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By Intizar Husain

THE biography of distinguished critic and poet Saleem Ahmad, who breathed his last in 1983, has recently come out. Between the time that he left us and the publication of Saleem Ahmad: Mushaiday, Mutalay, aur Tassurat ki Roshni Main, written by Khwaja Razi Haider, we have crossed into the 21st century and are now living in a different age. And yet I feel that Haider’s book is not a delayed attempt.

After all, why should we be in a hurry to write about the departed? Emotions in relation to the deceased take time to subside, and a critic or biographer needs to stand at a respectable distance from the departed soul to be able to see things clearly. Haider is correct in thinking that a writer emotionally attached to his subject cannot act as a good biographer. In his case, though, even after the lapse of all these years, the attachment is much the same.

In fact, Saleem Ahmad: Mushaiday, Mutalay, aur Tassurat ki Roshni Main is a bit different from a regular biography. Haider shows Ahmad as he found him during the years of his friendship with him. In such an account, which is personal in nature, we don’t expect an objective study of the man. The personal touch is and should be there. But Haider is sensible enough to not allow himself to be overwhelmed by his devotion towards his friend. As a result, we see a balanced portrayal of the man in which the truth is not blurred by the overflow of emotions.

Being related to Ahmad, Haider had the opportunity to see him against the backdrop of his family. He has portrayed him as a son deeply attached to his mother and whose concern also extended to friends who used to visit him daily.

Ahmad belonged to the generation of writers born during the transitory period of Partition. He started off as a poet, but he was an ambitions soul and wanted to do more. He was also attracted to literary criticism. With his individualistic approach to literature he soon grew into a controversial critic.

Perhaps that was what he aspired for. He was always ready to cross swords with his rivals. And he did not like to remain confined to writing alone but also liked to argue verbally. In fact, Ahmad did not like seclusion. He had the temperament of an extrovert and enjoyed discussing ideas in the company of friends and admirers and was happiest when confronting his rivals.

Haider describes the daily gathering of friends and disciples at Ahmad’s residence where ideas would be discussed late into the night.

Haider also emphasises Karachi’s development as the cradle of literary activities. It was because of Ahmad, says Haider, that Karachi came to be recognised as a school of thought with an individuality of its own. He regrets that after Ahmad’s death literary activities have dwindled as has the tradition of dialogue he had initiated.

And this is not just a statement coming from Haider. While engaged in portraying Ahmad, he brings before our eyes a whole generation of young writers who gathered to seek guidance and inspiration from him. However, a reference here to Muhammad Hasan Askari is out of place. Haider does not take into account the difference between their temperaments. Askari was not a sociable person and liked communicating through his writings. And in his early years in Pakistan he was engaged in talking to the age he was living in.