to purchase a book wroth 200 rupees, they want something from it. What is it that they want? Well, there are different classes of readers. That is why you cannot say that every best selling author is a good author. But then again, you can’t say that a best seller cannot be a piece of literature.
At the same time, if your work is not selling, then there is something wrong with your creative writing. A best selling writer may or may not be a great author, but a non-seller has definitely got something wrong with him, because he is not reaching the masses. Either there is something amiss in his storytelling technique, or he may be too far ahead of his readers – which cannot be the case in Pakistan because such geniuses are not found here.
I believe that the people of Pakistan, the masses, have a deep sense of art. I know this from my knowledge of history. That is why serious poetry flourishes better here than it does in India. The same is true for painting.
Q. But it seems that at last, in Bahao, you have stepped away from the masses a little….
A. Nahin ji. I only wrote Bahao after I had earned credibility among my readers. People have accepted that I am capable of writing entertaining stuff. So, when I write something different, my readers understand that it just had to be written differently.
Obviously, it did not become an instant hit. But overall, people have read it just as keenly as they read my other books. That all of it was not understood completely by all the readers is a different thing altogether.
Q. How strongly is Bahao influenced by Aag Ka Darya?
A. Aag Ka Darya is, of course, a great novel. But I am very keen to avoid the trap of comparisons. I want my book to be judged in its own right. That is why I did away with the initial plan of dividing Bahao into two parts: one dealing with events 5,000 years ago and the other taking place in 1990. I knew that our critic has rote-learned certain names, and the only way he can speak about a book is by making comparisons. (In order to avoid comparisons with Aag Ka Darya) I ended Bahao as a novel in its first part. Then I began with Raakh, which is an independent novel as such. It is not a sequel. But those who have read Bahao will feel that there are some links, running as an undercurrent.
Q. Would you categorise Bahao as a stream of consciousness novel?
A. The concept of ‘stream of consciousness’ is now outdated, actually. Ainee Aapa (Quratul Ain Haider) made excellent use of that technique in Aag Ka Darya. Trends have moved on since then. Now you have magical realism, which you find in Rushdie, Marquez, Kundera… I think that if you amalgamate the two techniques, then you get something that is found in Raakh. And which is, perhaps, present even in Bahao in its initial form.
Q. A periodical from Karachi has dubbed Bahao as a “Punjabi” novel. How do you react to that?
A. I am proud to be a Punjabi, but I do not see myself as “a Punjabi writer.” I am “a writer”. I felt sad when I read that statement. That misunderstanding arose out of liberal usage of certain Punjabi words in the novel. But those words are originally Dravidian, dating back to that period. I did not use them just because they were Punjabi words. I used them because these words were current in the period about which I was writing. In fact, I carried out regular linguistic research in order to create my diction because I felt that the rhythm of speech 3,000 years ago could not have been the same as it is today. Look at how the rhythm of speech spoken by the characters in Prem Chand’s stories seems alien to us now. In the same way, I had to discover the rhythm of speech as it was 3,000 years ago.
In my research I was helped by Fareedkoti Saheb, Arif Waqar and Ali Abbas Jalalpuri. They helped me establish the correct vocabulary. Then there was a Ph.D. thesis from Berkeley University, titled Ancient Tamil Poetry, which dealt with the Tamil Poetry of 2,500 years ago. Now, Tamil and Brahvi are the two languages of the subcontinent which have the maximum number of Dravidian words. I had already written about 150 pages by then, but I had to re-write them because that thesis really gave me the rhythm for my novel.
While we are on the topic, let me add one more thing. It is rather strange that we all refer to the civilization of Moenjodaro as the Indus Valley Civilisation. Mind you, the course of the River Indus spreads from the North to the Arabian Sea. The Indus does not belong to the province of Sindh. It only ends there. The grandeur of the Indus, which inspired the Rig Veda can only be seen in the Punjab or in the mountainous North. When the Rig Veda says, and I have quoted it in my novel, that “Sindhu comes roaring, riding its white chariot,” it is certainly not speaking of Sindh. You will see that the archaeological literature prior to 1947 speaks of the Harrappan Civilisation and not the Indus Valley Civilisation.
I am not against the use of the term Indus Valley, but I would like to point out to all our scholars, cultured individuals and politicians that the civilization we talk about included almost the whole of Pakistan, not just Sindh.
Q. How do you anticipate the reception of Raakh?
A. Raakh is a novel which our people still may not be ready to receive. So far I have made only one reading, of an extract, and I had to face a lot of antagonism. Except for two or three people, the audience refused to listen to me. They said that my work defiles Pakistan and it is pornographic and that they were not ready to listen to it. And this was an audience that included some senior critics. I told them, if you are in the habit of reading impotent literature, then it is not my fault.
I have spent a lot of time on this book. To use a new western word, it is ‘faction’ (a combination of fact and fiction). In my novel, you meet Saadat Hasan Manto as a character as well as Tikka Khan, Niazi Saheb, “Black Beauty”, Bhutto Saheb… How far have I been able to amalgamate fact and fiction, and whether I have been able to say what I wanted to, is a question that can best be decided after the book is published.
Q. I have heard that somebody is working on an English translation of your work. Is this true?
A. Translation is a different issue altogether. A certain Dr Michael Dodds, a Ph.D. in Urdu, came to see me, and offered to translate Andalus Mein Ajnabi. Then he gave it up because he liked Nanga Parbat even better. Recently, he has sent me the first two chapters of his translation and I feel that he is doing a marvelous job. It might take him another year to finish the whole book.
Q. One of your TV serials ran into trouble with the Supreme Court…
A. I wrote Sooraj Kay Sath Sath (in the late ‘80s) and, as you know, the Supreme Court brought out a seven page judgment ordering that the story be altered. I don’t know if there is any other incident in the history of television where the supreme court of a country has passed a judgment to affect the story of a drama serial.
Q. But what was the problem?
A. In the fourth episode, I showed my characters working in the city as brick-kiln workers. The brick-kiln owners filed a writ against this and the supreme court of Pakistan decreed that the story should be changed. I wasn’t summoned to court. It was one-sided decision.
Q. Did you contest the decision?
A. At first, I decided to fight the ruling. But then I was advised by some friends to consider my financial condition. They told me, “you have to earn your living on a monthly basis. If the supreme court upholds its decision, and there is no appeal, then you might go to jail for a few years. At the end of the day, I am left with the feeling that I wrote something which was taken seriously, which did hurt somebody, somewhere.
Q. How come you have never worked in films?
A. I was once offered the role of a villain by Shabab Keranvi. And I am very glad I did not accept his offer.
Q. What about writing film scripts?
A. I’m not that intelligent, you see. Only geniuses can create the sort of stuff Indian and Pakistani films are made of. A man gets into trouble and all of a sudden discovers three lost brothers – God knows from which mother – who rescue him. Or Anjuman springing out of bare fields, and jumping up to the sky. An Indian director once asked me to make a film story from Hazaron Raastay. Most probably he used half of the story in some other film and threw away the rest.
Q. The title of your first book was an allusion to Iqbal, who has said, Nikle Teri Talaash Mein Qafila Haye Rang-o-Boo. Does the affiliation end here?
A. Dekhein ji, if it is my national duty to be impressed by Iqbal, I’m impressed. (Laughs). Iqbal is excellent for picking up titles for one’s books. Ainee Aapa has adapted all her book titles from Iqbal. But what really distances me from Iqbal is the weight of his poetry. I do not find a single verse which I can hum as I am going to bed at the end of a long day.
Even today, the West patronises certain writers: Salman Rushdie, V. S. Naipaul, and up to a certain extent, (Zulfikar) Ghose, because these are the authors who write things they want to read. Our former colonial masters want to see us imitating their styles, and coming down upon our own peoples as “brown sahibs” – like Imran Khan is doing. Hence, such people get nominated for international prizes. But Yashir Kamal does not. Because he is writing things which do not please the white lords, nor does he please the Turkish government. Tagore was a great personality. I wish I was born in his time and had a chance to study at the Shanti Naketan. I admire his poetry, his plays, his paintings. But certainly there is no comparison between Tagore and Iqbal. Iqbal was a much greater poet than him. But again, he did not suit the West. A mystic like Tagore did.
Another thing I would like to put on record is my protest at the exploitation of Abdul Sattar Edhi. First his biography was written by a lady (Tehmina Durrani) who does not deserve to be his biographer. And now the Pakistani government is pairing him off with (population minister) J. Salik for the Nobel Peace Prize. I have got nothing against J. Salik. But Edhi saheb belongs in a different league altogether. Since the birth of Pakistan, if anything good has happened to this country, it is Edhi saheb. He does not need the Nobel Peace Prize, the Nobel Peace Prize needs him. The reason is that he cannot even be compared with Mother Tereasa. She is a missionary, and her welfare work is driven by the motivation of religious conversion. I have great esteem for Mother Teresa, but when compared with Edhi saheb, I find him greater because he is working without any missionary motive whatsoever.
Q. Many young authors in our country face a dilemma….
A. (With mock seriousness) Are you placing me among the ranks of these young authors?
Q. No. Among their guides.
A. Oh, I see.
Q. As I was saying, in our schools and colleges we learn all about patriotism and the important of being faithful to one’s homeland. Later, as we grow up and our horizons begin to broaden, however, we are presented with several alternate world views. There seems to be an underlying message in everything one reads and hears at this stage, that the true intellectual is someone who can or does think, speak and write against his own country. What do you feel about this?
A. I feel I did not pass through all these stages. I often say that I have not become a writer through planning. I am a writer only by coincidence. Therefore, you cannot compare me with those writers who plan their progress. I belong to a different category altogether.
As far as patriotism is concerned, I feel that patriotism and religion have led to more bloodshed in this world than anything else. Both these emotions have the merit of sanctity… so much so, in fact, that patriotism in our country has been considered even more important than Islam. Nobody really has a clue what his muhibul watni (patriotism) is. What it actually was, and still is, is an instrument in the hands of the ruling classes which they use to coat the poison pill which the masses are made to swallow. “Because it is in the interest of the country” (is the usual line). Their own sons never go to the front. All these shaheeds belong to the lower and the middle classes. With the possible exception of a few, the sons of all these worthy leaders and rulers never make it to the battlefield. Hence the masses are made into fodder for the war machine – all in the name of patriotism.
Of course, I used to think differently earlier, but this is how many thinking has evolved. I am now 57. Over all these years, the love I have nurtured for my country is no secret. I always say that a writer’s work is his FIR. Just read his text and you will learn about all his misgivings as well a his virtues. Don’t take him for what he may say in interviews. So don’t expect me to make big statements about my love of the land, just now. Read my writings, and you will see that they are all alive with the love of this soil. My forthcoming novel (Raakh) is presently lying with my publisher, along with a load of objections. And this is what I have said about it: This is a novel which, most probably nobody will like. Neither the People’s Party, nor the Muslim League, nor the maulvis, of course. And, perhaps, the army won’t either. But all of them will agree on one thing: the man who has written this novel is, at heart, worried about Pakistan. My main emotion is ‘worry’ rather than the conventional concept of patriotism, which I believe to be a fake.
And then patriotism involves certain conditions (which must be met). Let us not unthinkingly go on quoting Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you…” That might be relevant in America. We have done whatever we could for Pakistan for the last 50 years. It is high time now that we ask what Pakistan can do for us as well. It’s very strange that Pakistan is doing a lot of things, but for others.
Q. Who are these others?
A. People in power, politicians, businessmen. But what about the writer, the actor, the artist, the creative person? What has Pakistan done or them? All right, we have got respect, recognition, fame. But we, the creative artists, are also the readiest target for all sorts of abuse and accusation. In any society, the prostitute is the easiest target for blame. In the Pakistani society, it is the creative artist about whom anybody will stand up and say, “He has patronized obscenity, he has defiled Islam, he has spoken against the country.”
I am not defending anybody, but let me say this. One day a statement gets published in the name of Faraz. Nobody goes to him asks whether he has actually made that statement. Next day, the so-called religious scholars pronounce that he should be stoned to death at Kalma Chowk. Nobody says to these people that “you are inciting others to murder a citizen!” Nobody is arrested.
What has this country done for us? It has not given us any protection. My readers come from various religions: Christians, Sikhs, Qadianis… I was once invited to a seminar on tourism and mountaineering in Rabwah. I went there and the next day, the ulema-e-karam gave statements in the newspaper, saying that Tarar has turned Qadiani. How do I convince people that I am not a Qadiani? The constitution of Pakistan calls them non-Muslims, so I consider them non-Muslim. But the constitution of Pakistan does not say that they are not Pakistanis, or that you cannot enter Rabwah, you cannot talk to them, they cannot read your books. But as an average writer I have no protection against the wrath of any aggressor.
Q. Ten years ago you wrote the PTV serial Hazaron Raastay, in which a patriotic son aimed a pistol at his father who he thought had betrayed the country. What category does this sort of patriotism fall into?
A. We do not have conditional patriotism.
Q. Do you think that the writings of a Pakistani author should always betray his nationality?
A. No, I don’t think so. ‘Pakistan’ is a transient word. Pakistan is 50 years old. But this land is eight or ten thousand years old. Twenty-five years ago, Pakistan meant something different, and what you now call Pakistan was called West Pakistan. What you now call Turkey was once known as Asia Minor. If a writer survives through his writings into the future centuries, then he quite often outlives the name of his country. Homer is still read, but the names he gives the countries in his books are today alien to us. The Arab poets from before the days of Islam, and after it…
If a writer wants to be recognized by his land, then he must have the experience of the society he lives in. This does not mean ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ on every second page. If a writer chooses to represent his country, then he should represent it through the experiences of life as it is lived in that country.