JUST before the fall of Dhaka, Muhammad Badar
Muneer, an Urdu writer and journalist, would go to a Dhaka hospital and
read out novels to a 90-year-old ailing Bengali woman. The novels were
in Urdu and were written by Ibn-i-Safi. After the fall of Dhaka, when
Muneer sahib visited the lady, he was unwilling to read out the Urdu
novels because the atmosphere was not conducive for West Pakistanis and
Urdu. Looking at his unease the lady said: “Who are you afraid of? Read
out.” He began reading quite loudly (since she was a bit hard of
hearing) and the people around were anxious but nobody dared say
anything because the lady was the mother of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the
founder of Bangladesh. I will come to this later.
Let me first say a few words about my column that
appeared last week titled Urdu as medium of instruction and compulsory
subject. It generated quite a bit of response albeit the opinion was
divided and the feedback included both kind and unkind words about Urdu.
The response from Pakistani emigrants was particularly pessimistic since
large number of the young generation of Pakistanis living abroad cannot
read Urdu. One such reader was of the view that Urdu was a dying
language. What this young man ignored is the fact that no language can
die as long as people speak it, write in it and read its literature,
though all languages change with the passage of time and over a longer
period they may change even beyond recognition.
Secondly, Pakistanis abroad cannot, perhaps, fully
realise that Urdu still holds a high pedestal in certain sections of
Pakistani society, especially the middle and upper-middle classes. Many
middle-class families in Punjab and elsewhere do not speak their mother
tongue when talking to their younger ones.
In fact, the number of people who know Urdu has
been increasing steadily. One reason is, of course, the Bollywood
movies, though they are labelled as ‘Hindi movies’, they present a
version of Urdu which is commonly understood both in India and Pakistan
and which has a minimal number of “shudh” or pure Sanskrit words
(because this would definitely reduce the circle of audience even inside
Besides, Urdu, despite the step-motherly treatment
meted out to it by the bureaucracy, has truly become Pakistan’s lingua
franca and is now spoken and understood even in the remote mountainous
villages of the country. There are many people who can vouch for the
fact that about half a century ago in the Northern Areas, including
Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan areas, sometimes it was difficult to find
someone who understood Urdu. Today, these areas boast of Urdu newspapers
and magazines and Urdu literature is being created in these areas by the
As for Urdu literature, it is not only being
written and read but it is flourishing, notwithstanding what Urdu
publishers say who would have us believe that nobody reads Urdu books
these days (though none of them would be willing to wind up their
businesses). On the contrary, old Urdu books are being reprinted not
only in Pakistan but in India as well. One encouraging example is that
almost the entire set of Ibn-i-Safi’s books, numbering over 200, has
been reprinted in India and Pakistan and many titles of the new edition
are already in short supply.
The Bengali lady addicted to Ibn-i-Safi’s novels
is not the only example. There were many who could not read for one
reason or the other but were fans of Ibn-i-Safi and his novels were read
out to them. Many learnt Urdu just to be able to read Ibn-i-Safi’s
books. Ibn-i-Safi’s books were translated into Hindi and Gujarati way
back in the 1950s and 1960s when Ibn-i-Safi’s popularity had made him
Urdu’s bestselling author.
According to Shakeel Aadilzada, Subrung Digest
founder and editor, once 14,000 copies of Ibn-i-Safi’s new novel were
sent to Karachi’s Regal bus stop, a place known for wholesale book
business back then, and all of them were sold out the same day. A few
years ago many of his books were translated into Hindi afresh. Also, six
of his novels have recently been translated into English, some by noted
critic and scholar Shams-ur-Rahman Farooqi, and published by prominent
India-based western publishers. A three-day national seminar on
Ibn-i-Safi was organised at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia in 2012.
So Ibn-i-Safi is one of the authors who helped
popularise Urdu and whose books still sell. New reprints and new
translations of his books on a larger scale prove that Ibn-i-Safi has
made a resounding return, which, in turn, signals that the sun is still
shining on Urdu literature. The pessimists who gauge Urdu’s decline by
merely looking at the elite class that lives abroad or lives in a
capsule of luxury disconnected from the mainstream society, simply do
not have the complete picture to reach the right conclusions.
How Ibn-i-Safi is making a comeback and changing
the views of critics and scholars about detective fiction can also be
judged by publication of at least eight books on him during the last two
years, one of them in India. But the most outstanding among them is
Ibn-i-Safi: shakhsiyat aur fun. Written by Rashid Ashraf and published
by Bazm-e-Takhleeq-i-Adab, Karachi, the book is in fact a well-written
dissertation on Ibn-i-Safi, complete with references and bibliographical
details. Mr Ashraf is a chemical engineer by profession but his love for
literature is now well-known. He is among those bibliophiles of Karachi
who are the first to arrive at the Sunday book bazaar and by the time
idlers like this writer reach the Regal bus stop, where the old books
are sold in the early hours, early birds like Mr Ashraf are gone after
having found the “worms”, so to speak.
In this book Mr Ashraf has revealed that the first
book, or rather booklet, on Ibn-i-Safi was published in August 1980,
just a month after Ibn-i-Safi’s death. Published from Nawabshah, Sindh,
and titled Ibn-i-Safi zinda hai, this 30-page booklet was written by
Capt. Dr Syed Muzaffar Sultan Bukhari.
In 1990, Ibn-i-Haq’s book Ibn-i-Safi ne kaha was
published. Now its new, revised edition has been published by Karachi’s
City Book Point. It contains excerpts from Ibn-i-Safi’s books including
his selected poetry.
Khurram Ali Shafique is more known for his
research work on Allama Iqbal but he too is a great fan of Ibn-i-Safi.
In his two books, Psycho Mansion and Rana Palace, both published by
Fazlee Sons, Karachi, he has chosen selected passages from Ibn-i-Safi’s
works and raised some questions concerning Ibn-i-Safi and his art.
Recently Mushtaq Ahmed Qureshi, a journalist,
writer and a close associate of Ibn-i-Safi, came up with another book on
Ibn-i-Safi. His first book Do baday was a collection of articles on
Ibn-i-Safi. His new book Yaadash bakhair, self-published, is also a
collection of articles on Ibn-i-Safi by prominent writers.
Mr Ashraf’s other book on Ibn-i-Safi too has just
appeared. Again, this book shows Rashid’s organised and systemic
approach towards his works. The book is divided into sections that
present articles according to their topic and nature. Aside from
articles by some well-known authors, interviews, columns and memoirs of
some friends of Ibn-i-Safi, some rare photographs are also included.
Bazm-e-Takhleeq-i-Adab, Karachi, published it in 2013.
July 26 marks the 33rd death anniversary of