I’ve been encouraging Wasio Abbasi — a friend in Karachi who wants to revive lost and forgotten fictions as digital reading for an audience jaded with the works currently on offer — to bring Urdu stories into the picture as soon as he can. As a great reader of Urdu fictions of the past, I’m always seeking out old stories. Apart from their aesthetic value, these works have much to tell us about the times in which they were written; they’ve taught me more about our past, on both sides of the border, than many dry volumes by academic historians.
I have a close link of my own to this vanished world. I can’t remember when exactly I first heard my mother and aunts talk about Shaikh Rafiuddin Siddiqi. Known as Rafi Ajmeri, Siddiqi was their maternal uncle whose splendid volume of short stories, Kehkashan, was published only after his early death at the age of 33. I do recall that when I began to take an active interest in modern Urdu fiction, my aunt, and then my mother, told me of Mamu Mian, as they called him. He had, in his youth, been considered more than promising; already well-known in his 20s, he published fiction and essays in journals such as Sarosh and Saqi. He was handsome and highly literate. Though he grew up in Ajmer where his maternal grandfather, Nawab Haji Mohammed Khan, had settled, his mother’s family was from Kabul, so Persian was spoken around him. His Kashmiri father was highly educated and encouraged his children in literary pursuits; both Rafi and his sister — my grandmother — published at an early age. They were an articulate, gregarious family: the brothers and sisters quoted Saadi, Rumi and Khusrau from memory; they had heard Allama Muhammad Iqbal recite his poems in their own home. They also sang and narrated the story-songs of Rajasthan where they were born and raised. I heard these stories and songs in my Karachi childhood from my mother — and with even more enthusiasm from my grandmother during long summer holidays at her home in Indore — and that’s certainly where, at least in part, I inherited my love for old stories.
Grandmother married in 1914 and soon devoted herself to family pursuits while Mamu Mian wrote story after story, spent most of his time in Delhi, and travelled from town to town in search of material. He often visited my grandparents in Indore. My mother, then a schoolgirl, remembers him on his last trip there in 1937. He was afflicted by a mysterious ailment they referred to as melancholia and strolled in the garden leaning heavily on his older sister’s arm. Today his condition would be called severe depression.
In ‘Muhabbat ka Bulava’ a young man falls in love with his friend’s sister and when his loved one’s very rich father forbids the marriage, not only do the lovers elope, the hero’s friend escapes with them
He’d fallen in love with a distant cousin who probably returned his feelings, but in those changing times he just hadn’t had the courage to propose; she’d married someone her parents chose for her. When the young woman’s mother heard about Mamu Mian’s feelings, she said, “He only had to tell me.” But it was too late. A few months later, while visiting his niece in Bombay [Mumbai], Mamu Mian was found dead.
A friend, Qaisi Rampuri, was left in charge of his stories. My uncle complains that Kehkashan was randomly edited, some of Rafi Ajmeri’s stories were lost forever and others plagiarised and published in other people’s names.
However, Kehkashan survived. But though Rafi Ajmeri’s life’s brief story was as fascinating as any tale he might have written, no one in my family had managed to preserve a single copy of his book. It wasn’t until 1997 or ’98 that my friend, writer-editor Asif Farrukhi, unearthed a copy of it in Karachi which he photocopied and sent me. (Thank goodness for Pakistani libraries.) For days I inhabited Rafi Ajmeri’s world. His fiction was set in the increasingly modern milieu of his own time; it barely touched on the princely India my grandparents, and their now-married older daughters, inhabited. He wrote about students and young women and men seeking their fortune in a competitive late-colonial world.
The prevailing tone of his stories is light and witty, worldly but never cynical, and tinged with romance. In a story called ‘Agar Mujhse Muhabbat Hai to Keh Do’, a young woman manages to reach her lost love by an astute or accidental use of subtitles in a silent film. Later stories show an awareness of the nuances of class and the economics of marriage. In ‘Muhabbat ka Bulava’ (my own favourite), a young man falls in love with his friend’s sister whom he tutors, and when his loved one’s very rich father forbids the marriage, not only do the lovers elope, the hero’s friend escapes with them to set up a life away from the rigid social norms of his family.
How would Rafi Ajmeri have fared in the Progressive era that was dawning just then? Would his liberal attitudes have hardened into dogma, or would he have swung to conservatism in the Pakistan to which his brothers migrated as he, too, probably would have? Or would his fictions have echoed the calm voice of conscience? No way of telling, though one short, bitter text of his suggests another direction he might have taken. This is ‘Ganwaar Aurton ke Geet’, in which he retells, from an old song, the legend of the bandit Daya Gujjar who robbed the king’s wife of her jewels to please his demanding wife.
Amma ko mera Ram-ram kehna/ Behna ko mera salam/ Gujri ko bas itna kehna/ Reh jaye joban ko re tham/ Daya ab aana nahin/ Daya julmi ke phande/ Daya phaansi ke phande
(Give my greetings to my mother and sister, but to the Gujri just say to make good use of her youth: Daya isn’t coming back, he’s in the clutches of the oppressor, the noose is around his neck.)
As I read it I could hear my grandmother’s voice. My hair stood on end as it did when I was nine or 10.
The columnist is a short story writer and novelist living in London
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 14th, 2017