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In conversation with Tahir Shah

I have long been a fan of bestselling author Tahir Shah's work and have wanted for a while to feature something about him in this blog. He spends a great deal of time travelling so I was lucky to be able to corner him and get these intriguing answers to my questions.




You come from a line of writers, so has there always been pressure on you to write?


Last week in the British Library, I managed to track down my grandfather’s first book. It was called Eastern Moonbeams, and was published 101 years ago in Edinburgh – the year after he had arrived in Britain. For decades, and indeed for centuries before that, members of my family had written books, treatises, poetry, and almost everything else you could imagine. So, YES!, there’s certainly always been pressure. Most of the time it was unstated – lying there quietly as a potential solution for any problem or woe. At other times, it was hailed as the right or only path to be taken.


I remember when I was about six years old, walking hand in hand through the woods at our home with my father. We lived at Langton House in Kent… the very same house in which Robert Baden-Powell had lived as a child. He had played in the same woods, too. I’ve heard it said that it was there he first got the idea of the Boy Scouts. Anyway, I digress. As I was saying, I was walking through the woods with my father. His name was Idries Shah. A celebrated author, he was a big act to follow. He looked down at me as we walked.

‘When are you going to write your first book?’ he asked.

He was joking, of course. But, at the same time he was utterly serious. Having said that, it was my older sister, Saira, who was expected to be the great writer. She has my father’s way of seeing the world – his high-octane genius for reading situations. While she was singled out and groomed for a life in literature, I was left to my own devices. The way I see it, I was hugely fortunate as a result.



If you weren’t groomed to be an author, what were you expected to be?


Throughout my childhood, I would find my parents discussing me, usually with pained expressions, as though wondering where I would best fit in. Looking back is so easy – far too easy – like observing a valley in the bright light of summer. At the time, though, the valley was filled with mist. You could make out rocks and the river from time to time – but you could never see more than isolated details.


I was severely dyslexic – profoundly so. No one ever thought of getting me tested, and they just concluded that I was a halfwit. A kind-hearted halfwit, but a halfwit all the same. So the obvious idea for them was to encourage me to be a diplomat. They believed that the realm of diplomats would take care of me. For that reason, I was advised to study International Relations at university, and was encouraged to travel, to learn about the world. My grandfather, Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah, had been a roving diplomat of his own invention, as well as a celebrated author. The thinking was that I could live a life like him. It was a career which would have made use of my ability from a young age to charm people through conversation, and to be utterly engaged.



Tell me about how dyslexia has affected you.


Only in my thirties did I realise that I was dyslexic. I have never been formally tested, but there’s no need. It’s in every cell of my body. It is me and I am it. I suppose it’s a good thing my father never knew I was dyslexic. He may have regarded it as a disease, rather than what it is… a treasure to be savoured. You see, dyslexia wires your brain differently. You go through life assuming that everyone is wired up like you. Then, one morning, you are hit by a revelation – you’re different. And, as we all know, the people in life who have done amazing things have all been different. So, thank heavens for dyslexia: not only for making me see and think differently, but for giving me another astounding capacity – IMAGINATION. A lesser yin to the yang of dyslexia is the ability to imagine in a wild rumpus of a way. Dyslexics zone out because they get reprimanded when they zone in. As a result they conjure fantastical storyscapes. When I find parents shaking their heads in gloom that their children’s inability to spell or perform like all the cookie cutter kids in class, I clap my hands in delight. No cookie cutter child ever did anything to change the world. A few years ago I arranged to have all my backlist of books typeset in Open Dyslexic Font, which allows people like me to read a lot faster. I’m a slow reader, but a fast writer. But, with Open Dyslexic, I find my reading speeds up.



I once heard that you resorted to an ingenious method to get published when you were starting out – what was it?


Even though my father was a well-known writer, and I had quotes from people like Doris Lessing and the explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger, I couldn’t get my first book published. It was a travel book called Beyond the Devil’s Teeth. I was very proud of it, and used to carry the manuscript around in a plastic bag, holding up wads of pages whenever I had an audience. Then, one morning, I found myself thinking about something my father had told me when I was very young. He had said that the only way to succeed in life was to tackle a problem in a way that was zigzag and indirect. I never quite knew what he had meant. But, that morning on which I remembered the advice, I got thinking. My problem was that I couldn’t get an agent, which meant I couldn’t get a publisher. And, that meant I couldn’t get my book into print. I was completely broke at the time.


It was the early 90s, and I was living on rice cooked up with a canned tomato. I didn’t like it much, but had come to understand that my body would tick over if fed on tomato-rice. I borrowed £30 from my twin sister, Safia, and had fifty sheets of very expensive letter paper printed – the letter heading of William Watkins, chief editor at the Worldwide Media Agency. Seeing myself as a fisherman who had resorted to new and unusual bait, I sent letters with samples of the book to a clutch of leading publishes. Days passed. No one called back. My stomach groaned and growled, because I had cut down rations of tomato-rice in order to fund the publishing wheeze. One morning a few days later, I was lying under my duvet, sulking, when the phone rang. Listlessly, I clambered up, and went over.

‘Mr. Watkins, please,’ said a female no-nonsense voice. ‘Is he there?’

I flinched.


‘Mr. William Watkins of Worldwide Media… the agent for the brilliant new writer, Tahir Shah. Do I have the right number?’

I did a double-take, smiled inside and out, and replied as smooth as silk:

            ‘Of course, madam, bear with me and I shall put you through.’

            Covering the phone with my hand, I made clicking sounds and a couple of grunts. Eventually, William Watkins’ booming baritone took the call. A meeting was set up for the dazzling new author, Tahir Shah. My book was published, and there began my career.



Your life could be described with the word ‘unconventional’. Do you see that as a good thing or a negative one?


Let me answer like this: Nothing in life, and I mean NOTHING, is quite so wretched to me as convention. When I see people imitating others through long and celebrated careers in their chosen profession, I’m almost physically sick. It’s not that they are doing inferior work. No, no… I am sure some of them have honed a blade that needed honing. But, to me, it means they are shirking from the responsibility of our species – to be original. I am fanatical about originality, and the idea that within us all there lives the ability to create in an utterly novel way. This is a massively important to me.


Who are our heroes? They are Newton, Einstein, Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Hawking, and all the others who broke the mould. So, why do we get reminded day and night by school teachers, the media, and all the others, that we have to be like all the rest? I like to think I am an enthusiastic person, and in no part of my life am I more enthusiastic than with my children, Ariane and Timur. They now go to the school where my sisters and I went – Bryanston School, in Dorset. Bryanston’s a magical place. It is a privilege for them to go there, and to learn within the mind-set of that school. But, having said that, I find myself cringing with the way the system (I refer to the educational architecture rather than the school), expects the emerging generation to be facsimiles of what has come before. I see parents across England, and beyond, living through their children. They hot-house them, egging them on to become miniature versions of themselves. I tell Ariane and Timur that I am totally unfazed with how well they do in exams. What matters to me is that they are happy, balanced, kind, productive, and unstressed with burdens heaped on the shoulders of youth. Ground prepared too much with soil and compost does not allow the seeds to break through.


As I have described, I was hopeless at school because of my dyslexia. I couldn’t do the work. So I zoned out. And, because of that, my imagination zoned in. I have lived my own life, doing things that inspire and interest me in a deep down way. I’ve never followed a conventional path and have always strived to take a zigzag route rather than a straight one. Some people have castigated me, but I don’t care.


Three decades have passed since I left Bryanston. It’s a school which has produced a number of high profile people. The other day someone sent me a link online – to a site called Ranker, which grades everything from toothpaste, to politicians, to schools. I checked the link wondering what it had to do with me. To my surprise, it ranked the very most successful people who went to Bryanston. There are 13 of them. I’m ranked at number 5 – with the Nobel Laureate Frederick Sanger at number six, and my own high-achieving sister, Saira, in the spot behind him.



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