‘Many characters have inspired my work’
Q: What books are you currently reading?
A: I read many books at a time; English and Urdu, poetry and fiction – and I make sure to read a bit of at least two books every day. Constantly reading one book makes you very engaged in that storyline, but reading several books at the same time keeps your mind engaged but doesn’t keep you from your own work.
I’m currently reading Han Kang’s ‘The Vegetarian’, in which Kang beautifully compares and contrasts South Korean and British culture. Through one woman’s story of something as simple as giving up meat, [Kang] has emphasised the importance of understanding others and living life on your own terms.
I am also reading Asif Farooqi’s book on the works of the late Intizar Hussain, Ahmed Salim’s book on Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s cultural report that was never published but is part of the book, along with the analysis of it. Faiz wrote the cultural report when he was in the PNCA in 1974-75.
I also have a collection of Mir Taqi Mir’s works, and Mustansar Hussein Tarar’s book on Sindh. The book is on life in Sindhi villages and he travelled to various villages, including those in Tharparkar.
Q: Did you have a favourite book as a child that you might still hold dear?
A: When I was 10 I read a book by Ale Ahmed Suroor called Nae Aur Purane Chiragh, which is a book of his poetry and also a critique and analysis of past and modern poetry. Suroor was a professor at Aligarh, which was a fascinating place to me and I always wanted to study there.
That book was what inspired me to write poetry – it awakened the poet in me. I was 10 then, but that book was meant for grownups. I have never read a children’s book; I was never read bedtime stories by my parents. The stories I heard came from visiting aunts or a grandmother. One of my brother’s friends, who was like an elder brother to me, knew I loved to read so he would bring me books and those books would first be screened – my family would read them to see if they had any objectionable material in them.
When I had had enough, I would hide my Tolstoys inside a copy of the books I was allowed to read and I would stay up past midnight to read what I wanted. That’s how I read literature – in hiding.
Q: Do you have a favourite fictional character? One that has stayed with you after you’ve put the book down?
A: There are many characters that have stayed with me – fictional and real – and they have all inspired my work and kept me thinking. I think the character I was most impressed by is Anna Karenina; she has always stayed with me. Sometimes she advises me, sometimes I hold discussions with her. She is at the centre of the story, and faces so many problems – she has seen war and love and so much more, and struggled through all of them and faced them head on. I think she stayed with me because that is the kind of woman I like. Headstrong, who are not afraid to face their problems alone.
Quratulain Haider’s Gardish-i-Rang-i-Chaman, in which she wrote about princesses in Lucknow who were kidnapped and taken to Nepal in the 1856 war. Aini aapa has written a fictional account of the real event. Some of the princesses were kidnapped, and others ran away and none ever returned. Those princesses always stayed with me and I always wondered about their lives – were they better off, were they happier, what they must have gone through.
Q: If you could invite any two writers, dead or alive, to dinner, who would they be?
A: The first would be Naquib Mahfouz, an Egyptian writer who wrote about existentialism and was attacked three times for his book ‘Children of Gebelawi’. I met him, and when I spoke to him he said, ‘I just write my dreams’. I’d like to know more about him and what his dreams were.
Amrita Preetam would be my second guest. She spent her life like she wanted, on her own terms, and wrote what she wanted to write and no one really understand what she wanted to say.
I would also invite the poet Quratulain Tahira, who was dragged by hair and hanged for writing about her religious views, or Rabia Basri. The list of people I would like to invite to dinner but cannot is very extensive and would certainly make for an odd mix around the table.