COLUMN: STORIES WITHIN STORIES

02 Jul 2017

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Last month the critic Boyd Tonkin, whom I have often worked with for about 25 years, wrote to ask me if I’d like to participate in a series of talks he was curating. Each one of us would discuss an Italian writer of our choice and how s/he had inspired our work. I immediately thought of Natalia Ginzburg, remembering how, when I was 22, a friend had gifted me two of her novels and then I’d read my way through the rest, vastly improving my Italian in the process. More significantly, perhaps, I learned something about the craft of narration and began to write fiction. Writing in Italian meant I could escape from the tyrannies of the language (English) in which I had been forced to express myself all my life, and from the guilt of not writing in a mother tongue (Urdu) in which I lacked fluency.

A few months later I joined the School of Oriental and African Studies to begin a journey I haven’t yet abandoned. For three years I immersed myself in Persian, Urdu and Seraiki and didn’t write another story until I was in my late 20s. Then another journey began: a passionate search for my century’s writers, in all the languages I knew and in translation too.

Today, in June, I remember not only Ginzburg’s, but the many other voices that guided me. There was the Danish writer Isak Dinesen, that magical storyteller who, while in Africa, was inspired by the One Thousand and One Nights, and Junichiro Tanizaki, who turned from the disturbed present of his native Japan to a past that was already becoming distant and exotic. I knew in those early days that I couldn’t write like them, because my imagination was trammelled by experiences I wanted to explore. But the writers of the American South — Eudora Welty, in particular, and Tennessee Williams — with their evocation of longing and loss in everyday settings, gave me examples I could follow, allowing me to travel freely into the territories of my own past in search of stories.

Until I began to read fiction in Urdu I felt I hadn’t reached my goal. (I’ve written about my relationship with my mother tongue elsewhere.) Yesterday, as I turned the pages of a tiny new book that contains stories I’ve written over the last two or three years, I could sense the inspiration of Dinesen and Tanizaki, of Welty, Cesare Pavese, Ginzburg and Marguerite Duras, as if, at times, I was talking to them between the lines, but I could see no trace of Ismat Chughtai, Qurratulain Hyder or Ghulam Abbas, those Urdu writers I love to read. There is, however, one exception. I remember the excitement with which, in the ’90s, I read those stories of Intizar Husain that were inspired by Buddhist texts. His protagonists set off in search of tranquillity and the stilling of desires, but — to put very simply — often find themselves back at the point of their departure with even bigger existential questions looming over them: ‘Where have I arrived, following the light of my own lamp?’

Hussain had a way of taking traditional tales and either turning them upside down or truncating them so that they ended on a note of unease. The story in which I pay tribute to his subverted endings is not, in fact, a traditional tale: I got the seed from a biography of a Thai saint in which there’s a brief account of a teacher who, at the height of his spiritual powers, abandons the monastery to marry a nun. The teacher and the nun play a central but fleeting part in my story which is really about the power of song (and all the arts) to move the human heart to perceive and understand states of longing it may never yet have experienced. And one of my protagonists, like Husain’s Sanjay, finds himself at the conclusion of my story faced with a question about his existence. The title of my collection, Love and its Seasons, unconsciously echoes Husain: “Each season brought with it its own splendour, its own delight, and vanished. Each season caused Sanjay pain.”

Writing in Italian meant I could escape from the tyrannies of the language (English) in which I had been forced to express myself all my life, and from the guilt of not writing in a mother tongue (Urdu) in which I lacked fluency.

In other stories — such as one based on my mother’s journal entries about her vocal training — there are echoes of much older traditions; in this case the poetry of Roopmati whose love for Baz Bahadur is legendary in my mother’s native province, Malwa. My mother set one of these to music and sang it throughout my childhood.

Another echo never far from my ear is that of Maulana Rumi’s ‘Masnavi’. I probably learnt my first words of literary Persian from its opening verse, about the separation of the flute from the reed bed, but my relationship with the text really began when, at the age of 17, I heard the Persian folksinger Shusha chant some verses about Majnun in the desert writing Laila’s name over and over in the sand. Laila and Majnun appear under their own names in my concluding tale, inspired by lines I’ve heard all my life: “Laila Ra be chashme Majnun bayad deed [You must see Laila through Majnun’s eyes].” Another, longer story, set in our day, is equally influenced by Majnun writing the letters of his beloved’s name on the sand.

Not only the agony and the ecstasy, but also the humour of Persian poetry has inspired me. The classical Persian poets I love — Nizami, Jami and Attar — are present in other stories too. Unlike Husain, I have at times borrowed stories from tradition without feeling any need to recast them as they are already perfect. I was so enchanted by one of Maulana’s tales that I wrote a version of it in plain prose that closely follows his verse and only slightly embellishes his story of three princes, brothers who set off to win the hand of the princess of China. The older two perish. The younger wins the princess and the throne; “history,” Maulana says, “doesn’t tell us how.”

The columnist is a short story writer and novelist living in London

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 2nd, 2017