A final flicker

September 2, 2018

Will reprinting of Ibne Saeed's fiction reawaken interest in his work?

A final flicker

Rimbaud, one of the most precocious talents in world literature, gave up writing poetry when he was nineteen, and although he lived for another eighteen years he never bothered to pen a single line of verse again.

It will be nothing short of embarrassing to compare the career of Ibne Saeed (1924-2005) with Rimbaud. Nevertheless they do have one thing in common. Ibne Saeed began his literary vocation as a writer of fiction in 1945 and kept on contributing novellas and short stories to various well-known magazines until 1972 and then stopped writing in Urdu altogether. For the last thirty years or so of his life, he wrote exclusively in English for some of the newspapers. No more fiction, however, either in English or Urdu. He had turned his back exclusively on fiction, as though it was something inconsequential.

It is true that he hadn’t set the Urdu literary world on fire with his fiction but some of his later work like ‘Begum’ or the somewhat hilarious ‘Neem tareek rahain’ or ‘Raat guzarti jaati hey’ (shades of Aziz Ahmed here) or ‘Jack wapas naheen aaye ga’ revealed increasing maturity. When he was showing signs of a more assuring standard of creativity, he threw his hand in. Perhaps he thought that he had a gift only for pastiche.

Now Asif Farrukhi has attempted to introduce him to a new generation of readers by publishing two of his novellas and a respectable selection of his stories. Whether this venture will have the desired effect and win him some commendation remains to be seen.

His actual name was Mirza Hasan Askari. When he began to write for literary magazines, Muhammad Hasan Askari was already a well-known writer. This prompted him to write under an assumed name, calling himself Ibne Saeed. His father, Mirza Muhammad Saeed, was a notable educationist and a polymath in the real sense of the word. He wrote a couple of novels in Urdu, not taken much notice of, and a book on the esoteric aspects of religion. The fact that his novels do not impress is surprising. He must have read Hardy, Conrad, George Eliot, Meredith, Dickens and Jane Austen with great attention. He had to cope with students who made considerable demands on their teacher. So why and how things went amiss, one wonders.

Mirza Saeed was a peculiar character, a disciplinarian, almost standoffish, keeping a stiff upper lip, quite unwilling to open up. Perhaps the best thing Ibne Saeed ever wrote is the candid sketch of his father, a piece of writing impartial, without any overt adulation. We notice something perplexing in his father, an autocratic stranger stalking the household. Not unsociable, so to speak, but hard to come to terms with.

The trouble with Mahvar, one of the novellas, is that it has no centre and the imaginary line around which the story should revolve is not there. We can’t even figure out who the main protagonist is. Is it Ahmadi, who is married to a man much older then her, ends up as a widow, saddled with a child, or Rashid, her younger brother, whose mindset remains indeterminate, or Asad, her cousin, who is supposed to marry Ahmadi’s younger sister, and finally loses his mind? There is a miasma of incoherence which never clears. Obviously inspired by Krishan Chandar’s famous story ‘Zindagi kay mor par’, Ibne Saeed fails to imbue the desultory lives of his characters with meaning. We don’t know the family’s source of income. We see a mother but no father. He is simple untraceable. A case of conscious deletion perhaps.

The second novella, Roshniyon ka shehr, slightly longer then Mahvar, set in postwar London, is equally chaotic, a string of pointless episodes. Comparisons with Sajjad Zaheer’s London ki aik raat, a thoroughly readable book, are inevitable. As a writer Ibne Saeed was, initially, too impressionable. By the time he managed to find some freedom, some modicum of originality, he stopped writing fiction.

Anyway, Sajjad Zaheer’s novel, equally short, is more organised. There is an atmosphere charged with idealism. It is also less artful. Sajjad Zaheer could have been one of the most successful writers of fiction in Urdu had he chosen to. It is tempting to see Ibne Saeed’s novella as a parody of Sajjad Zaheer’s work. But to write a parody adeptly one has to intensely like or dislike the author one wishes to poke fun at. This kind of intense behaviour, fierce antipathy or deep rapport, seems quite beyond Ibne Saeed’s sensibility. As a result, Roshniyon ka shehr seems more unreal, undemanding rather, than Mahvar.

Ultimately we have only his short stories to fall back on. Asif’s selection can hardly be faulted. Very sensibly he has also included ‘Ajnabi’, Mirza Saeed’s sketch, surely one of best ever written in Urdu.

It is easy to ignore his early work which tends to be immature. Attention wanders. The focus seems awry. The first story which impresses is ‘Begum’, written in 1954. It is about a courtesan whom the so-called respectable women of the locality regard with repugnance. However, when riots break out her mansion becomes a place of refuge for all. A fine depiction of how values change when disaster stares us in the face.

‘Do balti paani’ deftly sums up a young woman’s manner of survival. The best of the lot is ‘Neem tareek rahain’ in which we see what goes on in local film studios. It is an excellent blend of irony and drollery. ‘Raat guzarti jaati hey’, a trifle long, is about opportunism, perfidy and boredom. ‘Jack wapas naheen aaye ga’ is a story in which poignancy is handled with a wryness which is quietly appropriate. A couple of these stories can feature in any comprehensive and fair-minded anthology of Urdu stories.

The nagging question is, will these reprints reawaken some interest in Ibne Saeed’s fiction? Not very likely, I am afraid. But I will be very pleased if I am proved wrong.

All these books published by OUP, Karachi

A final flicker