HAJRA Masroor was among the last of the surviving creative writers who made their literary debut before independence. She was much in demand at literary gatherings even after she had stopped writing short stories, at least a couple of decades before she passed away in Karachi on Saturday.
She was a friend for all seasons. She remained loyal to Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, even when he was disowned by many people after his unfortunate and highly publicised differences with Faiz. Hajra Apa, as she was called by one and all, was also loyal to nicotine.
Doctors, close relatives and friends insisted time and again that she gave up smoking, but even when her respiratory system had almost collapsed she refused to kick the habit.
Hajra Masroor was not her normal self after the death of her husband of 57 years, the illustrious journalist Ahmad Ali Khan (who edited Dawn with distinction for many years) in 2007.
She and her elder sister Khadeeja Mastoor, a writer of novels and short stories of no less repute, were often likened to the Bronte sisters and like the 19th century writers of fiction — Emily and Charlotte, they had a sister, Ayesha Jamal, who wrote stories but never got the recognition she deserved.
Born in Lucknow in 1930, she and her sisters had the advantage of living in a house which was full of bookshelves bursting at the seams. A good number of literary magazines also found their way into their house.
Voracious readers, the sisters started writing stories which were published in journals like Adabi Duniya, Humayun, Saqi, Khayyam and Alamgir.
Hajra got Rs15 for five of her stories which were published in a literary journal. She couldn’t recall the name when she mentioned it to this writer a year or so ago.
Shortly before independence, Khadeeja and Hajra recorded their stories at the Lucknow station of the All India Radio. Came Partition and her family took a steamer to sail from Mumbai to Karachi and then a train to Lahore.
PRINCELY ROYALTY: When she was still in Lucknow, two of her collections of short stories, Charkey and Hai Allah, were published. While the first book got her a royalty of Rs40, the second bagged her what was then a princely sum of Rs600.
In Pakistan she continued to contribute to literary journals and four collections appeared. Not too long ago Sub Afsaney Mere, an omnibus of her works, was published in Lahore, while Oxford University Press came out with a slim volume, comprising two highly readable stories for children.
When asked why she didn’t author a novel which her sister did with much success, Hajra told me years ago: “Khadeeja had the patience, the persistence and the power of concentration to write novels, which I don’t.”
Be that as it may, Hajra Masroor wrote simple yet effective prose. Her similes and metaphors are down-to-earth. Her characterisation is as subtle as the symbols that she uses, and her talent to narrate as effective as her ability to describe.
No wonder, one still enjoys reading her stories just as much as one did in the fifties and sixties when they were written.
In 1962 the Majlis Taraqqi-i-Adab gave her the “writer of the year” award for her collection of one-act plays, Woh Log. Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Imtiaz Ali Taj had written the preface and introduction to her volumes of plays.
She also won the Nigar Award for the Best Script sometime in the sixties, when she wrote the story and dialogue of arguably the finest Urdu film produced in what was then East Pakistan. Aakhri Station was made by noted poet and film lyricist, Suroor Barabankvi. Shabnam, who was here early this year, claimed that she was so inspired by the story that she gave the finest performance of her career.
The one regret that many lovers of Urdu fiction will harbour is that Hajra Masroor stopped writing at least three decades before she passed away.