BETWEEN the two of them, there happen to be well over 60 titles, innumerable television plays and countless radio scripts. It is well worth a shot to locate a more prolific writing couple in literature than Ashfaq Ahmed and Bano Qudsia, who are celebrated names and for reasons more than one.
The two have always been known for their specific thoughts on the many issues surrounding man’s existence and have a unique approach towards life in general. As such, they are not beyond the odd controversy that people with commitment face when they share their own ideology with the public.
But that is not important… it is just not important. The “respect” factor remains unhurt for the work they have produced, which they have done with literary finesse in terms of language, expression and story-craft, and with remarkable awareness of the different vehicles of expression they used, such as short stories, novels, television drama, radio features and so on.
In their public life, Ahmed and Qudsia remain an inseparable unit. It is difficult to imagine one without something of the other creeping into the picture. They represent one school of thought — ‘old’, but by no means dated — and share a remarkable sense of unity in managing their image in public.
Just as the two lives are inseparable, the books in hand — Baba Saheba and Rah-i-Rawaan — are just as much the proverbial Siamese twins. Though each has enough material to be appreciated as a stand-alone title, they are more like companion volumes to each other.
The initial half of Baba Saheba, an account of Ahmed’s time spent teaching and in broadcasting assignments in Italy, which has been published posthumously, was written by Ahmed himself, while the latter half was compiled with the help of his extended notes by Bano Qudsia. Naturally, there is a marked difference in the pace and texture of the two halves.
The part that was given the finishing touches by the writer himself carries all the characteristics of Ahmed’s prose — gripping, thought-provoking, lucid and utterly spellbinding. The second half stutters a bit though it has enough energy in its contents to keep the reader interested. But the intense feeling while going through the latter half is that of sorrow.
The reader is conscious that the book would have been different if Ahmed had time to complete it. In his hands, the contents would have been delivered with the punch that is so visible in the first half.
Ahmed’s close observation of the life abroad and of the various characters that he comes across — from Rosetta, Dr Velonica, Professor Angaretti and Professor Ferracotti to celebrities such as Sir Alexander Fleming, Charlie Chaplin, Jacqueline Kennedy and others — are fascinating.
The contrast he has then generated with our local input is remarkable, but even more remarkable are the commonalities and similarity of thought and attitude to which he has pointed in a rather indirect, inoffensive manner. The latter half of the book is more focused on the wisdom of the East.
Rah-i-Rawaan, penned by Bano Qudsia, is a biographical sketch of the two lives — one from a traditionally conservative tribe of Mehmund Pathans and the other from a forward-looking, easygoing family of Jat Punjabis. The former was a patriarchal setup, while the entire decision-making in the other was led by a woman who was a senior official in the education setup, but, more than that, she had to lead from the front as her husband had died early.
The two met at the famed Government College in Lahore and there began a story that is worth many a novel. Ashfaq Ahmed’s marriage with Bano Qudsia was the first such rebellion in the Mehmund household and the couple had to pay the price till others in the family followed in their footsteps.
Though the marriage was unconventional, what followed was not quite as unusual. The woman had been a sportsperson, a drama fan who was not averse to the idea of acting on stage, a music lover who took lessons in singing and dancing, and a social personality who loved to go out to parties with all the glitter and gold. All this started changing after marriage. Was it for the better or worse is something people can have their opinion on, but it happened, and happened with the absolute and voluntary consent of the woman in question.
The unusual part in the story is that Bano Qudisa started transforming herself even though there was no pressure from Ahmed and has no regrets that it happened that way.
It was only by doing away with all the distractions in life that she was able to locate the writer in herself. After more than 30 titles to her credit and all the fame, glory and, indeed, respect from a life in public, she hardly has a reason to regret the way it all materialised. In fact, the whole narrative in Rah-i-Rawaan is laced with gratitude towards Ahmed for not just initiating the transformation, but for doing it in a way that Qudisa thought she was doing it all herself.
And it is here that the reader may find something slightly off-putting because the narrative is not just self-effacing; it is downright self-deprecating. It will be hugely unfair to label it as fake, but Qudsia could have so easily avoided running herself down so repeatedly and with such an air of fatality about it.
This aside, the two volumes are highly readable both in terms of content and expression. Though they have been priced slightly on the higher side, once you finish reading, you will not mind having dished out so much for such worthy stuff.
Baba Saheba (MEMOIRS) By Ashfaq Ahmed Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore ISBN 969-35-2172-2 670pp. Rs1,200
Rah-i-Rawaan (AUTOBIOGRAPHY) By Bano Qudsia Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore ISBN 969-35-2315-6 696pp. Rs1,200