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Am I Him Or Is He Me?
Musharraf Ali Farooqi

When novelist and translator Musharraf Ali Farooqi's wife pointed out a striking resemblance between him and a less-than-admirable character in his new novel The Story of a Widow (Knopf Canada), it sent the author on an strange and ultimately surprising journey of self discovery. Below, he reccounts the experience.


 

Am I Him Or Is He Me?

 

One can always trust the family to spoil one's happiness. For nine months I was perfectly content as I saw the widow, Mona, protagonist of The Story of a Widow, slowly drip out of a two-page outline into a three hundred-page novel and emerge from the wreckage of her first marriage into a dramatic life with a new and mysterious husband. Then my wife stopped by my desk one evening and told me she hated Salamat Ali, Mona's second husband. I informed her that apart from some of his deeds, most female readers I'd shown the manuscript to actually found Salamat Ali's character rather charming. She responded, "It's because they don't have to live with him." As she walked away, I suddenly realized why she wanted Salamat Ali to die in the end.

I must not read too much into people's comments, I told myself, but my brother phoned long distance to say that he knew who Salamat Ali was. And my editor slyly commented that he found my insight into Salamat Ali's character rather intriguing. So when my mother told me she liked the story, I did not dare ask her whether she enjoyed the story for its own sake or because she identified her son as one of the characters. I had let loose Salamat Ali in the world, and he was making people see me in a new light.

The Story of a Widow by Musharraf Ali Farooqi

I had not yet sent the book to the publisher. I had drafted two versions of the novel and I reached for the drawer and took out both versions. There were two views of Salamat Ali's character and destiny. He was the only character in the novel whose personality and fate underwent a complete change between the two versions: one a serious tearjerker and the other a light-hearted, farcical family drama. In one book Salamat Ali was a good man who dies in the end, and in another a scoundrel who survives. All other details were more or less identical.

I sought friends' opinions. Those who like tearjerkers wanted me to go for the first version. They made some very good points. All critics and award committees love the gory stuff, they told me. The more weeping and wailing between the covers, the more serious and profound the novel. Such a book would melt their hearts. If I chose the first version, I might as well demand my cheque from the committee right now. Those were all persuasive points. I began grinning powerfully from the agreeable prospects.

I had nearly sent in that version when other friends started calling. Give us this other, happier version, they said. We would not need therapy afterwards. Fine, they told me, Salamat Ali is a scoundrel in this version, but you must let him out. Own up to yourself; this is what being an adult is all about. It would be cathartic, too. And you are not the only one. The world is full of rotters. Why do you think relationships are so hard to keep?

In tears I thought, well, if it would make me an adult and the world a happier place at one stroke, I should send in this other version. I looked around for a padded envelope to put the manuscript in but I had run out of them.

That evening as my wife and I went out for a stroll we walked through Chinatown. In a shop she spotted a blouse she liked. She wanted to buy it, but I told her it did not look good on her. When she insisted, I informed her about cheap dyes which when washed make the colours run. She finally gave up. Afterwards, we went to a bakery, where I ran from showcase to showcase looking at all the fine goods on display. I bought an apricot pastry, and we returned home. But after all the excitement in the bakery, I forgot to buy the envelope.

The next day when we went out again I remembered to buy the envelope. On the way home I made a brief stop at my favourite ice-cream shop. I licked the ice cream happily, and when it was gone I looked around and found my wife was gone, too. I spotted her, trying on a pair of sandals at a shoe-store across the street. I hurried over to see what she was looking at. Now, I know a thing or two about shoes, and when she asked my opinion of them I gave her the full benefit of my deep knowledge, and pointed out shoddy workmanship that I felt she could never have discovered on her own in a million years. The salesman gave me a nasty look as my wife reluctantly handed back the sandals. As we left the store, she suddenly turned to me and snapped, "It's not easy living with the Akbar Ahmads of the world!"

She had just compared me to Mona's stingy and tyrannical first husband—not her second husband Salamat Ali. Well, I don't know where that came from, but it certainly set me thinking. My wife is perfectly free to feel herself as persecuted as Mona, but wasn't I supposed to be tormenting her as Salamat Ali? How could I be Akbar Ahmad now?

Was it possible that I got the whole thing wrong from the start? That I was not Salamat Ali? I was Akbar Ahmad! I called my friends to ask their opinion and they told me that in fact they saw many similarities between me and Akbar Ahmad's character but didn't want to test our friendship too much. My editor only said that he knew Akbar Ahmad's fondness for food was too well delineated to have been merely fictitious. My brother said that except for the food bit, he thought Akbar Ahmad was a very fine human being compared to me.

He was talking garbage as usual. It's my wife who knows me best.

So theoretically, perhaps, maybe it was just a possible likelihood that I was both Akbar Ahmad and Salamat Ali simultaneously. But this presented a bit of a quandary in terms of where I fit into the story.

As a last recourse I called a meeting of my friends. Once I had explained the situation to them in detail, they all agreed that what we had on our hands now was a completely new situation. And it needed a new answer to the same old question: Should I send in the first version of The Story of a Widow or the second? — Musharraf Ali Farooqi (August 2008)

 


Musharraf Ali Farooqi is an author and translator. His critically acclaimed translation of the Indo-Islamic epic, The Adventures of Amir Hamza, was published by the Modern Library in 2007. He has also translated the works of contemporary Urdu poet Afzal Ahmed Syed. A children’s picture book, The Cobbler’s Holiday or Why Ants Don’t Wear Shoes, comes out in Fall 2008.

(Photos courtesy of Knopf Canada.)

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