I have a friend who is Muhammad Khalid Akhtar’s biggest fan. In fact, I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I say that my friend is obsessed with Muhammad Khalid Akhtar Sahib, as he always refers to him. We have known each other for most of our grown-up lives and whenever we meet or speak on the phone there’s usually lots to talk about, but somehow we always end up talking about Akhtar. We could be discussing a family illness or Karachi ke halaat, and my friend will find a way to bring up an aspect of Akhtar’s writing. One moment we’re talking about the potential side effects of chemotherapy and suddenly my friend will say, “Do you remember that scene in that Chinese dentist’s story?” Or, “What about that day at Allah Tawakkul bakery?” Or, “Remember what Dr Ghareeb Muhammad says when he meets that other fellow?” — all locales and characters from Akhtar’s novel and short stories, set in and around Lyari. Whatever the time of the day, whatever the topic of our conversation, we know that at some point we’ll leave so-called real life behind and drift into Akhtar’s fictional world that seems infinitely more fun.
I often wonder why Akhtar commands such total devotion. My friend is a compulsive reader of Urdu fiction and non-fiction and can usually find something negative to say about every writer, even those he likes, but try saying something less than glowing about Akhtar’s writing and you will suddenly be facing an imminent rupture in your lifelong friendship.
Twenty-five years after I had read these stories in the original Urdu, I revisited some of them in Bilal Tanweer’s fine translation, Love in Chakiwara and Other Misadventures. And I did find some clues to Akhtar’s cult-like status. It is clear that he is different from what you are likely to come across in contemporary Urdu fiction. His writing doesn’t take itself too seriously, but still manages to be a celebration of the art of storytelling. He is very local and has no interest in being topical or even universal. His characters are charlatans, buffoons and tricksters. Despite being hustlers and lapsed novelists, they fall in love with a girl called Razia and although Razia’s father is suffering from cancer, he is still likely to dispatch them to their maker if he finds out what’s in their hearts. And since writing itself is a mysterious, magical process, the writer-protagonist must practice magic, do a wazeefa so powerful, that the beloved — as millions of proclamations on the walls promise — will come rushing to kiss his feet. This world of Chakiwara is populated by oddballs, freaks, hustlers, literary hacks and their hapless fans — there is even an actual school that can teach you how to write a successful novel. Real life doesn’t stand much of a chance when compared to Akhtar’s mischievously imagined old Karachi.
Bilal Tanweer brings to a wider audience the oddballs of a little neighbourhood in Karachi
Translations anywhere in the world are a labour of love and Tanweer has worked really hard to bring these gems of Urdu literature to a potentially larger audience. Akhtar used to say that while writing fiction, he would think in English. In fact, at some point he contemplated writing in English but stuck to Urdu, a language he loved. So he conceived his sentences in English. By the time they arrived on the paper in Urdu, they retained their English structure but were infused with the flair of traditional Urdu prose. Translating him must have been an odd experience: taking up something that was conceived in English, but written in Urdu, and then rendering it into English. It’s a very good example of true ghar wapsi [homecoming] and in Tanweer’s very capable hands this is one happy and safe journey — but a rollercoaster nonetheless.
In a brief conversation Tanweer told me that while translating he was more concerned about capturing Akhtar’s voice in English than being faithful to the original text. That approach has worked very well here. Akhtar’s quirkiness, his dry sense of humour and his matter-of-fact approach to the supernatural is rendered so that critics such as myself could call it effortless. But it’s obvious that a lot of effort has gone into making it look effortless. In fact, this is one of those rare cases where the original is faithful to the translation.
Although Akhtar is primarily known for his Chakiwara stories, he also produced some stellar non-fiction in the form of book reviews, essays and parodies. His reviews of some of the most iconic works of Urdu prose, such as Udaas Naslain and Pyar Ka Pehla Shehr, have stood the test of time. His parodies of famous writers such as Shafiqur Rehman and Qurratulain Hyder, and even some conservative novelists of his time, are still laugh-out-loud funny.
[...] Sheikh Qurban Ali Kattar had just embarked on his 12th and (hopefully) last love affair. On the bright morning of Dec 21, I was standing at the door of the bakery in an extremely cheerful mood, wearing my blue-striped sleeping suit and looking out at the lady in red who stood in the opposite flat [...] I had no intention of attracting this lady (that is, if she was a lady in the first place, which she wasn’t; it was her father who had donned a red blanket). — Excerpt from the book
His open letters to politicians and other luminaries of his time are provocative and bizarre, and always very funny. A lot of his non-fiction has been compiled in Rait Par Lakirain. If you like Chakiwara, you would love this.
Last month my friend called me up. He was very excited as he had found a collection of Khatoot-i-Ghalib at an old bookshop in Nazimabad, in mint condition, only 100 rupees. I told him that the only Ghalib letters I have read were the ones included in the Urdu syllabus. He assured me that there were many more — this book he had was more than 400 pages long. He went on about how beautiful the prose was, how the letters gave a fascinating account of Delhi. And then he stopped himself. “But have you read those letters that Muhammad Khalid Akhtar Sahib had written to his friends and contemporaries? Remember the one that he wrote to Mufti Mehmood when he banned alcohol in NWFP? Ghalib is Ghalib, but Khalid Sahib’s letters are something else.” I had to agree.
The reviewer is a journalist and an author
Love in Chakiwara and
By Bilal Tanweer
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 21st, 2017