As Mohsin Hamid's “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” gets translated into Hindi, the author talks about how writing is anything but a creative sprint.
More than a couple of years after it was published, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” continues to catch attention. Not only was the book the subject of an insightful discussion at the recently concluded Jaipur Literature Festival, it has just been translated into Hindi as “Changez ke Bayan”. And the much-feted author Mohsin Hamid, blessed with rare perspicacity, is soaking in the experience of responses from non-English speaking people.
“Each translation creates a subtly different book. And that book is published to a new audience. So the response to every translation is different. It is amazing that the same book can be a bestseller in Italian and flop in French, for example, but such things happen all the time. Partly, this is a reminder that luck plays a huge role in each publication. As a writer, though, regardless of the critical or commercial reception, each translation is a miracle in a way. It is like discovering that your child can ride a horse or play the guitar, something you can't do and never taught them.”
Fair enough. Mohsin is his own kind of writer, a guy who reads, re-reads his work a hundred times a day. Yet, he says, “Literary writing is fun. It gives us a chance to discover ourselves, grade ourselves. I try to write novels where readers' interpretation is fundamental to the narrative.”
He did not start off as a full-time writer, falling neatly into the bracket of a man who earned his rupees working as a banker, his riches as an author. He brings the meticulousness of an accountant to his writing. “I took a long time to write ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist'. I did many drafts, revised them. In the course of writing I discovered I write increasingly less badly. Usually, my first draft is terrible! But at that stage I tend to think of it as a masterpiece. I end up using it only as an idea finally,” he says, covering himself with modesty.
Mohsin feels persistence is the most important quality for a writer. “Writing is a long slog, a marathon, not a sprint. In other art forms, you can accelerate with capital but writing is a labour-intensive art form. All the light, stage-setting happens in your head.”
With each new language translation of his book, Mohsin's hairline is receding, his moustache growing. He is discovering himself. “When I come to India I become functionally illiterate. I cannot read the signage on the road. Back in Lahore, too, I can just about read Urdu but my Urdu is mediocre. I have not read an Urdu book for 20 years.”
Now he just writes. “Fiction is not a spontaneous art. It is an act of complete evolution. There is acute tension between your life and the path you would like to take. There is an acute sense of mortality. I live in Pakistan. It brings with it so many tensions but when I don't write I get depressed or irritable,” he says, only half jocularly.
Talking of writing, that is something Pakistani authors are doing with glee. On the global firmament names like Mohammed Hanif, Daniyal Muenuddin, Kamila Shamsie and Nadeem Aslam shine among the brightest. Isn't there a predictability to Pakistani writing, a possibility of getting typecast as a Pakistani writer? “At the moment I'm not worried about Pakistani writing getting typecast for the simple reason that it is so varied. It comes from men and women, cities and villages, young writers and old, Pakistani residents and members of the diaspora. Styles, themes, approaches and sensibilities are all so different. Pakistani writing is exciting because of these differences, and because of an urgency that comes from being related to a country where so much is changing and so much is at stake.”
Yes, so much is changing in the world of English literature too. And Mohsin is happy adding new nuances, new layers. Writing, as Mohsin said in the Jaipur festival too, is “like building a playground, not knowing who will play the game.”