At what stage in your life did you take up writing fiction and what was the inspiration for it?
When I think about it, there is a desire for sharing whatever we have observed or experienced, not only the experience itself but our point of view about it.
It was a small incident I had heard many years ago which moved me to write my first story. I don’t even remember what it was. I wrote it in Urdu. I was at Aligarh then and it was published in a students’ publication. Somebody asked me to render it into Hindi and I did that.
Yes, I started with Urdu but then Aligarh had these established senior writers while the Hindi scene was more open. I had studied Hindi in school and writing in it came easily to me.
So with such a start what made you keep on writing stories? What is the impetus and what inspires or moves you to write?
I think that every writer has his own view — what should be called a parallel worldview. It means that whatever is happening is not acceptable to me and this is what I want to see unfolding and taking place, instead of that. So this leads to writing fiction. The way I reacted towards my society and the impulse to share my experiences and reactions urged me to take up fiction.
In the preface to one of your books, you have described your spirited exchange with the editor who liked your first story but then returned the next one, saying that it lacked “fragrance,” at which you insisted that you did not write “fragrant stories”. What exactly was this about and why do you avoid such stories?
This was Dharamvir Bharati, a big name in Hindi literature. He was the editor of Dharam Yug. Life in those days seemed to be such that everybody liked stories with a dash of sentimentality, stories showing attachments, feelings and the breakdown of relationships, poignancy and sadness. My story was that of a man who puts up a wall in the courtyard of his house and when he sells the other half, he and his wife start thinking about the lemon tree which is now on the other side and keep wondering if the tree is getting enough water.
“You have not been born till you have seen Lahore” is what his best-known play is called, but Hindi novelist and playwright Asghar Wajahat could have hardly qualified for the statement himself.
On his first visit to this part of the world to participate in the Faiz centenary programmes, the writer followed Lahore with brief but personal visits to Multan and Karachi to better acquaint himself with the people of Pakistan. Wajahat, who did his PhD in Hindi literature from Aligarh University and has been associated with the Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi for more than 30 years, is the author of several novels, plays and collections of short stories. He has also written scripts for several documentaries and television programmes.
He has travelled widely in India, writing about what he has seen, and more recently to Iran and Central Asia. A collection of his acerbic, short sketches was translated into English as “Lies: Half Told” by Rakhshanda Jalil who praised it for its “social concern and awareness” and the author’s capacity for taking on “holy cows” in all shapes and colours. Sipping tea with biscuits in his Karachi hotel room, Wajahat talks candidly about life and literature. The following are excerpts from an extended conversation with him:
The stories which I wrote later were more concerned with social realities. I moved on to different kind of stories. Stories that I am writing now have no characters, heroes or villains in the conventional sense. I keep saying that it is time and the age which are the real character in my fiction.
The story which I still remember after reading it many years ago is “Cake,” especially the sympathetic portrayal of characters who have not done too well. How did you come to write that and how was it received in the literary circles?
It is one of my early stories, about those who dream and have their dreams shattered only to dream once again.
From the 1960s onwards, life became more complicated in metropolitan centres like Delhi. If such people had been born 50 years ago, they would have lived a simple life. But being born at that moment in time, they live in illusions and a past which makes them refuse to accept the present and this gives rise to a conflict.
The story was much appreciated and from then on it would have been easy for me to write more stories in this vein. You know how it is in cricket, a bowler selects a certain line and length and speed and spin for himself. People appreciate this and urge him to keep up this spin as it is a sure shot winner, guaranteed to get wickets. But for a writer this is being dishonest to yourself and I think it is of utmost importance to keep negating yourself. I kept on negating myself and this is how I have moved on as a fiction-writer.
You also tried your hand at writing plays. How was your experience of theatre?
Hindi theatre is not very developed and most of the plays that I wrote were not staged. I wrote “Jinnay Lahore Nai Dekhya” somewhere around 1989-90. After I had written it, I invited four of the leading directors from Delhi for a reading of the play but nobody turned up. The well-known director Habib Tanvir selected this play when the Sri Ram Centre invited him to do a play for them. Everybody kept saying that it will be a disaster, Tanvir will sink along with the author. You see, the play is realistic while Habib Tanvir is renowned for the folk roots of his theatre with a lot of songs and dances. But when the play was staged, it did not sink. The organisers told me that the sponsored shows alone grossed so much that they paid for the repertoire costs.
Again, this was a success that you did not want to repeat.
Obviously. I wanted to try my hand at other things.
Let us talk of your other writings, especially novels.
I wrote a couple of novels to steady my hand while I was doing my earlier stories. One of these novels, which deals with a young man torn between his religious beliefs and his sexual urges, cannot be published these days.
Another novel, Saat Aasman, deals with several generations in a small town and focuses on feudal decadence. I am working on a trilogy now and have published its first two novels. It is the story of my generation which had a great ambition to become relevant somehow or the other because it feared that it had lost its moorings and wanted to gain relevance. The final volume will be a flash forward of how things should be. The real story is not what actually takes place but how the characters imagine it to be. That is the true spirit of fiction for me.
The interviewer is a fiction writer and critic.