‘We don’t tell a story in isolation; we’re connected to an ancient storytelling tradition’

December 5, 2021

In this exclusive interview with The News on Sunday (TNS), writer and translator, Musharraf Ali Farooqi discusses the launch of a new series of classics from his publishing house KITAB, the importance of classical literature, and theStorykit program. Excerpts:

‘We don’t tell a story  in isolation; we’re connected to an ancient storytelling tradition’

The News on Sunday (TNS): You are a writer, translator, lexicographer, commentator and theorist. Let’s talk first about your work as a translator, which to my mind, has been a great service to indigenous storytelling. Where did it begin?

Musharraf Ali Farooqi (MAF): It began with my first translation of Dastan-e Amir Hamza (The Adventures of Amir Hamza). That was essentially preliminary work to start the Tilism-e Hoshruba translation, which was the main purpose. But to establish the Amir Hamza legend, it was important to give  readers an indication of what this whole world (of the dastan) is all about. So that’s where it all began. Then I published the translation of the first volume of Tilism-e Hoshruba. Translating classics is hard work and takes a lot of time, and as I write my own fiction, besides having other responsibilities, it became a very draining exercise to continue. I began work on other projects as well.

In the early days of the pandemic, when everything was under lockdown, it was very depressing and frustrating, so I decided to read qissas to remain sane. I started with Qissa Sipahizada (The Adventures of a Soldier) and found it very entertaining. While reading it, I realised that these short qissas would make a wonderful translation project. I also realised that, had I taken this time translating a shorter text than Tilism-e Hoshruba, I could have done a lot of other translations while I continued to work on the big dastan. I decided to translate a dozen shorter stories in a couple of years. I felt that these short texts, in the original and in translation, would be a good introduction to classical literature for people who have little time to read. This is how the Getz Pharma Library of Urdu Classics began.

TNS: Tell us about your work as a publisher of Urdu classics.

MAF: My work on putting together a series of Urdu Classics began in 2010 at OUP (Oxford University Press, Karachi) where I was the Urdu Publisher. But the series was discontinued by them. After I left and started my own publishing house, KITAB, in 2012, I learned many essential things about how Urdu publishing works, how some of the marketing is wasted and how other avenues like direct sales work better, etc. My interest in publishing Urdu classics remained, but I wanted it to be a sustainable, long-term project. This year, when I presented the project to Getz Pharma's CEO Khalid Mahmood, who was familiar with my work, he graciously agreed to sponsor it, and this allowed KITAB to launch the series.

With the Getz Pharma Library of Urdu Classics, we are offering readers who have never read a work of Urdu classical literature in the original or translation, short, delightful texts which they can read in a couple of hours. And when they read one story they will want to read more. Soon they will say to themselves (I hope) that these stories are not at all inaccessible and are brilliant works of literature. At that point, they will look forward to reading more of this literature and discussing it with others. That is how we hope to have a conversation started about classical literature, and bring these works back into public consciousness.

TNS: Tell us about the Storykit program and projects like Corona Cruncher which you published in the program.

MAF: We have a sponsored storytelling program called Give a Child the Gift of a Story. The sponsors can choose the school anywhere in Pakistan. A storyteller from our team of storytellers would go to the school, do an interactive storytelling session for 25 children (there is no upper limit), give the children storykits which have the story they had been told, a game based on the story, and audio narration of the story accessible through a QR code. The sponsor will get a short video of the activity and it will be posted on the Storykit  YouTube  channel.

When the pandemic began and these activities came to an end, we started an online storytelling series called Storytime with Storykit through our  YouTube  channel. There are more than a dozen stories told by the Storykit storytellers (including myself).

We also decided that we should educate children about basic health and safety precautions through games. The basic health and safety messages get reinforced as children play the game. That led to the design of Storykit Corona Cruncher. We made the game available free for online play.

TNS: When you write about the poetics of the Dastan, you refer to Borges’ Total Library, the introduction to the Urdu Classics refers to the Story Tree. Can you tell us more about this concept and its importance to storytelling and to cultural and linguistic dissemination?

MAF: Recently, I was reading a Sindhi folktale and saw similar kind of sequences as I encountered in Dastan-e Amir Hamza. It was the same mix of local wisdom with some formulaic constructions. It made me more convinced that people have not thought of storytelling formulas individually. At some time, a body of tales dispersed and each region received its share of a particular set of stories. They used their story to tell another tale. The concept of a story tree appeals to me because it means that we are not telling a story in isolation, we’re connected to an ancient tradition, and that tradition is connected to a more ancient tradition. And these storytelling traditions did not start a few centuries ago; they began at the beginning of time.

TNS: In talking of translation, the question of genre is essential. Do you think that using the original language to denote indigenous genres is the first step to reclaiming them?

MAF: Absolutely. So, for example, the qissa is not the romance as understood in the Western tradition. The qissa genre had a role and a function within the society while remaining accessible to the wider world. An entertaining tale like Adventures of a Soldier (Qissa Sipahizada) or a tragic one like Chhabili   Bhattiyari (Chhabili the Innkeeper) are universal stories while remaining very indigenous. The Getz Pharma Library of Urdu Classics is an attempt to put the classical literature in some context for modern readers – so that they realise that this literature is not distant, not difficult and very entertaining, and very engaging.

TNS: Your translation of the masnavi Qissa Sipahizada is in prose instead of metric verse. It is interesting that Ibrahim Khushdil Kiratpuri versified it after hearing the story from Bhikari Das Binjori. How does this affect authorship in genres where distancing is essential for the maintenance of authenticity?

MAF: If you look at translation in the English language tradition, you’ll find a number of prose translations of Beowulf, which is an epic poem. Similarly, for the Persian epic Shahnama you’ll find many translations in prose. My translation is an introduction to the story for a modern reader who is not familiar with the source text or has difficulty reading it. I see these classics as living texts, as stories that are complete in themselves regardless of the form in which they  are told, whether it's verse or prose. In the original it is a masterwork, and the translation is a device to bring a greater readership to the story the masterwork tells.

TNS: What do you have to say about gender fluidity in these stories…nothing was out of bounds as far as storytelling in these genres is concerned despite talk of decent vs. indecent qissas. When did considerations of morality start hampering storytelling?

MAF: If you look at Qissa Sipahizada (The Adventures of a  soldier ), the the soldier dresses up as a woman to fool the thugs. A humorous effect is created as he is successful in making the old thug fall in love with him. Comedy emerges from the use of disguise in this qissa. In Chhabili Bhattiyari, Bichhittar assumes a man’s disguise to meet and win back her husband. In these two qissas the disguise is used to create a situation and a particular effect, and achieve a particular end.

TNS: With regard to Muhammad Salim-ur-Rahman’s comment about Chhabili denoting the ephemeral world and Bichhittar representing the real world, this of course relates to this particular story. But we see this theorisation in the context of tilism as well. That, too, is an ephemeral world. How important was this division for storytelling in the qissa and dastan genres?

MAF: The real world, Mount Qaf which is the world of the jinns and devs and paris, and the tilism, which is an artificial, human contruct, gave a great tool to the storytellers to switch between worlds. You had sorcerers and tilisms creating a magical world within the human world. And, in addition to the tilisms, there were effects created by the tricksters which were so complete in themselves that they were tilism-like. For instance, Amar Ayyar could invoke certain holy powers and turn into a very young boy. The world of the qissas and dastans is a magical world where there are endless illusions and the power of disguise can change reality even without the use of magic.

TNS: Can you talk about your concept of internal vs. situational complexity (of the characters)? I find it fascinating.

MAF: We have the Qissa Chhabili Bhattiyari (Chhabili the Innkeeper) in which, if you look at it purely from the perspective of a relationship, the way relationships are understood, for example, a Chhabili has a prior relationship with the prince. But because of her situation and the nature of their relationship, her relationship is not held sacrosanct by the society, Bichhittar, or the prince himself. Even Chhabili recognises that and participates in the prince's wedding. Sometimes her situation becomes comical, and, at other times, quite tragic. It becomes very difficult to judge the characters of Chhabili and Bichhittar. But it gives us an insight into the society where such qissas were popular. If you look at the history of this qissa, you will know that the real hero of the story is Bichhittar. Another version of this qissa is called Qissa Fareb-un Nisa (The Qissa of the Deception of Women). The judgment is written in the title itself. What is called deception here was what Chhabili carried out in defence of her relationship.

TNS: You mention the term “cautionary literature.” How important was this “cautionary literature” tradition within storytelling?

MAF: Cautionary literature had different roles. In its elevated form it warns against certain perils as in Qissa-e Maqtool-e Jafa (The Victim of Malice) where it warns against boastfulness which may invite envy. In its lesser forms, it was a tool of control or reinforcement of certain ideas. While   Qissa Chhabili Bhattiyari is not classified as cautionary literature, it probably served the purpose of reinforcing the idea in the minds of married women that they will prevail against other women and that they should take extreme measures to achieve their end.

TNS: How do you hope the fate of a translation would be different if the translator originated from the same culture, rather than someone who translates from outside, as it were? Say, for example, the way Galland and Burton translated the Arabian Nights.

MAF: Classics are difficult, you’re never on firm ground, but it gives you an advantage if you know the language. You can understand the tonality in a way a non-native speaker often cannot. But, unfortunately, it does not happen too often in world literature. Fortunately, in modern Urdu fiction we have a number of good translations thanks to late Professor Muhammad Umar Memon's work. Then there are fantastic translators like Daisy Rockwell for whom Urdu is a second language, but her translation of Urdu works are beautiful and sublime.

TNS: What would you say about the politics of this? Do you think where and how a story is translated has an impact on the scholarship of these texts?

MAF: I have become very sceptical about the scholarship that goes into translations. I have seen examples in a highly respected translation series where a translator removed entire chunks from a Persian language text without a word of explanation. I could understand the reason, though: the passages removed were in ornate language which the translator was probably unable to access. I’m not suggesting that academia stops doing translations altogether, but we need more instances of writers taking up a work as a translation project because they are in love with that text, rather than some professor doing it for securing tenure or to add one more publication to his or her credit.

TNS: Can you elaborate on why you say that classics will not be translated on any large scale until they are first reintroduced and read widely within their own culture?

MAF: If we decide that our classics are no longer a part of our literary heritage and our literary consciousness, then no one else would be interested in them either. Without us talking about our literature, sharing these stories, making them accessible for modern readers, the language of our classics will keep becoming more and more inaccessible and readers will feel further alienated from them. We have to champion our literature because no one else will do it for us. This is what the Getz Pharma Library of Urdu Classics (urduclassics.com) is trying to achieve.

*A shorter version of this interview is part of the TNS print edition

The interviewer is an assistant professor at the Department of Social Sciences at the Lahore School of Economics. Her PhD thesis (Sussex 2017) is the first full-length study of the one-volume Dastan-e Amir Hamza (2007) in the English language. 

‘We don’t tell a story in isolation; we’re connected to an ancient storytelling tradition’