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December 17, 2018

A forgotten story-teller


December 17, 2018

I had planned to continue with my series of columns about women writers of merit but the readers’ feedback on my previous column about Altaf Fatima has prompted me to interrupt the series.

My mention of Altaf Fatima’s maternal uncle, Syed Rafiq Hussain, as a pioneering Urdu short-story writer about animals has incited some curiosity in readers who wrote emails to enquire about this little-known gem of Urdu literature. Some readers confused him with another Syed Rafiq Husain (1913 – 1990), poet and critic who was a professor of Urdu at Allahabad University.

Sometimes he also used his full name as Dr Syed Rafiq Husain, but he was at least 20 years junior to Syed Rafiq Hussain Rizvi who had died in 1944. According to his own three-page autobiography reprinted in Ajmal Kamal’s ‘Aaj’ in 2017, Syed Rafiq Hussain was born in 1895 in Lucknow, India. His mother died when he was just seven and then he had a tumultuous childhood that he spent hopping from his sister to his paternal aunt to other relatives. His education was interrupted and he was not a particularly bright pupil at school, as per his own confession.

In 1915, he left home and fled to Bombay (now Mumbai) where he worked at a foundry and studied at night. When he managed to get admission to an engineering institute, he informed his father who started sending him his expenses. He graduated in 1920 and started working as an engineer but he could never settle in one job and kept resigning every now and then. In all, he claims to have had 17 jobs in 20 years. But the most interesting period that stimulated his creative writing about animals was the decade that he spent near the forest in upper Uttar Pradesh (UP).

He was not an avid reader of Urdu, nor did he write clear and chaste Urdu prose – which was edited and improved by his daughter. He claimed to have read hardly four or five books in Urdu, but had widely read English books. He reckons that the number of English novels and stories that he had read by the age of 40 was over two thousand. Interestingly he never kept any animal as a pet but his observations about them were insightful and engaging. He gives credit for his Urdu writings to his daughter and his younger sister (who was Altaf Fatima’s mother).

They read Urdu stories to him which he did not particularly like, likening Urdu literature with a spinning wheel or bull cart in front of a textile mill or railway train of English literature. They challenged him to write something in Urdu and he accepted the challenge. His stories were initially published in ‘Saqi’ by Shahid Ahmed Dehlevi. According to him, his first short story published was titled ‘Kalva’. It is an amazing and ground-breaking story in Urdu about a puppy that is brought home by a child called Munnan.

The family kicks the puppy out but it never forgets Munnan and years later, Kalva saves Munnan’s life by helping him when he is drowning. In this effort Kalva itself loses his life. As mentioned in my previous column, literary quarterly ‘Naya Daur’ in 1968 had devoted a section to Rafiq Hussain. Since this old issue that I have in my collection may not be easily available, the readers are advised to look for ‘Ainae Hairat and Other Stories’ by Aaj Publications, or they may find a selection of Syed Rafiq Hussain’s writings, ‘Intikhab-i-Syed Rafiq Hussain’, compiled by Asif Farrukhi for the OUP.

It is amazing how this writer of outstanding talent was ignored by critics for so long. Perhaps one reason for this relative neglect of this writer was the period in which he started writing. His total oeuvre consists of hardly one and a half dozen stories and novelettes published during the late 1930s and early 1940s. That was an era in which politically charged writing was making its mark. The Progressive Writers’ Association had come into being and ‘Angarey’ was the talk of the literary circles.

Mind you, ‘Angarey’ was a collection of short stories written by some progressive writers such as Sajjad Zaheer, Rasheed Jahan, Mahmooduz Zafar, and Ahmed Ali; it was banned by the British government. At that time, social and political awareness was gaining ground and writers such as Munshi Prem Chand, Krishan Chandar, Khawja Ahmed Abbas, and others were writing stories and novels that had a clear social and political purpose. In this atmosphere, writing about animals was looked down upon. Had Syed Rafiq Hussain lived a decade earlier or later, perhaps he would have received due recognition.

Moreover, the hard-line approach of the progressive writers during the 1940s and early 1950s did tremendous injustice to the pieces of literature that were not ‘red’ enough. In the 1940s and 50s, Urdu literature was overwhelmingly influenced by the Partition and was inclined towards a Marxist or leftist exposition of social phenomena. Syed Rafiq Hussain was neither a Marxist nor a socialist and his writings were free from any political or social message. He was interested in animals and wanted to show his appreciation of their nature and tendencies. Most of his stories portray animals in their raw form and expose human injustices to them.

For example, his most famous story is ‘Ainae Hairat’, translated into English as ‘The Mirror of Wonders’ by Saleem Kidwai and published by Yoda Press in 2013. In ‘The Mirror of Wonders’, a mountain dweller called Dhatyal is moving along the road in searing heat of June. An aristocrat invites him to sit in his car but throws him out when he vomits in the car. On the same road a female monkey is also roaming around with her infant. After a while, when the temperature declines in upper hills, the female monkey joins her troop.

Soon the driver of the aristocrat would snatch the infant monkey so that it could live with the infant of the aristocrat and make him healthy. The mother monkey finds the cottage where her infant is tied with a rope. She joins it and stays there but the family drives her out. Now the infant monkey is perpetually crying and longing for its mother; therefore, the family gives it to an upper-class Hindu girl who worships it as Hanuman. The mother monkey gets back to the cottage to be with her infant and not finding it there, takes away the infant son of the aristocrat.

In the bitter cold and in the midst of landslides on the mountains the mother monkey dies and Dhatyal rescues the child to raise it as his own son. Stories such as this are not entirely free from a social message but somehow they failed to attract the attention and admiration from the dominant school of thought in Urdu literature. Ajmal Kamal and Asif Farrukhi have a done a tremendous service to Urdu literature by resurrecting this almost buried treasure trove.

Syed Rafiq Hussain was a chain smoker and died a premature death by cancer while he was still in his 40s. A collection of his stories, ‘Majmua Syed Rafiq Hussain,’ was also published by Sang-e-Meel Publications in 2004. He also wrote some stories and novels that did not focus on animals such as ‘Gadha Naheen Bharta’ (the pit doesn’t fill) about a corrupt official who embezzles money from government account to fill a pit that is always empty; in fact he has an insatiable greed for money. Similarly, ‘Neem ki Nimkoli’ and ‘Fasana-e-Akbar’ are also good novelettes. You may also just log into the Rekhta website and read the soft copy of his collection of stories, ‘Gori o Gori’ that was published by Urdu Academy Sindh in 1952.

The writer holds a PhD from the

University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

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