EVERY time Mushtaq Ahmad Yusufi, the wordsmith par excellence, penned a book, he came, he saw and he conquered. This time round, for Shaam-e-Shair-e-Yaara’n, the last segment of the time-honoured cliché needs adjustment. He came and he saw alright, but conquered? No. He has failed. Had it been a case with some lesser mortal, one would have thought of adding the qualifier ‘miserably’ as well, but in Yusufi’s case it would be literary blasphemy to use such phrases … especially by someone who happens to be a die-hard out-and-out Yusufi fan.
Lest it be mistaken, there shall be no doubt in anybody’s mind that it is a failure judging by Yusufian standards; the soaring, towering standards he had set with his earlier four ground-breaking titles that have together seen more than 50 reprints in as many years. Compared to what is generally available on the shelves for the readers of Urdu, even his latest offering is pretty much heavenly. It, indeed, is. Period.
The summit Yusufi had surmounted with Aab-e-Gum, which hit the stands in 1990, had immediately upgraded him from the domain of humorists to the larger, much more exciting world of mainstream fictionists. Not just that, it had put him on a pedestal even within the hall of fame. Having waited a shade under a quarter of a century, the readers’ expectations were lofty; as lofty as the craft of Yusufi had thus far been. The basic expectation was that he would publish the five ‘leftover’ chapters that had been mentioned in the preface to Aab-e-Gum. Just the hint that the master was about to dish out another title was enough to set hearts racing. It actually did and it was evident by the massive numbers that thronged the launching ceremony at the Arts Council in Karachi.
The pace at which the book sold actually gave tough competition to the proverbial hot cakes. Copies just vanished off the shelves. It was Yusufi’s magic. More appropriately, it was the magic of the reputation that Yusufi had so dexterously built and earned with his earlier efforts. Anything penned by him had to be good. Good because he was so particular with every single word that he ever penned. A brief transcription from an interview he gave in 1995 to Tariq Habib (Al-Hamd Publications, 1997) would suffice:
“Q: ‘The second part of Zarguzasht, we believe, is ready. And then the five Aab-e-Gum chapters that you left out are also there. What happened to them?’
Yusufi: ‘I won’t publish them. I am not interested in them anymore.’
Q: ‘But your readers want to …’
Yusufi: ‘What the readers want is not my problem. I only worry about what I like and what I want to publish. If the readers like them, I take it as my good fortune. If they don’t, I can live with it’.”
With such utterings behind him, who can blame the readers for their expectations? Unfortunately, this time, Yusufi, in his own words, will have to “live with it”, and that’s a pity. All the hype and excitement behind Shaam-e-Shair-e-Yaara’n is actually what has contributed greatly to the disappointment. The publishers and, indeed, the clique that has frank access to Yusufi for several years, would have done themselves no harm had they promoted the title as a collection of his speeches and a bit of miscellanea rather than a book.
The pace of the spoken word is seriously different from that of the written word, and when the former is sold in the garb of the latter without a qualifying sub-title, it is bound to cause disillusionment to a reader who is caught unawares.
Not that Yusufi didn’t know the difference. In the interview cited above, Yusufi had this to say: “I can’t bring myself to do what the readers want. This is different from what I do in speeches that have to be tailored to suit the taste and expectations of a live audience.” And yet, Yusufi decided to publish his speeches delivered to a range of audiences — from medical doctors to business graduates and from book launchings to random gatherings in Peshawar. In doing so, the book has become a seriously abrupt concoction of incoherent ramblings.
Readers would recall that his first two books, Chiragh Talay and Khakum Ba-dahan, were also compilations of his writings devoid of thematic uniformity. But each piece of writing had its own coherence simply because they were conceived and executed as ‘the written word’ unlike the current title which compiles his writings that were conceived and executed as ‘the spoken word’.
Mind you, there is nothing wrong with Yusufi’s writings. The narratives have all the attributes of what made Yusufi the man he is: his choice of words remains as sublime as ever; his linguistic twists with poetry remain evergreen, and his power of description remains breathtaking.
There is, however, a serious issue with digressions that has always been the hallmark of Yusufi. They don’t remain what they have always been. Since the ‘speeches’ have been merged with occasional ‘writings’, the digressions are often irksome to the point of being irritating. It’s a sad spectacle and a Yusufi fan can never get over the feeling of ‘what might have been’ had the legendary writer preferred to publish what he so pompously kept discarding all through the years.
There is still no doubt that every word penned by Yusufi needs to be salvaged for posterity as he remains, and will always remain, one of the finest ever. But such collections and compilations are mostly done posthumously — from Rajinder Singh Bedi to Saadat Hasan Manto and right down to Mushfiq Khwaja, to name a few. In a rather twisted, crooked sense of the term, Shaam-e-Shair-e-Yaara’n is a book ahead of its times.
The title, however, takes nothing away from Yusufi’s stature. He has been far too good for far too long a period of time to be indicted for one indiscretion. For all practical purposes, Aab-e-Gum will mark the end of Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi’s literary journey, and what a journey it has been. What a journey!
The reviewer is a Dawn staffer
By Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi
Jahangir Books, Lahore