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A ticklish situation

Pakistan inherited some fine writers from the Indian Civil Service. That tradition of bureaucrat-writers still flourishes today

A ticklish situation
The civil servant Qudrut Ullah Shahab (centre) flanked by his writer friends Ashfaq Ahmed, Bano Qudsia and Ibn-e-Insha.

Bureaucracy has a bad name —- even in its euphemistic appellation of civil service —- in both literature and life. Dostoevsky, Kafka and others in different times and spaces have depicted the pathological abuse of power by this vital organ of the state. In Pakistan, a bureaucrat is largely associated not only with authority and power but also with officialdom and red tape-ism.

Even globally, the image of a bureaucrat is not much different: a robot without a mind of his own – prone to be callously objective and mum on the socio-political conditions of life, especially politics – if not a veritable collaborator of corrupt politicians. There is a strong stereotyping in how bureaucrats are viewed in and outside literature.

But, what if a bureaucrat takes it upon himself to write literature and depict the human condition?

The production of literature in the context of an institution is rarely treated as a valid subject of discussion, though we have had material and even research work on the role and contribution of some institutions. Traditionally, it is the education department that has produced the overwhelming majority of writers – possibly due to their life-long relationship with teachers, books and reading. Literary criticism, in particular, is a terrain almost monopolised by academics.

A considerable number of doctors and lawyers have been active exponents in various fields of literature too. In recent decades we have witnessed successive generations of young engineers taking literature as a serious vocation.

Generally, the issue of civil bureaucracy is raised either in relation to maintaining a delicate balance between the civil service and politics, or about the civil-military equipoise. All three institutions may be different in their formation, structure and role but they share one thing; all three wield real power.

The literary field, on the other hand, does not have even the nuisance value of journalism. It has, however, the symbolic power that French sociologist Bourdieu terms as cultural capital. Do writers in the civil bureaucracy provide a soft image and a human face to the otherwise insensitive and brutal state juggernaut or are they in fact officers by profession and writers by passion? Commenting on the somewhat conflicting role of a poet and an officer and the irony this situation creates, famous poet and a civil servant, Mustafa Zaidi used to complain: Afsar HameN Shaer Samajhte HaiN Aur Shaaer HameN Afsar Khayal Karte HaiN. [Officers take us for poets whereas poets consider us officers] Later, an officer from the provincial civil service and a poet of lesser mettle had even versified this statement in a couplet.

Pakistan inherited some fine writers from the former Indian Civil Service; Qudrat Ullah Shahab, Manzur Elahi Sheikh and Mukhtar Masood, to mention just a few. Shahab stands out in the first group of civil servant-writers in Pakistan, especially for his alleged negotiation of a deal between the literary intelligentsia and the military regime of Gen. Ayub Khan. But, it must be asserted that for a serious student of literature he is primarily known as author of Ya Khuda and Maan Ji, as well as his posthumous autobiography, Shahab Nama that received popular acclaim.

Being both a civil servant and a writer you are not sure whether you are being appreciated and received for your talent or for your position. That means you find yourself in an awkward state of affairs – privileged as well as handicapped.

In poetry, the most distinguished name is that of Mustafa Zaidi, an officer from District Management Group –- presently Pakistan Administrative Service. Long before his induction into the civil service, Zaidi began his literary career; indeed his maiden collection of poetry appeared when he was only 17, under the pseudonym Tegh Allahbadi. Apart from his amorous affairs and dramatic death, Zaidi is considered a remarkable poet, if not a major one of his generation. Parveen Shakir was also associated with the civil service, Pakistan Customs Group. Though she had already achieved public approval and praise, her entry into the bureaucracy helped Shakir expand her rapport with the literary establishment and control the reception of her poetry.

Parveen Shakir at the launch of her book ‘Khud Kalaami’.  — Photo by Rahat Dar

Parveen Shakir at the launch of her book ‘Khud Kalaami’.
— Photo by Rahat Dar

There are, on the other hand, a small number of writers who rose to the top ranks in bureaucracy, yet one hardly knows them as officers; they are almost solely known by their literary calibre. One illustrious example is that of Mahboob Khizan, one of most sophisticated and subtle poets that Pakistan ever had.

Khizan was a top-ranking civil servant from Pakistan Audit and Accounts Service – retired as Accountant General, Sindh. Abdul Rasheed, a powerful practitioner of modern Urdu poem did not allow his top-ranking career in the Postal Group overshadow his literary reputation. Similarly, very few would be aware that the prolific poet of encyclopaedic diction, Abdul Aziz Khalid was from Pakistan Customs Group.

As the Pakistan Civil Service is composed of 12 different departments, it is hard to treat the institution homogenously. Due to their formation and role, various groups are involved in different natures of public interaction. Pakistan Administrative Service (PAS), the former District Administration Service has demonstrably been more engaged in organising literary events, particularly poetry recitals, on a larger scale and on an almost regular basis even in the far-flung areas of the country. In some cases, even scholarly-literary conferences and symposia were arranged. Responsible for spearheading literary activities were officers involved in writing or at least keenly interested in literature, but from this observation it does not follow that PAS itself has produced majority of the writers

One charming aspect of all this is the overall attitude of Pakistan civil services towards literature. From the very beginning officers from various groups have been pursuing writing, the institution en bloc even showed pride in its affiliation to literature. Last year, Lahore Chapter of Civil Service Academy Alumni held a poetry gathering with all but the chair being a civil servant.

There are virtually hundreds of civil servants who have been writing literature in different periods of time. However, it is not possible to mention all their names, nor has each of them done enough to be remembered, still we have a long list of officers who took literature as a serious business, as a life-long passion indeed, and thereby made commendable contributions.

New writers from the civil service are taking literature seriously and eagerly. They are expressing themselves in different genres, though, poetry as usual, is the most sought-after form. These new writers are yet to manifest their distinct contours. One line by a rising poet from the Inland Revenue Service: Seemab Zafar – a remarkable promise – may illustrate the panorama:

[We bright-eyed people all have shattered dreams]

Combining a civil servant with a writer is to be sure, a ticklish situation. You are not sure whether you are being appreciated and received for your talent or position. That means you find yourself in an awkward state of affairs – privileged as well as handicapped.

But, at the end of the day it is only your literary output that matters and counts. I personally know a good number of bureaucrat-writers who have not only been very active in the literary field; some of them were even quite powerful in the literary establishment. But, today, after their superannuation, they have not only vanished from the literary scene but pitiably forgotten; most of them have ceased to be writers anymore.

Dr Aftab Husain

Dr Aftab Husain web
The writer is a Pakistan-born and Austria-based poet in Urdu and English. He teaches South Asian Literature & Culture at Vienna University


  • DrAftab Hussain ,a teacher a poet and a heartfelt writer, Whatever he writes is truly ticklish , Has always made people pondering and absorbing , points he mentions usually come from deeply thought felt and lived faculties of literary life, He is been honest in his writings by being impartial in his analysis as he writes what thinks is right ,Well done Sir
    DR Shujaat Ali

  • Interesting and thought provoking.
    Very well written.

  • An interesting article and aptly named ‘a ticklish situation’. Dr. Aftab Hussain has tried to explore a new idea, hitherto unexplored.The topic is vast and needs a detailed research thesis. The idea to compile contributions of civil servants in the field of literature is thought provoking and I hope it would be further pursued by our literati.

  • نویدانجم

    boht umda tehreer …hmesha ki tarha munfarid mozoo ka intekhab

  • From 1947 to 1971, almost all West-Pakistani (and Urdu-speaking) Civil Servant writers including Qudrut Ullah Shahab and other ‘progressives’ wrote nothing about the oppressed and exploited Bengalis —– 56% Pakistan population. They always worked for the Pakistan establishment and finally in the Genocide year 1971 they openly supported and helped Pakistan Army.

    • Jamil Soomro, New York City

      You are forever stuck in the year 1971. East Pakistan is now Bangla Desh(country
      of Bengalis)both of Dacca and Calcutta.What about the genocide of the Urdu Speaking
      Muslims in 1971 in Dacca,Khulna,Chittagong and Sylhet? Do you remember?

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