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Pakistani writer recalls Indian heritage of storytelling

Tuesday April 17, 2012 12:31:16 PM, Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS

New Delhi: India's biggest export to the world has been stories, powerful narratives that have influenced literature throughout history, says Karachi-based Musharraf Ali Farooqi, who shot to literary limelight with his translations of "Hoshruba" and "The Adventures of Amir Hamza", ancient epics written in Persian and Urdu.

"The world has borrowed from Indian stories in which powerful storytelling and fables have been fundamental to the narrative structure. But the region is moving away from its roots," Farooqi, 44, the author of a new book, "Between Clay and Dust", told IANS in an interview.

The author and translator, who believes in the power of narrative and stories about people in specific socio-cultural contexts, said the art of story-telling was disappearing.

"Where is story-telling? Do we have any memorable characters? Books without strong characters and strong story-telling will not have a long life. Writing about politics and events around us is dated; who will want to read it? I will not want to read it," Farooqi told IANS.

Farooqi's new book, published by the Aleph Book Company, arrived at the stores this week.

It is fiction set in a fictional South Asian town, where old traditions like the 'kotha' (courtesan's home) and the 'akhada' (traditional wrestling school) are crumbling with the end of royal patronage. The book explores the historical transition to modern times through the lives of a wrestler and a former courtesan committed to their arts.

Ustad Ramzi was the head of a 'pahalwan' clan and the custodian of an akhada, where young fans flocked to learn wrestling from the giant of a man. Courtesan Gauhar Jan, inspired by the true-life story of a legendary Indian courtesan, was as admired as Ustad Ramzi for her music. Her home was thronged by admirers and nobles.

Farooqi looks at the characters at the twilight of their lives.

"They are fictional characters. I wanted to explore how different people - two artists - could react to different set of choices in a changing society. For instance, the 'kotha' culture suddenly starts disintegrating after the principalities and the princely states, who patronised the art, were abolished," Farooqi said.

The protagonists are "faced with the same set of choices but exercise them differently".

"One of them puts human relationship to the fore and for another one, the commitment to art comes before everything...I don't want to give the book away," the writer said.

Farooqi said he spent 10 years on the book that is based on archival research. "I always wanted to go to an 'akhada', but I was in Toronto from 1994 to 2009. I wrote the final draft in 2010. I read two novels, including Mirza Hadi Ruswa's 'Umrao Jaan'... The novel is different from the movie," he said.

The writer loves to play with genres. "When I translate from the classical narrative in Urdu ('Hoshruba' and 'Amir Hamza'), I try to create a parallel sense in English. In 'Hoshruba' (an Urdu epic), I created a contemporary template for a highly personalised Urdu language," Farooqi said.

The writer said he was still working on the 24-part translations of the Urdu epic (originally in Persian) of which he has published only one. "It will take at least seven years to translate all the volumes," said Farooqi, a voracious reader of Urdu literature.

His new book, "The Rabbit Trap" (Penguin India), a fantasy, will be released in July.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at 





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