Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi is one of the leading prose writers of Urdu whose books are eagerly anticipated by the readers.
This is rather rare because the common assumption is to the contrary. The interest in reading is on the wane due to several reasons including the computer, which is consulted much more than the printed word. But even in the best of times the number of books that were printed in one edition or the number of editions published was quite minuscule as compared to the number of literate people living in the sixth largest country in the world in terms of population.
One reason could be that Yousufi is not a very prolific writer. In all, he has published just five books over a lifetime that spreads over almost nine decades. His actual writing period is probably not more than fifty years. He started to write late or at least got himself published late with Chiragh Talay in the early 1960s and when this first book appeared it was instantly noticed and placed him among the front rank humorists in Urdu.
It is said that the reason why Yousufi has not written more is because he is very fastidious and spends a lot of time on the manuscript. He goes over his work time and again, revising, rewriting endlessly before the manuscript is considered good enough to be sent to the publisher. This book, Sham-e-Sher-e-Yaraan, for example, has been published after a gap of nearly 25 years because the last book Aab-e-Gum was published in 1990.
As it is, there is not a large pool of writers on humour in Urdu. But among the contemporaries, surely, he is the leading writer. Actually, his latest book is a selection of the various papers, addresses and the presidential speeches that he has been reading or making over the years. It covers an era when he was in Karachi, then shifted to London and lived there for many years before moving back to Karachi on retirement. The various addresses thus cover a period that is the same, no carryover articles written earlier and not published have been included in his collection of speeches.
It appears that Yousufi is in great demand as a speaker because according to him he had placed a moratorium on himself that he would not take part in the programmes where he was invited to be the chief guest and hence required to speak. Despite the self-imposed ban, the number of pages of the current publication is no less than 427 pages.
What are the sources of Yousufi’s humour? In his highly crafted prose he draws all his material from the life in society — the situations, the characters, including the barbs and warts. It is rare that he creates it only by commenting on the oddities of society that most of the humorists do; he was other devices.
The first is self-deprecation. He creates humour by belittling his own presence, whether it is in shape of his physical appearance which with the passage of time has also added aging to its many “unsavoury characteristics” and that has not helped; second, the choice of his profession or some other interest that he has nourished and third some people who are well-known.
It is common that well-known people are written about because the people are curious to know about them. These well-known people with a certain reputation, a social face or a façade can be laughed at when the mask they wear comes off. If taken off totally, the writing can become vituperative but a partial removal or a momentary one can create humour. There are many people in the writings of Yousufi that cause ceaseless humour after the removal of the mask.
Another stock theme that causes humour is sex. Yousufi does not shy away from sex or the social mores that are sexual in nature, or try to shield it through some hypocritical makeover. Actually these hypocritical makeovers are what cause humour in his case.
A stock technique that Yousufi uses with great freshness is to make amendments or changes in the verses or sayings to suit the flow of his argument. As it is, verses in Urdu prose liven up the narrative and readers latch on to them even more. But by punning or making changes, the humour created is instant and tickles the funny bones of the educated reader.
Some of the humour has been created by the contrasting conditions which the author found himself in especially in the early years after Pakistan was created. It appeared he left his civil service to join the banking sector on the advice of Mr Isphahani who wanted qualified personnel to run the finances of this new country as there was great shortage of them in that field.
As Yousufi has himself described the social attitude of the Muslims of the subcontinent was averse to financial and business activity. It was totally dominated by the Hindus while the Muslims lived to the hilt without ever thinking about the sources that are needed to sustain such a lifestyle. He joined the banking sector and gradually after much hardship and toil rose to the very top.
He often also mixes some sad happening like that of his father when he had to leave his native city in Rajasthan for having made a speech in the assembly about the Indian government policies towards Hyderabad Deccan and his death on a railway platform while he was, like so many others, struggling after migration to find his mooring in the new country. But it is the humour of Yousufi that offers salvation and upliftment despite such great moments of despair. It helps him and the readers to come out of dark phases than being emotionally disfigured and dragged down by them.
His sidekick Mirza Abol Hassan Ispahani whose take on everything — characters, social mores the peculiarities of our society — verges on the absurd and so far over the edge that it seems preposterous and unrealistic but the contrast that it offers is sufficient to create a smile on the lips of the reader.
Here is one nugget from his writings:
Author: Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi
Publisher: Jahangir Books, 2014