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In an episode of the Fifty-Fifty comedy series of the '80s, playing a traffic constable, Ismail Tara flags down a motorcyclist going with a big family. With a pen and a notebook at the ready, he demands “What is your name?” The man meekly utters his name. Unable to pronounce or spell it out, the constable repeats the question a couple of times and finally gives up, saying “Okay, move on. ... I wonder why do people have such difficult names?”

In those days his first and last names were an oddity for most viewers of PTV. Now there is no chance for the violator of a traffic law to get away by passing himself as Mustansar (Hussain) Tarar, as over the decades people have perfected his name's pronunciation and its Urdu spelling.

Performing as an actor, playwright and compere, Mustansar Tarar soon became a household name as he had played the lead role in hundreds of plays and serials, which made him as well-known an actor as Mohammad Ali, Waheed Murad and Nadeem. Now, too, writing columns for one newspaper or another, or appearing on one TV channel or another, he is as well known with TV audiences as he is with readers of books and newspapers. With more than two dozen travelogues to his name, he has surpassed any writer of this genre in popularity, if not in quantum. In all, he has written more than 50 books, including several excellent novels, a collection of short stories and collections of his columns.

With eight novels and a short-story collection behind him, he is a popular fiction writer, too. In fact, a survey has described him as Pakistan's best-selling fiction writer of the last two decades. Almost all his books have run into multiple editions. As if to confirm his place among top writers, renowned Indian scholar Dr Gopi Chand Narang once remarked “In fiction, I believe in three Hussains -- Abdullah Hussain, Intizar Hussain and Mustansar Hussain.”

The travelogues he has written on the northern areas of Pakistan are believed to have helped boost tourism in those areas. To appreciate his contribution to the development of the region, a lake is named the Tarar Lake. And the moment his book K-2 ki kahani was being launched in 1993, a national airline jet was circling the mountain's peak with a group of foreign as well as local journalists, a rare tribute to a writer fit to be recorded in the Guinnes Book of World Records.

Incidentally, the famous Chacha ji and pioneer of live morning TV transmissions in Pakistan is turning 70 on March 1. In an interview with Dawn, he seems to be taking old age and even death lightly “I never worry about growing old. The child in me is perennially seven/eight years old - playful, inquisitive and eager to discover and enjoy nature's phenomena. Age hasn't hampered my travel plans either. Last year I visited Kashmir and this summer I plan to visit the north once more,” he says in reply to relevant questions and adds “I wish I had died the night I spent in the sacred Ghar-i-Hira near Makkah, or wish that I breathe my last somewhere in the picturesque highlands of Pakistan.”

During the chat it transpired that when he is free at home he rigidly follows a daily writing schedule - from 7pm to 11pm. I was lucky that he let me talk to him over the phone at 10pm. “Two things have not yet deserted me -- paper and pen,” he says in an answer about his work habits. For the last four years, he has been working on a novel. He says he is putting the finishing touches to it.

Talking about Saadat Hassan Manto as his neighbour, friend and source of inspiration to become a writer, he repeats his remarks he had made years ago “A sharif (decent) person can't be a great writer.”

In this context, he narrates an incident “Commenting on my this remark, Ashfaq Ahmed once said, 'So, you don't consider me a great writer?' I said, 'No. I don't consider you to be a sharif man'.” He explains that a writer has to experience the things he writes on. “If one writes on a crime den, for instance, one must have a personal experience of that place to write a good piece on it. Why is it that all big stories were written before 1947? Because writers then tried to experience the situations and the scenes they created. These days writers just sit on a writing table and try to create great fiction, and naturally fail.”

Answering why he has only one collection of short stories, titled Siyah aankh mein tasweer, and many novels, he says “Whenever I begin writing a short story, I lose control over its characters, settings and happenings and it spreads into a novel.”

How he began writing? He says he was the first Pakistani to visit the Soviet Union. He was 18 years old in 1958 when, studying in a London college, he visited the USSR as part of a youth delegation. A Pakistani newspaper reporter in London suggested to him that he write about the sojourn in the communist country, and he wrote an account of his visit, serialised by the literary magazine Qindeel in three parts. But his first book, based on his sojourn in Europe, was published in 1970, titled Niklay teri talash mein.

Two of his books are part of the curriculum of the State University of Moscow's Urdu department, which invited him to deliver lectures a couple of years ago.

All his children, two sons and a daughter, are in the United States. He has visited them twice, but hasn't acceded to their requests to settle there. “I'm a tree that cannot take root in any other country. Pakistan has given me identity and whatever else I have. Its situations, good or bad, also stimulate creativity in me and I cannot write anywhere else what I do here.” Born in Lahore on March 1, 1939, he received his schooling at the Mission High School and the Muslim Model High School before getting admission to the famous Government College, Lahore.

He has received many literary awards, including the president's pride of performance award and the prime minister's award for the best novel of the year. But what he takes pride in is the gold medal he received in Moscow that is given to highly distinguished literary personalities. The other such honour is the Anjuman Farogh-i-Urdu (Qatar) Award, which was given to six men of letters before him, including Shaukat Siddiqui, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi and Ashfaq Ahmed. His books include Andulus mein ajnabi, Bahao, Bei-izti kharab, Berfeeli bulandiyan, Karvan sarai, Chik chuk, Chitral dastaan, Dais huwa perdais, Deo saai, Dakia aur jolaha, Gadhay hamaray bhai hain, Ghar-i-Hira mein aek raat, Guzara naheen hota, Gypsi, Hazaron Hain Shikway, Hazaron Raastay, Hunza dastaan, and Keilaash.