Ashfaq Ahmed - A man of individualistic style
Written by English NewsPaper/Dawn/Others   

Few months ago, Dr Zia Samad who lives in the same colony where I do, invited us to a dinner party.Dr Zia Samad, who recently retired from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), was posted at Rome throughout his career.

Although the seating arrangements were outside on the lawn, he took me to the drawing room where to my surprise Ashfaq Ahmad was sitting. "How do you know Ashfaq Sahib?" I asked him. "Oh we are old friends. We lived together in Rome during Ashfaq's sojourn there", he replied.

Ashfaq supporting a grey beard was ensconced in a sofa. While sitting there he seemed too bulky as compared to his TV image. We were introduced and then I narrated to him about our earlier meetings which he had totally forgotten. On that occasion and especially with Ashfaq Ahmad being an over-exposed personality ,one could not talk about literature. Rather we discussed our ailments. His legs were excessively swollen and he said, "I also have a difficulty walking. I am under treatment for diabetes."Then the conversation drifted to his drama series Ek Mohabbat Sau Afsane which was being telecast with a changed scenario and fresh faces. I was interested to know why he chose such difficult titles for his dramas, which are bevond the comprehension of the average viewer. The conversation remained incomplete because Bano Qudsia arrived on the scene to take him away. " I cannot eat in these dinners . But do come to Model Town. We shall have a little chat." He then rose and departed, walking carefully.

As he left, my thoughts transported me back to the year 1950 when I had joined Government College, , Lahore. He was there in M. A. final year studying Urdu. He was a handsome young man with fair Pathan complexion, sharp features, and a thick crop of brownish hair on his head. In front of the clock tower we would find him mingling with teachers ,and students alike.

Even then he had made his mark as an outstanding short story writer. He was always seen in jovial mood telling anecdotes or cutting jokes.

He was generally seen in the company of Muzaffar All Syed and Shahzad Ahmad. From his college teachers Ashfaq fondly members Patras Bukhari, Sufi Tabassum and G. M. Asar. He especially mentions G.M. Asar, a thin lean clean shaven man from Madras who taught Urdu and wrote excellent English. In the witch-hunting days of Ayub's era he was chased out of the education department. "During my college days I used to take an active part in extra-curricular activities because I had very little interest in books of the curriculum. I was a curious person. I wanted to know everything. But now I feel that it is not very clever to know everything. We should know little but with conviction", he once told an interviewer. His novelette Mehman-e-Bahar and story Ajeeb Badsha had impressed the critics.

 

His masterpiece Gadarya had yet to come, which catapulted him to instant fame. The autobiographical short story that revolved around a Hindu school teacher Dao Ji was unanimously acclaimed by critics.

It is a masterpiece of literary craftsmanship where the character of Dao Ji has been so thoroughly revealed to the readers, that it touches their deeper sensibility.

Undoubtedly, this brought Ashfaq on the pedestal of great writers of the subcontinent. Those days Manto, Krishan Chandar, Qasmi, Ashk, Bedi and Ismat Chughtai were all reigning the realm of literature. Among the emerging writers who entered the arena after the Partition were A. Hamid, Intezar Husain, Masud Ashar and Ashfaq Ahmad.

Their writings were full of freshness but Ashfaq Ahmad succeeded in creating his own individualistic style and flavour at an early age. That was the period when the progressive writers association was very active and almost all noted writers were associated with it. Although Ashfaq was friendly with all these writers he did not become a member of'PWA and kept an independent stance like Manto, Intezar Husain, Munir Niazi and others. Interestingly, he wrote realism in the same vein as progressives but created his own niche. Ashfaq had been publishing stories and writing dramas for Radio during student days. Soon after leaving the College he joined Dyal Singh College as a lecturer., He had then already married his class fellow from GC Bano Qudsia who has also become famous as a story writer. His books Ek Mohabbal Sau Afsaane and Ujle Phool had appeared at that time.

At Radio, he developed friendships with some stalwarts of Radio Pakistan like Mahmood Nizami, Masud Qureshi and Mumtaz Mufti.

Through Radio Pakistan, he got an offer to work in Radio Rome's Urdu Service. The details of how he managed to raise funds to proceed to Rome is given in his short story Fullbright where a beggar hands over his savings for the purpose. A couple of years in Italy transformed him. There Ashfaq learnt Italian and mingled with the literati of Rome. There was Alberto Moravia, Ignazio Salone and that great Urdu lover Professor Bosani. In Rome he also became friendly with various diplomats who were stationed there in FAO headquarters and the Pakistani Embassy. He returned to Pakistan in the late fifties. Equipped with new ideas he started his own publishing firm called Dastan Go Publications and brought out a monthly magazine. This scribe contributed a couple of stories to the magazine. The outstanding feature of the magazine was its printing and layout which Ashfaq had done under inspiration from Italian magazines. He brought out a few issues and published a few books including Alipur Ka Aeli and Talash-e-Baharan. But destiny had something different in store for him.

In October 1958, Iskandar Mirza and Ayub Khan staged a coup against the government in power and assumed the control of the country. Soon Iskandar Mirza was also eased out of the presidency and Ayub Khan was the absolute ruler of the country. Through Mumtaz Mufti, Ashfaq Ahmad was introduced to Qudratullah Shahab who was then the secretary to Ayub Khan. Shahab conceived a plan to take-over Progressive Papers Limited who were publishing The Pakistan Times, Imroz and Lail-o-Nahar. To run Lail-o-Nahar he selected Ashfaq Ahmad. Ashfaq Ahmad's association with power started then. Ashfaq Ahmad was the first Pakistani editor whom Ayub Khan gave an exclusive interview. The inreiview was full of superlatives for the dictator, which was highly disappointing for the large number of admirers of Ashfaq Ahmad. After a couple of years, Ashfaq left Lail-o-Nahar because it was fast becoming a losing proposition.

He took over as director of the Urdu Development Board and became a part of the propaganda machinery of the government.

Due to his association with the government his story writing suffered and his writings for magazines became very rare. Rather, he concentrated on Radio where his programme Talqin Shah became the rage of the listeners.

The main role of Talqin Shah was played by Ashfaq himself, which showed his talent for acting. He spoke his native language of Ferozepur from the district of East Punjab. Besides this he started making a film which, as expected, flopped at the box office. Then in 1965, when television was introduced, he devoted his energy towards    writing television plays. In this area, Ashfaq met enormous success and went on to transform his stories of Ek Mohabbat Sau Afsane into extremely popular teleplays. As a backdrop of this creative activity, the company of Shahab and Mumtaz Mufti drew him into the world of mysticism.


He started writing and talking about the metaphysical aspects of human experiences. The influence he received from the study of American and Italian literature got overshadowed by the mist of mystic thought. He was always under that influence because all his stories have gurus or teachers who are non-Muslims inspired by Islam. Whether it is Dao Ji of Gadarya or Sant of Yatra or Iqbal Singh of his latest novel Khel Tamasha, all are characters with the same thought process.        

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Thus during various periods of  the country's history, from Ayub Khan to Zia-ul-Haq's long nightmare of tyranny, Ashfaq experimented with what the government of the times wanted. Thus during Bhutto's period he was projecting socialism and in Zia's time he became an Islamist. He continues to be an Islamist even after Zia-ul-Haq's departure from the scene. He has grown a beard and has created a cult around himself. He is an excellent conversationalist. He alone can spellbind his audiences for hours with his store of anecdotes and wit.

He is a Dastan Go of those times when written word was scarce and people used to gather around story tellers to listen to their stories.

After a long dry spell, Ashfaq has come out with a novel Khel Tamasha which is a good sign. It contains all his acquired or inherent syndromes but his mastery of narration has not declined in spite of long dry patches. Ashfaq says, "The process of procreativity is like delivery. There is pain in it but a simultaneous feeling of fulfilment. The hen lays an egg everyday and knows the use of her egg but cannot make an omelette out of it and eat it. The same happens with a writer. He is bound-to write and because he writes about his environment therefore his blood boils to see the injustices being perpetuated around him." Undoubtedly he is the most outstanding Dastan Go, or storyteller of our time.  

Written by Dr. Afzal Mirza

 

Work of Ashfaq Ahmed shared by Salman Siddiqui : Khel Tamasha

 

Work of A. Hameed shared by Salman Siddiqui : Baagh-e-Jinnah Ki Doopehar