‘Almost all my stories are based on real-life characters’

A conversation with novelist, short story writer, poet and lyricist Asad Mohammad Khan

October 01, 2023

Weaving a tapestry of human experience over decades, Asad Mohammad Khan – novelist, short story writer, poet and lyricist – reveals a secret history of ruptured friendships, extraordinary journeys and daring trysts with fate. Breaking the silence and confronting difficult truths in his first two books of stories, Khirki Bhar Aasmaan and Burj- i- Khamoshan, Khan uncovers remarkable testimonies from a shared past.

Born in Bhopal and brought up in Karachi in later years, Asad Khan stayed briefly in Multan and Lahore before he adopted Karachi as the city that “gave us what Bhopal couldn’t.”

“My mamun,” he recalls, “had been allotted a house in Krishannagar, Lahore. When he was on his deathbed, I requested him to donate the property to a welfare institution. That was how I opened a school there.”

After graduating from Sindh Muslim Government Arts and Commerce College, Karachi, he wrote songs for Radio Pakistan and serials for PTV while continuing to work as a commercial artist on the side at the Karachi Port Trust. “I always wanted to keep a record of my commercial output separate from creative writing,” he says. His early stories appeared in Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi’s Funoon. These were written mostly in Riyasati Urdu interspersed with Bundelkhandi and Malwai accents.

Asad Khan’s fourth book of stories, Ghussay Ki Nayi Fasl, translated as The Harvest of Anger and Other Stories in 2002, catapulted him to fame. His first truly ‘fictional’ work, Basaudey ki Maryam, remains widely read and appreciated. To this study of an individual caught in a bind, Asad Khan brings the perspective of a small-town observer. Referred to as Khan-i-Khanaan by Shams-ur Rehman Faruqi, he is the recipient of the Tamgha-i- Imtiaz (2009). In the interview below, conducted at his house in Karachi, he shuttles back and forth in time, around his 90th birthday. Excerpts:


The News on Sunday: Tell us about your glorious ancestry.

Asad Mohammad Khan: My father was into fine arts. He was an art master at the best-situated high schools out of the three in Bhopal. The building had one been a palace that belonged to Sultan Jahan Begum – the vali -i-ryiasat. She was the last of the four women who ruled over Bhopal. When she finally left for Ahmedabad, 15 miles away, she bequeathed the property to the school. The school was named Shahjahan Model School after her mother, Shahjahan.

My father was a highly creative man. He had trained at Santiniketan. We are the descendants of the founder of Bhopal state, Dost Muhammad Khan, who was once at the Mughal court. He had been asked to take care of Bhopal by the Sultan -i-Mozzam sitting in Delhi. He’d come from Tirah and besides the sword, had a keen interest in painting. My father was an accomplished painter. He would mostly paint portraits. He sent me to the JJ School of Art in Bombay for a diploma in painting. In those days, examinations would be conducted in Bhopal. For the training, there were two centres: my father’s school and the Alexandria High School.

My maternal great grandfather, Yar Muhammad Khan Shaukat, was a jagirdar. His interest in poetry took him to seek Ghalib’s advice. He was sahib –i-divan, and used to write both in Urdu and Persian. My ancestors were not traditional jagirdars. They were quite detached from the community of most jagirdars. There principal interests in life were hunting and poetry.

TNS: You were born in Bhopal in 1932 and migrated to Pakistan in 1950. What was it like growing up in Bhopal and then leaving it?

AMK: While in Bhopal, I grew averse to the Hindutva politics. In those days, the Progressive Movement was at its peak. The government of India had banned the Communist Party. The anti-establishment political activists of the time were looking for someone who had a good Urdu handwriting. Since I could write well with a qalam, my name was recommended. I was asked to write political banners. I did that against my mamun’s admonitions. He was a police officer. Once upon an occasion, I wrote a banner for the beautiful red brick wall of Moti Masjid.

The authorities had maintained a record of our activities. A team of workers visited my house and complained to my mother about my participation. When my mamun got posted out, his successor had me arrested and imprisoned. I was in high school at that point. The officer interrogated me at length and made me confess my ‘crime’. I was repeatedly asked: How can you join politics at such a young age? I was in police custody for 16 days.

One of my paternal uncles, a retired army officer, tried an interesting way of reprimanding me as I wouldn’t pay heed to anyone. He said what I had done was not a ‘manly’ act. I responded by saying that since no one had the audacity to write the banners, it was surely an act of manliness to lend a voice to the poor against the burgeoning capitalism. Despite his direction, I did not write an apology. However, it so happened that my mother fell sick and had to be hospitalised. I was told that it was all because of my doings. I came round to believing that and gave an undertaking that I would stay away from politics. On the 17th day, the court decided granted me bail. Some of the Communist Party activists reacted by pelted my house with stones. They also declared me a traitor to their cause. In those days anyone who spoke Urdu in Bhopal was seen as an enemy of the establishment. My parents feared that if I stayed in Bhopal I would join politics and get arrested again. That was why my mother decided to send me to Sialkot, Pakistan. The exaggerated accounts of Ayub Khan’s dictatorial regime in the Indian press made my parents stay back.

TNS: When and how did you start writing?

AMK: I was in Grade 10 when I became fond of writing. Gandhi was assassinated around that time, and it was a matter of great distress and despair for the students. I wrote an essay on him for the school magazine. It was greatly appreciated perhaps because it was written by a Muslim student. As a political leader, Gandhi had a tremendous legacy. By and large, the local population of Bhopal was quite broad-minded and there was tolerance for the many political movements. Since it was a Muslim state, its Muslim majority was very active in the field of education. The rulers of Bhopal had founded many schools in the state and opened the doors to education. This included the last ruling Nawab, Hamidullah Khan who was also a writer. When Bhopal was assimilated into Madhya Pradesh, people from other places poured into the state, turning it into a hub of activity. Urdu was the lingua franca and popular even among the Hindus. Some of them outshone the Muslim writers. In terms of popular fiction, this was the age of Krishan Chander.

When I had a job at the Port, Mushtaq Yusufi sahib suggested that I should be in charge of the Port magazine. During his last days there, I requested him to make me its editor. The magazine used to be publish biennially. It featured contribution from some great poets and writers of prose it. Around that time, Iftikhar Arif convinced me to start writing for the PTV. I started out by translating some of the great Western masterpieces in literature such as Borges’s The Writing of the God (Dast-i-Khudawand) and Mark Twain and Lorca. The latter was printed in Ajmal Kamal’s journal, Aaj.

In the beginning, I also wrote some geets that were broadcast on the PTV. These included Anokha Ladla (Bilquis Khanum), Mauj Barhea Ya Aandhi Aye (Shehnaz Begum), Zameen Ki Gode Rang Say (Habib Wali Mohd), Tum Sang Naina Laagay (Rubina Badar), BaandhayTo Yehi Bandhan (Shehnaz Begum) and Shaheedon Kay Naam: Mat Sumjho Hum Nay Bhula Diya (Bilquis Khanum). I also wrote a thumri sung by M Kaleem, Moray Nainon Ki Nindiya Loot Li and Runa Laila’s Nainan Taras Kar Reh Gaye.

I have always given importance to my characters as opposed to the story. Stories that I weaved with the help of these characters had an impact on the readers right from the very first paragraph.

I also wrote a War Prayer (Dua-i-Jang) that was published in Asif Farrukhi’s Duniyazad.

Initially it was friends like Athar Nafees and Shakeel Farooqi besides Iftikhar Arif, who was running some fascinating programmes, that insisted that I should write for television. I used to write for Radio Pakistan as well where friends like Seher Ansari had been a great support. When an Urdu News bulletin was started from London, I became the newscaster for 6-7 years. I also wrote a long play, Toofan, for Radio. Meanwhile, I translated some American documentaries into Urdu for the Embassy of the United States. On 1971, I wrote Aas Bandhi Ghar Aaye Badra for Shehnaz Begum’s voice on the Fall of Dhaka.

TNS: Sher Shah Suri has been one of your favourite subjects. How is that?

AMK: My stories are about people like ourselves, about those who tread the literary path. Naturally, there are many subjects. Historically speaking, I am impressed by Sher Shah Suri for the welfare work he did for his subjects. About 28 kilometres from Bhopal at Raisen, he captured a fort and enthroned his heir there. I read about the life and times of Sher Shah; he talks about the fort. Sher Shah has been a hero to me. He led a very transparent life.

I would regularly frequent his mausoleum, where ten out of thirty mendicants would be Hindu. Even our Hindu teachers used to say that the history of the subcontinent had not witnessed a sultan quite like him. He was broadminded and valorous. Some other rulers also appear in my work, albeit less frequently. What I’ve done basically is to record some historical facts in my work.

TNS: Where did the characters in your stories come from?

AMK: Some of the poets from Bombay would converge on Bhopal and kick up a storm; I would frequent their mushairas. Even before I had matriculated, I was drawn to writing primarily because a lot of people in the family were writing. They were popular and would participate in those mushairas. As soon as I gained consciousness, I became interested in characters. The characters I chose to write about come mostly from Madhya Pradesh in Central India, from around Bhopal. For instance, I used to watch people cross the border to see film theatre and return, so I wrote a story based on that. The flight of imagination can take us to faraway lands. I spent most of my life with the realities of the times, but I would also take long flights of imagination, writing stories that had nothing to do with the mundane reality.

TNS: Who was Basaudey ki Maryam?

AMK: As children, we observed our elders calling Maryam the maid, Maryam bua. The younger lot would call her amma. Bhopal was struck by a famine in the 1800s, leading to hunger and death. My grandfather would spend two weeks on the lands [he administered] and only four days at home. During the famine, he didn’t return home, not even for a single day. He had a jagir where he would grow vegetables. He would not pay salaries to the servants. Instead they were offered stipends and clothes and their needs were taken care of on special occasions.

Maryam bua was an old woman. She had a room to herself in the house and she would come and go as she pleased. Dairy supplies and food were kept aside in her name, and there was no question about asking her to work. When I was unwell, I would ask Maryam bua to fetch me a glass of water but if my parents heard me ask her for water, they would be seriously upset. In fact, when Maryam bua fell sick, my mother was the one who looked after her.

Almost all my stories are based on real-life characters. For instance, Ma’i Dada was Abdul Majeed Yusuf, who used to call himself Yusufzai. He had been born in a Hindu family. During the famine, my Dada had picked up 10-12 young men to serve us. We observed, from day one, that the person chosen to serve us at home was not a servant but a part of the family.

Likewise, Ghussay ki Nayi Fasl is based on the life and times of Sher Shah Suri. In Aadminameh, I combined three stories into one: Deewaniye, Radio Walay Nawab Sahib and Paidal Valandaizi.

TNS: Tell us about your companionship with Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan of Patiala Gharana.

AMK: I have always treated my characters, rather than the story, more important. Stories that I have weaved with the help of these characters impact the readers right from the very first paragraph.

I brought some real-life characters – the dancing girls/ prostitutes – into my story Salon. The dancing girls – a bunch of 6-7 professionals the story is based upon - would frequent the TV station. Most of the directors would shirk away from them. Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan, the great exponent of khayal gayeki, used to live in their neighbourhood. He had a superb personality. I have never seen a more honest and trustworthy man than him. I had tremendous respect for him, and would treat him reverentially. He used to complain that I treated him like he was my ustad, whereas he believed he was just a musician. “You are senior to me in esteem and regard”, he would say. I would then say, “You are gifted by God, and you have preserved that gift. You have a lot of followers and disciples; and because of you they have accomplished a lot in their lives.”

Many of the prostitutes mentioned in Salon had left the neighbourhood they came from and started leading ‘respectable’ lives elsewhere. Salon is the story of a man named Java who grew up in a brothel. There is another man there who accompanies these women but also says his prayers secretly because these women would ridicule him. I would visit the brothels with Ashiq Ali, and they would arrange for a baithak on the rooftop. Then there was Ustad Hidayatullah who had enormous respect for his ustads.

I have written around ten stories based on those experiences. The credit goes to Ashiq Ali who would often arrange a meeting with a sensible student to answer my queries. In Salon, Java is raised by a prostitute who has grown old. She has a lot of pupils but she likes to protect him from their influence. His job is to attend to the Bari Bi. Eventually, Java becomes a medical attendant trained by a doctor.

The visits to the brothels gave me the advantage of firsthand knowledge about the milieu. There were two or three prostitutes, sensible and smart, who shared the accounts of their times spent there and how they had tried to convince the ‘fresh baits’ to leave the mohallah and lead decent lives.

The interviewer is an art critic based in Islamabad