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Ready wit and a neat turn of phrase characterised Yousufi’s writing | Photo courtesy Raza Ali Abidi/Vintage Pakistan
Ready wit and a neat turn of phrase characterised Yousufi’s writing | Photo courtesy Raza Ali Abidi/Vintage Pakistan

There was an immediate sense of colossal loss as the news of Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi passing away hit us all like a shock wave. Much admired in his life, he was mourned far and wide, not only in literary circles but by innumerable readers as well. Such an outpouring of grief had not been seen for a long time. More than an individual, Yousufi’s death seemed to be replete with cultural loss and the decline of a tradition of formal elegance and classical style which he had come to symbolise and which is impossible to retrieve. A newspaper comment placed him next to Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib as a writer and while such comparisons are unnecessary, it does indicate the position of pre-eminence Yousufi had come to occupy as a leading man of letters.

For a writer so hugely admired, Yousufi maintained a relatively small output. His literary career began with the light-hearted Chiragh Talay, humorous essays par excellence, and he continued with Khakum Badahan in the same manner. Moving away from situational comedy, his style was dependent on ready wit, a neat turn of phrase and literary allusions gently tweaked to give a parodic flair. His ready wit turned inwards with Zar Guzasht, an autobiographical account of his early banking days with humour barely covering serious concerns. A medley of unforgettable characters surrounded the narrator who was not spared, as Yousufi was always ready to poke fun at himself before others.

His next book took the literary world with even more surprise.

The passing away of Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi on June 20 seemed to signal a cultural loss and the decline of a tradition of formal elegance and classical style

Aab-i-Gum is really a novel in the best sense of the term — it was not for nothing that he was an admirer of James Joyce and Anthony Burgess. I would go as far as to term it one of the most serious Partition fictions, in a class by itself. With gentle affection he brings up his cast of characters, but at the same time he could be merciless in laying bare their human foibles.

Recognised as a humourist par excellence, to me he was really a stylist with serious concerns, humour being one of the tools in his repertoire. With his first works, he had established his reputation as a humourist and developed a distinguished style which became his hallmark, even though his next books were inclined towards a different direction. I wonder if his reputation held him back? In retrospect, I would regard him as a humourist with a tragic core.

Yousufi was known for being a perfectionist and would spend years polishing each and every phrase meticulously, reluctant to rush into print. There were long gaps between each of the books and he had also mastered the art of evading questions about what he was writing. He would say that he had some material, but it was being kept in the paal — a term used for getting unripe mangoes ready for market.

The last book he published close towards the very end, Shaam-i-Sher-i-Yaaran, was a collection of speeches and articles written for literary occasions. It is quintessential Yousufi, but the book did not go down well with some of his diehard admirers. Unlike the essays of his earlier period, these pieces were meant to be heard rather than provide reading pleasure, and trying to put them together as a book meant they had to shift from one medium to the other, a transition that did not go equally well in all instances.

Many years ago, I had arranged a literary function at the Arts Council to mark the publication of Yahan Kuchh Phool Rakhay Hain, a collection of Shahida Hassan’s poetry. Contrary to all expectations, Yousufi not only agreed to preside over the function, but confirmed that he would speak about the book. I recall that it was a well-attended function, but it was Yousufi and nothing else. He read out a brilliant piece beginning with a witty put-down of the newly introduced custom of taaj poshi [crowning] of poets, remarking in his wry style that if news of such a programme were to spread, then people would think that poets in Karachi get treated the way brides do in Lahore. I remember the audience was in fits of laughter and I could not stop laughing when I read this very article later in book form. Not all articles retain this sense of the original, however, and in some places the book tends to become tiring and repetitive, indicating that there can be too much of even the best.

There are at least two more ‘lost’ or abandoned book-length manuscripts, which I distinctly remember him mentioning to me. He once said that he takes notes of his travels, intending to make a book out of them. He kept working at it, but then one day calmly mentioned that the manuscript was misplaced. In an exclusive conversation about his writing, he mentioned to me that his latest venture was the story of a young boy from the fishing villages on Karachi’s coastline, but he realised that he had covered more than 300-odd pages while the main character had covered only a few stages of his life. I argued that he had a precedence in Tristram Shandy in which the main character is born a few chapters later. Yousufi did not want to engage in any such debate and later informed me that he had given up on the idea of completing this book. I hope that these and other writings emerge from his papers, which deserve to be preserved and archived in a befitting manner, although this is not customary with our writers. It would be a great tragedy if his papers and memorabilia are allowed to be lost.

Although his style was language-based and dependent on wordplay, Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad carried out the implausible, even audacious, act of translating Aab-i-Gum as Mirages of the Mind with a detailed critical introduction. While the translators have laboured hard to preserve the style of the original, the English version highlights the storyline somewhat lost in the embellishments which so marked the Urdu text.

As part of a series of conversations with writers for an English news monthly, Yousufi once agreed to talk to me on formal terms. More than a challenge, this was a great honour for me as Yousufi was known to keep interviewers and journalists at arm’s length. This was September 1989 and the conversation turned out to be memorable because whatever he said was a result of careful consideration. What I did not know then, of course, was that Yousufi’s two distinguished books were yet to come.

Writing was not his full-time job and he had a parallel professional career as a banker. It reminds me of Wallace Stevens who had a day job as an executive in an insurance company while being one of the greatest American poets of the day. Associated with the major banks of the country, Yousufi remained on influential and leading posts and was known for always abiding by the book. There is a story of how a military dictator asked for some words of praise to be bestowed on him, to which Yousufi promptly responded by pulling out a ready-made resignation from his pocket. He spent the next decade working as a banker in London, settling down in Karachi after his retirement. My father, who was privileged to know him on a personal level, called him “the upright man of Urdu literature” when he gave the keynote at Jashn-i-Yousufi — a celebration of Yousufi’s life and works — in 2009.

Yousufi remained very much a private person. He was not a recluse, but he kept much to himself. He enjoyed the company of selected friends, of both sexes, but on his own terms. “I have considered myself a gosha-nasheen [someone who sits in a corner], or even more a purdah-nasheen [someone who takes the veil],” he once remarked to me, enjoying the effect of his own remark.

In spite of my admiration I sometimes wonder: what next? How much of this legacy will be taken up by younger people? Comments have flooded social media as well as quotes with the iconic Yousufi image. The height of our insularity is that, like with Jaun Elia and Ahmed Faraz, some people are simply copying and pasting stale old jokes with Yousufi’s name.

Among my favourite Yousufi pieces is his early article on the cultural value of charpoys and I gleefully added this to the material for an introductory course I was teaching for undergraduates. I realised that younger people do not, and cannot, appreciate Yousufi the way my generation admired him. The language — especially the literary allusions — is lost on them and they feel uncomfortable with the element of misogyny in his humour.

He would have been amused by some of the comments students make about his work. When selections from his works were ‘performed’ in the manner of a daastaan by a group of NAPA graduates, the response was enthusiastic. Will Yousufi become part of a daastaan in the near future? At the time I interviewed him, he said that it felt odd, “like wearing surgical gloves to eat pulao, since more than half of the taste lies in eating it with your hands.” I wonder what he would have made out of all this. He would have half-smiled and said something cutting, but wise, with his characteristic aplomb. Long live Yousufi!

The writer teaches Urdu literature and humanities at Habib University, Karachi

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 1st, 2018