Certainly no time to die

June 7, 2020

In Asif Farrukhi, Pakistan and the world of Urdu literature have lost an accomplished practitioner of wordcraft and a veritable one-man army for the restoration of literature as a dynamic civic organ

Asif Farrukhi left shocked an ever-expanding congregation of friends and admirers, at home as well as abroad, with his sudden death on the morning of Monday, June 1. In him, Pakistan lost an icon of a citizen, and the Urdu world a veritable one-man army for the restoration of literature as a dynamic civic organ. His readers mourn an accomplished practitioner of wordcraft and the underlying sagacity that comes through the interplay of reason and sensibility. His oeuvre at the age of 60 stood a mountain of enviable work in virtually innumerable dimensions but a nagging sense of loss will endure for what was to come. The lilac had just blossomed and it was time now for the vintage harvest.

Born to a family with strong literary credentials on either side, Farrukhi imbibed the best of art and culture at an early age. He was a dedicated curator of the heritage. His father Aslam Farrukhi was a writer, researcher, teacher and a broadcaster. His octogenarian mother, currently suffering from dementia and possibly oblivious to the loss of her jewel of a son, counts names like Deputy Nazeer Ahmed and Shahid Ahmed Dehlavi in her ancestry.

Asif Farrukhi received his education at St Patrick’s School, DJ Science College and Dow Medical College. He went on to specialise in public health at Harvard University. His choice of public health speaks itself for his dedication to causes that go beyond the confines of a clinic. He started working in 1985 at the Aga Khan University with the public health legend Prof John H Bryant. In 1994, he joined the UNICEF and served its Health and Nutrition programme for 20 years. In 2014, he moved to Habib University, where he was currently serving as the dean at the School of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences. As a medical professional, his credentials were impeccable but he was a citizen of many worlds.

Farrukhi co-founded the Karachi Literature Festival alongwith Ameena Sayyid.

His literary expedition dates back to 1980 when he started as a short story writer, poet, interviewer, critic and a translator. Modest to a fault, his face carried an inimitable smile and his eyes never lost an unquenchable glint of incisive intelligence. He managed the strenuous feat of turning a day into a year of prime product through his diligence, dedication and indefatigable energy. An avid reader, Asif was as good a post-modernist as we ever came close to having one. He carried himself with equal facility in the company of Muhammad Hasan Askari and Faiz Ahmad Faiz. His earlier tilt towards a purist approach to literature did not prevent him from appreciating the best of the progressive tradition.

Asif Farrukhi was anything but a parochial bard. He transcended ethnic, geographic, cultural and political identities without denying their essential peculiarities. It is not common for an Urdu-speaking scholar from Karachi to delve deep into Sindhi literature. He was one of the literary pioneers who familiarised Urdu readers with the magic realism of Latin American literature. A large number of young Pakistani readers are familiar with the modern writers of Europe but Asif Farrukhi did not limit himself to an evening reading in his armchair. He took upon himself the task of familiarising the less privileged with his readings and more so, enriching the national literature with the best of the modern literary endeavours. For this, he chose translations, public dialogue and an array of civic platforms. When all is said, Asif Farrukhi will always be remembered for three reasons; his identification of Intizar Husain as the most apt metaphor of post-independence literary tradition in this country, founding Karachi Literature Festival in 2010 under the auspices of Oxford University Press and the British Council in collaboration with Ameena Sayyid and his enduring love for the city of Karachi and its inhabitants. His critique of Intizar Husain’s fiction entitled Chiragh-i-Shab-i-Afsana (Light in the Night of Tales) is mesmerising in its intricacy, profundity and enlightening charm.

Farrukhi was anything but a parochial bard. He transcended ethnic, geographic, cultural and political identities without denying their essential peculiarities. It is not common for an Urdu-speaking scholar from Karachi to delve deep into Sindhi literature.

This scribe believes that Farrukhi’s exposition of Intizar Husain’s work is as ornate as the fiction under review itself. Our coming generations may not realise the enormity of the catastrophe that befell the beautiful city of Karachi, pitted against the dual menace of ethnic violence and religious terrorism in the years when Farrukhi decided to employ larger literary dialogue as the tool against the forces of violence, obscurantism and outright crime, both individual and collective. I recall Intizar Husain returning from KLF in 2010 and gushing about the unleashed force of literature against brutality. This was Farrukhi at his best. With one expansive swoop, he brought back literature to the centre stage of a milieu that had become accustomed to the drubbing of Jon Elia before the terrified eyes of Karachiites. Karachi was his love. I remember him once telling me that he couldn’t conceive living in any other city of the world.

Farrukhi was a crystal piece with never-ending angles and shades. He wrote newspaper columns in English as well as Urdu. His book entitled Harf-e-Man-o-Tu (A Word Between Me and You) comprises interviews of literary stalwarts and shed a good light on his own understanding of literary discourse.

Aatish Fishan Par Khile Gulab (Rose blossoms on a Volcano), Aalam-e-Eejaad (World of Invention), Cheezain Aur Log (Things and People), Cheezon Ki Kahanian (Stories about Things), Ism-e-Azam Ki Talaash (The Search for the Highest Name), Meray Din Guzar Rahe Hen (My Days Are Passing By), Shehr Beeti (Tale of A City), Shehr Maajra (What Befell the City) and Mein Shaakh Se Kyun Toota (Why I Fell From the Tree) are just a few names in a long list of publications. That was not all; he also forayed into editing and publishing. He edited the literary journal, Dunyazad, for twenty years before announcing its closure in 2019 with the last issue titled The Book of Goodbye. Oh, the eyes that saw so intensely, felt like closing. He ran a publishing house by the name of Scheherazade in Karachi.

As an astute critic, Farrukhi drew his inspiration from three major Urdu writers of the twentieth century; Meeraji, Muhammad Hasan Askari and Shamim Hanafi. According to Nasir Abbas Nayyar, Farrukhi was at his best as a critic in his book Alam e Ijad. Without the mildest intent to disagree with Nayyar, himself an outstanding modern Urdu writer, one feels like saying that with Farrukhi, the best was yet to be. I last saw him at the Lahore Literary Festival in February last. He appeared slightly leaner than I remembered and his eyes had developed brooding circles. When asked about his health, he mumbled an evasive response. He was intensely private. He chose to show a glimpse of his inner turmoil three weeks before his untimely death, by writing a piece in Dawn titled A Time for Death. One sentence was particularly striking. “All deaths diminish and deprive me one way or the other.”

Asif Farrukhi has deprived his friends and admirers in more than one way because this certainly was not a time to die.

The writer is a human rights activist and a political analyst

Remembering Asif Farrukhi