Musharraf Ali Farooqi – Literature filled with Optimism
Following one’s passion requires a lot of hard work and focus for a dream to turn into reality. Musharraf Ali Farooqi is one such example. The author, novelist and translator was born in Hyderabad. After attending St. Bonaventure’s School and completing his Intermediate, he enrolled for an Undergraduate degree in Engineering. His father taught Philosophy at Sindh University and dreamt of an academic career for him.
After about a year of studying engineering, Musharraf had something else in mind. To put it in his own words, he happily dropped out of the engineering program and made his own way through experimenting with writing and translating; albeit he told a different story to his mother.
“My dropping out from the engineering studies was a disappointment to her, and I still hear about it!”
While working as a journalist in Karachi, he also started a small literary magazine called Cipher in collaboration with his friends, Azhar Ali Abidi and Zainab Masud. This was the period when he started writing stories in English, and simultaneously translating poetry from Urdu into English. His first translation was of a poem by the contemporary poet Afzal Ahmed Syed.
Musharraf has published work across various age groups and genres. These include the novels Salar Jang’s Passion, The Story of a Widow, Between Clay and Dust, and Rabbit Rap: A Fable for the 21st Century; the children’s novel Tik-Tik, The Master of Time, and the short story collection, The Amazing Moustaches of Mocchhander the Iron Man and Other Stories; his translated works include The Adventures of Amir Hamza, The Beast, Rococo and Other Worlds: Selected Poetry of Afzal Ahmed Syed, Hoshruba: The Land and the Tilism; and his Microtalk series of essays for HT/Livemint newspaper on South Asian folklore and myths.
Lexicography is a new area in which Farooqi has made contributions by editing and launching the first online Urdu Thesaurus website and mobile app (the iPhone app is under development). The Urdu Thesaurus app is a much needed resource. With just a click, one can access a string of synonyms for Urdu words.
It is easy to see that the Urdu Thesaurus is going to play a role in popularizing Urdu use. When we hear an unfamiliar word, or an obsolete, funny sounding word, we discuss it and it comes back in circulation. With the app, the words can be shared via text or social media, and the ease with which a word can be explored in detail will help the exchange and communication. No one has to wait to get back home and look up the word in a hardcover dictionary. No one does that any more anyway!
So where did the idea for the online Urdu Thesaurus and app come from? The project idea, and its structure has been with him for the last ten years. It came from Musharraf’s practical experiences as a translator of classical Urdu texts. He realized how much of our language stays hidden from a common reader’s view because the majority of modern readers are not familiar with classical Urdu texts.
“Our language resources have not been centralized. I am familiar with these problems because of my work as a translator of classical Urdu texts. I know how hard it is to find definitions for words of our classical literature. So I thought of making a resource that would help others like me. The Urdu Thesaurus website you see is just a small glimpse of what I dream would one day become a central tool and vehicle for literacy and education in the Urdu language.”
Given that this idea has been taking root for a long period, Musharraf has been collecting dictionaries, and selecting the reliable ones from them. He started the data-entry, and ended up doing the initial proofreading himself. The synonyms data collected from these dictionaries was then merged, and another round of proofreading was done to remove duplication, followed by yet another phase. As he failed to secure any funding for the project and had to solely depend on his own resources – the progress was slow. Dr Rafaqat Ali Shahid helped with proofreading the first two letters, and then Humaira Ashraf took on the work and did the letters from BAY onward.
Dr Awais Athar advised the project on the technological side. The two had met once in Lahore to discuss how to crowd-source the proofreading of large texts. Musharraf approached him again in 2015, and requested his help to which he kindly agreed, and since October 2015 Dr Awais has been advising the team building the Urdu Thesaurus database and the mobile app, voluntarily contributing his time and technical skills.
“The Urdu Thesaurus would not have come out for the lack of resources had Dr Athar not offered help when I requested it. I don’t know how long it would have been delayed. The credit for Urdu Thesaurus’s success belongs equally to him.”
The Urdu Thesaurus is a user friendly resource. According to Musharraf that was the whole point of making a language resource. Before finalizing the interface, the team ensured that it was easy to use, and the search function worked efficiently.
Talking about what is in store for the project’s future, Musharraf shared that this is just the beginning. Now that the Beta version of the Urdu Thesaurus is out, he hopes that it will attract funding from here on. The plan is to add more data and several features to this resource to make it a comprehensive educational tool. A dictionary of antonyms and dictionaries of phrases, idioms and proverbs will come next. He has ideas for several other products that will grow around these resources in the long run.
The general perception about the Urdu language is that it is in trouble, with the next generation not so comfortable with reading and writing it. Musharraf however, doesn’t agree with the majority’s stance. In his opinion there is no doomsday scenario approaching for the language. The proof being that just within the first few weeks of the Urdu Thesaurus’s launch, it has been accessed in 569 cities from 74 countries as per Google Analytics’ statistics. He quotes the fate of the English channels that closed down, and the Urdu channels which are thriving, as another example that Urdu language is not in any crisis of any kind.
While Musharraf is quite optimistic about the future of the Urdu language, he knows that there are some issues that have led to the current state. Majority of the educated people don’t read Urdu classics anymore, not much is being written for children in Urdu, and local publishing for children is stagnant. These changes occur over a long period, and reversing them also takes time. For him, solutions should be looked at for their long term significance. In the meanwhile, persistence of the effort is needed to ensure that positive outcomes do transpire in time. Curating our classical literature for children in modern editions and communicating it to them by making it widely available, is one way to begin the effort.
“My belief is that you are given one life, and if you wish to make a change, or set something right, you should do everything that is within your power to carry out your vision and ideals with whatever resources you have. Waiting for external circumstances to change before you take any action yourself, is not going to end well for you and others.”
In recent years, Pakistani English language writers have been in the news a lot. In Musharraf’s view the much bigger number of authors in Urdu and other languages should be a part of the conversation when we discuss Pakistani writing in English. The literature coming out of a society should be looked at in its totality.
Our stories in this section always cover the topic of stereotypes in one way or the other, so we asked Musharraf his take on Pakistan and Pakistanis being stereotyped in the outside world, given his personal experience. For those who might not know, he emigrated to Canada in 1994 with his wife, returned in 2009, and still divides his time between the two countries. He said that he is not worried about other peoples’ opinion about us. It will change once we change what people find objectionable. In turn, our complaints about others’ opinions about us would end once that is fixed.
Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s literature and optimism is inspiring. We got to learn a lot from it and hope that he continues to be a source of inspiration for others in this field.