SHANUL Haq Haqqee (1917-2005) can be described as one of the few towering literary personalities of our times to whom linguistic acumen came naturally.

Haqqee was a linguist and lexicographer par excellence. He was an established poet, serious critic and unmatched translator, too. But, above all, he had a natural flair for using the Urdu language elegantly. He had a knack for not only using words precisely but also coining them. Brought up in a thoroughly literary environment and immersed in classical literary texts since adolescence, Haqqee had an innate understanding of language generally and the Urdu language specifically.

A wordsmith to the core, whatever Haqqee wrote clearly reflected his long love affair with words. In his writings a whiff of Urdu’s intricate and elegant usage can never be missed by the discerning reader, be it his poetry soaked in classical taste and modern sensitivity at the same time or his Urdu translation of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra; be it his humorous and flowing poems written for children or serious tomes like Urdu translation of Arthashastra — the treatise on the art of politics and governance by the ancient Hindu philosopher Kautilya Chanakya.

Haqqee had a refined sense of humour and when he began writing, it was the humorous essays that he penned first, a fact mentioned by him in the preface to his book Nok Jhok, just published by Oxford University Press. The witty and satirical undertone that seems to run through the entire book and that occasionally rises to the surface is indeed a testimony that a humorist lurked behind the solemn, scholarly and intellectual figure that Haqqee used to cast.

The book is divided into two sections. The first one carries some light yet thought-provoking essays dotted with the refreshingly idiomatic expressions that had become a hallmark of Haqqee’s writings. Written in a lighter vein, the idea behind these articles is to amuse the reader while giving some food for thought as well as point out some oddities in our lives that we usually ignore.

A couple of these pieces were first broadcast as brief radio dramas or audio theatres. For example, Mirza Ghalib London Mein, or Mirza Ghalib in London, is a brief play that describes in an interesting way what happened when Ghalib met a Pakistani young man in London’s Hyde Park, some 100 years after his death. Aside from the humour produced by London’s environment, incongruous to what Ghalib was used to seeing, the piece also reflects upon the cultural and political changes that have taken place since Ghalib’s times.

As these essays are limited to about first 60-70 pages of the book, the major portion of the 263-page book, the second section, is devoted to quite different kind of writings that defy any classification, though seemingly falling in the category of the genre essay: the brief pieces based on the Nok Jhok, or light-hearted arguments, between two characters named ‘Alif’ (A) and ‘Bey’ (B) discussing different issues in the garb of literary and linguistic debates.

These apparent arguments are in fact witty and playful remarks aimed at teasing a friend, hence, the name Nok Jhok. During the course of this friendly and good-natured teasing, one comes across a virtual treasure-trove of Urdu idioms, lively expressions, beautiful phrases, rarely used words and enlightening adages. Not only that, it all comes with a flowing and lively style peppered with wit and repartee. The linguistic backdrop and critical insight expressed in these pieces illuminates our social, political and literary environment and it is something to reckon with. But these articles are not limited to teasing or bantering and some of the pieces comment on serious linguistic issues, such as Urdu’s origin, Urdu’s standard and Urdu’s future are discussed seriously and in a scholarly manner.

Another valuable aspect of the book is inclusion of a large number of famous and exhilarating Urdu couplets, aptly quoted to enhance the lively arguments. At times, the argument includes the commentary on these couplets as well and it enhances the understanding of such verses. Then the discussion turns, perhaps intentionally, to the linguistic aspects of some of these couplets.

The first edition of the book published from Lahore in 2006 had a blurb by Dr Vazeer Agha, which has been reproduced in the second edition, and wisely so. Agha Sahib has succinctly described humour in Haqqee’s writings. He says that Haqqee’s articles display a variety of humour that can be termed as refinement and good taste. As put by Vazeer Agha, Haqqee’s humour has a cultured elegance which has raised his writings much above the coarse jesting commonly found in the writings of his contemporary humorists.

These pieces would have been lost forever had Shanul Haqqee not compiled them shortly before his death in 2005. The publishing of the second edition of such significant writings is indeed heartening.

Published in Dawn, November 19th, 2019