But, for the unquiet heart and brain, A use in measured language lies; The sad mechanic exercise, Like dull narcotics, numbing pain. — Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Each time I try to write a tribute to Asif Farrukhi, my fingers freeze on the keyboard. I find it incredibly hard to write about Asif in the past tense. It can’t be true that Asif is no more. A person with such indomitable energy can’t go away so suddenly. Yet, he did leave us; we are his mourners, wringing our hands in sorrow and despair.
How does one begin to enumerate the wide-ranging engagements of his visionary repertoire? As an eminent writer of fiction, literary critic and translator of world literature, Asif enriched Urdu literature more than most of his time and age. As editor of Duniyazaad, he welcomed and promoted new writers, encouraged the translation of modern literature — including Middle Eastern literature — and encouraged the evaluation of modern Pakistani literature. Very quickly, he made his journal a highly respected chronicle of new writing on both sides of the border. As a publisher of books under the banner of Scheherzade, he produced excellent, path-breaking works in poetry and prose. As a public intellectual, he was the force behind literature festivals and breathed new energy into the Urdu literary milieu.
Asif was an invaluable resource for anyone who wanted to write about Urdu or just had a passion for Urdu and its literary culture. My introduction to him was in the early years of the 21st century when I was putting together my anthology of modern Urdu literature. We exchanged many emails and I was delighted to hear that he would be doing a lecture circuit in the United States on a Fulbright grant in 2007. I promptly invited him to the University of Virginia. He gave an insightful lecture on the literary aspect of Partition. I suggested that he stay at our house instead of a hotel, but he firmly declined, saying that he enjoyed the relative privacy of overseas trips to reflect and catch up on his reading. Most visitors from back ‘home’ enjoy the warmth of familial settings and prefer to stay at a friend’s or even an acquaintance’s home. It was unusual to find someone more interested in his literary pursuits than sightseeing and enjoying ‘home food’. Asif’s graceful self-reliance left a deep impression on me.
My two-volume anthology of modern Urdu literature was published by the Oxford University Press later that year. Asif wrote an excellent review; he also appreciated its limitations — no anthology can please all — with impeccable subtlety. It was Asif who suggested my name as a columnist for Dawn.
When I needed to locate rare and important books during the course of writing my book on Muhammad Hasan Askari, where else could I turn but to Asif? And he was incredibly generous with his time and his own reading.
When Asif invited me to the Karachi Literature Festival in 2013, I readily accepted, but with the caveat that I would like to stay at his house. This was my first ever trip to Karachi (where a large number of my close relatives had made their home since Partition) and I feared that I would be swarmed with invitations to stay with all, or at least many, of my relatives. Karachi’s reputation for its hugeness, cosmopolitanism and overwhelming number of Mohajirs filled me with excitement and trepidation. I carefully chose a flight that would land in the middle of the afternoon. I assumed Asif would arrange for me to be picked up at the airport and deposited at his house. Unfortunately, no one showed up at the huge airport. I just waited, having no Pakistani money to use the phone. Eventually the confusion was sorted out and I reached my destination, embarrassed and disoriented. My one-week stay was filled with the warmth of the beginning of an enduring friendship. I got to know his wife Seemin and daughter Ghazal. I met Asif’s parents. Asif found time to arrange a couple of talks and meetings with Karachi’s literati. Also, he showed me the sights of Karachi, particularly Islamia College where Askari had taught English literature for almost all his life.
Asif’s home was tastefully appointed and comfortable. There were several eye-catching paintings on the walls of the spacious living room and books were stashed everywhere in the dining area; stacks of them even on the stairs that led to Asif’s study in the basement.
Asif belonged to a peerless lineage of literary figures: Maulvi Nazir Ahmad, Maulvi Bashiruddin Ahmad, Shahid Ahmad Dehlvi and his father Aslam Farrukhi. Although he had trained as a medical doctor in accordance with his father’s wishes, writing was in his blood and reading and writing fiction were his passion. He was vastly read, and was equally prolific in literary production. When I did a World Catalogue search to affirm the number of books he had written, I was, and wasn’t, surprised to find his name associated with more than 250 titles. Many of these were anthologies of Urdu fiction and poetry conceived from a variety of perspectives; he had several volumes of translation of contemporary Urdu poets to his credit. He wrote innumerable introductions to volumes of Urdu literature that he published from the family owned press, Scheherzade, and then there were his own collections of short fiction.
From 2010 onwards, he blazed a path of literature festivals that revitalised Urdu and gave space to regional literatures such as Sindhi and Punjabi. He was a dynamic public intellectual, a figure that added lustre to any mehfil [gathering] with his equanimity and erudition.
Asif, in spite of his huge social engagement, was essentially a private and self-contained person. I searched for biographical notes, essays and khaakay [pen sketches], that would reveal a more personal side to his public persona, but was disappointed. Asif’s father, the late Aslam sahib, wrote some of the most brilliant and endearing khaakay of peers, family and friends. Aslam sahib’s evocative khaakay — five individual volumes — bridge pre- and post-Partition milieus. In Lal Sabz Kabutaron Wali Chhatri [The Red and Green Pigeon House], I read about the family’s migration from their ancestral home in Fatehgarh-Farrukhabad after 1947. Fatehgarh is the twin township of Farrukhabad, founded by the Mughal emperor Farrukh Siyar in the early 18th century. Fatehgarh was created by the English in the late 18th century as a cantonment town. The first ruler of Farrukhabad was Nawab Muhammad Khan Bangash, an independent Mughal governor in 1714. Both townships are redolent with Mughal and English history and memories. Farrukhabad remains a notable centre of Urdu literature.
Asif’s father has documented the transition from Fatehgarh to Karachi in charming prose couched in cultural nuances. Asif’s birth in September 1959, his upbringing and scholastic brilliance is recorded with a father’s pride. Asif went on to wear many hats. He was a medical doctor, an expert on public health — for which he had a degree from Harvard University — fiction writer, publisher, magazine editor and, lastly, university professor. He appeared on the literary scene when he was barely in his early 20s and remained active for very nearly 40 years.
Asif’s admiration for Intizar Husain is well-known. It is here that I found a track of Asif’s personal intellectual history. Although Asif had discovered Husain quite early among the crowded book shelves of his father’s library, he preferred the earthiness of Ismat Chughtai and the beautiful cadences of Qurratulain Hyder’s prose. In the postscript to his monumental volume, Chiragh-i-Shab-i-Afsana: Intizar Husain ka Jahan-i-Fan [Lamp of the Night of Stories: Intizar Husain’s World of Art] Asif reveals how much he appreciated and enjoyed the subtle fiction of Husain: “Stories were the be all and end all of my existence, my secret, my inner life, about whose presence I did not allow even the palest hint to escape to anyone’s awareness during my daily activities. Because this world pulsated only for me, it was urging me to discover new goals; it was complete in itself. And, it was at this stage in my life that I rediscovered Intizar Husain. It felt almost as if I were reading him for the first time. From then to now I have been reading his fiction over and over, longing again for that moment when I read him for the first time.”
The idea of writing a monograph on Husain was proposed to Asif by Iftikhar Husain Arif for the Adabiyat-i-Pakistan, or the Pakistan Academy of Letters. It wasn’t easy to write a short book on Husain, confessed Asif. There were so many aspects, so many memories of one of the greatest living writers of our time. The Academy published the book, but the project kept growing. Fortunately, there was plenty of critical material on Husain to be tapped. Asif’s opus is nearly 500 pages long and follows the chronological curve of Husain’s complete works. Asif maintains a critical distance throughout the book, allowing the personal to seep in only in the first chapter: Intizar Husain: Zindagi Naamah [Intizar Husain: Life Story] and the very last postscript.
It is difficult to write at length about a living author whom you know and admire. Intizar sahib had entered the 94th year of his life as Asif was trying to wrap up this mammoth book. He shared the manuscript with Intizar sahib who read every word and meticulously corrected some of the typos. But it was not destined to be published in Intizar sahib’s lifetime; he passed away on Feb 2, 2016, after catching a chill that developed into pneumonia. A few months later, Asif lost his father on June 15. The book was published the same year.
Ironically, Asif and Intizar sahib shared an important personality trait. I have mentioned the evocative genre of adabi khaakay in Urdu earlier in this essay. There are very few khaakay on Intizar sahib. Asif writes that “perhaps his reticence and ostensibly his plain lifestyle kept people at a distance. Nonetheless, a few persons were close to him and have written about him.” I think that a similar kind of reserve applies to Asif. He was prolific and wrote on a variety of subjects, but he rarely wrote about himself. There was so much writing left in him, but he was taken away from us so soon, that I would like to think he might have found time to write his autobiography later in life.
Asif passed away suddenly on June 1, a mere four years after his father’s death, leaving us to mourn each day as his absence sinks in my soul slowly, irrevocably. Tributes and homages are pouring in from every side. Friends, relatives, colleagues, students — he touched so many lives.
Rest in peace, Asif. You will be remembered for a long, long time. Urdu literature will ever remain indebted to you.
The one remains, the many change and pass; Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly; — Percy Bysshe Shelley
The columnist is associate professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 12th, 2020