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Words over-ride substance

The art of Mukhtar Masood

Words over-ride substance

Harf-i-Shauq, Mukhtar Masood’s posthumous work of Urdu prose, is an exhibition of blatant pedantry. The assertion seems a bit harsh but for an author whose enormity of talent exudes from his works, the words over-ride the actual substance of the text. The impression that one gets while perusing that book is that modesty, a sine qua non for a writer of his stature, is somewhat compromised.

I have read all the works of Mukhtar Masood with a lot of fondness. However, despite his works containing interesting information extracted from history books, anecdotes from the lives of ‘big personalities’ and his own life experiences in an elegant style, his own-self comes out as his prime subject of study in every one of his books. Harf-i-Shauq obviously is no exception to that norm, which Masood holds on to with unfailing regularity.

While engaged with a particular theme, the author tends to deviate to other subjects and at times epochs but without losing focus on actual subject which is a commendable trait.

Besides Loh-I Ayam, all of his books clearly reflect the assiduity of the author to embellish his prose. It divests the prose of the natural flow that was the hallmark of Khatut-i-Ghalib, (Ghalib’s letters) the standard bearer for writers of the succeeding generations to follow and emulate. Awaz-i-Dost particularly illustrates that style of writing which to me is overtly sententious.

Mukhtar Masood was born in Sialkot on December 15, 1926 but bred in Aligarh. It was here that he sought all his education, primarily because of his father Sheikh Ataullah (1896-1968) who taught economics there. Masood too did his masters in Economics. Sheikh Ataullah originally hailed from Jalalpur Jattan, district Gujrat but settled in Aligarh because of his employment. He was a man of literary and religious disposition. He compiled the letters of Iqbal in two volumes with the title Iqbal Nama. He also did a compilation of the letters of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Shibli Naumani and translated Aurangzeb’s Persian letters into Urdu. He also rendered some of Marmaduke Pickthall’s works into Urdu as well.

The environment that Masood was brought up in left a profound impact on his thoughts and overall disposition — love for Aligarh, its founder Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, adoration for Urdu and passionate engagement with Persian being the most conspicuous features. These features are thoroughly articulated in his prose. More so, Aligarh inculcated in Masood the penchant for the Pakistan cause, a characteristic which became one of the defining traits of his personality.

Read also: The art of Mukhtar Masood — II 

Masood had to stay back in Aligarh even after the establishment of Pakistan to complete his education. Thus he migrated to Pakistan in 1948 and the very next year he appeared in the Civil Service Exam and secured entry into the glorious cadres of Pakistan Civil Service. Apart from opening up a door of opportunities for him, to be a member of the elite club of bureaucrats, it offered him various subjects that later on became the themes of his writings. Loh-I Ayam in particular is a case in point. The personal touch that is quite ubiquitous in his books is yet another effect of his being a bureaucrat (The bureaucracy was then a fountainhead of power).

With the context having been laid out, the analysis of Harf-i-Shauq becomes a tenable proposition. It deals with three distinct yet interrelated themes, divided into four chapters. A better part of the book is devoted to the sociology of the times while the author was a student at the Aligarh Muslim University, with inferences from historical texts and anecdotes drawn from the lives of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Mohsinul Mulk, Syed Mahmood and Ross Masood. The establishment of Muhammadan Anglo Oriental College at Aligarh has been covered in exhaustive manner.

The history and the importance of Strachey Hall form the most fascinating part of the book. That Hall is highlighted, in the word of the author, as the “centre of rationality and modernity, epiphenomenon of Aligarh movement and the battleground for the Pakistan movement”. It was here that Sir Syed Ahmad Khan founded the Muslim Educational Conference in 1886 which culminated into All India Muslim League in 1906 in Dacca. Thus, the process of the Muslim separatism formally initiated in 1906, came to fruition in 1947, started in real sense from Strachey Hall. That Hall was named after Sir John Strachey (1823-1907), a British officer who was the main financier of that project.

While engaged with a particular theme, the author tends to deviate to other subjects and at times epochs but without losing focus on actual subject which is a commendable trait. The part dealing with the Strachey Hall undoubtedly is a gripping part of the book.

Aligned with Muslim University Aligarh is the personality of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan whom the author has scrutinised in a fairly balanced manner. He has eulogised Sir Syed as a reformer but spurned him though vicariously as a religious scholar, as his some ideas and thoughts smacked of heterodoxy. I wish while writing on Aligarh Muslim University and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the author would have consulted David Lelyved’s Aligarh’s First Generation: Muslim Solidarity in British which could help him look at the subject in depth.

Then the author rivets his attention on Urdu prose. He is perceptive enough to not dabble in the debate surrounding the history of Urdu and its origin and various stages of evolution. Thus no reference of Hafiz Mahmood Sheerani’s book Punjab in Urdu can be found. Castigation of Fort William College, arguably the centre for the promotion of Urdu, is another interesting point. Masood declares it nothing but a myth. The author refutes the much-trumpeted influence of that college in promotion of the language through translation of classics etc. Those translations and their impact, according to him, have been magnified out of proportion.

I genuinely contend that the author’s contestation with regard to Fort William College should motivate scholars of Urdu language and literature to delve deep into the contributions of the college. I also wonder why the author conveniently circumvented the role of Delhi College in the development of Urdu language and literature. Similarly he commends Muhammad Hussain Azad and Abul Kalam Azad along with Rashid Ahmed Siddiqi as the most luminous stars of Urdu prose. One is struck by the omission of Ghalib who was the actual trend-setter of the Urdu prose through his letters. I could see only one quote from Ghalib’s prose which is astounding.

(to be concluded)

Tahir Kamran

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

One comment

  • An excellent piece of writing.

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