Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the third president of the USA, is said to have compiled several lists of ‘great books’ or ‘best books’. Since then, the concept of a list of ‘100 best books’ or ‘1,000 great books’ has been popular in the western culture. Some have prepared a list of books they wish to read before they die. Many have prepared their own lists of best books. Also, there are best book lists that have been prepared by teams of scholars.
Last week a friend of mine asked if there were any such lists in Urdu. I said as far as I could recall there were none and there could hardly be any list on which everyone agreed. She suggested somebody should start compiling a list of best Urdu books and others would join in. My idea was to start a list of the best books on the basis of genres.
So here is a list of the 10 best Urdu autobiographies. Compiled in chronological order and not in order of preference, it is based on the importance, relevance, readability and literary and cultural value. A good book does not have to be a bestseller and may not be liked by everyone. You may differ or even be surprised at some of the titles that others declare as favourites, as Andre Maurois has said: “In literature, as in love, we are astonished at what is chosen by the others”. But you have a right to prepare your own list or amend this one.
Kaala paani — First published in 1884, the full title is ‘Tavaareekh-i-Ajeeb almaaroof bah kaala paani’. Jafer Thanesari (1838-1905) penned this slim volume when he returned from Andaman Islands, where he was imprisoned in January 1866 for about 20 years on the charges of ‘treason’ against the British. It may not be a complete autobiography in the real sense of the term, but it is a first-hand account of the life on these islands and gives a political and historical background of the 1857 war of freedom. It is one of the earliest Urdu autobiographies and makes a good reading, too. Recently, Sang-i-Meel Publications, Lahore, has reprinted it.
Aamaal nama — Known for its chaste Urdu and literary style, the book discusses political, social and literary issues of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Written by Sir Raza Ali (1880-1849), who held important posts such as a member of the Indian Legislative Council and Agent General in South Africa, the book was first published in 1943. The author has described his life in details and in such a candid manner that few Urdu autobiographies can offer such frank insights. The book had been out of print for a few decades but Patna’s Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library published a new edition in 1992.
Mushahidaat — One of the Urdu books banned because of their contents is the autobiography of Nawab Hosh Yaar Jang Hosh Bilgirami (1894-1955). The book (1955) describes, in addition to other things, the royal courts and royal lives in princely states of Hyderabad Deccan and Rampur. Since it revealed some parts of personal lives of those who mattered, its publication provoked uproar from readers. Many pages had to be removed and stickers had to be pasted to hide many lines. But the high-ups were not satisfied and it was finally banned and confiscated in Deccan. The writer was shocked and died a few days later. Today its copies are extremely hard to find.
Naqabil-i-Faramosh — Sardar Divan Singh Maftoon (1890-1975), a journalist, began writing his memoirs while in jail in 1943. It was serialised in his newspaper ‘Riyaasat’ in 1944. When published later in book form it became much popular. Maftoon decided to rewrite it and the second, expanded edition was published in 1957. It narrates some very interesting, and true to the book’s name, unforgettable events. Maftoon had written the sequel, titled Saif-o-Qalam, but it could not get published. A Lahore publisher had reprinted Naqabil-i-Faramosh a few years ago.
Khoon baha — Hakeem Ahmed Shuja (1893-1969), a playwright, journalist and poet, grieves in this autobiography the death of some friends, relatives and dear ones. This has kind of overshadowed the entire book but still it is an interesting account of his era and contemporaries. It has a literary and scholarly touch and is valued for its flowing prose, too. First published in 1962, it ran into multiple editions, but is now out of print, though some public libraries treasure it.
Sarguzasht — Syed Zulfiqar Ali Bukhari, popularly known as Z. A. Bukhari, began writing his autobiography in 1962. Serialised in the daily Hurriyet, it was published in book form in 1966. A witty and somewhat naughty fellow as Bukhari was, the book offers good glimpses of his wit, repartee and pranks. It is also part a history of broadcasting in India and Pakistan, not to mention the beautiful language.
Yaadon ki dunya — It is a well thought out and well-written autobiography by Dr Yousuf Hussain Khan, an Indian scholar. Published in 1967 and beginning from the Mughal era, the book describes the author’s life and then the vast canvass reflects the entire society. A beautiful combination of literature, history and sociology, the book is not easy to come by these days.
Yaadon ki baraat — Often dubbed as a controversial book by Josh Maleehabadi (1898-1982), it appeared in 1970 and was criticised for some of its contents that discuss Josh’s innumerable love affairs. Known for his command of the Urdu language, Josh has definitely written beautiful and inimitable prose. The narration of his early life and the environment is absorbing. Recently, Dr Hilal Naqvi found its missing pages and published them. Yaadon ki baraat is definitely one of the most interesting biographies of Urdu.
Jahan-i-Danish — Ehsaan Danish (1914-1982) was a self-made poet who earned his bread as a labourer. A self-taught man, he was ultimately recognised as a poet and scholar. The autobiography teaches lessons in courage. One learns to face the world in extreme poverty and rise. First published in 1975, a few years ago it was reprinted with its second part.
Zarguzasht: Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi is today considered Urdu’s foremost humorist. His autobiography first appeared in 1976 and has been reprinted many times over. Yousufi Sahib believes that sense of humour is in fact the sixth sense and if one possesses this sixth sense, one can go through all the hardships of life smilingly. That is exactly what he has done while narrating his career as a banker: he smiles at difficulties and laughs troubles off. It’s a “must read” for anyone.
Shahab nama: Qudratullah Shahab (1917-1986) was a top bureaucrat, but in essence he was a fiction writer. This has also reflected in his autobiography and Mushfiq Khwaja, a close friend of Shahab’s, has also called it ‘fiction’. Some unbelievable incidents apart, it reveals the sorry state of affairs of a nascent country whose people were deprived of democracy. The early portion describing the British Raj also makes an absorbing reading. It is one of the bestsellers in recent history.