QALAM Say Awaz Tak is a highly readable treasure-trove of the history of Urdu broadcasting and various literary genres woven around the unique multidimensional personality of Raza Ali Abidi. Written by Khurram Sohail, the biography traces Abidi’s life and works. Born in 1934 (officially 1936), Abidi moved to Karachi with his family in 1950. After graduating from Islamia College, he worked for 15 years as a little-known journalist before travelling to Europe for a course and subsequently moving to London. Associated with the BBC from 1972 to 2008, Abidi was always an avid reader and had started writing for children’s magazines as a teenager.
In an excerpt reproduced from his book Radio kay Din, Abidi reminisces about his first exposure to radio as a child during World War II. “To keep abreast of the world news, my father had installed a towering antenna on the roof of our house and listened to the news on a large radio set. This Urdu news was broadcast from Radio Berlin. Later, Urdu news was also aired from Radio Tehran and Radio Istanbul.” Although Abidi’s formal association with radio started with Radio Pakistan, it was only to the extent of recording his voice sample for sending to BBC Radio. In other words, Radio Pakistan never availed the services of this world-class Urdu broadcaster.
Talking about his ten siblings and quirk of fate, Abidi is amused to narrate that all his six brothers were engineers which made him feel left behind in the world, being a mere proofreader in an Urdu newspaper during his early years. Later on his brothers, as well as his son who settled in the US, often had to confront the inevitable question when they introduced themselves to others: “Are you related to Raza Ali Abidi?”
Of course, Abidi’s fame is related to his long association with the BBC Urdu Service. Before the advent of private television channels and the internet, access to uncensored news was practically impossible, a fact hard to imagine for the young generation today. During the periods of 1965 and 1971 wars between India and Pakistan, BBC radio was the only reliable source of news for people on both sides of the border, rather than their respective national broadcasters. At the same time, the BBC was also a valuable source of cultural information about the subcontinent.
Abidi’s works include BBC radio programmes based on his travels in India and Pakistan, which were later published as popular books. Jernaili Sarak is an account of his journey from Peshawar to Calcutta on the Grand Trunk Road built by Sher Shah Suri in the 16th century; Kutub Khanay describes various great private, institutional and government libraries and rare books in India and Pakistan; Rail Kahani is based on his month-long train journey from Quetta to Calcutta, also for the BBC; Sher Darya, a journey along river Indus, traces the course of the river from Ladakh down to Thatta. These books are important contributions about the people, places, history and cultures of some of the vibrant regions of the subcontinent.
Qalam say Awaz Tak is essentially a serious scholarly work based on meticulous research about a living legend of Urdu broadcasting, his journalism, travelogues and his delightful fiction. While tracing Abidi’s publications from when he was a teenager in the 1950s to his columns for Jang in 2013, Sohail also provides an uncommon insight into the Pakistani publishing scene and its history. We also get a good idea about the current dire state of libraries and research facilities in our country; for instance, the dearth of newspaper archives from as recently as the 1960s, a problem the author faced while working on this book.
Written with an obvious admiration for his main subject, Raza Ali Abidi, Sohail, who also has a background of writing and broadcasting, has gathered and reproduced some out of print works by Abidi along with describing the hardships he faced in the process of obtaining them. One of his complaints is that very few people cooperate with researchers. In the Liaquat National Library, while consulting old copies of the daily Mashriq, he was frustrated to discover that other users had torn out clippings, something the librarians were not even aware of or bothered about. “Research in Pakistan is a lost cause,” he writes. “Neither are publishers willing to pay for it, nor does any other institution extend help.”
Among the several writings by Abidi included in this biography, a short story titled ‘Pankharian’ stands out as a sensitively written piece set around the towns of Rawalakot and Banjosa in Azad Kashmir. It is written in the backdrop of the 1965 war, in which a little girl brings flowers everyday for the protagonist who is staying in a rest-house in a remote hill station. She does not accept money for the flowers. She also takes him to her home, a hut, to visit her mother and a younger sister. The family is worried about her soldier father who is fighting at the front. The ending of the story beautifully shows the reason for the little girl’s instant affection for the protagonist.
During his long stay in London, Abidi interviewed and interacted with numerous personalities from India and Pakistan. They represented all walks of life — politicians, poets, singers, writers and so on. In addition to the broadcasts, the profiles Abidi wrote of such figures, including Mumtaz Mufti, Ahmed Faraz, Muhammad Tufail and Ghalib, narrated in Abidi’s unique style, are a treat for the reader. It is surprising that Abidi is not as prominent outside a limited circle of admirers as he deserves to be.
A separate chapter in the book compiles comments and views about Abidi’s books. These include comments by Intizar Husain, Jameel Jalibi, Professor Ralph Russell, Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi and several others.
Qalam say Awaz Tak is well produced and the photographs included show Abidi with his family, in his student days, at the BBC studios and so on. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in journalism, broadcasting and Urdu, or research, for that matter.
Qalam Say Awaz Tak
By Khurram Sohail
Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore