July Issue 2010

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 10 years ago

Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s arrival on the literary scene was like the man himself — quiet but phenomenal. One day there was nothing and the next, a voluminous and meticulous translation into English of a literary classic Dastan-e-Amir Hamza in 2007 and then, two years later, came the first of what is to be a 24-volume translation of Tilism-e-Hoshruba.

In comparison to his ambitious, larger-than-life portfolio of translated texts, Farooqi’s repertoire of literary fiction is somewhat modest — two books for children and his first novel, The Story of a Widow.

It is the latter about which I have been asked to write. Still waters run deep, they say, and so it is with Farooqi. Quiet, unassuming, almost shy and yet beneath that surface lies a master translator with the endurance, commitment and talent to render an epic tale written in the flowery poetic language of the royal courts of Persia and India into the everyday language of the modern reader. To attempt to draw into the spell of the Dastan and Tilism, a new generation of readers whose daily reading diet is a series of text messages in a truncated tongue that is barely recognisable as a language, is a brave effort indeed.

Farooqi’s own writing, by contrast, is austere and sparse. In The Story of a Widow, he presents us with an almost skeletal story of, well, a widow. It’s really as simple as that.

The recently widowed Mona is just beginning to settle into the rhythms of life as a wealthy, independent woman after 31 years of marriage to the somewhat stern, unromantic Akbar Ahmed. Her married life had revolved around her duties as a wife, mother and homemaker. It was a life in which she had neglected her own needs and desires, but without any resentment as is the wont of women of generations of yore.

When she is widowed, she finds that her husband has left her financially secure and with both her daughters married, she has little to do except to keep herself busy and look after her own needs. This is something Mona is trying to get used to as we are introduced to her in The Story of a Widow.

And along comes Salamat Ali, a single man who takes up residence across the street as her neighbour and friend, Mrs Baig’s tenant. He begins to shower unwanted attention on Mona. At first she resents it, but Salamat Ali eventually reawakens her womanhood.

Any further details may be a spoiler for those of you who may want to read this book. The charm of The Story of a Widow is its stark simplicity. It is totally unselfconscious writing, which for a first novel is refreshing indeed. There is no attempt to add flourish through language or drama through plot. The story is simple, almost predictable, at times annoyingly so.

It has a slice-of-life subtlety and lack of complexity that, in the beginning, feels somewhat frustrating for any reader. If one is accustomed to reading literary works, then Farooqi’s spare, almost starved, prose and his unimaginative style of writing is exasperating. If one is a fan of the bestseller variety, then the absence of adventure, intrigue and excitement can leave one bored and frustrated.

But if you let go of such lofty expectations, indeed any expectations whatsoever, and allow yourself to go with the flow of this simple narrative, the story’s unobtrusive charm grows on you. And soon enough, the very simplicity which you initially resented becomes the most alluring characteristic of this tale.

If I were to use an analogy from food, The Story of a Widow is like pound cake and we, the readers, have become used to tiramisu and crème brulee. Readjusting our tastebuds to a simpler taste will take time and effort. But it is worth trying, because it reminds you of a time when you delighted in the pleasure of a loaf of pound cake, fresh from the corner bakery. Golden on the outside, pale yellow on the inside, moist with butter, fluffy with beaten eggs, fragrant and flavourful with the essence of vanilla.

If you are nostalgic for a time when life really was this simple, let The Story of a Widow take you there.