A writer in the shadows

Yahya Amjad’s writings are a reflection of his inner turmoil

Pakistan boasts of a rich literary history. One such writer, critic, poet, a member of the forgotten literati is Yahya Amjad. A man who dedicated his life to revisiting Pakistan’s history and following it to the depths never before explored.

Born on May 9, 1943, in Kundian, Mianwali, Amjad hailed from a well-educated family. His father, Abdul Hakim Sarmad, widely known as Sarmad Mazahiri, was a distinguished poet and thinker.

Later in life, Amjad would go on to edit the poetic works of his father. Wardat-e-Sarmad, a compilation of Mazhiri’s ghazals, is available on the Rekhta Foundation’s website.

The Mazahiri household provided the perfect retreat for the young boy who showed a deep interest in literature and history from his early years. He soon discovered his love of books and learning. Acing the matriculation exams in 1959, it was clear that Amjad would go on to achieve success in his academic life. A gold-medal in Urdu from Punjab University in 1963 cemented his affection for the language and its literature.

In 1967, he sat the CSS examination and was selected. His first posting was as an executive officer in charge of imports and exports.

A career in civil service could not keep the writer away from his true calling. Amjad’s fascination with human evolution and ancient history propelled him to write Tareekh-e-Pakistan (Qadeem Daur) and Tareekh-e-Pakistan (Wasti Ehd).

The former delves deep into the history of the region we know today as Pakistan. From the emergence of Pothohar apes to the rise of cave dwellers, hunters, and early agriculturists who inhabited the land over 2.5 million years ago, the first volume discusses all.

Decline of the Indus Valley Civilisation, tribal democracies, and their vast empires along with the history of human society, politics, economy, science, philosophy, religion, and the many struggles of the region until the emergence of Buddhism are some of the matters explored in the Qadeem Daur.

Poetry, after history, was the other love in Yahya Amjad’s literary life. Not only did he pen touching poetry on themes ranging from love and separation to patriotic sentiment, he is also credited with translating Chinese poetry into Urdu.

During the 1960s and ‘70s, many magazines would publish Chairman Mao’s poetry, mostly in English translation. Yahya Amjad was the first to attempt translating Chairman Mao’s works into Urdu. It is said that he truly enjoyed the process of making Chinese poetry accessible for a broader readership. Some and his translations were also published in China.

Poetry, after history, was the other love in Yahya Amjad’s literary life. Not only did Amjad pen touching poetry on themes ranging from love and separation to patriotic sentiment, he is also credited with translating Chinese poetry into Urdu.

Amjad dedicated much of his short life to the promotion of Urdu literature and poetry. He even worked with an organisation publishing seven volumes of two magazines, Dastak and Muntakhib Adab-o-fun in Urdu and Punjabi. However, the magazines stopped publishing after the publication of the seventh volume.

As with any progressive writer and poet writing during the late ‘70s and ‘80s, Amjad was highly conscious of the Zia regime’s increasing curbs on literary pursuits. “My father was a compassionate and patriotic man,” says Bareera Amjad.

After Yahya Amjad’s untimely demise, after battling acute myeloid leukemia (AML) at 55 in 1998, his work on Pakistan’s history remained incomplete. His daughter has taken it upon herself to preserve her father’s legacy and make his work available for the masses.

She told TNS, “after my father’s passing; we were too distraught.” As a young woman, married with children, Bareera Amjad had much on her plate, and found it hard to put together the works of late Yahya Amjad.

“His work was very important to him. His poetry is a reflection of the political turmoil of those days.” During the Zia regime, many writers found themselves censored and censured. Many revolutionary writers, poets, artists and thinkers were jailed for their progressive positions. It was during this period that Faiz became an icon for freedom of speech in the country.

“Yahya Amjad was a strong man and a loving father, but he could not let the world see all that was in his heart,” says his daughter. She recalls her father excitedly calling them to his study to share a piece of poetry he had penned. She also remembers the forlorn gaze of the troubled poet who burned some of his work one cold night in the park next to their house.

“I remember him pacing in his study on many nights during those days,” she adds.

Towards the end of his journey, Yahya Amjad fought with uncanny strength. His writings remained his most cherished possession, some of which have still not been published. Today, his daughter and grandchildren are making an effort to procure all of his works and get them published. Some of his poetry is available on Rekhta.

An eponymous website dedicated to the life and works of Yahya Amjad is making his works of history and translation of Chinese poetry accessible.

Yahya Amjad is no more, but his family is determined to ensure that his work survives.

The writer is a staff member

A writer in the shadows