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Flashback: Karachi’s literary past — and present

Published Jan 13, 2013 12:09am

For Asif Farrukhi, memories are best stored in the form of books and magazines

Months and years of the past sometimes come back to me as back issues of old magazines. Not stacked neatly in piles marked by the year, bound and shelved away but journals as they appeared month after month, marking time and bringing up new things to read, discuss and ponder over. Books were infrequent and spread over longer stretches of time, rather it were the literary journals which created a sense of movement and some of them are stamped with indelible ink upon my memory. The appearance of regular issues, new stories and poems, the daily routine of their offices frequented by writers and poets, guests from out of town and occasional programmes, all contributed to the literary atmosphere in Karachi in the not too distant past which I see as continuing in the present.

One of the leading journals and probably the most influential was Nigar which moved with its editor Niaz Fatehpuri from Lucknow to Karachi. Nigar was famous for its encyclopaedic approach and the rational views of its editor, especially in matters of religion. Fatehpuri died in Karachi but the journal was taken up by Prof. Farman Fatehpuri and he not only reprinted the famous special issues of the journal, but also initiated an annual lecture organised in the name of Fatehpuri and Nigar.

While Nigar was known for its essays and liberal outlook, Saqi had a reputation for short stories and modern poetry. It also moved to Karachi along with its editor Shahid Ahmed Dehlavi. With its trademark covers of the cup-bearer and glass of wine, this was the journal in which writers such as Azim Baig Chughtai, Manto, Ismat Chughtai, Krishan Chandra and Qurratulain Hyder were published. The iconoclastic critic Muhammad Hassan Askari wrote Jhalkiyan month after month. Its selection of Mir and a special issue with the best of international fiction are entire books in themselves.

I have a vivid memory of the editor who used the living room of his house in PIB Colony as an office of sorts. There he would sit, clad in a banyan with sleeves and a tehmad, a beedi dangling from his lips, editing, proofreading, writing post-card-sized letters to writers as reminders while entertaining guests at the same time. This was much before we had heard about multi-tasking. I recall his telling my father once in my presence that he had spent a few hours at the local post office to learn the process of how printed material should be wrapped. Once somebody sent him a greeting card and asked him to convey best wishes to all the staff of the magazine. He laughingly said that he was all the staff there was — from editor to proof-reader to assistant. He had taken up the magazine as his mission in life, and needless to say, it folded up a few years after his death.

These magazines were all associated with their editors and the one that I best remember is Afkaar, edited by Sehba Lucknavi. Afkaar would make its appearance every month on the dot and continued for several decades, publishing bumper issues on Josh, Faiz and Nadeem Ahmed Qasimi. Lucknavi, though he looked frail, was an indefatigable soul with boundless energy. I could not take his name out of respect and would call him Sehba chacha. For many years, the poet Saher Ansari worked with him and it was he who placed my first article in that prestigious magazine when I was still in school.

Sehba chacha would encourage younger writers and I recall that during my university days when I was in Boston, he would regularly post the magazine to me and for many days this was the only connection I would have with the world of Urdu I had left behind. A small office behind Urdu Bazaar, packed with books and unsold copies of back issues, was a meeting place for writers. I got to meet many eminent writers there but none more unforgettable than Muhammad Khalid Akhtar who would carry away armloads of books for review and sometimes turn in humorous pieces. All this has now turned into literary history.

The most distinguished literary journal to have been published from Karachi was, in my opinion, Naya Daur. It was edited by Dr Jameel Jalibi and though his name never appeared in print, everybody in the literary world knew him as the moving spirit behind the magazine. Each issue the size of a book, Naya Daur would take months to be published but each issue was remarkable as it regularly featured authors like Ghulam Abbas, Noon Meem Rashid, Abul Fazal Siddiqui, Saleem Ahmad and others, some of whom were not to be seen in other journals. The long, flowing stories of Abulfazal Siddiqui were published mainly in this journal as well as Rashid’s translations from modern Persian and Qurratulain Hyder’s translation of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral and Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany. Rafiq Hussain’s stories were also published posthumously in one issue. Along with the Lahore based Nuqoosh and Savera, it was Naya Daur which selected and published some of the most distinguished writing of the day, a track record which is still hard to beat.

One magazine stood apart from all others and it was Naqsh, edited by my father’s friend and colleague Shams Zuberi, as it reprinted the best writings from all other magazines. Back issues of the magazine were stacked in our house and reading these was a favourite pastime on sultry summer afternoons or school holidays. This was the first magazine which used the word “digest” for itself, much before widely circulated popular journals such as Alami, Sabrang and Alif Laila, which combined old favourites with occult and crime-based serials, but that is another story.

A long distinguished record belongs to the magazine Seep which was characterised by covers designed by Jamil Naqsh of the woman and pigeon fame. Taken together, these covers alone would make a fascinating book. There was much more to it than the covers, of course, and I recall that it would feature the stories of Amar Jaleel. I would sometimes see its editor Nasim Durrani having tea with Obaidullah Aleem and Jamil Akhtar Khan at the Jabees in Saddar. I remember Seep for its bumper issues with long stories and novelettes, which are wonderful for dipping into. Such magazines never grow old or dated; they are always tempting you to pick them up and plunge in.

This tradition is continued to this day by literary journals such as Aaj, Aindah, Mukalima, Ijra, Asaleeb and others which pursue good writing and maintain Karachi as a vibrant place on the literary map.