June Issue 2010
Interview: Mazharul Islam
“A good writer does not need a critic; I ignore critics”
– Mazharul Islam
Urdu’s literary giant, Mazharul Islam, is an enigma to most. Unlike his contemporaries who spend the better part of their time projecting themselves, he keeps a low profile. He simply does what he is good at: writing stories and living his life in complete seclusion. He dazzled the literary pundits with his first collection of short stories, Ghoron Kay Shehr Mein Akela Admi. He followed it up with Gudiya Kee Ankh Se Shehr Ko Dekho, Khat Mein Post Ke Howi Dopehr and Baaton Ke Barish Mein Bheegti Larki. His maiden novel, Muhabbat Murda Phoolon Ke Symphony, created quite a few ripples in the literary world, and caught the attention of many local and foreign critics. In 2006, Christopher Shackle, a noted orientalist who is well versed in Urdu, Punjabi and Seraiki, translated more than 30 of his stories into English under the title of The Season of Love, Bitter Almonds and Delayed Rains.
In this interview with Newsline, Mazharul Islam speaks of his two obssessions: writing and death.
Q: What kind of books did you read as a child?
A: I used to go to the library to fetch books for my father who was a fan of historical novels. That’s how my relationship with books began. The mere act of touching a book with my fingers was a great feeling for me. In a way, I started to feel books before formally reading them. The first I happened to read was the Urdu version of the Bible, which I memorised. And I haven’t looked back since. I can’t sit in a room that is bereft of books.
Q: Do you find enough time to read these days?
A: I read several books at one time. I cannot live in a place where there are no books. I like to surround myself with them. My bedroom is crammed with books and books alone. Whatever spare time I get, I spend it reading. However, I don’t find enough time to write these days.
Q: When did you formally start writing?
A: I was studying in a school in my hometown, in Wazirabad. There was an unknown poet whom I used to follow. I respected him a lot; no one else paid him any attention. My drawing teacher, Nadeem, was another big influence in my life. I was in class four when I wrote a nazm and gave it to Nadeem sahib to get it published in a children’s magazine. So I started out with poetry.
As far as story writing is concerned, I wrote my first story “Talaab,” right after the death of my father. It was published in a literary magazine, Nairang-e-Khayal. My father’s death inspired me to write the story in which I idolised death.
Q: You seem to be impressed by Manto, as one can decipher from reading a few of your stories.
A: I was impressed by Manto initially; I was inspired by his genius. But that was at the beginning of my literary career. You can feel Manto’s influence only in a few of my stories. Later, I carved a path for myself. I have my own style, which cannot be likened to that of any other local writer. I don’t find myself fitting into the local literary milieu. My art flows from my own personality. People used to detect the influence of Kafka in my stories, but I had not even read Kafka at the time. My prose is totally different from that of all the other writers. I learnt the delicate art of storytelling from a potter who used to live in our vicinity, watching his hands play with wet mud.
Q: Death, loneliness and suicide are recurring themes in your stories. Why are you so enamoured by the thought of suicide?
A: I love death. It fascinates me. I am not afraid of it at all. I believe death is not the end of life; rather, a new life begins after death. As for suicide, it is the only pure thing in this world.
I don’t want to die of any illness — I want to die for the sake of death alone. Suicide is sheer romance as I myself tried it, but was saved. Now, at this age, suicide has no charm for me. Suicide has great charm when one is young. Also, suicide should not be committed under any compulsion. Suicide should be for suicide’s sake alone.
Q: Your prose is quite metaphorical. Don’t your readers find it tough to decipher your stories?
A: I am a surrealist writer by temperament. Life is also surreal. So my writings have a metaphorical feel. People living in far-flung rural areas constantly write me letters of appreciation. If people there can understand my work, there should not be any difficulty for the urbanites. The first edition of my novel was sold out in Sindh in just one month. My stories are more popular in Sindh and the Seraiki areas.
Q: Why is that so?
A: I think people living in the rural areas are pure. Their love is more genuine. And love is my only concern. I look for purity in love, so maybe that’s why I am more popular in those areas.
Q: Why and for whom do you write?
A: I write for myself; I write to entertain myself. It is pure pleasure for me. I don’t write for any other reason.
Q: Amrita Pritam acknowledged your literary genius with her remark “Kahani Mazharul Islam hai.” Had you ever met her?
A: No, I sent her my books. She was kind enough to pay me a rich tribute. It meant a lot to me. She also translated many of my stories into Punjabi. She invited me to India many times but I could never make it. Sadly, when I finally did visit India and landed at her doorstep, she had already died.
Q: Christopher Shackle translated your stories into English. How did that happen?
A: I met him way back in 1974. He was in Pakistan for research and we had a few meetings. But he selected my stories on his own. That collection of stories received a global response. A review of it was also published in The Times’ literary supplement. In another review, John-Ivan Palmer said: “This collection is a unique example of how literary talent can find its way between minds and prove that the republic of letters is truly global.”
Q: How have critics rated your work?
A: A good writer does not need a critic. I kept myself aloof from all the literary groups, and I don’t belong to any literary cartel. I ignore critics. But one scholar,
Dr Safia Ebad, has ably interpreted my art and craftsmanship in a book, and has done a really good job.
Q: Any plans for the future?
A: A collection of my short stories is ready. It will be published very soon. Likewise, my entire work is being compiled to be published in a single volume. So life goes on.