In Urdu, the genre of khaaka nigari [sketch writing] has evolved its own distinct style when we compare it to what is called biographical essays in English. The names of Mirza Farhatullah Baig, Ismat Chughtai and Saadat Hasan Manto merit a mention at the outset. Maulvi Abdul Haq’s contribution to this genre — through his collection Chund Hum Asr [A Few Contemporaries], first published in 1950 — is important because he wrote about those who remained invisible to the eyes of the affluent and educated.

Since the middle of the 20th century, we have seen many such writings appear in newspapers, magazines and collections, with both serious personality sketches as well as caricatures in prose that humour a person or their work. Some important names in Pakistan that come to my mind immediately include Dr Aftab Ahmed, Ahmad Bashir, Sahab Qizilbash, Dr Aslam Farrukhi and Mushfiq Khawaja. There are some sketches which can also fall in the categories of pure satire and humour writing. However, the personality sketches that attract most attention are those that present a factual portrayal of a person, laced with humour and wit.

The idea here is not to share an exhaustive list of sketch writers — since there are many others, in addition to those mentioned above, who have produced work of considerable quality in this genre. The idea is to place Shahid Malik in the company of those who have refined the craft of writing personality sketches in Urdu. His collection, Yaar Saraey [The Tavern of Friends], published in 2020, comprises 12 pen portraits of his friends and seniors and one about the BBC Urdu Service and its famous programme Sairbeen, which went off-air recently after running for decades.

Malik, born a few years after the creation of Pakistan, started his career as an English and Urdu language interpreter for an embassy in Islamabad, but soon moved to teaching literature and media. He taught at various colleges and universities in Lahore, Rawalpindi and Islamabad, before settling for a job with the BBC in the United Kingdom.

He served as a producer in the Urdu Service and, at one time, led the BBC Asian Network. He earned the reputation of an ace broadcast journalist whose programming had huge breadth. After returning to Pakistan in 2004, he remained the Punjab correspondent for the BBC until some years ago, besides resuming his passion for teaching at a number of academic institutions in Lahore. Malik has also written verse in Urdu and contributes a regular newspaper column.

Although Yaar Saraey is not personal memoirs, one can find Malik’s own personality emerging from his writing, as journalist and teacher Arif Waqar points out in his preface to the book. Malik’s personality is, in some sense, spread across the 13 sketches he has penned. His apparently casual and happy-go-lucky style is a smartly woven, thin veil over his deep-seated concerns for a cultural and ethical tragedy unfolding in our times. He humours people and events, but employs what I call a compassionate wit, so that the weaknesses of a friend or a colleague are given latitude through dealing with them with a latent sympathy. Because they are all human, after all.

The sketch of Majeed Nizami, editor-owner of a leading publishing house, is a case in point. Malik — irrespective of his political differences — treats Nizami with a certain respect and fairness. This is unlike the scathing humour employed by Mushfiq Khawaja, for instance, which leaves the impression that the subject is being mocked and ridiculed, however classy the prose. But this is also unlike Dr Farrukhi’s and Aftab Ahmed’s hugely informative and interesting, but serious, portrayals of personalities.

Malik refrains from using clever sentences in his prose. His is simple, direct, accessible and lucid language, but multi-layered and metaphorical for those who can appreciate the sense of loss and depth of irony for a time and people. He comfortably quotes poetry from various poets and literary anecdotes of people other than his subjects while describing persons, situations and events. This brings texture to Malik’s prose. The reader gets a flavour of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib writing letters to his friends, the verses of Akbar Allahabadi, and the stories of Raaz Muradabadi.

The personalities Malik sketches include Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Khalid Hasan and Masood Hasan (the latter two also happen to be Malik’s cousins), Majeed Nizami, Zamarrud Malik, Shahid Naseer, Zia Dar, Nasrullah Malik, Rafiq Mahmood, Aftab Iqbal Shamim, Ali Ahmed Khan, Khurram Qadir and Nazir Ahmed Malik.

Faiz and the Hasan brothers, particularly Khalid Hasan, are celebrated among the literati and journalists. It is difficult to write about such people who have already been discussed because one must find some new dimensions of their beings. This is what Malik has successfully done. However, what I particularly liked were the sketches of Zia Dar, Ali Ahmed Khan, Khurram Qadir and Aftab Iqbal Shamim. Dar, an academic who was active with the progressive political movement in the country, was a close friend of Malik’s, and he died at a young age. It is a particularly heartfelt piece, about someone who largely remains unsung otherwise.

Ali Ahmed Khan has been a leading journalist who has penned his own memoirs. Khan’s sketch by Malik also offers an appreciation of his touching memoirs. These memoirs offer an experiential and incisive assessment of the secession of East Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh.

Khurram Qadir, an important historian and researcher, remained a close friend of Malik’s. His unique personality traits and evolution in his career are captured with a personal fondness. Aftab Iqbal Shamim is one of our major poets and literary scholars who remained self-effacing and, therefore, not as celebrated as he should have been.

Malik has chosen to write about those who he felt were close to him from his student life until now. But his wide experience of people and places, and a cultivated insight into the human psyche, make these sketches a commentary on a fading age, society, values and milieu.

The columnist is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad. His latest book is a collection of verse, No Fortunes to Tell

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 6th, 2021

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