Writing is like making love: An interview with Mustansar Hussain Tarar
by Muhammad Asim Butt & Mushtaq Bilal
Lined with trees on both sides, a narrow alley leads one to the cloistered quarters of the house where Mustansar Hussain Tarar writes. He spends most of his day in this room. Almost all of his novels, travelogues, plays, and columns were written in this room. Despite being in the vicinity of Firdous Market, this particular neighborhood in Gulberg III has an air of tranquility about it. There are two parks in front of Tarar’s house. A few years ago, when I went to meet him for the first time, he had said, while giving directions, “There is a park right in front of the house, with a slide for kids. If you look in the direction in which kids slide down, you’ll be able to see my house.” The slide is no longer there.
The room opens into a small, narrow hall full of antiques worth thousands of dollars. Tarar has been collecting antiques for decades.
There is a kind of deliberation to the way Tarar’s writing table is arranged. Coffee mug-shaped penholders sit in a neat queue by the wall on his writing table, with pens, pencils, paper cutters, sharpeners, a letter opener, and a stapler stowed separately. There is also a solitary ashtray sitting on the table. On one side of the table, there is the latest issue of Loh (The Slate) along with a couple of files and a few documents. There is another table in the room with a folding tabletop. Tarar told me that the carpenter who made the table had died and that this was probably one of the last tables of its kind. He lifted the tabletop and slid open a wooden tray, which converted it into a writing table.
Right next to this table is a tall cupboard stuffed with books. A few paintings hang on one of the walls. One of them is by Sadequain. A huge portrait of Tarar by Saeed Akhtar hangs on the wall adjacent to his writing table. Saeed Akhtar also made a bust of Tarar’s, which is placed on the table by the sofa. There is another portrait of Tarar’s made by Bashir Mirza, which depicts Tarar as a carefree vagrant.
Tarar started his writing career in 1959 with a travelogue, London Say Moscow Tak (London to Moscow), which was serialized in a weekly. His first book, a travelogue titled Niklay Teri Talash Mein (Traveling in Search of You), fashioned a new style of travel writing in Urdu literature. The publication of Undalus Mein Ajnabi (An Alien in Andalusia) a year later, sealed Tarar’s reputation as an inventive and original travel writer.
He said to me when I arrived for the interview, “A number of people have interviewed me for television and papers. I am quite experienced in it now and it isn’t very difficult to trick those folks. But you and I belong to the same party [of writers]. Let’s see how it goes.”
Tarar had once told me that he wrote daily for eight hours. I asked him what his writing schedule was these days.
Mustansar Hussain Tarar (MHT): I write novels and travelogues from 7 pm to 11 pm. Plays and columns I write during the day.
Muhammad Asim Butt (MAB): Does writing in the evening have any effect on your social life?
MHT: It’s not very often that I meet with people and it might make them think that I am being arrogant. Back in the day, I never had any specific writing routine. I never bothered with having a schedule but now I do. Of course, there are evenings when I am unable to write at all or I write very little because of a social affair. But usually, I avoid engaging my evenings.
MAB: Do you have a specific quota — that you have to write at least this much?
MHT: Yes. If I am able to write eight to ten pages, I feel satisfied.
MAB: Eight to ten A4 pages?
MHT: Yes, A4.
MAB: Abdullah Hussein once said that he would prepare for eight hours to write for two. Do you also have some kind of a preparation regimen?
MHT: No, I don’t believe in preparation. I started keeping a schedule only twenty-five years ago. Before that, I never bothered with a schedule. I’d write wherever and whenever I felt like it. My father had a seed business in Gawal Mandi and I’d write between dealing with customers and entertaining my friends who’d often drop by the shop. You are a Lahori yourself, so you know how it’s like in Gawal Mandi. There’re shops that’d stay open the whole night. It gets pretty noisy there but even that cacophony and the din of the market never disturbed my writing. The urge to write is as involuntary as the urge to dance. Writing is like making love. There is a kind of exhilaration, intoxication, titillation I find common to both these experiences – of writing and making love.
MAB: One’s libidinal energies decrease as one gets on in years. Is it the same with one’s artistic energies?
MHT: No. Probably, yes. You need to get yourself into some sort of a creative, artistic rhythm. Every age has a distinct aura, a distinct temperament. I think it’s the middle-age when one’s artistic energies are at their peak.
MAB: The age after forty?
MHT: Yes, from forty till sixty. That’s the period I think a writer is at his productive best. But age has nothing to do with the quality of one’s writing. There are several writers who started writing in middle age, even old age, and they went on to write very well. One has to stick to the process of writing. Borges wrote some of his great stories during his middle age. José Saramago is another example. Similarly, Milan Kundera wrote his best works in his middle age.
MAB: Coming back to the preparation required for writing . . .
MHT: I believe reading is the best preparation for writing. And of course, research. I had taken notes of more than a thousand pages before I started writing Undalus Mein Ajnabi (An Alien in Andalusia). For Bahao (The Flow) I researched for ten years. I went to see several archeologists, studied about the kind of language that was used at the time, explored the cadences of the prose of that period. And all the while I kept taking notes. This is the kind of homework I believe in. Writing fiction is an exhausting affair.
MAB: Did you have a deliberate, conscious plan for writing Bahao (The Flow)?
MHT: No, I didn’t. I was talking about the kind of preparation that I think one has to do before writing. I kept working on this novel for ten years. I kept reading about this ancient civilization because I wanted to understand how it felt living in that culture. I met with Ibne Hanif in this regard. Ain-ul-Haq Faridkoti was alive at the time and so I went to see him too. Jalalpuri provided me with a lot of relevant literature. Arif Waqar, a friend of mine, had written an essay on the Tamil language, which he gave me along with some very useful suggestions. I ended up reading Tamil poetry in translation. This is how the novel kept getting plotted.
MAB: Did you consciously decide to fashion the kind of prose that you did in that novel?
MHT: Yes, that was a conscious decision. The kind of prose that I had used in Niklay Teri Talash Mein (Traveling in Search of You) and Undalus Mein Ajnabi (An Alien in Andalusia) was totally unsuitable for something like Bahao (The Flow). I went and explored the orthography of that period and studied what kind of poetry those people composed. I tried to discern its rhythms and then internalized them. And while writing Bahao (The Flow) I tried to replicate the cadences, the intonations of that language. I looked at the idols of their deities because I wanted to know how they imagined and personified “light”. I don’t think anyone has ever done this kind of experiment in Urdu prose.
MAB: How often do you revise or rewrite your draft? Hemingway rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times because he wasn’t able to get the words right.
MHT: I don’t rewrite that much. I start with taking notes, which I use while writing the first draft. Then I edit and prune the whole thing. Finally, I work on making the prose smooth and fluent. I write three, four drafts but not more than that. I think too much rewriting does a disservice to an original idea. The idea would be relegated to the background if one keeps rewriting. And I think this has something to do with a writer’s temperament too. There are writers who don’t feel satisfied with what they have written. I don’t think they are perfectionists. It’s just that they’re never satisfied with their writing and that’s why they keep rewriting. The originality of an idea has a direct relationship with the fluency of the prose: the more original the idea, the more fluent the prose. If you keep revising your prose, you will end up desiccating it and it’ll become taxing for the reader. I think the most important aspect of good writing is its readability. Good writing makes itself read. Manto would never rewrite. And he’d write without much preparation either. In Niklay Teri Talash Mein (Traveling in Search of You) there is a chapter “Apahaj Venice” (Venice, the handicapped). Sarwar Sukhera who used to publish Dhanak, a very fine magazine, during the 70s, suggested that if I wrote a novel based on that chapter he’d publish it. So, I went to the country, wrote for eleven days, and that’s how Pyar Ka Pehla Shehr (The First City of Love) was written. It was published without any revisions and has been a bestseller ever since.
MAB: How does this whole process of writing a novel start? What triggers this process: an idea or an image?
MHT: It’s different with every novel. The idea of writing what would become Bahao (The Flow) occurred to me several years before I started working on it. I used to live in Lakshmi Mansion and I had this habit of getting up in the middle of a night to drink water. I still do that. Get up in the dead of night to drink a glass of water. You can see the glass of water on the table. I got up one night to drink water, I was still half-asleep, and when I picked up the glass, I realized the quantity of water had decreased somehow. It wasn’t the same as I’d left the night before. The same thing happened the next night too. The quantity of water in my glass would decrease somehow. So this idea got stuck in my head. And then I came across an article written by Rafique Mughal, published in the Pakistan Times. The article was based on the excavation that he was doing in Cholistan at the time and he wrote about the Sarasvati River that flew through that region and had dried up over time. The sentence about the Sarasvati River drying up struck me and I started wondering about the possible causes that lead to the drying up of the river. There must have been a civilization that grew up around that river and I started thinking about it and about people who had to relocate because the river was drying up. I thought there must have been at least one sagacious soul who knew the river more than anybody else, and was probably the first person who realized the river was slowly drying up. He must have felt the burden of this responsibility because he knew the river was dying.
An army major was the reason I started writing Raakh (The Ashes). He was a friend of a relative of mine and was battling some sort of mental problems. This major had served in East Pakistan during the 1971 war. He’d say he couldn’t forget those images of Bengalis being slaughtered. I was seized by the image the major had created – of Bengalis being slaughtered. When I was little, there was an arson attack at the Shah Alam Market and the ashes kept flying around Lahore for a month or so. You’d get up in the morning and find everything covered with ashes.
MAB: Aye Ghazaal-e-Shab (O, Nocturnal Gazelle) is set in Russia. What kind of homework did you do for it?
MHT: I’m a vagrant, you know. I visited the Soviet Union during the ’50s for the first time. I found certain aspects of the Russian life quite impressive, especially Russian women who were known for their husband hunting. These women were very pragmatic and didn’t bother one bit about romance or love. I stayed there for quite a while. Fakhta (The Dove) is also set in Russia. Pyar Ka Pehla Shehr (The First City of Love) is still taught at Russian universities. A few years ago, the Russian government invited me to spend a month in Russia. So I visited Russia after a span of fifty years and it was a very interesting experience. A large number of Pakistanis went to Russia to study when communists were in power there. Quite a few of them never came back. They got married there and started families but they couldn’t integrate into that society and once the communist rule ended, Russians started regarding them as aliens. Those who had married there found their wives unwilling to move to Pakistan because of the sense of loyalty of Russia. And when these Pakistanis came back home, it was a completely different world for them. This is the story of a whole generation of Pakistanis and when I was in Russia a few years ago, I met with a few people who belonged to this generation. So my interactions with these Pakistani expats led me to write Aye Ghazaal-e-Shab (O, Nocturnal Gazelle).
MAB: Do you take a break after writing a novel or do you start working on the next novel immediately? What do you do when you’re not writing a novel?
MHT: I switch to writing plays and travelogues because there are quite a few things that are already decided in terms of both these genres. But it has never happened to me that I’ve written a novel and I have no idea about what my next novel is going to be about. I always have an idea about my next while I’m working on one. But I don’t start working on another novel immediately after finishing one. Writing a good novel is a lot like passionate lovemaking. After writing a novel, and of course making love, you feel exhausted, consumed. I didn’t write anything for six months after finishing Bahao (The Flow). I just felt spent. Now, after having written Aye Ghazaal-e-Shab (O, Nocturnal Gazelle) I feel exhausted once again. My mind is blank and I don’t have any ideas about my next novel.
MAB: Have you ever experienced writer’s block?
MHT: Once. When I was writing Fakhta (The Dove) I hit a barren patch and it felt as if the narrative had come to a complete halt. Shah Hussain’s urs was going on those days and Fakhar Zaman and I went there. We kept roaming there for quite a while after which Fakhar Zaman returned but I decided to stay on. There was a troupe of devotees there and I struck up a conversation with them. We became friends and I smoked joints with them all night long. I got back the next morning and when I sat down to write it felt as if the knot in the narrative had been undone.
MAB: Does it worry you, writer’s block?
MHT: No. Things are a bit hazy in my mind right now but I know this will pass.
MAB: Did you consciously decide to become a writer?
MHT: No, I never decided to become a writer. I became a writer accidentally. I always had an interest in reading literature but the reason I started writing was my travels. I kept roaming around in Europe and the thought of writing never occurred to me. But then in 1959 I decided to write a travelogue. Majeed Nizami asked me to write about my travels and I politely declined his request and said that I had never written anything. But he persisted and asked me to give it a shot and if there were any deficiencies, he’d take care of them. This is how I started writing London Say Moscow Tak (From London to Moscow). There used to be this magazine called Qandeel in which this travelogue was serialized. Literary critics have strong opinions about travelogues. Dr Saleem Akhtar doesn’t even consider it a literary genre. I asked Shafiq-ur-Rehman when he was heading the Pakistan Academy of Letters that the Academy should also award a prize to the best travelogue along with other genres of literature. I said to him, it’s the singer who mattered and not the song. And it’s a writer who is important and not the literary genre that he uses to express himself. The literary worth of a piece of literature lies in the quality of writing and not in the genre in which it’s been written. Anyway, when Niklay Teri Talash Mein (Traveling in Search of You) was published in ____ it was widely appreciated and read. The next year Undalus Mein Ajnabi (An Alien in Andalusia) was published and this is how I started writing travelogues. Travel writing paid the bills. But I never decided to become a writer.
MAB: Bahao (The Flow) was published during the ‘90s. Since then you’ve regularly published novels. Prior to that the focus was on travel writing. Was this a deliberate move?
MHT: No, not at all. It happened, somehow. As I’ve said, I did a lot of homework for Bahao (The Flow) and when I finished writing it I felt so satisfied, so fulfilled that I started with Raakh (The Ashes) immediately. And then I just kept writing novel after novel. Bano Qudsia said to me after reading Bahao (The Flow), “Don’t write any more novels. This is the best you could write.” And when she read Raakh she said, “You won’t be able to write better than this, so you might as well stop writing.”
MAB: So travel writing led you to novels . . .
MHT: Zaka-ur-Rahman, a friend of mine, once said to me that if I’d not bothered with travelogues I would have been the greatest novelist in the Indian subcontinent. And I said to him, had I not written travelogues I would never have been able to write novels. But travelogues were never my priority. Travelling was.
MAB: Which writers have you read the most?
MHT: I have always loved reading Kafka, Andre Gide, Sartre, and Camus. I’ve read all of their works but not every work by a particular writer is a masterpiece. Not many of Kafka’s writings can rival the greatness of The Trial or The Metamorphosis. I am a big fan of Camus’s The Stranger and Sartre’s The Roads of Freedom Trilogy. I found the autobiography of Andre Gide quite impressive but the book that has influenced me the most is The Conference of the Birds. This book has had the greatest influence on my imagination and writing. This is the story of seven birds who set out in search of truth and they end up meeting with birds similar to themselves. This book in one way or the other has influenced every novel of mine.
MAB: Any other influences?
MHT: There are, of course, many others who have influenced me. Among those I knew personally, Manto had the strongest influence on me. I, too, used to live in Lakshmi Mansion. Manto had an ideal personality – affable, cultivated, and tenderhearted and I idealized him as a writer. Recently, a Manto’s biopic was released and Masood Ashar and I were talking about it the other day. He didn’t seem happy with it and said the film wasn’t a true portrayal of Manto. I said to him that every generation had the right to imagine its predecessors in whatever way. Even a misportrayal of a great man like Manto is a tribute to him.
MAB: What do you think is the most important thing for a writer – any writer?
MHT: Experience. One has to have a very rich experience of people, places. From the company of saints to prostitutes to vagrant mystics, a writer should experience everything. The second most important thing for a writer is, of course, films: classical, award-winning films. One must expose himself to as many different cinemas as possible. It’s usually assumed that there is no cinema other than the Hollywood but there are cinemas like the French cinema, the Czech cinema, the Iranian cinema, and various Indian cinemas, which have produced some of the greatest movies. On many an occasion, movies have fueled my writing. Similarly, reading classical literature is also very important. Not only classical Urdu literature but European classics too. And Russian writers like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are, of course, indispensable. They are the Gods of the written word.
And then one mustn’t restrict himself to a particular genre and at the same time you should only read what really interests you, even if it a trashy fashion magazine. One should also read about philosophy, religion, and sociology. Music also helps writers a great deal, especially folk music and the classical. It helps with making the prose rhythmic.
Writing prose requires a lot of commitment, patience, and practice. Mumtaz Mufti would often say that a writer should at least sit for an hour or two daily at his writing table even if he is unable to write a single word. But the most important thing is commitment and dedication. You can’t write if you’re not fanatically enthusiastic about it and this has to come from within. It can’t be acquired.
Then there is another thing too. In most households, there is an aunt or a grandmother – like Intizar Hussain’s grandmother – who’s always telling you all sorts of stories. My mother and my maternal aunt were remarkable storytellers. So if you went to see my aunt in the village and if you asked her what she was cooking she’d start with the weather. Then she’d go on to tell you about the vegetables that you should eat during that particular season. Then she’d tell you about the vendor who sold her the vegetables she’s cooking, his appearance and mannerisms and how she bargained with him. Then she’d tell you a few recipes and the benefits of consuming those vegetables. There’d be a story within a story and you’d often forget how and where it all started. Exposure to this kind of storytelling is also very helpful for a writer.
MHT: What kind of movies do you like?
MHT: That’s wonderful. I am going to read the Urdu translation. I didn’t like Kundera initially. He’d criticize the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in all his novels. He had to run for his life and go into exile. He also wrote a lot of rubbish against the government of his country. To criticize one’s own country is not desirable. But when I read his later works, I acknowledged his greatness. He is certainly an extraordinary craftsman.
MAB: You’ve been a columnist throughout your writing career. Writers like Hemingway, Marquez, and Orwell were all journalists. How do you look at the relationship between journalism and literature?
MHT: I write columns because it pays the bills but writing columns hasn’t had a very positive impact on my creative work. Powerful ideas that would otherwise merit a serious engagement are diluted when treated in columns.
MAB: Don’t you think the mass media has become perhaps the greatest enemy of the freedom of thought of writers? It dictates to writers about what and what not to write. So one gets to know about the atrocities being committed in a country thousands of miles away simply because it’s in the news but one has absolutely no idea about the housemaid who lives in the next street and is regularly beaten by her employer.
MHT: Writers who are journalists are well aware of this and the media can’t trick them. They know how to resist these pressures. I always tell people to read between the lines because whatever the media tells you may not be necessarily the case. You’ve got to keep your eyes open and mind alert to see what’s actually going on around you. A few years ago, Mushahid Hussain asked me at a conference in Islamabad about the role of the media. I said to him that the foremost objective of the media is to mislead the masses. The media houses always have some sort of an agenda.
MAB: How has your journalistic writing influenced your craft?
MHT: The climate of Punjab is ideal for prose writing. All major Urdu prose writers belong to this region because Punjab’s landscape, the climate, make one a romantic. Journalism and travel writing kept my pen moving but I never tried to craft my prose, be it a column, a travelogue, or a novel. I’ve always written with a creative spontaneity.
MAB: You’ve created scores of characters in your novels and plays. How often do you base your characters on real persons?
MHT: The people I write about in my travelogues are, of course, real human beings. But when I write fiction, I have to construct characters even if it’s based on a single person or is a composite. The character of Bakht Jahan in Khas-o-Khashak Zamanay (The Insignificant Times) is based on someone I encountered during my childhood, but not totally. Similar is the case with the character of Sahiba. Most of my characters are composites.
MAB: Do you follow your characters or do they follow you?
MHT: I let my characters grow and take me wherever they’re going. I create a character, let it develop, and once it’s there I start following it. In terms of creating characters, I benefitted a lot from television plays. In a play, every character has to have a distinct accent, a unique vocabulary, and specific personality traits. So, each one of my characters has its own set of diction and idiom. In several novels, I’ve come across characters who pretend to be philosophers. There are novels where all the characters are trying to become philosophers because there is a lot of authorial interference and an author does not let the characters take a life of their own.
MAB: Have you ever felt a competition with your contemporaries or even those who came after you?
MHT: I am at a stage in my career where I am my own competition. When one has written as much as I have, the standards one has already set become the challenge. You tell yourself you’ve already produced literature of a certain quality and you wouldn’t want to write anything less than what you’ve already written. So this is the perennial battle for a writer like me.
MAB: Have you ever compared yourself with other novelists?
MHT: This comparison can’t be done. Every writer has a unique set of skills and experiences. In my case, I’ve travelled a lot, and not just travelled I’ve studied in detail the cultures and societies of the countries I traversed. I’ve been to the K2 basecamp. I’ve done a certificate course in dance from the Victor Silvester School of Dancing. I learnt the waltz, the quickstep, and the tango. This was a time when a man wasn’t considered cultured enough if he wasn’t an adept dancer.
I have a long association with the television and I am also a film buff. I’ve read almost all of classical Urdu literature. I’d read Tilism Hoshruba while I was still in junior high school. This is the kind of set of skills and experiences I have and these things are manifested in my writings. When I started publishing travelogues, I remember people saying, “How is it possible? How could that happen?” Most of these critics who denounced my travel writings had never even ventured outside the teahouse, what to talk of Europe. In this kind of situation, whom would you want to compare yourself with?
MAB: You are quite well read in world literature. Who are the writers you admire the most?
MHT: Tolstoy, of course, and after him, Dostoevsky. The kind of trends these two set in terms of the craft of fiction writing were followed and imitated by generations of novelists. They are the Gods of fiction writing. Then there are writers like Neruda, Marquez, and Saramago who are absolute geniuses. They have created whole worlds in their works and it’s not possible for everyone to understand their works. These are the writers I find extraordinary.
MAB: You novel Khas-o-Khashak Zamanay (The Insignificant Times) explores certain contentious issues of religion, culture, and identity. Do you self-censor while writing?
MHT: I can’t say anything about it. When you’re living in a certain society, you internalize its cultural norms and social mores and you aren’t even conscious of the fact that you’re self-censoring. One has to keep in mind the kind of society one is living in and to what extent that society can accept a difference of opinion. Had I written Khas-o-Khashak Zamanay (The Insignificant Times) in a European country, it would’ve been a completely different narrative. In our society, writing about sex is taboo but Marquez wrote about sex at the age of eighty. I try not to worry too much about self-censoring.
After finishing the interview, I got up and shook Tarar’s hand before leaving. He said, “I really enjoyed the conversation although I’m not sure if it was a good interview or not.”
Mustansar Hussain Tarar (born 1939) is an acclaimed travel writer, novelist, playwright, and a former television actor. He has published twelve novels and more than two dozen travelogues in addition to several plays. He is widely credited with starting a new trend of travel writing in Urdu literature and his novels have come to be regarded as modern classics of Urdu literature. In 1992, the Government of Pakistan awarded him the Pride of Performance Award for his contribution to Urdu literature. He lives in Lahore.
Muhammad Asim Butt is a fiction writer and translator. He has translated Kafka and Borges into Urdu and Qissa Chahar Darvesh (The Tale of the Four Dervishes) into English for children. He has published two collections of short stories Daskat (The Knock) and Ishtihar Aadmi (The Ad Man). His novel Natamaam (The Incomplete) won the 2016 UBL Literary Excellence Award.
Mushtaq Bilal, who translated this piece from Urdu into English, is the Pakistan country editor of Kitaab.