One wonders why Azmat Ansari wrote his autobiography, Yaadon ke Dareechay, in Urdu, given the fact that most of his writings over half a century have been in English.

A journalist, mountaineer, adventurer, explorer, broadcaster, actor and a Pakistan Air Force public relations man in the heat of war, Ansari takes the reader through the bliss of a boyish life in pre-Independence Haryana to 21st century Pakistan, where he seems now to have finally settled down to look back at a life spent in a ceaseless struggle to know, discover and inform.

His writings show a flabbergasting variety of interests and hobbies — some in which he engaged to the point of obsession. They range from wildlife and show business to barren hills and snowy heights, as well as music, travel and interaction with literary giants such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Saadat Hasan Manto.

An autobiography traces an exhilarating life spent in a ceaseless struggle to know, discover and inform

Prompted by his father, Ansari took to mountaineering early in life, acquired training from the Karakorum Mountaineering Club and learned to trek 30 to 40 miles preparatory to attempting climbing. With porters and ponies laden with axes, rock nails, ropes and mountaineering paraphernalia, Ansari attempted to scale icy peaks, trudged along glaciers, forded roaring streams and slept in the haunting vicinity of ‘ice falls’ — frozen waterfalls — and heard spooky whistling breezes of the mountains to enjoy Pakistan’s breathtaking beauty, while also suffering the agony of many a night passed in hunger and cold.

A reversal of climatic conditions was encountered in his adventure to Gorakh Hill. Accompanied by guides and ponies in furnace-like heat, Ansari reached the top of the Gorakh after a fierce struggle with its inhospitable terrain and the unpredictability of tribal behaviour — as two of the tribes residing in the region exchanged gunfire, there was every possibility the expedition could end in disaster. Nevertheless, he believes it was through his illustrated articles in Dawn Magazine, and later in other newspapers, that people came to know of a hill in Sindh that receives snow. Of all the adventures he has undertaken, it is Gorakh Hill that Ansari feels the most emotional and nostalgic about. His detailed descriptions of flora and fauna wherever he goes show his fascination with nature.

Though patriotism runs through his memoirs, Ansari has no interest in politics — something strange for a South Asian who, along with his family, lived through the trauma of Partition, especially the hair-raising train journey to Pakistan as blood-thirsty mobs lay in ambush. It was, however, in his description of the war of 1971 that Ansari feels he was doing his duty to Pakistan by informing the foreign media that hardly any fighting was done by the Mukti Bahini [freedom fighters of Bangladesh] and that everywhere in East Pakistan it was Indian soldiers doing the fighting disguised as Bangladeshi nationalists.

Often he undertook suicidal missions while taking foreign journalists to the front as tanks and aircraft unleashed their deadly payload. As a prisoner of war, he was indiscreet in a letter home that included an unkind remark about the then Indian prime minister, and so was caught and tortured first in a Bangladesh prisoner of war camp and later transferred to New Delhi to undergo further hardships.

Back in Pakistan, he resigned his PAF commission and plunged into a new life that he records in Yaadon Ke Dareechay. At places, the book reduces itself to a monotonous travelogue in which countries, cities, sites, hosts and he himself revolve round a glamorous routine whose description is interesting, but devoid of meaning. This way Ansari is being himself, for he makes no claim to intellectuality.

As a prisoner of war, he was indiscreet in a letter home, and so was tortured first in a Bangladesh prisoner of war camp and later transferred to New Delhi to undergo further hardships.

He portrays himself for what he is — a man who is essentially an explorer — for he informs his readers that Pakistan has no less than 100 islands, even if some of them are little better than mounds often run over by the Arabian Sea’s monsoon waves. He is excited about an orchard that grows saffron in a remote valley in Quetta; he rushes to Badin to find out what it is like to hunt for oil; and he goes to Mohenjo Daro to make 100 transparencies to show them to a packed hall in America. His voice over the radio is heard by millions as an English newsreader, as a central figure in a radio play and as host of a programme of Western classical music and he dashes off on the eve of the programme to the Soviet consulate in Karachi to know how the name of legendary pianist Sviatoslav Richter is pronounced.

Ansari should revise his book to strip it of English words for which simple Urdu words are available. The author should also freshen up his history. Istanbul was nowhere in the picture when the sultans he mentions wanted recognition from the sultan-caliph. Constantinople was taken by Mehmet II in 1453, but the kings he mentions — Mohammad Ghauri, Bulbon and Alauddin Khilji — ruled at a time when Constantinople was still the Byzantine capital and the sultans considered themselves duly recognised when they received the legendary khila’at [robe] from the Baghdad-based Abbasid caliphs.

The reviewer is Dawn’s Readers’ Editor

Yaadon Ke Dareechay
By Azmat Ansari
Published by the author
239pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 20th, 2019