JUST before the fall of Dhaka, Muhammad Badar Muneer, an Urdu writer and journalist, would go to a Dhaka hospital and read out novels to a 90-year-old ailing Bengali woman. The novels were in Urdu and were written by Ibn-i-Safi. After the fall of Dhaka, when Muneer sahib visited the lady, he was unwilling to read out the Urdu novels because the atmosphere was not conducive for West Pakistanis and Urdu. Looking at his unease the lady said: “Who are you afraid of? Read out.” He began reading quite loudly (since she was a bit hard of hearing) and the people around were anxious but nobody dared say anything because the lady was the mother of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh. I will come to this later.
Let me first say a few words about my column that appeared last week titled Urdu as medium of instruction and compulsory subject. It generated quite a bit of response albeit the opinion was divided and the feedback included both kind and unkind words about Urdu. The response from Pakistani emigrants was particularly pessimistic since large number of the young generation of Pakistanis living abroad cannot read Urdu. One such reader was of the view that Urdu was a dying language. What this young man ignored is the fact that no language can die as long as people speak it, write in it and read its literature, though all languages change with the passage of time and over a longer period they may change even beyond recognition.
Secondly, Pakistanis abroad cannot, perhaps, fully realise that Urdu still holds a high pedestal in certain sections of Pakistani society, especially the middle and upper-middle classes. Many middle-class families in Punjab and elsewhere do not speak their mother tongue when talking to their younger ones.
In fact, the number of people who know Urdu has been increasing steadily. One reason is, of course, the Bollywood movies, though they are labelled as ‘Hindi movies’, they present a version of Urdu which is commonly understood both in India and Pakistan and which has a minimal number of “shudh” or pure Sanskrit words (because this would definitely reduce the circle of audience even inside India).
Besides, Urdu, despite the step-motherly treatment meted out to it by the bureaucracy, has truly become Pakistan’s lingua franca and is now spoken and understood even in the remote mountainous villages of the country. There are many people who can vouch for the fact that about half a century ago in the Northern Areas, including Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan areas, sometimes it was difficult to find someone who understood Urdu. Today, these areas boast of Urdu newspapers and magazines and Urdu literature is being created in these areas by the indigenous people.
As for Urdu literature, it is not only being written and read but it is flourishing, notwithstanding what Urdu publishers say who would have us believe that nobody reads Urdu books these days (though none of them would be willing to wind up their businesses). On the contrary, old Urdu books are being reprinted not only in Pakistan but in India as well. One encouraging example is that almost the entire set of Ibn-i-Safi’s books, numbering over 200, has been reprinted in India and Pakistan and many titles of the new edition are already in short supply.
The Bengali lady addicted to Ibn-i-Safi’s novels is not the only example. There were many who could not read for one reason or the other but were fans of Ibn-i-Safi and his novels were read out to them. Many learnt Urdu just to be able to read Ibn-i-Safi’s books. Ibn-i-Safi’s books were translated into Hindi and Gujarati way back in the 1950s and 1960s when Ibn-i-Safi’s popularity had made him Urdu’s bestselling author.
According to Shakeel Aadilzada, Subrung Digest founder and editor, once 14,000 copies of Ibn-i-Safi’s new novel were sent to Karachi’s Regal bus stop, a place known for wholesale book business back then, and all of them were sold out the same day. A few years ago many of his books were translated into Hindi afresh. Also, six of his novels have recently been translated into English, some by noted critic and scholar Shams-ur-Rahman Farooqi, and published by prominent India-based western publishers. A three-day national seminar on Ibn-i-Safi was organised at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia in 2012.
So Ibn-i-Safi is one of the authors who helped popularise Urdu and whose books still sell. New reprints and new translations of his books on a larger scale prove that Ibn-i-Safi has made a resounding return, which, in turn, signals that the sun is still shining on Urdu literature. The pessimists who gauge Urdu’s decline by merely looking at the elite class that lives abroad or lives in a capsule of luxury disconnected from the mainstream society, simply do not have the complete picture to reach the right conclusions.
How Ibn-i-Safi is making a comeback and changing the views of critics and scholars about detective fiction can also be judged by publication of at least eight books on him during the last two years, one of them in India. But the most outstanding among them is Ibn-i-Safi: shakhsiyat aur fun. Written by Rashid Ashraf and published by Bazm-e-Takhleeq-i-Adab, Karachi, the book is in fact a well-written dissertation on Ibn-i-Safi, complete with references and bibliographical details. Mr Ashraf is a chemical engineer by profession but his love for literature is now well-known. He is among those bibliophiles of Karachi who are the first to arrive at the Sunday book bazaar and by the time idlers like this writer reach the Regal bus stop, where the old books are sold in the early hours, early birds like Mr Ashraf are gone after having found the “worms”, so to speak.
In this book Mr Ashraf has revealed that the first book, or rather booklet, on Ibn-i-Safi was published in August 1980, just a month after Ibn-i-Safi’s death. Published from Nawabshah, Sindh, and titled Ibn-i-Safi zinda hai, this 30-page booklet was written by Capt. Dr Syed Muzaffar Sultan Bukhari.
In 1990, Ibn-i-Haq’s book Ibn-i-Safi ne kaha was published. Now its new, revised edition has been published by Karachi’s City Book Point. It contains excerpts from Ibn-i-Safi’s books including his selected poetry.
Khurram Ali Shafique is more known for his research work on Allama Iqbal but he too is a great fan of Ibn-i-Safi. In his two books, Psycho Mansion and Rana Palace, both published by Fazlee Sons, Karachi, he has chosen selected passages from Ibn-i-Safi’s works and raised some questions concerning Ibn-i-Safi and his art.
Recently Mushtaq Ahmed Qureshi, a journalist, writer and a close associate of Ibn-i-Safi, came up with another book on Ibn-i-Safi. His first book Do baday was a collection of articles on Ibn-i-Safi. His new book Yaadash bakhair, self-published, is also a collection of articles on Ibn-i-Safi by prominent writers.
Mr Ashraf’s other book on Ibn-i-Safi too has just appeared. Again, this book shows Rashid’s organised and systemic approach towards his works. The book is divided into sections that present articles according to their topic and nature. Aside from articles by some well-known authors, interviews, columns and memoirs of some friends of Ibn-i-Safi, some rare photographs are also included. Bazm-e-Takhleeq-i-Adab, Karachi, published it in 2013.
July 26 marks the 33rd death anniversary of Ibn-i-Safi.