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The lost generation

Mushtaq Yousufi, the most luminous cultural icon

The lost generation

Mushtaq Ahmad Yousufi’s passing away has evoked several references about him being the greatest humorist of our times. He has been studied in comparison to his contemporaries like Col. Muhammad Khan, Shafiqur Rahman, Zameer Jaffery, Khalid Mahmood Akhter and Ibne Insha, and has drawn favourable comparisons with Patras Bukhari.

My contention, however, is that Yousufi’s craft and expertise as a writer transcended the confinement of any one genre. His literary works had several dimensions, with humour being an obvious one. Apart from his multi-dimensional traits as a literary artist, Yousufi was immensely talented and exceptionally gifted in other fields, as demonstrated in his feats as a student and his rise in his profession. He secured first position in every exam that he appeared in, from high school in Jaipur to the Universities in Agra and Aligarh.

He was born in 1923 in Tonk, Rajasthan to a Marwari speaking family. His father Abdul Karim Khan Yousufi rose to the enviable rank of the chairman of Jaipur Municipality. Later, he became Speaker of the Jaipur Legislative Assembly. Mushtaq Ahmad Yousufi, after earning Master’s degree in Philosophy from University of Agra, went to Aligarh Muslim University, and did his LLB with distinction. Winning these laurels in such a competitive environment as pre-partition India was evidence of his exceptional brilliance. Afterwards, he joined the Indian Civil Service. He was Deputy Commissioner Tonk when the partition of India took place and his family moved to Karachi.

He started his banking career in 1950, served as the leader of several leading banks, and his successful banking career ended when he retired as the chairman of the Pakistan Banking Council.

Coming back to his being remembered as only a great humorist, I will refer to his book Aab-i-Gum, which can be considered his magnum opus. With a book like Aab-i-Gum (published in 1990) to his credit, Yousufi cannot be described as only a humorist. The book, which is indeed written in Yousufi’s characteristic tongue-in-cheek style, actually addresses a very serious issue: the nostalgia connected with the event of India’s partition and the travails ensuing it. Not only is the content of the book empathetically serious, Yousufi’s writing style too veers off to a serious refrain, and can be differentiated from his earlier work.

It is pertinent to mention here that Yousufi as a literati had consistent engagement with nostalgia. He was also referred to in one of his obituaries as a ‘wordsmith par excellence’. That epithet for Yousufi has an element of veracity because he dug out archaic words and phrases and brought them back in circulation through his prose. That reflects his love for things gone by.

Coming back to his masterpiece Aab-i-Gum, its reader feels as if a melancholic spell has been cast over him/her. The soul-searching experience of nostalgia for times gone by, along with all the agony it causes to the main protagonist of Aab-i-Gum has almost the same effect on the reader that Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic Crime and Punishment leaves on a reader. I vividly remember Prof. Sajjad Haider Malik enjoining me to read British humorist P.G. Wodehouse’s work once I was done with reading Crime and Punishment. I had to administer myself the same medicine when I read Aab-i-Gum. It indeed is the best exposition of nostalgia in Urdu literature.

Similarly, the humour in Zarguzasht is directed at the writer himself, but the thematic content of that book is markedly serious. Chronicling his early days in the banking profession, Yousufi lays bare the contradiction between a literary disposition and a career in banking. That contradiction seems to me to be a defining feature of Yousufi’s work, and Zarguzasht is its most sustained exposition. These two books represented the pinnacle of Yousufi’s literary career. Aab-i-Gum and Zarguzasht are, without a shadow of doubt, among the greatest and most enduring works of Urdu prose.

His last book Sham-e-Sher-e-Yaraan cannot be labelled as a book of humour either. It is an assortment of different essays and speeches. Sarwat Ali writes about the spectrum of that book: “It covers an era when he was in Karachi, then shifted to London and lived there for many years before moving to Karachi on retirement.” I have a feeling that Yousufi might not have gone on to publish that book had the publisher not egged him to do so. Sham-e-Sher-e-Yaraan is the weakest link in the chain of immaculately written books starting from Chiragh Taley that was published in 1961. As a Yousufi fan, I wish he had never published that book.

Some of Yousufi’s readings and recordings are now available on YouTube, and provide a great asset. His own intonation and elocution are ample evidence that Yousufi was a man who enjoyed a pun and a turn of phrase, and could conjure one as an aside while reading from a prepared essay. I would like to place him in the same tradition of Urdu essayists and prose writers that is represented by Ghalib, Farhatullah Beg and Patras Bukhari.

A few months ago, I had a chance to read Harf-i-Shauq, the last book by Mukhtar Masud, with a lot of fondness. In one of the chapters, he furnishes the names of those that he considered as the best Urdu prose writers, from Ghalib to Muhammad Hussain Azad and Rashid Ahmad Siddique. He alludes to Quratulain Hyder too, rather condescendingly. One prose writer that I found conspicuously missing in that catalogue was Mushtaq Ahmad Yousufi and that is the whole point of my argument. Yousufi was far bigger than a humorist. He was an essayist, a prose stylist, and contributed to language and stylistics as very few have been able to. It is not without reason that his sentences are profusely used as aphorisms on social media.

As an artiste, he was meticulous in choosing words, and having his writing examined by ehl-e zabaan critics. Mushtaq Ahmad Yousufi carried the classical literary tradition in the era of post modernity. He was the last member of laureates who spent his formative years in the multi-cultural ethos peculiar to the pre-partition days, which is succinctly reflected in his very rich prose, as well as his huge store of references to world literatures. In his persona we had the most luminous cultural icon in whom diverse strands converged, like they did in Intizar Husain.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.

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