Novelist, essayist and translator, Pakistani-Canadian writer Musharraf Ali Farooqi is the Renaissance man of South Asian literature. Author of the much-acclaimed novel, Between Clay And Dust (2012), Farooqi has recently come up with a new book, Tik-Tik, The Master of Time.
Published in India by Red Turtle, a new imprint of Rupa & Co., it is ostensibly a children’s book. Set on a planet called Nopter, it chronicles the adventures of a young boy, Tik-Tik, and his friend, Nib-Nib, who set out on a mission to find out how they can grow up faster. Accompanied by Grandpa Kip-Kip and a mischievous cat called Dum-Dum in their “Growing-Up Project”, Tik-Tik and Nib-Nib land up on a “twisted planet” called Earth.
Unlike Nopter, where the weather is ever pleasant, Earth goes through changes of season, much to Tik-Tik’s discomfort. So in order to “stabilize the earth”, he attaches a comet to its tilted axis. Once life becomes more bearable, he adds a propeller to the planet in order to make it move faster and complete its revolution around the sun in less than 12 months—so that he and Nib-Nib can grow up faster.
A mix of vaulting ambition, impatience and poor imagination leads to catastrophe, as Tik-Tik tries to change everything in an instant, literally at the click of a button. There is a bravura scene in which Tik-Tik and Nib-Nib suffer “the pain of growing up”—like Alice stretched out of proportion after eating the accursed cake in Wonderland—as they shoot up and race through years in a matter of minutes. For poor Dum-Dum and Grandpa Kip-Kip, the consequences of this “experiment” are, understandably, not very pleasant. However, in the end, lessons are learnt, life goes on and no one comes in harm’s way. Illustrated beautifully by Michelle Farooqi, Tik-Tik is in the best tradition of children’s literature—simple yet sophisticated, lucid but many-layered.
At the Jaipur Literature Festival last month, Mint caught up with the genial and ever-engaging Farooqi, who spoke on the pleasures of writing for children. Edited excerpts from the conversation:
How did you come to writing for children?
I had never really wanted to write for adults. My first aim in life was to write a picture book, and that ambition was fulfilled in 2008 when I published The Cobbler’s Holiday: Or Why Ants Don’t Wear Shoes. When I start writing a story, I do not think whether it is for children or for adults. And anyway, you can’t write a happy story for adults any more. They just won’t take it seriously. Whereas it is still possible to do so for children.
Children’s literature is marketed at readers of specific age groups, though the fact remains that children grow up differently. It is impossible to predict that a nine-year-old will enjoy only the kind of book written for his/her peers and not another one intended for someone older. Do you ever worry about these markers?
I don’t. In fact, let me tell you a funny story. Recently, after the publication of Tik-Tik in Pakistan, I did a promotion campaign in several schools in Karachi. In one school, we couldn’t sell the book on the premises, so children were asked to get their copies from the nearest book store. Unfortunately, the bookshop soon ran out of the book, so those who couldn’t get their hands on it picked up Rabbit Rap (another novel by Farooqi published in 2012) or even Between Clay And Dust. So when I entered the venue to speak to the children, I actually found four kids, between seven to 12 years of age, sitting solemnly in the back row and plodding on with Clay And Dust!
Does writing for children give you more flexibility as a creator?
Indeed, it does. It is so much more fun than writing for adults. It is the only time I can honestly claim that I am truly “writing for myself”.
But is it more challenging to publish in this space, especially in South Asia, where children are still largely reading either classics from the Western canon or contemporary best-sellers like the ‘Harry Potter’ series or the ‘Twilight’ series?
Publishing for children can be a lucrative prospect if it is done properly. Often the size of the advance tells an author how publishers are looking at this market. It is true though that children read at a much faster speed than adults and are avid consumers of a good story. They are reading J.K. Rowling and Roald Dahl precisely for this reason—not just because of the hype but also because Rowling and Dahl are great storytellers.
Do you feel that children’s stories should also expose their readers to the hard realities of life?
As a reader, I may like a story that looks at a painful reality, but as a writer I would never want to write such stuff for children. I don’t think we need to expose children to pain through literature. They can pick that up from life itself.
What were you reading as a child?
I read a lot of Urdu stories as a child. I came to reading in English much later, and when I did, I started enjoying (Charles) Dickens tremendously. I love Dickens’ chewy language, and the illustrations that accompanied his early novels. In general, I was, and still am, drawn to books with pictures. I’d pick up an illustrated version of The Count of Monte Cristo over a regular one any day.