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COLUMN: YOUSUFI THE NOVELIST

July 15, 2018

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Having lived to a ripe old age, Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi departed from this mortal world a few weeks ago. His death has been mourned widely, as probably no other writer in this day and age had this kind of following. However, it still seems that he left us suddenly and unprepared, with some unanswered questions. Those who are mourning him, especially on social media where limited knowledge can get you great mileage, are quoting his one-liners and witticisms. Some of the quips in circulation, much like the posthumous virtual images of Jaun Elia and Ahmed Faraz, are not even his words. I do not mean to deny or denigrate the fact that the Urdu world has lost a great humourist, one of the finest in the language with his razor-sharp wit; but to my mind, Yousufi is, above all, a novelist. Not stopping at that, I have come to regard him as one of the most gifted writers to take up this form of writing. He is great as a humourist, but as a novelist he is peerless.

No, I do not want to hold the two aspects of his distinguished reputation against each other or decry one at the expense of the other. But when I place Yousufi’s books — sadly, too few — in chronological order, I see a clear shift in direction. I wonder why this was not apparent immediately to his countless readers and why Yousufi put up for so long with an incomplete and inadequate reputation. A consummate craftsman and a very self-conscious writer, Yousufi also avoided writing about his work or explaining his intentions to the general public.

Yousufi established his reputation with his first two books, which consisted of light essays in the well-known mode of Patras Bukhari and other humourists of the day. He refined and perfected his style, but did not consider it necessary to break the mould. His writings had by that time created thousands of enthusiasts and his position as one of the leading writers was secure. Humour reigned supreme in a piece such as Caesar, Mata Hari Aur Mirza, but the account of the family dog ends on a note of mourning, a world apart from the fine essay on Patras. Yousufi pays a generous compliment to Patras by commenting that the dog has fulfilled the purpose of its creation once the essay was written and is hence no longer needed on this planet. In his own essay, he indicated a change in style.

His next book was a recognisable departure. Zarguzasht can be described as memoirs of his banking days, but the sparkling style and sharp wit is apparent everywhere. In retrospect, it is not the kind of book you expect a humourist to write. The author laughs at himself and at others, but it is the story of his life, peopled with ‘characters’ and remarkable for its powerful narrative.

Yousufi did not write situational comedy and was his own kind of writer, and this is nowhere more apparent than in Aab-i-Gum. It has a time frame, clearly defined characters, narrative flow, a structure and plot-like situations and a sense of place — all the ingredients of a modern novel.

Chronicles of life as a banker were not the subject of what he published next. It was Aab-i-Gum, more of a tale than anything he had written. While it had plenty of characteristic Yousufi style to keep his admirers still reading, the obvious fact that it was a different kind of book did not generate much discussion. A writer such as Muhammad Khalid Akhtar openly ridiculed and parodied Yousufi’s style, calling it contrived, as it did not have the kind of jovial spontaneity found in a writer such as Shafiqur Rahman. Such comments miss the point that Yousufi did not write situational comedy and was his own kind of writer, and this is nowhere more apparent than in Aab-i-Gum. It has a time frame, clearly defined characters, narrative flow, a structure and plot-like situations and a sense of place — all the ingredients of a modern novel.

Yousufi just stopped short of calling it one, although he did say that he wanted to change names and places only at first, but then decided to “fictionalise” everything. Telltale word! The preface offers a rare glimpse into the creative mind and he describes how he had taken notes and recordings of some accounts from some friends’ lives. Living in London, he says that he wrote 10 sketches or essays, but got around to publishing only half of this material. Not a word about what happened to the remaining half of the written material?

I would have liked to put this question before Yousufi himself, but he avoided any such occasion. He permitted me to conduct a once-in-a-lifetime kind of interview, but this was in 1989 and Aab-i-Gum was still not public. Like his other readers, my knowledge was limited to the humorous essays and my enquiry remained incomplete. I did note that he expressed great admiration for James Joyce and how, at a point in time, he was infatuated with Lawrence Durrell. I could kick myself for not having asked him about a comic novelist such as Evelyn Waugh. Clearly, he had read modern fiction with serious attention and was able to turn this knowledge to his advantage.

Change in people’s fortunes is the real theme of Aab-i-Gum. Time is not linear and the story discontinuous; he breaks the frame to create a modern novel on his own terms, belonging on the same shelf as Qurratulain Hyder and Intizar Husain. Unfortunately, many of us are still locked within the conventional frame of what constitutes a ‘proper’ novel, without realising that this book is a great liberation in itself.

The freedom of fiction must have shown the writer in Yousufi new paths he could take. Many years later, he mentioned abandoning another novel after 300 pages or so. He did some readings from this work-in-progress among his friends, but who can say what the fate of his abandoned projects was? “Ripeness is all,” Yousufi would have agreed with William Shakespeare, mulling over his lost novels.

The columnist is a critic and fiction writer and teaches humanities and literature at Habib University, Karachi

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 15th, 2018