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November 12, 2017


Front row, left to right: Sibte Hasan, Maulvi Abdul Haq, Mazhar Ali Khan and Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi at a literary gathering sometime in the 1950s | Vintage Pakistan
Front row, left to right: Sibte Hasan, Maulvi Abdul Haq, Mazhar Ali Khan and Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi at a literary gathering sometime in the 1950s | Vintage Pakistan

A larger than life, iconic image is indelibly stamped on my mind and comes up again as I read the name “Sibte Hasan” on the spine of these books: a man with a swathe of white hair, pipe in hand and speaking in a clear, articulate manner. Growing up in Karachi, I came to recognise Hasan as a familiar presence on the intellectual scene, but it was after entering medical college that I came across his books that were passed around with caution, but eagerly sought, in student circles. These seemed as valuable as a lifeline as the Zia dictatorship pushed a stifling, nationalistic right-wing worldview to consolidate its hold on the country. For many people of my age group, it will be difficult to separate Hasan’s books from the time when we first encountered them. Although I stopped short of fully subscribing to their point of view, a familiar tremor runs through me as I pick up new books either by or about him.

Hasan wrote with fierce passion all his life and was a tremendous and indefatigable penman, ever ready to rise to the occasion. He followed the demands of journalism equally with activist concerns. The essays in Sibte Hasan: Adeeb Aur Samaji Amal, compiled and edited by Dr S. Jaffar Ahmed, are culled from a lifetime of writing. Written at different times and for different purposes, the variety of articles collected here is interesting. In some places, Hasan seems to fall out of step with what he has stated differently in other places; other instances almost cry for him to develop the argument further. It would be a mistake to look for the cohesive arguments that characterise his best work, from Mazi Kay Mazar to Moosa Say Marx Tak, but the lucidity of his style here, and the clear-headedness with which he comes to grip with the topic he is writing about, is remarkable. Dr Ahmed has made it his life’s great passion to collect and preserve the scattered and varied writings of his intellectual guru; this is the third volume of such uncollected writings that he has edited. One may think that the writer’s best work is already known and so this book is not likely to alter our opinion or deepen it any further, but Hasan was too diverse and varied a writer and this collection throws up new aspects of his work.

The book is divided into two parts, the first consisting of more theoretical and analytic essays while the second section includes a number of articles on particular authors. The long piece about the history of the Urdu language prefigures Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s argument in Urdu Ka Ibtidai Zamana: Adbi Tehzeeb-o-Tareekh Ka Pehlu, that what was named as Hindi or Hindvi later came to be known as Urdu. A brief article on Karl Marx and his concept of alienation makes one wish that Hasan had delved deeper on this subject. The article on modern poetry from Iran belongs to Hasan’s early period and seems rather dated now. Another remarkable article is on the relationship between national and regional culture, an argument Hasan later developed on the development of culture in the regions that comprise Pakistan. The piece after which this book titled is a good summary of his views on the writer’s social responsibility.

Two compilations attempt to shed light on an intellectual giant

The second section opens with a befitting tribute to Hasrat Mohani, as Hasan recounts his first meeting with the unflinching maulana who was fetching water from a local tap. Hasan goes on to describe Mohani’s firm attitude when he chided the Progressives from making a statement against what was then regarded as “obscenity” and one can see that in the heyday of Ismat Chughtai, Saadat Hasan Manto and Meeraji this must have been a sore point. The tribute to Akhtar Hussain Raipuri is short and laudatory; it skirts clear of the controversial matters which had come up between them. I recall that when I interviewed Dr Raipuri in his twilight days, a comment of his drew Hasan’s ire who wrote a letter to the editor clarifying his position. I knew Hasan to be a generous man who avoided any such controversies, but I wish that I had interviewed him in order to complete both sides of the story. A letter addressed to Makhdoom Mohiuddin and memorial comments made in an interview about Faiz Ahmed Faiz just days after his death are invaluable, resulting from years of association, but the introductory essay on Rasul Ghamzatov’s Mera Daghistan is an unforgettable delight, reflecting the good-natured vitality to be found in the book itself.

The best thing about such collections is that one can find interesting writings missed earlier. For me, the rather brief letter about Majaz Lakhnawi is a fascinating discovery, which I read for the first time. It is interesting not so much for what it tells us about Majaz (nothing which is not already known), but for the rather curt response it gives to a now obscure poet Salam Machhlishehri, who must have been better known in that period. In a summary dismissal, Hasan deals with Machhlishehri’s allegation that the Progressives did not give due regard to his work as they suffered from a provincial prejudice. Machhlishehri accused the Progressive writer Rashid Jahan as being the one who introduced Majaz to alcohol, and goes on to suggest that Chughtai should have married Majaz. In his spirited manner, Hasan asks Machhlishehri to thank his stars that Jahan was not aware of his allegation. As for Chughtai, she had already penned the delightful but hard-hitting Ek Shohar Ki Khatir and so would not have taken the suggestion of somebody husband-hunting on her behalf lying down. Hasan’s article clearly documents that even some of the self-proclaimed Progressive writers continued to be bothered by Chughtai and Jahan. I wish Hasan had written more in this vein and recorded more of his memories; apart from his other books, Shehr-i-Nigaran — his memoirs of early days in Hyderabad — is a fascinating book, in a class by itself.

The volume of commemorative essays, Sibte Hasan: Shakhsiyat Aur Fikr, is predictably a mixed bag. Hasan’s intellectual legacy is taken up by a host of scholars including Hamza Alavi, Mubarak Ali, Sahar Ansari, Ahmad Hamdani, Muhammad Ali Siddiqui and others. Those offering tributes of a more personal nature include Kaifi Azmi, Zahida Hina, Noor Zaheer, Shaukat Siddiqui, Hasan Abidi and Dr Anwar Ahmed. The best contribution, not surprisingly, is by the editor himself. The long review article was written in 1987 for a memorial issue of the Karachi-based journal Research Forum, according to a note given at the bottom of the page. This could well form the basis of a full biography of Hasan’s intellectual journey, and who could write it better than Dr Ahmed?

A singularly interesting contribution comes from Intizar Husain, written originally as a newspaper obituary. I wanted to read it again in this context as I knew the two had a cordial acquaintance, but ideological differences. I was looking for backhanded compliments, of which Husain was a great master. According to Husain, the important thing was not whether the analysis offered was correct to the last degree, but that it made us raise questions and forced us to think. “In an age in which we seem to be surviving on empty slogans and emotional reactions, it is invaluable that this writer makes us think,” he concludes. This could well be one of the finest tributes paid to Hasan, but it also explains why he continues to be a vital figure today.

The poems at the end are rather conventional and in fact, one or two seem to trivialise Hasan’s life and work by wrapping him unnecessarily in a shroud of sentimentality. These could have been easily omitted as they do not add much to our understanding of this vital analyst and social critic, who is otherwise well served by these new and valuable publications.

The reviewer teaches liberal arts and Urdu and is a writer and critic

Sibte Hasan:
Adeeb Aur Samaji Amal
Compiled and edited by
Dr S. Jaffar Ahmed
ISBN: 978-9694190792

Sibte Hasan: Shakhsiyat
Aur Fikr
Edited by
Dr S. Jaffar Ahmed
ISBN: 978-9694190785

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 12th, 2017