An intellectual powerhouse

Masood Ashar’s work will be remembered for years

An intellectual powerhouse

Words are source of miseries and remedies alike. A paradox, indeed. The news of Masood Ashar’s death caused shock, distress and sorrow across the world of Urdu literature, already saddened by the passing of some giants in recent times. The words he has left behind as his legacy have the magical power to compensate for an, otherwise, irreparable loss. We perish, but our words might survive us. His short stories, essays and newspaper columns will keep his memory alive. Once writers are absent, their words may speak to us more clearly, louder and more passionately.

Ashar was born on February 10, 1931, in the state of Rampur. He was named Masood Ahmad Khan, a reference to his Pashtun lineage. He began his literary career as a poet. He met poet Shad Arfi (1900-1964) to seek guidance. Arfi suggested the Ashar takhallus. Some of his poems were published in prestigious contemporary literary magazines, including the Adabi Duniya and Alhamra. However, he soonstopped writing poetry.

His early education was traditional. He received the Alam-i-adab-i-Arabicertificate from Rampur’s renowned Madrasa-i-Alia. Later, he graduated from Allahabad University. In 1951, he migrated to Pakistan via Khokhrapar border and settled in Lahore. For his livelihood, he chose a career in journalism. Initially, he worked for dailies Ehsan, Zamindar and Aasar. In 1954, he became a senior sub-editor at dailyImroze. Most of the journalistsin those days were recognised as writersand journalistic engagements were seen as a spur to the imagination of a poet or a fiction writer. Ashar’s columns were steeped in literary references. He wrote about almost every literary event, important book and new writer. So much so that one can compile a literary history of the period using his columns. Many of the themes in his stories were also borrowed from his journalistic endeavours.

Four years later, he was transferred to Multan as resident editor of the paper. His stay at Multan was unforgettable in many respects. He not only started off writing short stories there but was also mesmerised by the natural and mythological landscape of Rohithat kept recurring in his short stories. Dukhjo Matti Nay Diay and Akhri Nikhad deserve particular mention. He also mentored some promising young writers there. Dr Anwaar Ahmad and Asghar Nadeem Syed merit mention in this regard.

In Multan, he would frequently meet Zia-ul-Haq (then a colonel), who later overthrew ZA Bhutto’s government and suspended the constitution. Though Ashar never wrote a formal autobiography, in his Urdu columns, he would share some of the memoirs. In a column titled Zia-ul-Haqki Yaad Mein (In memory of Zia-ul-Haq), published on August 20, 2020, in daily Duniya, he briefly narrated how their acquaintance began and grew. “When Zia-ul-Haqwas elevated as the chief of the army staff, we invited him to Multan Press Club. He presented two books to the Press Club. Those were Kulliyat-i-Iqbal and a book by MaulanaMaududi”, he wrote. Ashar writes that before leaving for Rawalpindi, GenZia gave him a phone number where he could call direct after 1am. “What happened then?” he raises the question. “A martial law government”, he answers.

During GenZia’s dictatorship, Ashar was transferred to Lahore – for not censoring the news of shooting at a workers’ protest rally at Colony Textile Mills. Eventually, he was sacked – for signing a charter of demandsthat included an end the martial law and restoration of democracy. Lesson: dictators can be masters, not friends.

An unflinching commitment to progressive ideas was the hallmark of Ashar’s personality. In 1988, when Benazir Bhutto came into power,his services at Imroze were restored. After retiring from daily Imroze, Ashar joined Mashal Books, a Lahore-based non-government publishing house, as an editor. He not only translated fiction as well as non-fiction from English into Urdu but also edited translations by other writers.

Young-Hakim’s I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, Cho Se-hui’s The Dawrf, Yi Ch’ongjin’sYour Paradise, Park Wan-suh and other’s A Sketch of the Fading Sun –were translated into Urdu as Zindagi say Nijat, Bona Admi, Aapki Jannat and Doobtay Sooraj ki Tasveer, respectively. A Japanese novel, titled Khamoshi, was also translated. He also rendered into Urdu ZiauddinSardar’s book Jannat kay Liay Sargrdan. Aurtain aur Doosray Dhutkary Huway Log is the Urdu title of an anthology of Bengali stories which he translated from English. This anthology was compiled and edited by Kalpana Burdhan under the title of Of Women, Outcastes, Peasants and Rebels. It seems that Bengal had occupied a permanent place in his mental landscape. Once, during the last years of GenAyub’s reign, Ashar visited Dacca as a delegate of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists. There he was witness to the reality of Bengal. Memories from this visit – and what happened in December 1971 – helped him write some of his best stories. Including Dukh Jo Matti Nay Diay, Apni Apni Sachchayan, Bela Nai ray and Joldi Joldi.

We perish, but our words might survive. His short stories, essays and newspaper columns will keep his memory alive. Once writers are absent, their words may speak to us more clearly, louder and more passionately.     

Ashar had an instinct for going against the grain. Some writers are deeply concerned with their writings and their reception in the literary world. They keep referring to their own works in their interviews, talks and essays in one way or the other. Ashar would rarely make mention any of his short stories. I heard him talk about his stories on only two occasions. Once it was at Islamabad Literary Festival where a selection of his best stories by Asif Farrukhi was inaugurated. The second occasion was when at the Lahore Literary Festival there was a talk about his fourth and last collection of stories Swal Kahani. Ankhon Per Dono Haath (1974), Saray Fasany (1987) and Apna Ghar (2004) are his previous collections of stories.

There could be no doubt that Ashar had a progressive mind. But which kind of progressiveness would he believe in and practice? It might be loosely called a critical-scientific one. He seemed to believe that human emancipation hinged not on any specific ideology or creed but on keeping the interrogative spirit alive. Ideology, sacred or profane, he believed could acquire an elitist character. Eventually, a cohort of people hegemonises all interpretative tools and strategies of that ideology, closing doors to dissidents and free-thinkers. But an interrogative spirit, having accessto all and sundry, succeeds in retaining a democratic trait.

Ashar began writing short stories during the heyday of Nia or Alamti Urdu Afsana but while describing characteristics of his stories, he avoided alignment with the dominant literary trend. He went with his own heart and mind. On the back cover of his first book, he wrote that “these are not [just] stories but also questions – the questions that I keep asking myself at different times and occasions”. He also pointed to the emancipatory role of interrogative spirit by stating that “at times I get catharsis and peace of mind. At other moments, I come across emotional distress”. Questions raised in his stories do not always find definite answers. He never stopped raising questions. Even his last book of short stories, titled Swal Kahani, there was a story rooted in question. A word of caution though: although his stories came out of his questions, they are not written in the psychological realist tradition. A narrative cum descriptive style is employed all along, although the plots are frequently non-linear.

A peculiarity of Ashar’s fiction: Nia Urdu Afsana was replete with themes of resistance on one side and with displacement, migration and nostalgia on the other. We find a specific form of resistance in his stories, but nostalgia and displacement never dominated his memories and imagination, except in Apna Ghar, a long story, in which the protagonist visiting his home in Delhi, talks vehemently about the days gone by, lost people, abandoned etiquette, forgotten cuisine and lost moral values. Ashar kept writing about the contemporary local and global world. It seems that instead of letting his imagination nestle around partition, he prioritised writing about the major events of Pakistan’s history, like the fall of Dacca, ever-emerging extremism, the information technology revolution and the post 9/11 world.

Questions and fiction are inseparable. In ancient and classical periods, the big motif of stories would be informed by a quest to solve some question, riddle or problem. For instance, in the dastan of Araaish-i-Mehfil, Hatim Tai sets out in search of answers to seven questions posed by HusnBano. The well-known dictum Aik baar daikha hae dobara daikhnay ki hawashae (Have seen once, craving to see again) is the first question asked by Bano. The meaning, relevance, necessity and role of question in modern and post-modern fiction have drastically changed. Questions informing Masood Ahsar’s stories are more of a cultural, psychological, political, existential, and constitutional nature. Contrary to questions of dastani fiction which caused heroes to do adventurous things, Ashar’s are ‘interrogative’ in nature. Almost every story of his seems to raise or indulge in some question which is usually upsetting. Through these questions, Ashar delves, on one hand, into the complexities of Pakistani society, politics, democratic values, human relations, and on other the paradoxical nature of a globalised world where boundaries of nation states are melting.

With the passage of time, he had come to embrace the idea of multiple identities. Some of the stories included in Sawal Kahani revolve around how in a globalised world, families, especially of Asian immigrants, are compelled to live with multiple identities. They are doomed to lose permanently any single origin.

Airaf, one of his earlier stories, interrogated the Janus-faced nature of Pakistani society. The protagonist is shown entangled in a conundrum of religiosity and sensuality. Allah Hafiz deals with how the shift from Khuda Hafiz to Allah Hafiz occurred well before Gen Zia’s project of Islamisation, and how a seeker of knowledge in our society has to meet an unfortunate end. Abdul Daim, the central character of the story, dedicates his life and resources to tackling fundamental questions about religion and its representations. He is doomed to lose his most precious possessions; his books are burned.

In Dukh jo Matti nay Diay, the narrator of the story delves into the miseries of a man – most probably a Bengali, who like an insect has to carry his world on his back and adapt to the challenges of a changing environment.

In Akhri Nikhad (the final loudtune), the narrator asks an extremely perturbing question. Written in the backdrop of the environmental effects of nuclear tests by India and Pakistan and set in Rohi, the narrator says that “My lord, Khawaja [Farid] sahib’s Rohi seems to have grown indignant. She intends to hit back for our wrongdoings. First, we callously cut jungles and now by extracting uranium [from Koh-i-Suleman] we are filling it with millions of tonnes of gunpowder”. He goes on to assert that everything is alive. So, Rohi — and other places and their inhabitants are alive. They breathe and respond. On the other side, our greed to extract money and power from nature is also alive.

Masood Ashar passed away in Lahore on July 6. He was 90. His memory and his life-long struggle will stay alive for years to come.

The writer is a Lahore-based critic, short story writer, professor of Urdu at University of the Punjab and author of Urdu Adab Ki Tashkeel-i-Jadid,JadeediataurNauAbadiyat(criticism) and AikZamaanaKhatmHuwa Hai (short stories)

An intellectual powerhouse