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Mustansar Hussain Tarar | Photo by Ayesha Vellani
Mustansar Hussain Tarar | Photo by Ayesha Vellani

Soon it all turned into an odyssey into the world of a giant.

I intended to ask Mustansar Hussain Tarar some formal questions regarding his work, his opinion on its reception, his experience of more than four decades of writing in diverse genres and, of course, the secret of his insatiable instinct to write. But soon I discovered that we were wandering in the world of wonders created by his lively and sparkling conversation in Urdu, soaked in anecdotes and poetry in classical Punjabi.

Tarar is perhaps the most popular of contemporary fiction and travelogue writers in Urdu. He claims he has the capability to write another Aag Ka Darya, a novel on the Partition written by Qurratulain Hyder, but she could not have written a novel like his Bahao that talks about the disappearance of a civilisation.

Tarar’s mass popularity is perhaps the reason why he keeps distinguishing himself from other Pakistani writers. No other Pakistani writer has been honoured like him, he says: a lake in the northern areas has been named after him. But, in the same breath, he says critics need to pay attention to other contemporary fiction writers, particularly Khalida Hussain and Sami Ahuja.

Even at the age of 78, he works on his writing table every day from 7 pm to 11 pm. That may explain why he is such a prolific writer. Pen and paper (he does not write on a computer) are his true friends. Here are excerpts of an interview with him, conducted at his residence in Lahore.

Nasir Abbas Nayyar. Your first travelogue, Niklay Teri Talash Mein, came out in 1971. That year is significant in our history because of the secession of East Pakistan. Was it a coincidence? Or did you deliberately select that year for publishing the book?

Mustansar Hussain Tarar. I never had the ambition to become a writer. I had not planned to become a writer. Basically, I was a person who read books, watched movies, went to theatre plays and wandered a lot.

In 1958, I was in England. From there, a delegation went to Moscow to some youth festival. The group consisted of 1,500 to 2,000 people and I was selected to be one of them.

At the time, Moscow was [behind what the West called] the Iron Curtain. No one could travel across the Soviet Union [which was under] total dictatorship of the Communist Party. We went there on counterfeit passports, provided by the Soviet Union, and lived there for a couple of weeks.

Majid Nizami (editor of Urdu daily Nawa-i-Waqt) was in London when we came back there. He found out about the delegation and contacted me. He said no Pakistani had ever been to that side of the Iron Curtain before and asked me if it was possible for me to write in the form of a travelogue everything I had seen and experienced.

My English was relatively better in those days because I had studied at Government College, Lahore, and watched English movies. I did not have much interest in Urdu. So I told him that I could not read and write [in Urdu]. Nizami assured me that he would take care of that.

I would say I am not that proud on having received the Pride of Performance [award] and Sitara-e-Imtiaz [from the Pakistani government] because these are awarded to so many people

Thus I wrote my first travelogue, London Se Moscow Tak, in 1958. It was published in three parts in Sher Mohammad Akhtar’s magazine Qandeel, which was a famous literary publication of the time. That was my debut in writing. But I did not continue it [because] I had no interest in writing.

Then, in 1969, I once again happened to travel for about six months. I was an avid reader of travelogues at that time. I felt that I had experiences which no one else has had till then. People take flights and stay in five-star hotels, so their travel experiences are very superficial. I had travelled to about 16 countries by road so I thought I should narrate my experiences. It was not about becoming a writer. I just wanted to share my experiences. That is how I wrote Niklay Teri Talash Mein.

It was a coincidence that the book came out in 1971. But the tragedy of 1971 significantly influenced my psyche ... [The influence] has lasted to this day.

Some parts of Niklay Teri Talash Mein were [later] included in Moscow State University’s syllabus. About five years ago, the university invited me for some lectures. There I was given a medal that is awarded for most outstanding scholarly services towards the university. Very few people have received it.

I would say I am not that proud on having received the Pride of Performance [award] and Sitara-e-Imtiaz [from the Pakistani government] because these are awarded to so many people. Every Tom, Dick and Harry has them. But that medal was [a source of] pride for me.

Nayyar. You have written so much that surely someday there will be Tarar Studies like we have Iqbal Studies and Ghalib Studies.

Tarar. Actually this has already been started. Right now, according to a survey, my writings are the subject of the highest number of scholarly works. There has already been a PhD as well as dozens of MPhils.

Nayyar. I wonder if the story of civilisation, around the long-lost Saraswati River, that you have told in your novel Bahao contradicts the state narrative which emphasises that our history starts from 712 AD with Muhammad bin Qasim’s arrival in Sindh.

My second question is that most of the work about lost civilisations in Urdu is done by people who have been displaced, like Qurratulain Hyder and Intizar Husain. You have not experienced displacement like them. Why does displacement figure in your novels then?

Tarar: I am basically a Dravidian so you can think of me as one of the characters in Bahao. I am Paroshni, the narrator of the novel. I have been displaced from being a free bird to [being the member of] a hard-line, bigoted society where you cannot even talk freely.

It is ridiculous to say that a 5,000-year-old civilisation started not that long ago but in 712 CE. Civilisations and homelands are not bound by religions. They are bound by culture. Cities change their religions but they never change their culture. Lahore was a Jain city, a Sikh city, a Hindu city, a Mughal city, a British city and a Muslim city in turns. Its [religious affiliation] is not permanent. One thing that is permanent is the culture of Lahore – or the culture of Punjab – that has existed continuously.

Nayyar. Do you feel that your novels offer an alternate to the state’s narrative?

Tarar. I did not as such plan it to be like this but with the passage of time it came out like this. I talk about a mythical river in [Bahao] but you can see that the rivers are drying up fast today. Ravi, Sindh, Chenab — every river.

The main character of the novel, Warchan, rises up one morning and sees that a turtle is trying to get into the water but it is so shallow that the turtle’s shell is not submerging. Warchan realises that the river will eventually dry out, annihilating his civilisation.

Photo by Ayesha Vellani
Photo by Ayesha Vellani

He carries a big burden on his shoulders because he has to break the news of annihilation to his fellow villagers. I feel like I am that character. I feel like our civilisation is on the downhill. We are fast losing connection with our land and our values. Our future is what you see in Mohenjodaro. Not that this will happen in the next 100 to 150 years, but the decline has already started.

Nayyar. There is diversity in your work. You have written Bahao about a mythical past and then you have written other novels such as Raakh and Khas-o-Khashak Zamane, both based in modern times. The same diversity is seen in your travelogues. You have written about Europe, the United States, Australia and China. And you have explored Pakistan from south to north. Your latest travelogue, Pyar Ka Pehla Punjab: Nau Din Punjab Kay, is based in Punjab. There is an unending variety in your work. Is this diversity in your work a reflection of our diverse culture?

Tarar. Absolutely. There is diversity in my work because I have lived a diverse life myself. It is because of the experiences that I have had. I am often asked what I basically am — a short-story writer, a novelist, travelogue writer, actor, dramatist, or what. My response is that I am basically a wanderer. A wanderer can go anywhere — from novels to travelogues to short stories. He can never be fixated on one thing. It all depends on his idiosyncrasies.

My father has had a significant influence on me. He was a very liberal, open-minded and an almost leftist person. His views had changed with his experiences in life just like they do for a character in Khas-o-Khashak Zamane. When a person unleashes dogs after that character, he realises while running that there is no belief, no tribe, no lineage, no nationality — there is only the oppressor and the oppressed. Only these two classes exist. Such was my father’s philosophy of life. I have not adopted it but it is within me.

Secondly, I have never accepted everything wholly. Even things that are normally accepted without questions, such as beliefs, I still have questions about them. I left for England at the age of 17. I had lots of experiences there. I travelled through the whole of Europe, camping and hitchhiking. Then I explored Pakistan’s north and ventured out into areas unexplored even by the locals. I have always had this curiosity about the unknown. This has a lot to do with my rural background.

Nayyar. Is the diversity in your work because of your deep, creative connections with your homeland and your culture?

Tara. People say that there is Pakistaniat in my work, that I am a patriot. I don’t like this word [but] whenever I enter Pakistan after travelling abroad, I always kiss the soil because this land has given me so much. I cannot live without this land. My roots are here and they are strong.

Nayyar. Do you think our society was more tolerant before 9/11 and things have changed for the worse since?

Tarar. Yes, there have been after-effects. During Ziaul Haq’s era, resistance literature was written and it did invite trouble for the writers. I had been banned from television for one year because of my short stories. One of them was about Bhutto’s execution.

At the time, the rulers would oppress the writers but society would back them. It would consider writers as its spokespersons, a channel to vent out their collective outrage.

After 9/11, the tables have turned and extremism has seeped into our society. Now it is most likely that the ruling class does not even read what is being written about it because all it cares about is its properties in foreign countries. I remember when I was given the Prime Minister’s Award for Raakh, someone said to me that I should be thankful that the prime minister has not read the novel.

One of my short stories is about the massacre in Army Public School, Peshawar.

But society now stands against the writer. It has been radicalised to a huge extent. Now you write a word and the entire society becomes your enemy. These recent disappearances [of social activists] are clear proof of this. It is a very sensitive situation in which a writer like me would never write directly. He will only write symbolically. I am thankful that most people in our society are not interested in reading. They do not know what I have written in my novels.

When people say that society should be more inclined towards reading, I say the lesser society reads, the safer writers are.

Nayyar. You recently wrote that it cannot be said whether a poetic piece is about Vietnam or Palestine. But you see fiction as being specific. Do you think poetry is losing its influence while fiction is gaining ground?

Tara. In Raakh, I have narrated the entire tragedy of East Pakistan’s secession — whatever atrocities were committed by our army, or by Bengalis towards Biharis, or by Biharis towards Bengalis. Everything is described in the novel. You cannot describe these things in abstract poetic forms. One of my short stories is about the massacre in Army Public School, Peshawar. I chose to write it as a story because I wanted to write in detail. I cannot write poetry like Faiz did in his Khoon ke dhabbe dhulainge kitni barsaaton ke baad (How many monsoons will it take to wash away the bloodstains).

One of my stories is about the Christian couple that was burnt to death. It is about the treatment meted out to non-Muslim minorities in our society. It is not possible for poetry to encompass all this in detail. People ask me if I am against poetry. I respond that my strength in prose comes from the poetry of Bulleh Shah, Shah Hussain, Ghalib and Maulvi Ghulam Rasool Alampuri. Without their poetry, I would not be [the writer I am]. But when I say poetry, my reference is to classical poetry and not to contemporary poetry.

Nayyar. Why are ecology and natural environment mentioned a lot in your writing?

Tarar. Ecology figures in my writing because of my rural background. The landscape in cities is very congested whereas there are fields and orchards in rural areas. I have experienced walking in fields, bathing in ponds and streams. That is why I describe landscapes in detail when I write travelogues.

The most difficult thing is to describe a mountain. There are very few adjectives you can use here. Now how have I described mountains in 15 different books of mine? I did this by feeling them. Ibn Arabi said a dervish is the person with whom flowers and plants converse when he goes into a forest. It is not a myth — I believe it does happen.

Nayyar. Do you think there is a difference between writing a novel and writing a short story? Is one more important than the other?

Tarar. The only thing that matters is the writer. A writer makes the writing significant or insignificant. It is said that it is the singer, not the song, that counts.

Nayyar. There are two types of popular writers in Urdu: those who side with the state’s narrative such as Ashfaq Ahmed, Bano Qudsia, Mumtaz Mufti; others who challenge the power centres, like Manto, Faraz, Jalib, and Faiz. What camp are you in?

Tarar. I cannot say anything about that. There is a Facebook group called Mustansar Hussain Tarar’s Readers World. It has around 13,500 members. Every month, dozens of them hold meetings in Mohenjodaro, Harappa and other places to jointly read my work. Why? You have to ask them.

Nayyar. Bano Qudsia’s novels were very well-received in her lifetime but a barrage of negative commentary has followed her death. She is often alleged to have sided with the establishment. Many people say that her novel Raja Gidh was pro-Zia. What is your opinion?

Photo by Ayesha Vellani
Photo by Ayesha Vellani

Tarar. It was her right to live her life according to her school of thought. Readers have the right to criticise too. But I disagree with what Fehmida Riaz has said [about Bano Qudsia]. She herself has been a die hard associate of the Pakistan Peoples Party and took jobs from the party.

She also sided with [Pervez] Musharraf. So what is the big deal if Bano Qudsia sided with Zia? One should be like me — who has never chanted slogans for anyone. I have never joined a political party. Generally, people have financial problems [so they take government jobs]. My financial problems were resolved by my readers who bought my books.

I have done three election transmissions on television but I never took sides with any political party because I am not in need of money or land.

Nayyar. Your critics say you have worked with different regimes. You have been on Pakistan Television but you have never talked about political problems in your work on television.

Tarar. It is because I was not hosting political shows back then. I could not bring politics into music shows. For eight years, I did a morning show. During those years, first Ziaul Haq was the ruler and then it was Benazir Bhutto. I never uttered a word of praise for Zia on air or praised his policies.

When Zia died, I received a phone call from my producer Mohammed Nisar Hussain at 10 in the night. He told me that I would be the first person to announce the death in the morning. I told him in a straightforward way that I did not have a soft corner for Zia and that I would not be able to shed tears for him on television. He said if any other person was brought to read the news, everyone would know that [Tarar] had refused to do so. I half-heartedly agreed to only reading out whatever was given to me.

On the third day of Zia’s death, I received instructions that he has to be referred to as shaheed (martyr). I read it as it was given to me: ‘Just now I have been told that Zia is a shaheed.’ Some people were angered by this but that was the deal — that I would only read out whatever was given to me.

One of my hit television serials is Sooraj Ke Saath Saath. In it, I have described the plight of brick kiln workers. It is the only serial in the history of Pakistan Television on which the Supreme Court of Pakistan took notice. I don’t think anyone has highlighted a social issue in a more effective manner than this serial has.

When the incident of Ojhri Camp happened [in Rawalpindi], people were not going back to their homes from Islamabad where they had gathered. Finally, I was asked to talk to the people. I first sought assurance that their neighbourhoods were really safe for them to return to, then I addressed people through television. Such was people’s trust in me that 30,000 of them went to their homes within half an hour. I was thanked for this on the floor of the National Assembly. This is my character and my standing among people.

Having said that, I am a professional [person]. I could not just sit at home because Zia was in power. I had to earn my living.

Nayyar. Some critics say the reason for the popularity of your books is that you sometimes add fictional characters and events to your travelogues.

Tarar. These things are said by those who have never stepped out of their towns. They do not know the kind of experiences you have when you travel the world. There is not a single fictional character in my travelogues. I have talked about the flow of the Indus River with the help of metaphors. If you call it fiction, then that is another thing.

But, yes, I have a craft to mould the raw material into a polished write-up. It is all about placement of the text and the writing style. Novelist H M Naqvi once told me that, according to his wife, when I talk it feels as if I am reading out a story. It is not intentional. It is because my mother and my aunts were brilliant storytellers, narrators with an excellent memory. I learnt it from them.

Nayyar. After 9/11, Pakistani literature has changed by a huge margin. A new generation of English language writers has appeared. Their books have been published by foreign publishing houses and they have started getting prizes. Do you think this celebration of Pakistani English writers is because of international politics? Or do they really have the capabilities lacking in our Urdu writers?

Tarar. We cannot compare the capabilities of English writers with those writing in Urdu. Those writing in Punjabi have altogether different capabilities. But that does not undermine any writer’s work. If Bulleh Shah is compared to Urdu poets, all the great names will be dwarfed [in front of him], not because Bulleh Shah was more capable but because his language was more capable. I believe Punjabi is a more powerful language than Urdu or English.

The language that I use is my own. Its grammar and syntax, its stresses and pauses, as well as words, are my own.

These English writers are my friends — Mohammed Hanif, H M Naqvi, Kamila Shamsie. I do have some differences with them because they mostly play to the gallery. They write what the West wants to read. Their argument is that literary agents push them to include those things. They have to compromise. Their problem is that they cannot write as freely as we can. [Urdu writers] don’t have to do this.

Nayyar. Critics say your diction is a bit rough and you coin your own words. Is it because you want to free Urdu from its Ganga-Jamuni cultural influences?

Tarar. I coin my own words because I feel that I am capable of creating another language. Maulvi Ghulam Rasool Alampuri once wrote three pages describing the beauty of Prophet Yusuf. He mentioned his features four times [using different words each time]. When the prophet’s name was mentioned the fifth time, I said, now tell me Maulvi sahib if you still have any words left. He responded by writing three more pages on the same subject. He created his own words and phrases.

A creative writer creates his own grammar and breaks free from the old tradition. You name a writer and I will tell you how he has done that. I don’t call it experimentation but reconstruction — reconstruction according to the land and the people on which, and for whom, something is being written.

The language that I use is my own. Its grammar and syntax, its stresses and pauses, as well as words, are my own. This is necessary for a perfect description of the characters that I describe. It might not be perfect as per the standards of academic Urdu, but it is perfect for those characters.

Our researchers and critics have limited themselves to Aag Ka Darya and [Abdullah Hussain’s novel] Udas Naslain. They do not realise that these were influential novels of their own time [but] we should now leave them at that.

Every era has its own representative novels. You cannot compare my novels to these literary works. Only in our country does this happen that contemporary novels are tested against, and compared with, earlier works. Aag Ka Darya and Udas Naslain are not the Bible. Literary works better than these can be created. They were relevant for their time but are not relevant anymore.

Christina Oesterheld did her doctorate on Qurratulain Hyder but when Columbia University asked her to deliver a lecture on a novel most representative of South Asian culture, she chose my novel Raakh. I asked her as to why she did not choose Qurratulain Hyder’s novels. Her reply was that Annie did not represent South Asian culture.

Nayyar. Urdu in Punjab is heavily influenced by the Ganga-Jamuni culture of Delhi and Lucknow. How do you see it?

Tarar. It was a forced influence [but it] was accepted wholeheartedly by Punjab’s Urdu writers. They tried to write the language that did not come from within them. Linda Wentink, who did her doctorate on modern Urdu short stories from Berkeley, once visited me for an interview. I told her that all the giants of Urdu fiction, except Qurratulain Hyder, were Punjabis. She was astonished to note that the biggest names of Urdu fiction were not native Urdu speakers. For your novel to be significant, you have to be from Punjab.

Nayyar. Edward Said says in his book, On Late Style, that the age of a writer is associated with the style that he takes while writing. How do you see your writing style?

Photo by Ayesha Vellani
Photo by Ayesha Vellani

Tarar. When I saw [my novel] Pyar Ka Pehla Sheher’s 75th edition sometime back, I felt embarrassed by the way I used to write. But at that time, I wrote the way I did because I was young. My language was not that mature. Now if I try to write that way, I would not be able to do so because I have matured a lot. Style and language develop through your experiences and your age. A lot of things influence your writing. I have still not mastered writing. I have not reached perfection.

There has not been a year in the last four decades in which I have not read around 10 foreign novels. I learn from them. I have learnt a lot from José Saramago. His one sentence spans several pages. He never used punctuation marks in his writing. It may feel odd at first but you develop a taste for it with the passage of time. You do not encounter bumps on the way [while reading].

Nayyar. In your short story Tarkhan, your first sentence is as long as a paragraph — just like José Saramago’s prose.

Tarar. Yes, but that was not intentional. This style has come from my travelogues [in which I have to describe panoramic scenes]. I adopted long sentences [because the shorter ones] could not describe the panorama [as a whole]. One sentence from my travelogue Nepal Nagri spans two-and-a-half pages.

Language is an instrument. One should play with it. One should not let the language burden one’s writing.

Nayyar. What would you advise to the new generation of our fiction writers?

Tarar. Those who have a talent for writing should not be instructed. It is not a matter of pride but I do not have any teacher – except books – in writing. I have learnt from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but I have not shown my writing to anyone for improvement. This is the reason why my writing is mine.

Ashfaq Ahmed was once rehearsing for a play. He was instructing everyone on dialogue delivery in a certain way. I told him if everyone acted on his directions, everyone would look and sound like him. That is why I do not give advice to anyone. The only advice I have for young writers is to read extensively. For new writers, reading and observing are very important.

Nayyar. Do you like anyone from the new fiction writers of Pakistan?

Tarar. There are a lot of them and everyone is doing great work. With the passage of time, competition is increasing and it is very hard to establish yourself. No one can establish themselves as a writer with just one or two books.

Nowadays you cannot write a novel and then go into hibernation for 20 years. Readers have a constant demand for writing. I have given them [the writing they ask for]. One of the reasons for that is that I have never done a nine-to-five job.

When I finished writing Bahao, Bano Qudsia said I should write more. I told her that I had already started working on Raakh. She again said the same thing sometime later so I told her that writing is not like running a general store. There comes a time when a writer’s competition is only with himself. You either write something better than you have already written or at least as good as your previous work.

Nayyar. Does this demand for more from the readers have anything to do with consumerism?

Tarar. No. I think intellectual depth and the desire to read have increased over time. Previously, a person would read just one novel and feel satisfied his whole life. Now a reader is not satisfied by one novel. The vision of today’s reader is very broad.

This is fundamentally different from our time when people were less educated and simple minded. Writers were just a tad bit sharper than the public and had more experiences — Manto, for instance, had experience of Bombay and so had Rajinder Singh Bedi and Krishan Chander. A reader would be highly amused after reading their works because he has not experienced all that himself. When Mirza Adeeb wrote Sehra Navard Ke Khutoot (Letters of a Desert Traveller), people were fascinated because they themselves had never been to a desert. But now, people have seen deserts. They can Google everything today. Now the reader is more intelligent than the writer.

This article was originally published in the Herald's March 2017 issue under the headline "Style is the man". To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.