LITERARY NOTES: Luminaries from KP, their obituaries and the need for a Pakistani Dictionary of National Biography

RECORDING the departure of fellow mortals from this world has quite a long history, though sometimes it is derisively referred to as ‘murda parasti’ (the worship of the dead) literally, or the excessive reverence for the dead, figuratively. The 60 volumes of Dictionary of National Biography, a great feat of the art of necrology and popularly known as DNB, record the lives of over 50,000 notables from the British history.

In Urdu, the word vafiyaat is used for obituary. Obituary writing, or vafiyaat nigari, as it is known in Urdu, has been around for quite long and early accounts of Urdu poets, known as tazkira, come in handy when biographical details of a poet are sought. The latter-day scholars known for their contribution to obituary writing in Urdu include Syed Sulaiman Nadvi, Abdul Majid Daryabadi, Malik Ram, Dr Muhammad Aslam and some others. But in recent years a researcher has broken all the records in obituary writing in Pakistan. The person who has researched, recorded and published the most obituaries in Pakistan is Dr Muhammad Muneer Ahmed Sletch.

It is not only the number of pieces of obituaries, which comes to around 15,000, that Muneer Sletch has researched and compiled or the number of obituarial books, which has now reached nine, that make him stand out in the field, but it is also the accuracy and authenticity which makes Sletch’s works dependable.

Muneer Sletch has been researching, compiling and publishing brief obituarial pieces in book forms for about 25 years now. His first book was Khuftagaan-i-Khaak-i-Gujrat. Recording the obituaries of about 300 well-known personalities buried in Gujrat, Punjab, the book was published in 1996. But his work that truly astonished all was Vafiyaat-i-Naamvaraan-i-Pakistan, published in 2006, giving brief but authentic accounts of some 8,000 Pakistanis who left for their eternal abode between August 14, 1947 and December 31, 2004.

Sletch’s other obituarial works include Vafiyaat-i-Ahle-Qalam, a book compiling 4,200 obituaries of Pakistani writers (published in 2008); Tanhaaiyyan Bolti Hain, obituaries of 500 well-known figures buried in Islamabad (2012); Vafiyaat-i-Naat Goyaan-i-Pakistan, 480 obituaries of Pakistani poets who composed naat (2015); Vafiyaat-i-Mashaaheer-i-Karachi, obituaries of about 2,500 well-known persons who belonged to Karachi (2016); Bujhte Chale Jaate Hain Chiraagh, about 3,200 obituaries of writers and poets of Urdu (2018); Vafiyaat-i-Mashaaheer-i-Lahore, 3,200 obituaries of well-known personalities who belonged to Lahore (2018).

Of course, there is a lot of overlapping and many famous personalities have been mentioned in two or more books, but still these are the most comprehensive and most reliable works on the eminent Pakistanis’ obituaries published so far. Secondly, in his every new book, Sletch stretches the finish line and includes the latest obituaries. For instance, his book published in 2006, enlisted some 8,000 Pakistani notables from different spheres who died between August 14, 1947, and December 31, 2004, but his latter works record the deaths of prominent Pakistanis who left for their heavenly abodes during the next decade and beyond. So in a way new entries find their way into his obituarial works and slowly but surely Muneer Sletch is mounting up a huge data which can ultimately be used as a basis for a Pakistani Dictionary of National Biography, something badly needed.

Now Muneer Sletch has come up with another good job: an obituarial work on the luminaries from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, our province briefly called KPK and formerly known as NWFP. Titled Vafiyaat-i-Mashaaheer-i-Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the book records the obituaries of those notable Pakistanis who belonged to KPK and died between August 14, 1947, and February 14, 2019. So it is an updated work. Published by Qalam Foundation International, Lahore, it records some 2,000 famous Pakistanis who are no more and they either belonged to KPK or settled there or spent a considerable part of their lives there.

What makes Muneer Sletch’s works authentic is the fact that he carries out his own research and often has to correct pieces of incorrect information included in similar works by other writers published earlier. In some of his works Sletch has mentioned those works and the errors that he had to correct. For this he has to consult tonnes of material. In the introduction to this new book, Dr Abdullah Jan Abid has also mentioned a number of works and Urdu and Pashtu magazines that have been publishing the obituaries, especially the obituaries of the notables belonging to KPK, and that Sletch has referred to. He has paid tributes to Sletch for compiling an encyclopaedic type of work on personalities from KP as works in this area are hard to come by.

What we need is a Pakistani Dictionary of National Biography or PDNB, enlisting the names of departed prominent Pakistanis with their brief life-sketches and contributions, both in English and Urdu. This can easily be done by launching its online version first, listing a few hundred names initially. Additions may be made later on. One hopes Federal Ministry of Information, National History and Literary Heritage may take up this project.

Published in Dawn, September 2nd, 2019