Shafiqur Rehman: A weaver of real-life dreams

Published in Dawn, Karachi, Pakistan in March 2000 

Though I had read his books hundreds of times and looked at his picture at the jackets as many times, the only time I met him was in the summer of 1980 at his Westridge, Rawalpindi, residence. I had translated two of his humorous pieces and sent him the published clippings. Now I wanted to translate his most celebrated work—the long short story Barsaati. I had already started work on it. But I knew in my heart that I must seek his permission this time.

Shafiqur Rehman was a household name in our family. His books were the most precious of the family collection, the most sought after and the most read. My parents, and the eight—out of eleven—of us brothers and sisters loved Shafiqur Rehman’s books the most. Whenever one of us, while reading, sitting in a corner, laughed out loud we knew it was Shafiqur Rehman. And it wasn’t just humour. His work not only made us laugh, it filled our heads with dreams and longings—dreams of love and romance, longing for serene, picturesque surroundings and wonderful places, longing for human connectivity and lasting friendships. What was amazing was that the world he created wasn’t utopian, or artificial. It was a very real, very earthly world, pulsating with life and all that goes with it—suffering, pain, anguish, loneliness. A world that is funny, joyous and sad at the same time; frivolous and seemingly futile, yet has many layers and meanings if you probe a little deeper. Shafiqur Rehman’s world was an affirmation of life and of human values—trust, respect, empathy, and compassion—that cut across boundaries of class, race, gender and age.

That summer, my sister, my brother and I had planned a trip to Kaghan valley. We were young and single. My sister and I had started working, I as a journalist and she as a banker, and had been saving money for the trip. It was the perfect opportunity to meet Shafiqur Rehman on the way. I wrote to him and he very graciously granted us a hearing. We located his address. It was a large, quiet house. A servant took us inside. He was expecting us. We were seated in the drawing room and waited for him.

Shafiqur Rehman was a man of few words. He spoke little. He had a very calm and composed surface. The three of us were awed by his presence. I was so shy I didn’t know how to tell him that I loved and enjoyed his work, that his characters—I, Razia, Shaitaan, Hukoomat Aapa, Maqsood Ghora, Buddy, Moody, Nannha and others—were all wonderful and unforgettable. But I had no words. Neither could I share with him that my first piece of writing—a short story that I wrote when I was sixteen—had a character named Baby, picked up from his short story by that title. So enamoured was I with that story of friendship between the old man Frankie and the young narrator (most probably the writer himself).

The meeting lasted just for a brief while. He politely declined permission to translate Barsaati. Out in the open, under the blue summer sky, amidst the wild shrubbery in between the bungalows, the three of us walked down the Westridge lanes and wondered about him. Somehow, we expected him to be chirpy, lively, and, of course, witty! We had expected that he would make us laugh. ‘How could he be like that with strangers, in such a brief meeting? It must be his friends’ company that brings him to his true form’, we said to ourselves.

That was true. I found it out eight years later, in 1988, when as a married woman I had the pleasure and the good luck to befriend Mohammad Khalid Akhtar, the eminent humorist and fiction writer, with a characteristic style his readers love and cherish. He and Shafiqur Rehman had studied together for a few years in school at Bahawalpur, and then, several years later, developed a deep and lasting friendship in the Lahore of 1940s where Shafiqur Rehman was a student at the King Edward Medical College and Mohammad Khalid Akhtar was studying Engineering. They maintained their friendship throughout the different trajectories of their life. “Shafiq is a delightful company. But he opens up only among his close friends, and he has very few of them”, Khalid saheb told us. As our friendship with Mohammad Khalid Akhtar grew, Shafiqur Rehman became one of the permanent topics of our weekly meetings. We would inquire about Shafiqur Rehman. Khalid saheb often shared Shafiqur Rehman’s letters which he wrote on small pages of his trademark blue letter pads in his beautiful hand, and, sometimes, let us read the replies he wrote to Shafiqur Rehman. Thus we maintained an indirect contact with our favourite writer.

The direct contact we had with him was through his writings where he not only opened up himself as a narrator, he opened for us, his readers, a world peopled by characters that we could easily relate to. Ordinary people they are, with their weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. Yet each one of them has his, or her, own strengths and peculiarities, and a mind of his, or her, own. No matter if they are the pivotal figures or appear fleetingly in his fiction, no matter if they are men, women or children, each one of them leaves distinct mark on the reader’s mind. It is in the company of these individuals that we sail through a world that is both beautiful—full of joy, love and laughter—and ugly—pockmarked with unjust stratification, hypocrisy, ridiculous mores and demeaning traditions.

For instance, in Turup Chaal you meet Shaitaan, funny, lively, unemployed and lovesick, who in the end gets so sick at the sight of a family exhibiting their daughter—Shaitaan’s beloved—to a so-called eligible suitor’s family that he ends up hating love and the marriage game. Or in Yunhi, you come across the narrator, a medical student and a sensitive, perceptive soul, getting tongue-tied after his visit to a mental hospital when he compares the behaviour of those labeled ‘insane’ with the attitudes of the sane people he encounters during the same day.

Underneath Shafiqur Rehman’s armour of romanticism and humour, there resides a social satirist with an uncanny gift of taking bright masks off human beings, and layers of hypocrisy off society. And he does that with swift strokes of a skilled artist, and rhythmic movements of a perfect dancer. He bares the soul and the society with dizzying speed, with remarkable brevity and with utmost simplicity of his prose. His vision is that of an enlightened, humane person, a person without prejudices, without pretensions. Women figure prominently in his world. And they are strong-willed, witty women, with a mind of their own. They relate to men on equal footing. Shafiqur Rehman’s canvas is dotted with characters of different cultures, religions, and races—Moody, Georges, Julie, Snow White, Sundram, Raj, Mohan, Zilbert and so many others. The narrator in his fiction creates deep bonds with Christians, Hindus, Jews, and his wonderful voyages along the rivers—Danube, Nile, Tigris, affirm universal human values.

Shafiqur Rehman’s works—ten collections of short stories and humorous pieces—have remained bestsellers till today. By all criteria—applicable to our society—he was among the most widely read and popular Urdu writers. He gave so much happiness to so many generations of readers of Urdu literature. Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people read and loved his writings. But it saddens one’s heart to think that this love, this appreciation, never got translated into tangible recognition. His rich contribution to Urdu prose remained unsung by the academia. Samples from his works were never included in the curricula, nor mentioned in the lists of supplementary readings. Though he received laurels from critics, no comprehensive and detailed critical study was carried out on his works. He lived as a recluse and we did not bother to bring him out, celebrate his achievements and honour him during his lifetime. Had a writer of his stature lived in another society, he would have lived a life of a celebrity, invited by the academia for talks and teachings, his works translated into all major languages and above all, the new generation would have been properly initiated into the wonderful world of his writings.

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