NAW Interview with Timeri N. Murari

Timeri N. Murari

Timeri N. Murari is an Indian author, journalist, playwright and screenwriter. He is the author of best-sellers such as The Taliban Cricket Club and Taj, and has written extensively for Indian and international newspapers including The Guardian. He wrote and produced the Award winning film the Aqaure Circle.

NAW- Tell us about your literary journey. How and at what age did you start writing?

I became a writer by chance, and not by intention. I was working on a term paper in university and, as a distraction, I decided to write on my experience working through the summer in a logging camp in British Columbia. It wasn’t journalism but more an experimental style of writing and I doubted any newspaper would publish it, and set it aside. A few weeks later, re-reading, I modestly thought it had some merit. At the time, there were two newspapers I admired – The Manchester Guardian and the New York Herald Tribune. The Tribune folded and I sent my piece to the ‘Features Editor’ of the Guardian. I didn’t hear back, and figured it was rejected. So back to term papers and studies. By chance, a few weeks later, researching in library, I picked up the airmail edition of the MG, idly flicked through it and stopped. There was my piece, a full page too with a photograph of a river filled with logs, and my name in bold print. Fatal. If the MG had rejected it I would have continued my studies in history, and become a historian. Instead, I took to writing and contributed a few more stories to the MG. I was 20 then and, armed with the clippings, was hired to work as a reporter for the Kingston Whig Standard newspaper in Kingston, Ontario. I lasted six months, nurtured by the editor, and then fired when a new editor took over.

NAW-Tell us about your book, The Taliban Cricket Club. How did you get the idea for it? Did you carry out any research?

Way back in 2000, I read a very brief report in the newspaper that the Taliban announced they would promote cricket in Afghanistan and the regime, backed by the Pakistan Cricket Board, would apply for associate membership to the International Cricket Council. I thought the item surreal – Taliban? Cricket? They were contradictory, an oxymoron.  The regime had banned everything –singing, dancing, keeping parakeets, clapping and even chess. The list is endless. I discovered there were two reasons why the Taliban decided on cricket. Cricket was perfect by Sharia law on the dress of a man – a covered head, long sleeved shirt and long trousers, no part of the body showing. I believe the second reason was the length of time it takes to play cricket – a day, three days, five days- and this could occupy the youth. Unemployment was, and still is, very high among the young men and cricket would keep them out of mischief for a whole day or two.

The idea nagged at me and I made a few notes on how I could use this for a story. I thought I’d throw in a tournament and that the winning team would be sent out of the country – all expenses paid – and probably never return. Great! But as no one knew how to play cricket back then in Afghanistan who’s going to teach my team of young men? A pro from England/India/Pakistan – it didn’t have any dimensions. Apart from a man teaching young men the game the novel would end up about cricket, cricket, cricket.  I set the idea aside and went back to my other work when the Taliban were driven out by ISAF in 2001. When they ‘returned’ to fight ISAF, I pulled out my notes to re-think. I wanted to use cricket as a metaphor of how one should act within that games moral laws.  I remembered growing up playing cricket with my sisters and female cousins in our garden and even have a niece who played for India. So, why not a young Afghan woman who learned her cricket in India, returns to Kabul when the Taliban announce this and have her teach her cousins how to play this game? Through her I could explore the life of a woman under the Taliban rule and have my cricket team as well. She became my first revolution, cricket the second. She’s a courageous woman who risks her life to teach her brother and cousins to play the game and through her I could explore not only the suppression of a woman’s life but her life style, relationships with her family, social customs, her humour and the sly rebellion. And even add in her love story. She opened many new dimensions in the possibilities of the novel, moving away from cricket which now became secondary. It became a metaphor – the moral code of the game, contrasting with the violence of the Taliban.

Once I decided write this novel, I caught a flight to Kabul. I was lucky to have a very good contact there who introduced me to many of his friends – professors, work colleagues, government officials and also many Afghan women who worked in his office. They were very eloquent about their lives during the Taliban rule, contrasting it with their present freedom to work and not having to wear the burqua. I incorporated their stories in the novel, turning fact into fiction. Of course, I also read up all I could on that history of Afghanistan before and after the Taliban rule.  The novel was first published by Ecco in the US, then by Harper Collins, Canada, Allen & Unwin for UK and Australia, Aleph in India, Mercure de France in France etc.

NAW- Tell us about your other works.

They are very varied and hard to genre-cast. My first novel, The Marriage, an ambiguous title, was based on my experiences reporting on problems among Indian immigrants in the midlands of UK. It was the first work of fiction on the immigration experience and was a love story with a tragic ending. I followed this with a non-fiction work, The New Savages, on the racial tensions between kids in Toxteth, Liverpool.  Reviewers and the press accused me of fabrication. A year later there was a race riot in Toxteth. I’ve written romantic comedies, Lovers are not People, set in London and New York, and contemporary fiction, The Arrangements of Love and The Small House, both set in Madras.  I even wrote a crime novel set in New York. I had just published a semi-biographical novel, Field of Honour, set in Bangalore, and was planning to explore that theme further.  But, I’d spend four months working on a television documentary on homicide detectives in the South Bronx. I was blocked by the experience and the detectives I’d met, and ended up writing The Shooter to unblock myself. I’ve also written historical works, set in India – Taj, A novel on Mughal India, published in 1985, has now been translated into 25 languages. I followed that with British history from 1900 to 1919 and my protagonist in the two part novel was Kipling’s Kim. These were The Imperial Agent and The Last Victory. I returned to semi-biography with Four Steps from Paradise, this one set in Madras. I wandered out of India to write The Taliban Cricket Club, (2012), a novel set in Kabul, and now published in eight countries.  I have four non-fiction books, ranging from reportage on racial tensions in Toxteth, Liverpool, The New Savages; a young black couple trying to return home to Alabama from Boston in Goin’ Home; a memoir on an orphaned boy we cared for, My Temporary Son; to my 200 kilometre trek to the sacred mountain, Mount Kailash in Tibet, Limping to the Centre of the World. Limping, as I was recovering from a knee operation when I set out. And before I forget, a YA novel, Children of the Enchanted Jungle. I adapted my film, The Square Circle, for the stage and directed it at the Leicester Haymarket Theatre. Parminder Nagra, a wonderful actress and a person, played the main role; Rahul Bose played the Baul singer. A Madras theatre company staged three of my plays, Hey Hero, Killing Time and The Assassination of a Writer. 

NAW- How different is the process of writing a book from a film? Was your artistic background of help when you began to write?

When I was writing my screenplay, The Square Circle, (Time magazine chose the film as one of the top 10 best film in 1997) I discovered a film is far more difficult a craft than writing a book. In a book you have freedom to let your characters meditate, explore their thoughts, remain silent for pages. In a film every thought, meditation must be revealed as an action -either in facial expressions, through the eyes on in physical actions. And that is difficult as you can’t write instructions to the actor, he must understand his character from just a few lines of dialogue and a hint of action. It’s the compression of thought/action that makes it so hard to write, pages of a novel must be reduced to a few minutes of screen time, even to a few seconds as the audience is always far ahead of the story line when watching a film. I had to learn to think in pictures, frames, what the audience will see first, before adding in any dialogue to accompany the action. My only background to this craft was watching hundreds of films – Hollywood, Bollywood, Satyajit Ray, Goddard, de Sica, Kurosawa, to name just a few. While in London, I had the good fortune to have two well known Hollywood producers work with me on my first screenplay. They taught me a lot. The screenplay never reached the screen, the fate of thousands of scripts.

NAW- You have worked as a journalist also. Which of the two do you find more fulfilling, fiction or journalism and why?

Each one has its strong attractions for me. I loved my life as a journalist, it trained me to listen to real people tell their stories and gave me an insight into their lives which I would never have had if I wasn’t a journalist at work, trying to tell their stories to the outside world. Fiction fulfills me as much as I explore themes, invent characters (as Graham Greene said all his fiction has some real life persons behind them) and allow my imagination to roam. Fiction allows one such liberties, journalism does not as it has to be accurate to the real person/life/event as possible.

NAW- When you are reading, do you prefer ebooks or printed paper books?

I’ve yet to read an ebook.

NAW- Who are your favourite writers?

The list is very long and varied, ranging from Dickens to Dostoevsky, Normal Mailer to Murakami. I have all of Gabriel Marquez’s books, a complete collection of Shakespeare and also Raymond Chandler’s and Dashell Hammet’s. Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald sit side by side. A collection of R.K. Narayan Malgudi stories are also on my shelves. If a favourite, Marquez but all these writers are great talents that I admire and often read anThe Taliban Cricket Club Book Coverd re-read.

NAW- How do you write, in fits and starts or in one go? Take us through your writing process?

I write from 7.30 a.m to 1 p.m, six days a week, and never vary from the discipline I learned years ago. The only way to write is to write and write. That does not mean I don’t get up and wander around but during those hours I hate being disturbed. And once I start a book, I try to keep working on it until I have completed a draft. I set it aside, maybe start another, then return to it to see how it reads. Then come the many, many re-writes. I work on what I’d call a synopsis of the book, fiction or non-fiction, and try to map out the story line. I make many notes to myself. This doesn’t need to be linear, it can go back and forth in time. Once I feel I have it vaguely right – the characters, time frames, the theme, the setting – I start writing it. I know it will never remain true to what I had first imagined, characters take over their lives and re-chart their territory in the story. When I feel I’m on the final draft of a book, I print it out. I found when I read it on paper, I can see more flaws than on the screen and also a feel as to how it will look as a book.

NAW- Tell us about your other work life. What do you do when you are not writing?

When I finish my day’s work, I spend some time with my dogs – I have four Indian breed dogs – who do demand a lot of attention. They are very therapeutic, I enjoy their company. I usually read, both fiction and non-fiction, in the afternoons and then depending on the day and my partners I play tennis twice or thrice a week. On the other days, I walk very briskly in a local park for a half hour to 45 minutes, often as not with my wife. In the evenings I read, more magazines than books, if my dogs allow me to as they usually want to play or need back or tummy rubs. When I do take off, I head for wildlife reserves where I can spend a week or two away from work, emails etc and enjoy watching animals in their natural habitat. I have some great photographs.

NAW- What are your upcoming projects?

In July 2014, Aleph publishes my new novel.CHANAKYA RETURNS,covers a vast canvas of power, love, history, politics, betrayals, sex and more.  It is narrated by Chanakya (370-282 BC), reincarnated in the contemporary world as the adviser to Avanti, the daughter of the head of a nameless state in India. In the course of the novel, Chanakya poses an eternal question: What shapes our lives—The Power of Love or the Love of Power? His protégée, Avanti, has to choose between love and power. The choice Avanti makes has all sorts of implications not just for herself and her dysfunctional family, but for the people of the state her family has ruled for years…

In his previous existence, the historical Chanakya was exiled from his homeland and took his revenge on the king, who was the cause of his misfortune, by defeating him in a war. He was then responsible for anointing Chandragupta as ruler of the Mauryan Empire, and advising him on every aspect of statecraft. In the novel Chanakya is acerbic, witty and ruthless, and provides the same services to Avanti. He manoeuvers that awkward young daughter of a charismatic powerful politician across the chessboard of power to become a brilliantly successful politician in her own right.

Now, I am working on the continuation of the family saga of this political dynasty (Publisher: Aleph).

Scholastic India will publish my new YA novel, Axxiss and the Newton Chords, the first in the Axxiss Trilogy, later this year.

Read an Excerpt from The Taliban Cricket Club by Timeri N. Murari-

“No one could be—” I stopped when I saw the Land Cruiser race into the courtyard in front of us. “Oh god.”
       In the back lay a man and a woman, their arms and legs bound. The woman wore her burka; the man had a sack over his head. Two Talibs, along with two police officers who had guns, stood above them. The vehicle stopped, the Talibs jumped down and pushed their prisoners out onto the ground as if they were sacks of grain. When they fell we heard their muffled cries.

     The minister for the propagation of virtue and the prevention of vice, Zorak Wahidi, the man who had summoned us here, stepped out of the passenger seat and walked slowly back to the fallen couple. I felt a shudder of recognition. His beard was whiter since I’d last seen him four years ago. There was a stoop to his shoulders, as if a thousand dead souls pressed down on him. He wore a black shalwar, a black lungee, and new black sandals. He also carried a pistol and looked down at the prisoners, and then across to us. I wanted to shield Jahan from what was about to happen but he had moved to stand between Parwaaze and Qubad and watched with the fascination of any teenager. He had never witnessed an execution before— mother had forbidden him to accompany me and Parwaaze last November when Zarmina was executed. “Look away, look away,” I whispered, but he didn’t hear me. Wahidi pointed the pistol down toward the man and shot him in the head. The man appeared to rise briefly before falling back. Wahidi moved to the crying woman and shot her in the head too. The shots sounded flat and harmless in the empty space surrounding us. He walked toward us holding his pistol, as casually as a man crossing a drawing room to greet his guests. The two Talibs, and the policemen followed him. He turned to give them an order, and then turned back to us.
“Do you know why they were executed?” We remained silent. I felt his eyes penetrating my veil, trying to remember the face he could not see. He angrily answered his own question. “They were traitors to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. They were committing adultery, which is against our laws, and they deserved to die. We will not tolerate such vices. The press too . . .” Here he paused and surveyed us, noting each one present, focusing again on me. “. . . are responsible for projecting in the foreign media a very bad image of our legitimate government.” He paced in front of us, and shouted, his face snarling in fury. “From here on out, you will write exactly what I tell you.” The men took out their notebooks like obedient schoolboys . I hadn’t brought one.
“The ruling council of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and I, have decided to show the world that we’re a fair and just people. To that end, our government has decided to promote cricket in Afghanistan. We have applied to the International Cricket Council for membership.”
Like the others, I raised my head in surprise.
“We wait to hear from them on this. The Pakistan Cricket Board will support our application. Cricket will show all those against us that we too can be sportsmen. As our young men have much time to spare, we wish to occupy them to prevent any vices. We banned cricket because it was a legacy of the evil British. But we studied all sports and cricket is modest in its clothing. The uniform covers the player from his neck to his feet and covers his head as well. Therefore, we will encourage the sport, strictly according to Islamic rules of dress, and we will hold a tournament in three weeks. We will welcome an official from the International Cricket Council to observe the matches and know that we are genuine in our interest in promoting the sport, openly and fairly. The tournament is open to all Afghans and we will send the winning team to Pakistan to perfect their playing skills. They will return to teach other young men to play this sport. Women, of course, will not be permitted to play.” He ended the announcement and dismissed us.
“What do you think?” I asked Yasir.
“I write what they tell me, and I do not think. But let’s see how many Afghans turn up for the matches when they read about this. A free pass to leave the country—I wonder how many will return. Are you going to write this up?”
“Yasir—I don’t write anymore.”
When I moved to leave with the others, the two policemen grabbed me. Jahan tried to stop them but one Talib hit him in the stomach with his gun butt. Yasir moved to help, but the second Talib pointed his gun at Yasir’s chest. I struggled, trying to get a last glimpse of Jahan, but the men dragged me out of the courtyard and into a small, bare room and forced me to kneel. They pressed their gun barrels down on my shoulders so I could not move. We waited in oppressive silence. Finally, I sensed someone entering the room. I couldn’t see through the mesh and tried to lift my head, but a hand pressed it back down to supplication. I smelled perfume, a cloying, sweet odor. I glimpsed dusty feet slyly circling me, and then he and his cologne walked out of the door. Minutes later, Wahidi walked into the room in his black sandals. I heard the rustle of a paper, and he held a newspaper before my eyes. The English headline read “Taliban Execute Mother of Five Children.” It was my story and I felt my heart miss a beat, then another. This was why I had been summoned here and he was about to kill me. But I also knew he had no proof I had written it—it was filed under my pseudonym. He is only trying to frighten you, I told myself, and tried to stay calm. I did not speak; thankfully I wasn’t expected to. He crushed the paper deliberately into a small ball and dropped it on the floor. Then he lowered a pistol to my line of vision, and I smelled cigarette smoke. Through the mesh, I saw his finger around the trigger, the gun like a natural extension of his hand. Its black barrel was worn gray, the butt chipped along the edges. His finger curled and uncurled as if it had a mind of its own, and was thinking over a decision. The finger was surprisingly long, almost delicate, and manicured. Then the hand lifted the gun out of my small window of vision; it was somewhere above my head. I shut my eyes and waited. I tried prayers, but I couldn’t form the words or sentences that would accompany me into the next life. I opened my eyes when the cigarette’s smoke stung my nostrils. The cigarette lay on the floor, a serpent of smoke curling up. The ball of paper began to burn. He let it come to a small flame then crushed it with his sandal. He lowered to squat in front of me, his eyes almost level with mine. I shut mine tight and yet I felt his eyes piercing the mesh, as if searching the contours of my face. Then, with a decisive grunt, he stood up. The police lifted the gun barrels off my shoulders and followed him out.
I remained kneeling, waiting to open my eyes until I heard no further movement. The door was partially open and I was free to leave. Involuntarily, I laughed in relief. I struggled to stand, my foot caught in the edge of the burka, and I fell. I stood up, swaying, and moved to the door. I stepped out into an empty corridor. To my left, men were loading the executed couple into the back of an old Land Cruiser. For once, I was thankful for the burka. I had wet myself. My legs were rubbery and I leaned against the wall for strength. I moved cautiously out of the building, back into sunlight. Yasir waited by the entrance, while Jahan, Parwaaze, and Qubad were sitting on the low wall, across the street, along the river. They jumped up and hurried over when they saw me. I was more concerned for the abuse Jahan had suffered, and though he walked carefully, he appeared to be all right. He lifted his arms to embrace me but dropped them quickly in embarrassment, looking around to see if such an intimate gesture was noticed by the religious police. When Yasir saw my companions, he said, “Be careful,” and hurried away.
“Are you okay?” they chorused.
“Yes. Jahan, are you all right?”
“Just a stomachache. It’ll pass.”
“We didn’t think we’d see you again,” Parwaaze said, leading us away, our feet leaden on the broken pavement. “Did they hurt you?” he asked me, checking back over his shoulder.
“No, and they didn’t say a word.”
“Then why did they take you inside? What did they want?”
“I don’t know. Wahidi came into the room, smoked a cigarette, and left.” I didn’t mention the gun barrels on my shoulders, the article, or the pistol. I was frightened and I didn’t want to frighten them more.
“I didn’t want you to see . . . that,” I said to Jahan.
He was almost in tears, as he was remembering the impact of the bullets. “I didn’t want to watch, but it was so sudden and I couldn’t move my eyes, I couldn’t even shut them.
“It’s better to cry for them than just look away.” I looked at the other two. They too had moist eyes, flickering with horror at what they had witnessed, and their faces were a shade paler. “Are you both okay?” I asked them, wishing I could take back everything they had seen.
“Another execution. How many more will I see before I can get out of this country?” Parwaaze asked aloud.
“Rukhsana, next time we’ll be carrying out your co-corpse,” Qubad said, “You must leave Kabul. Go to Shaheen, he’s waiting for you in America. He was lucky to get out.”
“I can’t—there’s just no way. I’m not going to leave Maadar while . . .” I didn’t want Mother to die. Somehow, I had to survive and see my mother through her illness, and then escape. I prayed hard. “Please let me make it safely through Maadar’s death and I will leave an instant later. Please protect me until then—just a little more time before I join my bethrothed.”
“Let’s get out of here,” Jahan said.
We hurried toward home. My shoulders still burned from the gun barrels and I felt Wahidi’s breath on my face. Why had he called me? Was he setting a trap to see if I’d report today’s executions and write about the cricket announcement? If he was certain I’d written those other stories, I wouldn’t be walking home. I’d be in prison.
In my preocupation, I wasn’t listening to the boys until Parwaaze’s excited voice broke through my thoughts.
“. . . in three weeks and the winning team will go to Pakistan,” he said. “We get out if we win that match . . . go to Australia . . . America . . . to university . . . finish our studies . . . work . . . wasting our lives here . . .”
“Then we’ll have to come back here to teach the others,” Jahan said.
“I’ll keep going and going,” Parwaaze said.
“But we have one small pr-problem with that brilliant idea,” Qubad said.
“We don’t know how to play cricket,” Parwaaze admitted, crestfallen.
“We don’t,” Jahan said. “But Rukhsana does.”


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