Q: What are you currently reading?
A: Just yesterday I finished Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, which is about the freedom efforts of black [slaves] in the 19th century. The underground railroad was not actually a physical thing, it was just a symbol of their efforts - how they ran away, how they would be brought back, the kind of punishments they would face; their feet were chopped off or they would be killed with torture.
It is a great book. The best book on this topic is Roots [by Alex Haley], after that this is the second best book [on the topic]. Last night I started reading An Era of Darkness by Shashi Tharoor.
We have always been saying the British did us a favour by giving us the railways or the local government system, but he gave a lecture at Oxford and said that wasn’t true; there was looting and killing in that time as well, and he has elaborated on that [in the book].
Q: Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction, prose or poetry?
A: I read everything - fiction, non-fiction, English, Urdu and Persian poetry. I mostly manage [Persian poetry] without translations. One of my favourite books is Rumi’s ghazaliyat Dewan-i-Shams Tabriz.
From the title it sounds like they are Shams Tabrez’ ghazaliyat, but they were written by Rumi and have always stayed with me. Then, from the modern poets, [there are] Farough Farrokhzad and Nader Naderpour - I manage almost 95pc without translation.
I have written four of my own books in Urdu, and that is what I received a Pride of Performance for in 2009. So I read a lot of Urdu poetry as well. I usually read history, poetry and literature. I also read [about] current affairs, but I am very selective with fiction. Very little fiction absorbs me.
Q: Do you enjoy any contemporary poets?
A: There are some very good contemporary poets. In nazam, there are Dr Wahid and Prof Moeen Nizami. In ghazal there are Saud Usmani and Abbas Tabish. There is some great poetry coming. People say it is the computer age and poetry is withering away; I don’t agree with that.
There has been new technology in every era, but new poetry is coming. There are some great poets writing. There were my contemporaries, but the new kids are also writing great poetry.
Q: Are there any classics you couldn’t get through?
A: God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy - I couldn’t finish that. I tried twice, but I couldn’t do it. I don’t know why, it didn’t absorb me. I think I tried for 30 pages twice, but I couldn’t.
Q: Are there any works you return to?
A: I read Shibli’s Shirul Ajam all the time. I always go back to Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago and his poems - Fifty Poems which are very famous. Then there is a classic book The Adventures of Hajii Baba of Ispahan, which was written by a British ambassador in the 19th century. It’s a marvellous book, so I return to that as well. But Shibli’s Shirul Ajam, Dewan-i-Shams Tabriz and Doctor Zhivago have always been with me.
Q: Are there any characters from works you have read that stayed with you?
A: I really like Dr Zhivago’s character. And Shafiqur Rehman’s characters - Shaitaan, Maqsood, Rufi - those I really like, and they have always stayed with me.
Q: Are there any works you think are underrated?
A: I think in Urdu, Mustansar Hussain Tarar’s novels, like Bahao or Raakh, did not receive the attention they should have. Qurratulain Hyder’s Aag Ka Darya and Abdullah Hussein’s Udaas Naslein have become a bit overrated, and they have been brought into the limelight a lot. There are novels such as Rajinder Singh Bedi’s Ek Chadar Maili Si, that was underrated, [and] Azeem Baig Chughtai remained underrated.
Q: Is there a great Pakistani novel?
A: I think Bahao and Raakh, and Ghulam Bagh by Mirza Athar Baig - those are Pakistan’s great novels. Bahao is a historical book on Darya-i-Sindh and our culture. Mirza Athar Baig’s style of narration is unique, it takes you along and you travel [through] time along with the characters.
Q: What are you planning to read next?
A: Next, I plan to read Punjab: A History from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten by Mohandas Gandhi’s grandson [Rajmohan Gandhi] and William Dalrymple’s Return of a King. I am very fond of William Dalrymple, but I have not been able to read Return of a King yet.
Published in Dawn, July 5th, 2017