“Fiction is the truth inside the lie.” So says the famous Stephen King, whose books have sold millions of copies, and many of them have been adapted for television movies and feature films.
I asked the Lahore-based novelist and playwright Amna Mufti about how her voluminous fiction, Aakhri Zamana came about. A 600-page book, it was published in 2011. I had found it to be a compelling read. The story highlights the disintegration of our society and the infringement of the rights of ordinary people. Mufti’s grip on the plot, evocative details of rural and urban living as well as the intense depth of the characters she portrays, immensely impressed me.
The young, talented and gritty Mufti says, “Akhri Zamana is a work that I believed I was destined to write. I had the most uneasy years of my life while writing this book and stopped writing it at many stages. I used to have nightmares about my characters. They would speak to me, and I thought I was going to go insane. My children were too young at that time; therefore I had to keep my composure before them and before everyone else”.
Amna Mufti is not only a mother and a novelist, but also a fulltime playwright for television and a dedicated farmer! She relates that she started taking interest in organic farming, joined a school as its principal, started taking music lessons at home…in order to avoid writing Akhri Zamana. “But one day I watched Saddam Hussain on television, being taken to the gallows, and that night, in my sleep, I felt a similar fear, anxiety, embarrassment, and every emotion that a person to be hanged would feel. I saw myself on the gallows. It was past midnight when I woke up from that nightmare; took my paper and pen and sat down to work. I completed the novel in three years but actually it had taken twelve longs years to convince myself that I must write that story.”
The News on Sunday: When did you start writing initially, and which was your first story that was published?
Amna Mufti: I can’t recall when I started writing but I was eight years old when I wrote a ghazal:
Kis liyae hairan ho honi ho bhi chuki
Chaand tou mur bhi gaya, aur chandni ro bhi chuki
From then on I kept composing verses. Shohrat Bukhari was my ustad. At school my teachers were happy to get a “ready made” poet with a variety of work to present at annual days and mushairas, rather than “preparing” their students for these tasks. So I became a self proclaimed poet in my school and early college days.
It was only when I sent my poems to Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, and got a letter of rejection that I realised I am not a poet. He told me that my poems were in fact evidence that I could become a novelist. Shohrut Bukhari just smiled and never said another word on the topic. Heart broken, I wrote my first short story Phir wohi dasht. It was published in Adab Dost in May 1998.
TNS: You live in a city that has a large number of outstanding writers. There’s Intizar Husain, Munnu Bhai, Amjad Islam Amjad, Bano Qudsia, Bapsi Sidhwa, Mohsin Hamid, and in the past too there were famous writers in Lahore; Amrita Pritam, Bedi, Patras Bukhari, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, Faiz, Ustad Daman, Ghulam Abbas, Imtiaz Ali Taj, Hijab Imtiaz Ali, Manto, Ashfaq Ahmed and others. Which of them have inspired you?
AM: I have read all of them, so I am inspired by them all. There isn’t any particular asloob or writer who has inspired me in my writings. I owe each word and each idea to all of them as they are my spiritual ancestors.
I am addicted to reading and read each and every word that comes my way. Quratulain Hyder is the one I read the most. I read both English and Urdu writers, but certainly enjoy Urdu books more as that’s my mother-tongue.
TNS: The Pak Tea House had remained a favourite joint for some of the most celebrated intellectuals of the subcontinent since 1932 but ceased being so after some decades. Do you now have a similar place where writers get together for discussions and readings? If so, tell us about your experience and interactions.
AM: Pak Tea House is certainly a symbol of the literary glory of Lahore. As every thing is slipping from our fingers, we lost those literary discourses too. But Lahore still has its vibrant literary meetings. Pak Tea House has been renovated and is regularly used by Halqa Arbab-e-Zouq for their weekly meetings. The other block of Halqa sits in Aiwan-e-Iqbal. Then there’s Nairang, Bol and PILAC along with Alhamra Arts Council.
I used to attend a fortnightly session of the Adab-e-Latif Literary Forum at X2 — a pan-Asian dining restaurant — where poetry and a short story of a poet and a writer was read out. I have also tried to continue with a book club at my home in collaboration with Siddiqa Begum, editor of Adab-e-Latif. We select a book for reading and then hold a discussion. We have held discussions on books by Gabriel García Márquez, Munshi Prem Chand and Bano Qudsia. It is a slow task as the books under discussion are voluminous and require time. I think it is an important activity for writers to read, reflect and evaluate other writings critically.
TNS: Jurat-e-Rindana was your first novel. How did it come to be?
AM: I never thought I could write a novel. But many people including Riaz Ahmad, editor Sawera, and Saleem ur Rehman, publisher of Udaas Naslein, said that I am a novelist. And this is what I was told by Qasmi saheb too; so I started writing my first novel and interestingly it was Akhri Zamana that I started first. But as mentioned before, I gave up writing it as it was like taking out a bullet from my body with a rusted knife. Ideas came to me in various ways; chapters; conversations; locales, but not in the form of a coherent plot. Only the characters of Khalid and Raheela were there constantly. I put off writing it because it was extremely disturbing to sew this tapestry of blood and gore that we are looking at today.
After staying idle for some months, I started Jurat -e-Rindana. Riaz Ahmad saheb liked it and published it in February 2007 and the same year it was awarded the PEN Best Debut Award. I was overwhelmed.
TNS: Tell us something about your television plays that have won you accolades and nominations for awards.
AM: After Akhri Zamana I was idling away my days, when one day Babar Javed, a budding director in those days sent me a message, requesting me to write a play for television. I agreed, and wrote Ik hatheli pae hina, ik hatheli pae lahoo. It was about the sectarian issue, and therefore faced lots of censorship.
My second play was Sabz Pari Laal Kabooter, which dealt with drugs and the Pir mafia; problems of Karachi’s poor class. Then came Jahez, which got nominated for the Lux Style Award (LSA). Then I wrote Maya, Dill mohallae ki haveli and Ullu bara e farokht nahi. Once again, “Ullu” was a play that took me by my collar and I had to write it but the entire team faced lots of problems in putting it on the screen.
The channel that was originally going to air it tried to interfere in the script but the producer, Nauman Masood, did not relent and shot it as I wrote it — without any change, and Kashif Nisar achieved this miracle with his direction. It materialised exactly how I had wanted it. Obviously each cast member was superb too. Hum TV decided to broadcast it and the serial was nominated for Hum Award and also for LSA 2014. The book of this script is now in print.
TNS: What is your next project?
AM: It is a musical period play set in 1857. It is a love story. I am writing the songs and ghazals for this play. So you can say I am back to my original passion, poetry. Farming is also my passion. I inherited some land where I am growing papayas and other fruits and vegetables, and also desi cotton, and plan to weave cloth from it. Let’s see.