31 March 2011

The Amazing Moustaches of Moochhander the Iron Man and Other Stories by Musharraf Ali Farooqi

Profundus and Snotbog arrive in India
My first reaction to this book was enjoyment – these four stories are well written and great fun. My second, however, was disappointment. With the name Moochander, I was expecting Pakistani stories. Yet these are clearly in the European tradition.
I mailed the author asking about this, and he wrote back (first kindly congratulating me on having won the match - it so happened that yesterday India won the semi-finals against Pakistan for the 2011 Cricket World Cup!) to say,
I wrote these stories for an international audience about eight years ago. I think children do not make distinction between stories as adults do. They are only interested in a good, fun story, regardless of which tradition it comes from.
In my childhood I read a lot of Urdu stories that were published for children, and later learned that some of them were adaptations of well known English language classics such as Oliver Twist, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and others.
I discovered English language children's fiction as an adult, and loved some of the stuff I read. I now feel that there should be more Urdu language story books available for children whose first language is Urdu but in the absence of good Urdu story books, adaptations from English language children's literature, or even direct translation of international children's literature will be more beneficial for the intellectual and creative development of children because it will expose them to new worlds through the magic of stories.
I have plans of publishing the stories in The Amazing Moustaches of Moochhander the Iron Man and Other Stories collection in Urdu translation. They have been translated already. The translator has adapted them for Urdu language which is perfectly fine with me.
Musharraf Ali Farooqi also told me that he wrote these books in a span of six months. His wife Michelle is the illustrator of this book and I found her illustrations attractive too – imagining what I might feel if I was looking at them and having the stories read to me as many children are bound to.
This particular illustration comes from the story Profundus and Madam Snotbog, great fun, scary, and very Brothers Grimm. I felt doubtful about how Indian parents might feel about a story centred around cute pigs! A bit hesitantly, I asked Musharraf how come, since this is really more of a western concept and rather alien in our part of the world where pigs are traditionally considered disgusting. He replied, deadpan,
As these stories were written for an international audience, I felt free to use any animals I could think of. And in the West you will find many toys and children's books in which pigs are indeed depicted as cute. I understand that in the subcontinent we have a different take on the animal.
He also sent me a link to an interview he gave Fiona Fernandez at Mid-day where he says:
Probably, the characters came to the mind first. In the case of Profundus, the idea for the grab-itty-scope came first, I think. Madame Snotbog was modelled on a dear aunt of mine although I am not half as clever as Profundus. However, I'm not above stealing pies and regularly overdose on sweets. There are a lot of autobiographical details here for future researchers, I'm afraid.
Madame Snotbog turned out exactly like my aunt. So I was very pleased with that, although it was uncanny because Michelle has not met her. And now I guess it's best that they don't meet.
Though I would much rather have had a book more culturally appropriate for Indian children, there was one thing I particularly admired here and that is its approach to inclusion. The Giant of the Bakery is not just an adventure story where young readers will enjoy reading about cakes and breads – it’s also about the struggle of an immigrant. And it gives an artless glimpse into the life of a differently abled person. Moochhander, too, is a poignant look at aging.

As a child, I would have loved and treasured this book, reading it or perhaps demanding to have it read to me, over and over again. My children would have done the same. As an adult, what intrigues me most is the versatility of the author.
I have never met Musharraf but have liked and admired him since 2009 when I first read his novel Story of a Widow. It impressed me with an elegant style that grips you as it takes you into people’s lives and leads you, unawares, straight into the heart of a culture. (I can't find a link to the review I wrote for my Sunday Mid-day column but if you like you can read it on Musharraf's website).
I was surprised to read Hoshruba a short while later, a translation of an Urdu epic spun out by
court storytellers in Lucknow in the nineteenth century, and to learn that Musharraf intended to translate the entire lot. And this was someone who, as a young man, had spent considerable time consuming books along with tea and omelettes at the canteen of NED University of Engineering and Technology in Karachi instead of attending lectures there till he realised that he was never going to be an engineer and might as well become a writer instead!
Hoshruba itself had a formidable 447 pages, and there were 23 volumes to go. Musharraf was going to be busy for many years, but he was kind enough to spend some time telling me about his journey as a writer.
So now, instead of asking Musharraf how and why these concepts (which would painlessly give children a broader emotional spectrum) wove their way into his book, I am going to guess that it was not done as a strategy but happened subconsciously. I suspect that Musharraf's writing falls into two categories, of which it is only the translating that taxes his left brain. His fiction, I would like to imagine, is simply a product of nothing but a joyful creative process, plucking stories out of thin air with no other intention than to create pleasure in the reader.

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