"I do not write cold, detached prose"- interview with Mazhar ul Islam

Mazhar ul Islam has published many books of short stories, poetry, ethnography of Punjabi folklore, and a novel. In the beginning of his literary career, he surprised his readers with long and figurative titles of his books such as The Only Man in the City of Horses and A Girl Drenched in the Deluge of Words. Now at the age of 57, he is a seasoned writer whose stories have been translated into many languages including Chinese, German, and Japanese. Recently, a selection of his writings translated into English by Christopher Shackle was published by Sama Publications. The News on Sunday met up with Mazhar ul Islam in his office at Lok Virsa Museum, Islamabad, to discuss his writings and their place in literature.


TNS: How do you look at your own work?

Mazhar ul Islam: I have tried to introduce some newness in the diction of Urdu literature. When my books originally appeared, critics made fun of the titles and the figurative language. But slowly things changed.  The title of my first collection The Only Man in the City of Horses started making more sense to people when Islamabad was awash with the politics of horse-trading. It was almost uncanny because I had written the book before horse-trading entered our everyday political vocabulary. Now many writers are using similar titles. I think I can claim that I started a new trend in contemporary Urdu fiction. If you look in the fiction section of a bookshop, you will find many books with similarly constructed titles as my books.


TNS: Why and how did you take up writing?

Mazhar ul Islam: I think I could not have done anything else. I would have been miserable if I had not started writing. When I finished high school, my father forced me to take up medical sciences. One day the teacher came to the classroom with a bag full of anesthetized frogs and asked us to nail them to wooden boards and dissect them. I disappeared from the classroom and never went back. Later I enrolled in the humanities and felt at home. Studying and creating literature felt more natural to me than dissecting nature on operation tables.


TNS: But science can also be a subject of literary writing.

Mazhar ul Islam: Yes, it can be. I am not against science or scientific inventions. But somehow I am not comfortable with the consequences of many scientific developments on human societies. So far, I have successfully resisted the social obligation to carry a mobile phone. I think a handwritten letter is more valuable than an e-mail. The accelerated speed of communication does not necessarily mean we have become better communicators. I think the system through which  lovers exchanged secret messages in villages before the arrival of the mobile phone and email were more sophisticated. In that system, you had to be aware of the minutest change in the glint of the eyes of your lover. You could not talk openly so you had to write a note on a piece of paper and crumple it into a tight ball and throw it through the  window and pray that only your lover picks it up. These days both you and your lover will have a mobile. You may be sitting with your lover and he or she may not be present there because of the mobile phone. What is the use of all these communication devices if people are not present in their relationships? All of my work is an attempt to protect the original purity of human relationships.


TNS: This comes across as an attitude similar to the Luddites' distrust of machine-based production in England.

Mazhar ul Islam: It may be so. I am just concerned with the consequences of scientific rationality on human relationships. I prefer sentimentality and emotions over calculations and categorizations. My writings are metaphorical, magical, allegorical, and filled with emotions. I do not write cold, detached prose. I put in a lot of similes and figures of speech and try to make my sentences as multi-dimensional as life itself. I do not even write socio-political analysis in newspapers like many other writers do. I try to live in this emotive world of stories which I have created for myself and my readers. Maybe that is why my books sell better in rural Sindh and the Saraiki belt. I am not as popular among urban readers of Lahore or Karachi as I am among the rural ones.


TNS: What about the critics? How have they received your work so far?

Mazhar ul Islam: The system of formal critique in Pakistan is not trustworthy. All you have is a system of patronage by established authors. They have created lobbies and private cadre systems. If an established senior author pats you on the back publicly, you are going to be perceived as a fine writer. Otherwise, you may have plenty of bad luck. I have tried to stay clear of all this. I rely more on my readers for my sustenance. In all of my books, I give my postal address and my readers write letters to me. That is what keeps me going. Frankly, I do not care much about what the critics think. If I have ordinary readers on my side, the critics will eventually accept me too. Some of them already emulate me without acknowledging my contribution. In that way, I feel my sensibility is more in tune with contemporary global literature than the national one. I feel at home with Garcia Marquez or Isabelle Allende.


TNS: Are your sources of inspiration local or global?

Mazhar ul Islam: I spent my childhood and college days in Wazirabad. The everyday experiences in that town remain the greatest source of inspiration. For example, I went to a missionary school and studied the Bible before I studied the Quran. The  unpretentious and bare lives of the nuns and teachers were my first impressions. On the way to school, I used to watch the potters, the oil-extractor, the women weaving and embroidering things, the local gamblers, paan and cigarette vendors and later on used the skills of these people in my craft. You can say I am a weaver or a potter of stories. I do not call my work fiction. I write stories but they are not fictitious stories. They have their roots and inspiration in the reality of everyday life. For example, one day I was driving to work when, at a red light, I saw another motorist in the car next to mine. I felt the motorist looked like he had been dead for a long time but was still driving his car. This is my actual first impression. Then I started looking at other motorists. Some of them felt alive and others dead. How I tell these first impressions in a story is the result of a creative process. The sources of inspiration are real characters and real events in our own culture. The sensibility with which I deal with them is a contemporary global sensibility.


TNS: You have dealt with a lot of topics and themes in your fiction. What do you think are the main concerns of your work?

Mazhar ul Islam: It is loneliness, love, and death. I have written stories which have political commentary in them but my main concern is love. I do talk about martial law, bureaucratic nightmares, clerks, and postal workers but my main theme is love. I have written about suicide, which was my obsession for many years. These days I am concerned with the disappearance of purity in human relationships, especially in love. I feel I am a shepherd whose duty is to take care of love.


TNS: I have read all of your books. The collections of short stories were all refreshingly original but your novel Love: A Symphony of Dead Flowers seemed a bit too dense and burdened with metaphors. How do you respond to that?

Mazhar ul Islam: Well, you may not have liked it but the entire first edition was sold out in Sindh in one month. I have tried to do a lot of new things with that novel. I got rid of the traditional plot structure. If life has no plot, there should not be any constructed plot in fiction either. The language is metaphorical but only where the situation demands it. For example, if I find the wind is stubborn, I should call it stubborn. For me, to not call the wind stubborn or the flowers sad, if the story demands it, would be dishonesty. I think I have created my best sentences in that novel. Amrita Pritam wrote a letter to me and said the only thing wrong with that novel was that I had written it too late.


TNS: What are you working on these days?

Mazhar ul Islam: I am working on my next collection of stories. I keep dreaming about living the life of a writer. I keep thinking I will get a flat in Nathiagali and move there and do nothing else but reading and writing. But I have a job and other banalities of life to take care of. I am torn between writerly idealism and the drudgery of maintaining a life. But one thing is sure I am not going to stop writing. If, for some reason, I have to stop writing, I will not be alive for a very long time afterwards. Writing is my oxygen.