“Urdu is a very limited language”

Avid reader and one of Urdu's greatest contemporary novelists, but mostly 'chacha ji' to a generation of nostalgic Pakistanis, Mustansar Husain Tarar talks to The Friday Times about some of his favourite books

“Urdu is a very limited language”
Why a personal library

Whenever I have visited a public library I have come back frustrated, unable to deal with all that is to offer and knowing that I will never be able to read all of it. In the same vein, there have been times when I have borrowed a book from a library or a friend, and after about 50-60 pages I closed it because I would like to own it. I wouldn’t call my bookshelves ‘a library’, but owning the books you love is definitely a pleasure any reader can appreciate and identify with. If I were to choose between being a reader or a writer I would choose to be a reader.

To what lengths have you gone to acquire a book you wanted

This question is better asked of critics, because when critics are trying to write something they might desperately need a book for reference, but since my basic field is fiction and travelogue, I don’t ever feel I need any particular book desperately. You do desire to read certain writers you have heard about, like I wish I could find books by the man who recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature (Patrick Modiano).

Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Asghar Nadeem Syed, PTV actor Dr. Anver Sajjad and Mustansar Hussain Tarar
Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Asghar Nadeem Syed, PTV actor Dr. Anver Sajjad
and Mustansar Hussain Tarar

How difficult is it to acquire a particular book in Pakistan?

I think readers in Pakistan who really want to read something find ways, just like druggies know how to get to a dealer. One connection leads to another till you get to the high of your choice.

Which is the best bookshop in Lahore?

I don’t know if it is the best, but the only one I go to is Readings.

Then why wouldn’t you call it the best?

Because I haven’t been to the others.

I like the fact that Readings started with the simple premise that a centrally located bookshop that could provide people with parking space and a conducive atmosphere could become a successful venture. They have proven it right.

What do you currently have on your bedside table?

I have several books on my bedside table, though I don’t like mixing them; I only read one at a time. Of late I have become a huge fan of Ismail Kadare. I loved ‘General of the Red Army’. Recently I read ‘Broken April’ and ‘Palace of Dreams’, both of which I enjoyed immensely and are still sitting on my bedside table. Jose Saramago’s first novel ‘Skylight’ is another one. Though it was his first novel, it has only been published now. ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy – a tremendous book. ‘The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window and Disappeared’ by Jonas Jonasson is another one. It is basically a detective novel, but a really good read. I am amazed that the Swedes who seem cold and rigidly disciplined from the outside seem to have a great ability to knit a story. First Stieg Larsson, now Jonasson.


The three books you’d take with you on a desert island

Just three? I don’t think I’d take any in that case. Those who have read six books can perhaps choose three out of them but if you have read three thousand it is a very difficult choice to make.

But let’s say if I had to choose, I’d say, ‘Mera Dagestan’ by Rasool Hamzatov. It is my absolute all time favourite.

Then there would have to be a toss between ‘Anna Karenina’, Brothers Karamazov’ and ‘War and Peace’.

And third, the poetry of Bulleh Shah.

Which language do you read more in? English or Urdu?

I have almost exhausted all of Urdu fiction. Urdu is a very limited language. Tamil and Swahili are far more advanced. That is why the only option I have is English. And in English you can also read translated novels, so I have read all of Pamuk. There is a Turkish author I really love, Yashar Kamal, who I feel is as good as Pamuk but won’t get the Nobel Prize because he is Kurdish.

Regarding the question of English vs. Urdu, I was once asked to translate a bit of my writing. Once I sat down to translate it I was amazed at the possibilities that English afforded me. The unbounded vastness of the language had me overwhelmed.

[quote]I felt translation of my own stories was best left to someone else[/quote]

Then why did you never try your hand at English fiction?

I once tried to formally translate some of my stories into English but they became totally different. So I felt translation of my own stories was best left to someone else.

Though when I started out I did television in Punjabi. I also wrote Punjabi plays as well as a Punjabi novel. But then I moved to Urdu full time. I didn’t write in Urdu because I had any desire to serve the national language. My only aim is to express myself, and Urdu, I believed, was the medium that would help me reach the maximum number of people. There wasn’t as much of an English reading or publishing boom back then. But taking into consideration the way the world is now, and if I had the luxury to start from scratch, I would choose to write in English.

An author you would like to dine with

They’re all dead.

Let me see...A year ago Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Of the living, Salman Rushdie.

Your favourite genre

Fiction. Also History. But I think these genres are connected since novels are often in some way or the other about history.

The man and his books
The man and his books

A book everyone should read

We won’t include the religious texts in this. Maybe, Frazer’s The Golden Bough. It gives refreshing insights into culture and tradition in such a way that the interdependency of the world becomes apparent. For instance, in certain African tribes a metall object is placed under a pregnant woman’s pillow during childbirth. I remember discussing this with my mother who told me that when I was born, my phupho (paternal aunt) came to help with the birth and the first thing she did was place a metal object under my mother’s pillow. The pointing out of the common thread that binds all humanity is what I find most fascinating about that book.

A book you think is highly over-rated

Uleysses by James Joyce

[quote]I treat my books the way I treat a woman I love[/quote]

What kind of a reader are you? Unbroken spine, not a speck on the pages, or everything underlined, lots of marginalia?

I treat my books the way I treat a woman I love. I read them so immaculately it is hard to tell they have been read.

Despite my best efforts, I was unable to complete…

That happens very rarely. If I like an author I will somehow or the other finish the book, but recently I had a really hard time with Ismail Kadare’s ‘Concert’.

We haven’t discussed Urdu writers much. Who are your favourites there?

Rajinder Singh Bedi. Manto was my neighbour and friend, so naturally I also have an affinity with his work. Rafique Husain. Qurut-ul-Ain Haider. Abdullah Hosein is a friend.