Photo courtesy Murtaza Ali/ White Star
Photo courtesy Murtaza Ali/ White Star

Many renowned writers, including George Orwell, Rudyard Kipling, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Ernest Hemingway, started their writing careers as journalists and then achieved fame in the world of literature.

Marquez, in an interview with the literary magazine The Paris Review, said, “I’ve always been convinced that my true profession is that of a journalist. What I didn’t like about journalism before were the working conditions.” He had expressed his joy at any chance of doing “a great piece of journalism” even when he had become a famous novelist. One of his most famous works, Love in the Time of Cholera, was based on a news story that he had read about two old American lovers who would have annual trysts in Mexico until they were killed at the age of 80. Marquez spoke about it in his interview published in The New York Times in 1988.

Hemingway, who also started out as a journalist, once replied to a question in The Paris Review thusly: “I certainly do not think of writing as a type of self-destruction, though journalism, after a point has been reached, can be a daily self-destruction for a serious creative writer.”

However, Urdu short story writer and journalist Masood Ashar, who passed away on July 5 in Lahore at the age of 90, did not seem to agree with Hemingway; he remained a journalist all his life, despite developing into a fine short story writer of repute. Indeed, the famous Indian writer and critic Shamim Hanfi found a clear influence of journalism and its practices on Ashar’s fiction.

The writer, who passed away on July 5, brought his keen journalistic eye to bear on his often symbolic short stories

Born Masood Ahmed Khan in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, India, on Feb 10, 1931, Ashar received a certificate in Arabic from Madressah Aaliyah, Rampur, and matriculated from Allahabad in 1948. He also did a diploma course in Hindi. After graduating from Agra University (now Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar University), he migrated to Pakistan in 1951 by crossing the border in Sindh. After a day’s stay in Karachi, he arrived in Lahore, where he started his journalistic career.

He worked with newspapers such as Ehsaan, Zamindar and Aasaar before joining the daily Imroze as senior sub-editor in 1954. Four years later, he was appointed resident editor of the paper’s Multan bureau.

His development as a short story writer was gradual. In his introduction to Intikhaab: Masood Ashar [Selection: Masood Ashar], a compilation of Ashar’s short fiction published by the Oxford University Press, the late Asif Farrukhi wrote: “Masood Ashar is not one of those short story writers who get success early in their career. He stepped into writing fiction with intervals. He was not in a hurry to write short stories, but made his mark gradually.”

Ashar’s first short story collection, Aankhon Per Dono Haath [Eyes Covered with Both Hands], was published in 1975 and included works written from 1964 to 1974, meaning that he got into story writing quite late in life — which usually carries its own benefits. The collection delved into myriad themes, including romantic relationships and personal psychological conflicts between right and wrong.

There are stories on how relationships between men and women change with the passage of time (eg ‘Dosti Ki Deewaar’ [The Wall of Friendship]) and some stories are interspersed with references to Western literature — such as Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and writers such as Henry James and Erica Jong (‘Ghair Aadmi’ [The Strange Man]) — which show that Ashar was well aware of the ‘Western canon’.

Being a journalist, his stories were also a record of the changing times. For instance, in ‘Akailay Aadmi Ka Safar’ [The Lone Man’s Journey], the narration moves between Lahore and Multan and their localities whose names have been changed now. Gandhi Park in Multan cannot even be traced anymore and Goal Bagh in Lahore has become Nasser Bagh.

In 1967, Ashar visited then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and could not remain unaffected by the socio-economic conditions of the Bengalis. ‘Daab Aur Beer Ki Botal’ [Coconut and a Bottle of Beer] depicts the living conditions prevalent in the eastern half of the nation, the attitude of West Pakistanis towards the locals and the animosity triggered by grudges and the sense of injustice that the local population felt towards those from West Pakistan.

Ashar had a progressive bent from the beginning. The late Intizar Husain, in his book Mulaqaatein [Meetings], compares him with reference to playwright and fiction writer Enver Sajjad, writing that “Masood Ashar had worked hard to write symbolic stories. His progressive bent had a part to play in it. However, he came to his senses quickly and came out of the influence of progressiveness.”

Ashar’s second collection, Saaray Fasaanay [All Stories] was published in 1987 and included all the stories from his first book as well. Most of the stories in this second collection are symbolic, touching upon surrealism, so much so that several of the tales have no names for characters and places, instead having a dreamlike milieu. These stories were written during Gen Ziaul Haq’s regime and perhaps that also influenced Ashar’s style.

During Gen Zia’s dictatorship, Ashar was the resident editor of daily Imroze in Multan when the authorities opened fire at the workers of the Colony Textile Mills. He published news of the incident in Imroze despite gagging orders. Later, when asked about the reporter who had filed the story, he refused to reveal the reporter’s name and, as punishment, was transferred to Lahore.

In 1983, he signed a letter for the demand of restoration of democracy in Pakistan and was consequently dismissed from service. This happened despite his closeness to Gen Zia when the military dictator had been a colonel posted in Multan. Such persecution can’t have a pleasant effect on anybody’s mind and psyche.

About his works, Ashar himself wrote that “my stories are my dreams, rather nightmares, and by writing stories, I get rid of my nightmares.”

In his second book, there is a symbolic story titled ‘Khwaab’ [Dreams], which is based on the dreams of a couple. They both fail in their dreams, which remain unfulfilled. In the story, there is a sound of boots running on the roads and this thumping beat turns out to be the pounding of the hooves of a herd of pigs when reality surfaces and the protagonist fails to fire a shot. The comparison of the couple’s story with the socio-political conditions of the time becomes inevitable.

Ashar was reinstated at Imroze after Gen Zia’s plane crashed and Benazir Bhutto came into power in 1988. He became editor of the daily and retired from the post on reaching the age of superannuation.

Ashar’s journey as a short story writer continued along with him being an agile journalist who kept an eye on changing society. His third book, Apna Ghar [Our Home], appeared in 2004. In this collection, the tale ‘Aakhri Nikhaad’ [The Last Musical Note] tells the story of the nuclear explosions conducted by both Pakistan and India from the point of view of a photojournalist. It focuses on the futility of nuclear power, which had devastating effects on the land and populations in both countries. Meanwhile, ‘Allah Hafiz’ [May Allah Protect You] shows how language was changed by certain governments to promote an agenda based on religion, sectarianism and the growing extremism in Pakistan.

The writer’s observant mind continued to play its part in Ashar’s last collection, Sawaal Kahani [Story of Questions], published in 2020. One story, Bismillah Ka Gumbad [Bismillah’s Dome], delineates a picture of the country where fundamentalism is on the rise and people are turning to extremism despite studying at high-profile Western universities. Many other stories show a society transformed through the use of information technology and gadgets. Farrukhi said that, without sticking to a particular style of writing, Ashar believed in experiments and modernism while remaining close to the demands of the contemporary world.

After his retirement from Imroze in 1991, Ashar continued to write columns for Urdu newspapers such as the daily Jang, and later, Dunya, on various topics including history, politics, human rights and his own memories. His focus had always been progressive ideas and their spread in society.

Ashar’s last column was on the death of his friend and critic Shamim Hanfi in June 2021. A couple of months earlier, he had written on the death of another friend, I.A. Rehman and, before him, on the death of Zahid Dar. With his own death now, it’s obvious that the season of death continues, and those people who can be considered pillars of any society are gradually leaving us.

The writer is a member of staff. He tweets @IrfaanAslam

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 18th, 2021

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