Published in Dawn, Karachi, Pakistan, in 2000
As you walk through him into the narrow, labyrinthine lanes of the old quarters of Karachi, past ramshackle shops shadowed by faded and worn-out signboards, enter dilapidated buildings with narrow wooden staircases, wrought iron balconies, arched windows, and peep into dinghy offices and residential quarters, a curious world opens up. A world as bright as a mid-summer day and as dark as a moon-less night, a world throbbing with life, a world full of people, ordinary people with extraordinary proclivities, dreaming special dreams, planning little things, reaching out to each other through transient strands of passion, love and hatred. You breathe in the air filled with their smells, tinged with their colours, intermingled with breathing of your companion, the writer, the guide who has taken a back seat and is trailing behind you in the expeditions he marked out for you with such a delightful innocence. Like a child who lets you have a peep in to his kaleidoscope, delighted to let you discover the bright, colourful shifting patterns, each a tiny distinct world of its own, made of splintered glass. The patterns that he has not created, the patterns that have existed since millenium but the pleasure of the discovery is entirely his own.
Such is Mohammad Khalid Akhtar, one of the best writer-humorist-satirist the Urdu literature has ever produced. With an innocence of a child, Khalid lays bare a world that has always been there, will always be there. ‘I have not created these characters’, he would say modestly. ‘These people are all around you. Have you never met them?’ He would ask you innocently. ‘How strange!’ He would then mumble and lit a cigarette, billowing rings of smoke. Footloose, light and carefree, you see him disappearing in to old quarters and side lanes of Karachi — Chakiwara, Lea Market, Soldier Bazaar, Middle Way Street — venturing out to the forsaken villages and dusty towns at the edge of Thar — Diplo, Naukot, Mithi — marveling at the pink-hued barren hills and the foothills of Balochistan hewn with underground man-made water channels.
For Khalid, be it the congested lanes of a big city, vast expanse of a parched desert or the stretch of rainbow-coloured mountains, the contours of the universe are vivid and as vivacious and alluring as the creatures that inhabit it. Hence, in Khalid’s writings you find the locale of the stories etched out in bold and effortless strokes. And the characters that fill his world — this very world that you and I inhabit — are ordinary people — like us — odd in some way, funny in the way we take things — life — so seriously.
Like Dr. Gharib Mohammad, (of the story Miqyas-ul-Mohabbat) a quack healing some and fastening death for many. But the writer takes that in his stride. It is an unimportant detail for him. After all, most of us are cheats, and liars and what not. So, move on. This 37-year-old bachelor, eking out money in Lyari, considers himself a scientist and is driven with a passion to invent a barometer to measure love, quantify it in minus or plus. And he wants to invent it for the benefit of people so that they can sift love from a lie, or pretension, or hate, quantify its intensity, and perhaps predict its duration. Life would be easy. With this instrument at hand, you won’t get into any claptrap.
Or take Chacha Abdul Baqi, one of his many unforgettable characters, who comes up with his endless, innovative, quick money-minting business plans with zero capital. And he does it such earnestness, with such optimism and with such a passion — weaving dreams of things he would do with the money well-earned — small pleasures that you and I dream about, like having dinner in a good restaurant, dating a beautiful woman (or man), buying a silk tie (or a string of pearls).
The tapestry Mohammad Khalid Akhtar has woven through his writings is not just dappled with characters who make you laugh at life’s absurdities and human frailties, but is etched with shadows of pain and suffering. Like the crazed, beggar woman by the ghaat in Harduar (India)—in his story Khoya Hua Ufaq — whom the narrator and his friend bumped into. A victim of circumstances, haunted by her lost love, searching for it in every face, she evokes an image of universal longing, unfulfilled desires that many of us harbour inside us. And who could forget the immortal story, Nannha Manjhi that portrays so powerfully the ephemerality of existence through the tale of the 13-year old navigator. Steering his tiny dugout in the stormy river in Mithankot (Punjab), confident, happy, an embodiment of life and energy and in sync with his environs, the narrator watches him die a young slow death. Khalid has also dealt, as forcefully and as artistically, with the baser, cruel and irrational instincts in human beings that make them murder each other, as in his stories, Karez and Muskurata hua Buddh.
A master craftsman, Khalid’s versatility is evident not only in the panoramic range of characters that he has picked up off the streets, the cities and the villages of the sub-continent (mainly from the four provinces of the country), but in genres he has chosen to express himself. Though he has established himself as a short story writer and humorist, he has written a futuristic novel, a humorous novel, a novella, numerous essays, countless parodies, many reviews, sketches, and several travelogues. But whatever genre he has chosen, his writing is always natural, fresh and crisp, effective, sparkling with humour and low-key satire. A characteristic that distinguishes his work is his candour, his frankness and modesty. He seems to present his writings to his readers with a certain shyness (of a young writer at the beginning of his career) and hesitation whether it would satisfy and satiate his readers. This modesty comes from the vast knowledge of world literature that he has been voraciously reading (in English) till today — at 80–since he was a boy of 12 or 13. So much so that he thinks that ‘he thinks in English and writes in Urdu’ and hence becomes slightly unsure how would his thoughts, thought out in English, would sound in Urdu. Contrary to what he thinks his too much English reading has done to his Urdu writing, I think that his undying passion for world literature has given his writings a depth and a cosmopolitan, global outlook, a universal appeal.
As an avid reader of Mohammad Khalid Akhtar, since my youth, I find his writings flowing naturally and his command over Urdu language flawless. Sometimes he does use English words, and occasionally you come across phrases and proverbs that have their origin in English language but it comes as a peculiarity of his writing. It does not obstruct the flow of the rapport that he succeeds in creating instantly with his readers.
Mohammad Khalid Akhtar was born in 1920, in Allahabad Tehsil of the State of Bahawalpur, to a family that belonged to the landed gentry of Kharian, Gujrat. A restless spirit, a dreamer and vagabond by nature, Mohammad Khalid Akhtar, spent his childhood in Bahawalnagar, lured in to a passion for reading when he was in class two and picked the children’s magazine Phool and then read whatever children’s literature was available. As a teenager he got acquainted with the writings of Manto, Azim Baig Chughtai and other great writers through Nairang-e-Khayal. When he turned his attention to the English literature, through Robert Lois Stevenson and other writers that he found in his father’s library, it was a journey of no return. His father Maulvi Akhtar Ali had served as Commissioner Bahawalpur under the Indian Civil Service.
Khalid studied in Bahawalpur, where he struck his most precious and life-long friendship with late Sahfiqur Rahman, and with Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi. Khalid then went to Lahore to study law but quit after a year. He was pushed then to earn a degree in engineering, which he did, somewhat reluctantly, as his heart was elsewhere. Those were the days when many a times he would run away from home, suffocated from a life of protocol and decorum, and roamed the forlorn and forsaken habitats at the fringes of the subcontinent and lived with fishermen, tribesman and villagers. It took him two years longer than the expected duration to get his degree. In 1946 he went to England for his post-graduate training in electrical engineering. He spent earlier years as an engineer in Karachi in late 1940s and the 1950s. He retired from WAPDA in 1980 and made Karachi his permanent abode where he lives with his family. He has two sons and a daughter, all married.
Mohammad Khalid Akhtar began his writing career in 1940s. One of his earliest story, Khoya hua Ufaq — was written in 1943 and published in Sawaira by Saadat Hasan Manto in 1953. From the 1950s onward, his writings — short stories, essays, reviews, parodies, travelogue — appeared regularly till the 1980s in journals like Funoon, Sawaira, Adb-e-Latif, and Afkaar. In the 1990s, Khalid’s writing trickled down only in the form of reviews, written mainly for Afkaar, and travelogues. His latest piece of writing, travel notes on Greece, written in late 1999, was published in Tehrir. His novel Bees Sau Giyarah was first published in 1950 and was reprinted in 1999, while his second novel Chakiwara mein Wisaal appeared in 1964. His collections Khoya Hua Ufaq (1967, stories, sketches and satirical essays) won Pakistan’s prestigious Adamjee Literary Award. His other works include Alice Jehan-e-Hairat Mein and Aaienay kay Paar (1980, Urdu translations of Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass), Do Safar (1984, travelogue), Chacha Abdul Baqi (1985, stories), Makateeb-e-Khizr (1989, humorous letters), Yatra (1990, travelogue), Ibn-e-Jubair ka Safar (1994, history, travelogue), and Laltain aur Dosri Kahaniyan (1997, stories and a novella). His countless humorist pieces, reviews and pen sketches scattered over literary journals, are being collected.. The two collections are expected to come out in early 2001.
A tall, slim man, with a dark complexion, broad forehead, deep-set eyes, aquiline nose, pointed chin — now too frail due to failing health—I have the good fortune of knowing him from close quarter since the last eleven years. Indeed, when the first time I met him I could not believe that I could be so fortunate as to befriend him. So much have I loved, and treasured his writings, and as a reader, so much have I revered great writers. He was 69 when I first met him. A shy sort of a person, who seems to be lost in his own world at the first glance, his eyes would lit up with curiosity and his face with a broad smile as you approach him. I have always found him young at heart, interested in people and places, well informed of global happenings and up to-date on world literature. He is always reading some new writings, apart from his umpteenth readings of world classics (Just two weeks ago he introduced me to the remarkable writings of Abdulrazak Gurnah, a Tanzanian who writes in English and is settled in England).
Unlike many writers and towering personalities whose presence awe you and make you tongue-tied to their literary, knowledgeable, utterances, Khalid makes you feel at home. He treats you as an equal and is interested in listening to your little foibles and your insignificant achievements. He is as good in dyads as in groups where he often transforms the gravity of conversation in to a rainbow of laughter with his sudden punch lines. His spirit of a vagabond and his pleasure in roaming from place to place — that manifest itself throughout his writing career— was evident when he accompanied us — me and my husband — to a six week trip to Iran, Turkey and Greece, by road, all the way from Karachi to Athens, in 1991. He was 70 then. And looked very much a frail old man. He was not. Neither in spirit, nor in body. He was fit and nimble foot and was always ahead of us two, whether climbing a tortuous mountain to see a centuries-old monastry in Turkey, or circling the tiny, Tinos Island in Greece, inhaling its cool, crisp air and marveling the neat, freshly whitewashed dwellings.
Over the years, his health has deteriorated. And his spirit was broken to quite an extent at the death of his closest friend, Shafiqur Rahman in 1999. It took him sometime to come out of the gloom and resume his composure. Today, despite his frail health, he still haunts the neighbourhood bookshop to pick up new titles and takes a stroll to buy a pack of cigarettes. He meets his friends once a week or fortnightly, watches art movies with friends, gets glued to BBC channel for news, talk shows and documentaries, and is eager for an evening out with his friends.