He breathed words. He consumed words. It was the word that nourished his spirit, imagination and intellect. The written world was not just a paradise for him; it was the only abode worth living in. He could live without people, but not without books. Once, separated from his books for a long period of time, he called the experience akin to being in hell. An opening line from one of his essays on criticism reads: “The difficulty with a book is that it ends, like life.”
He could imagine that life and the world could be wholly destroyed. He appreciated apocalyptic literature written in world languages. He showed deep love and had serious thoughts about dystopian fiction. He had come to believe — after a series of devastating experiences in his personal and social life, and a vast study of world literature — that this was the darkness that formed the quintessential part of the reality of our age and in general. He had mustered the courage to embrace reality alone. Yet, it was unimaginable to him that books could be destroyed; that words could be eliminated from the world and from the memory of humans.
His words seemed to shed tears when he wrote about Nasooh burning books in Deputy Nazir Ahmad’s Taubatan Nasooh [The Repentance of Nasooh]. The death of words was a thing unimaginable to him; “Nothing could be more horrible than the burning of books,” he said. Ahmad’s novel was his all-time favourite; he not only wrote one of the best pieces on it in his first collection of critical writings Alam-i-Ijaad [The Cosmos of Invention], but found it most relevant to the current pandemic as well. He was related to Ahmad by blood from his mother’s side, and shared Ahmad’s vision, too: ‘write your times’. In his last days, he was chronicling these current days of pandemic.
He was Dr Asif Aslam Farrukhi. Ah. We have lost a great soul. And a giant of the contemporary world of Urdu literature. This is a colossal loss, in the truest sense of the word.
Farrukhi was a son of Karachi, where he was born on Sept 16, 1959, and held a cosmopolitan view of literature. He personified the ideal of ‘think globally, but act locally’. Though a voracious reader of world literature, all his literary endeavours revolved around Urdu and Pakistani languages. Through literary festivals, which he co-founded with Ameena Saiyid, he strove to bring local and global writers on the same stage. It was he who, through these lit-fests, elevated the status of Pakistani writers to celebrity.
Asif Farrukhi, who passed away on June 1, was more than just a fiction writer, an essayist, a critic, a translator or a literary festival organiser. He was truly a giant of global literature
These times of pandemic are times of great suffering. What can literature do in such difficult times? This was the question — and riddle — that Farrukhi tried to unravel in his last days. “Doing more literature”, was his answer. He read almost every piece written on the pandemic in English and Urdu, and shared his views on them through his writings and vlogs. Equally fluent in English and Urdu, he was the only Urdu author regularly writing a Taala Bandi Ka Roznaamcha [Diary of the Lockdown].
But the Roznaamcha was not a thing that could bridge the social and communicative gap forged — or forced — by the lockdown. It was far more than that. Though he was living a secluded life after a family break-up and was in dire need of regular chats with friends, Farrukhi’s Roznaamcha epitomised his belief that it was writing — only writing — that provided us with a faithful way of embracing the reality of the moment. Writing their times without embracing any ideology was the responsibility, if any, of a writer, he believed.
In April, during the early days of the lockdown, he had decided to bring out a special issue of Dunyazaad — a literary magazine he launched in 2000 — on the coronavirus pandemic. What irony! Irony of life or, perhaps, more of destiny. The last issue of Dunyazaad was headlined Kitaab-i-Alwida [The Book of Farewells] in which homage was paid to recently departed writers, including Fahmida Riaz, Khalida Husain, Anwar Sajjad and Toni Morrison. Had Farrukhi intuitively come to know his own farewell time was nearing?
Who dictates us? Society, oligarchs, destiny or genes? I think all of these, at different times and in different measure. Society, through his father Dr Aslam Farrukhi and father-figures of the likes of Ghulam Abbas and Hasan Askari, had dictated — or advised — him to become a medical doctor. His genes — both his parents were writers and academics of enviable repute — made him drift towards literature. You can defy society, but not genes. Farrukhi earned an MBBS degree from Dow Medical College and acquired specialised training in public health from Harvard University, but his main interest remained literature. After a long career as a specialist in public health, he — ostensibly at the dictation of genes — began teaching literature and humanities at Habib University in 2014.
Two years prior to completing his medical education in 1984, Farrukhi had published his first collection of short stories, Aatishfishan Par Khilay Gulab [Roses Blooming on the Volcano]. The year he got his medical degree, he brought out his second collection, Ism-i-Aazam ki Talaash [The Quest for the Greatest Name]. The short story was his first love and he has eight collections to his credit: Cheezain Aur Log [Things and People], Shehr Beeti [City Life], Shehr Maajra [What Happened in the City], Main Shaakh Say Kiyun Toota [Why Did I Break Off From the Branch], Aik Aadmi Ki Kami [The Absence of One Man] and Meray Din Guzar Rahay Hain [My Days Pass].
Devastation and wreckage are the major themes of Farrukhi’s fiction. In his stories, he narrates how, first, dictatorial rule ruined the fabric of Pakistani society, especially of Karachi, and then how forces of globalisation devastated the city’s landscape. His stories are inundated with apocalyptic imagery. In this regard, ‘Buhera-i-Murdaar’ [Dead Sea], ‘Samandar Ki Chori’ [The Theft of the Sea], ‘Samandar’ [Sea] and ‘Sitara-i-Ghayeb’ [The Missing Star] can be mentioned particularly. Irfan Javed, himself a prominent Urdu prose writer, compiled Farrukhi’s best stories in a book titled Samandar Ki Chori, which is certainly one of the best modern Urdu short stories, too.
In ‘Buhera-i-Murdaar’, Farrukhi writes, “there is a single theme that can be reflected upon, and that is death. To write the theme of death, a large amount of darkness is required. I will write in the dark night that prevails and I am sure I can write while the whole world is engulfed by thick darkness.” Although dystopian fiction appears gloomy and depressing on the surface, it makes us gather the courage to embrace the dark sides of inner and outer reality. Contrary to commonly held views, dystopian fiction doesn’t leave us depressed.
Farrukhi referred to ancient religious qissas [stories], hikayaat [fables] and myths to describe the darkness of his times. ‘What is going on in the present corresponds to what had been happening in the past’ was an idea Intizar Husain had also employed in his fiction. The agonies of Partition had a sneaky relationship to those inflicted upon the Muslims of India during the war of 1857 and to those embodied in the tragedy of Karbala. The displacement which the inhabitants of South Asia had to suffer soon after Partition bore a covert similarity to the Jewish Exodus. Farrukhi not only carried this idea in his fiction in his own way, but came close to Intizar Husain.
He was an ardent admirer of Husain’s fiction and wrote a detailed book on Husain’s life and works titled Chiragh-i-Shab-i-Afsaana [The Lamp of the Night of Story]. Besides Partition fiction, Farrukhi shared many other things with Husain: a love of Jataka Kahaaniyan [Buddha stories] and admiration for critic Hasan Askari are the most significant. He also accompanied Husain to the Man Booker International Prize ceremony in 2013, when Husain had been shortlisted for his novel Basti. Farrukhi’s book Safar Ke Khush Naseeb [The Blessed Travellers] is a story of his inspiration from Husain’s works and person.
Farrukhi translated a number of books into Urdu. Dehshat Gard Say Gautam Budh Ki Mulaqaat — his translation of Satish Kumar’s The Buddha and the Terrorist: The Story of Angulimala — epitomises the philosophy of dystopian fiction: face the reality no matter how dark, terrible and gloomy it is. The translation of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha is a feather in Farrukhi’s cap and, again, displays his regard for Buddha. His translations of Latin American fiction — Surang (Ernesto Sabato’s El Tunel), Maatam Aik Aurat Ka (Omar Rivabella’s Requiem for a Woman’s Soul) and Maut Aur Qutub Numa [Death and the Pendulum] — need particular mention; they not only enriched Urdu literature, but helped challenge Western canons of fiction. Farrukhi seemed to hold the view that postcolonial Pakistani fiction was more akin to Latin American and African fiction.
Although Alam-i-Ijaad, Farrukhi’s first collection of critical writings came a bit late — in 2004 — criticism was his forte. In his second collection of critical essays, Nigaah-i-Ainasaaz Mein [In the Eyes of the Mirror Maker], his postscript unambiguously states that his critical assumptions have been at work throughout his writings: “neither I deny the importance of criticism nor deem it unnecessary.” Here, he — albeit obliquely — refers to those Urdu critics who harshly criticise the very practice of criticism and says that the topmost priority of (contemporary) Urdu criticism must be to absolve itself of colonial baggage. Following Western canonisation blindly in evaluating Urdu literature has wreaked havoc on not just our sense and taste of classical literature, but on criticism itself. In this regard, he applauds Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s work on Urdu daastan. Among his other favourites in Urdu criticism were Meeraji, Hasan Askari and Shamim Hanfi.
We can trace Farrukhi’s fundamental vision of literature across all his critical writings. In a way, he was a ‘fundamentalist’. He openly decried compromising the ‘literariness’ of literature — which might be called the central feature of his above-mentioned vision. The question of ‘literariness’ was first raised by Russian and American formalists to defy the historical school of criticism but, in Farrukhi’s writings, this notion is somehow fluid. It is aesthetic, it is a sensual experience, it is creative language and it is freedom to write on anything. It is an imaginative world that speaks to us in our solitude. In his essay ‘Adab Aur Mafaad-i-Aama’ [Literature and the Common Cause], he quotes a poem by W.H. Auden to define his view of literature:
“All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority”
His criticism is an attempt at deciphering and interpreting this voice — the only voice that can be claimed as an authentic human voice. True, a large part of Farrukhi’s critical writings comprises the analysis of fiction, but he had a specific streak for poetry and published a collection of prose poems titled Is Waqt to Youn Lagta Hai [Right Now It Seems As If]. Most of his book titles have been borrowed from poetic lines. Moreover, his prose was heavily influenced by poetic imagery and metaphors and he frequently quoted classical and Urdu poetry in both his critical and fictional prose. To some, this poeticised style would blur the clarity expected from a critic in his evaluations of texts, but this way, Farrukhi could speak the unspeakable truths to the elite of politics and literature. His essays on Josh Malihabadi, Sara Shagufta and Muhammad Hussain Azad, in his last collection Aik Kahani Naye Mazmoon Ki [A Story of a New Kind], are particularly worth mentioning in this regard. In sum, he strove, he sought, he found and he didn’t yield.
Goodbye, Asif Aslam Farrukhi! Goodbye, most anxious and secluded soul!
The writer is a Lahore-based critic, short story writer and author of Urdu Adab Ki Tashkeel-i-Jadid, Nazm Kaisay Parrhain (criticism) and Raakh Se Likhi Gayi Kitaab (short stories). He teaches Urdu at the University of the Punjab
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 7th, 2020