[Odds and ends from my weekly books column]
The Pakistani writer Musharraf Ali Farooqi has one of the most diverse oeuvres of any contemporary author I know. As a translator, he has played a big role in making medieval epics accessible to English-language readers, with outstanding renderings of the Hamzanama (as The Adventures of Amir Hamza) and the magical fantasy Hoshruba, a work in progress expected to run to 24 volumes! As if that weren’t enough, he has also written a graceful, contemporary novel – The Story of a Widow, recently shortlisted for the DSC South Asian Prize – as well as children’s fiction; his latest book The Amazing Moustaches of Moochhander the Iron Man is a charming collection of four short stories for young readers, with illustrations by his wife Michelle.
During a phone chat last week, Farooqi told me he liked writing in different genres the same way he liked reading very different types of books. He wanted to be a children’s writer ever since he first took up the pen, but his translations of Urdu literature have also served as personal training of a sort. “They’ve helped me understand, develop and structure the art of the narrative, which has been good for my other writing.” Besides, he felt a responsibility to a language that has slowly been slipping out of our hands. “There was a time when the Indian subcontinent used to regularly export stories to the rest of the world,” he said, alluding to the Arabian Nights and other epics, “We should do whatever we can to keep our storytelling traditions alive.”
However, Farooqi is no traditionalist in his views on what sort of literature is appropriate for children. In the new collection, I particularly enjoyed the story about a chubby piglet kidnapped by a hungry ogress, who then hums a song that goes: “Piglet riblet, porker pickling/Porkling roasted, porket sizzling”. Some writers and parents might consider this a tad dark, but Farooqi (who is a big fan of Roald Dahl) scoffs at the idea. “Children are tougher than we give them credit for,” he says, “in any case, if something scars them, it won’t be stories – it will be the hypocritical and aggressive behaviour they regularly see from adults, in the real world around them.”
Multitasking has never been a problem for this prolific writer. He has two novels ready for publication – The Master of Time for children, Between Clay and Dust for adults – and there’s also a graphic novel titled Rabbit Rap, which was again done in collaboration with his wife. “I love illustrated stories and Michelle is a very versatile artist,” Farooqi says, “but she wants to get back to her painting!” Let’s hope he can persuade her to divide her time.
[Earlier posts about Farooqi’s work here: Amar Ayyar, prince of tricksters; The Adventures of Amir Hamza; Numberdar ka Neela; The Story of a Widow]
You’d think a British sergeant posted in war-torn Afghanistan in 2006 would have many things on his mind – not the least of them being his own survival. You wouldn’t expect him to spend time and energy in rescuing stray dogs from the cruelty of organised fights and then lug them around with him, all the while making desperate attempts to have them transported to a welfare sanctuary hundreds of miles away. But such was Pen Farthing’s remarkable true story, chronicled in One Dog at a Time: Saving the Strays of Helmand. This account of one man caring for helpless creatures while stationed in the heart of darkness could so easily have become a self-conscious allegory about human responsibility towards the planet, and about the short-sightedness of our conflicts. But Farthing doesn’t preach or make portentous statements, though his narrative inevitably has stories about Royal Marines caught in morally ambiguous situations (trying to balance common-sense humanity with deference towards the dictates of another culture, for example). Nor does he emphatically place what he’s doing in a larger context – he’s simply obeying the dictates of his heart, no further explanation needed. It’s a very effective approach.
I don’t know whether only animal-lovers will be able to appreciate this book, but I hope that isn’t the case – it should be enough to understand that small, seemingly inconsequential acts of kindness can add up to a great deal, even in a world immeasurablly full of suffering. I think of myself as fairly cynical about the future of this planet, but reading this book I caught myself thinking about the parable of the woman throwing starfish back into the sea, or the overused quote “He who saves one life saves the world entire.” To my ears, they no longer sound quite as hackneyed as they used to.
(And yes, needless to say, I have a strong bias when it comes to this subject!)