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Doctors and Urdu Literature - Part I: Dr Asif Farrukhi, Dr Hasan Manzar, And Dr Shershah Syed Stand Out in Urdu Literature

By Dr Naazir Mahmood


April 13, 2020


In the past 50 years or so, Urdu literature has seen some extraordinary writers whose primary profession has been medical practice. Three of these names stand out: Dr Asif Farrukhi, Dr Hasan Manzar, and Dr Shershah Syed. These names have not only devoted their lives to curing patients but have also written novels and short stories, and rendered into Urdu some masterpieces of world literature.

Nearly 30 years ago I read one of the first books by Dr Asif Farrukhi, 'Harf-E-Mano Tu'. It was a collection of interviews he had conducted with eminent writers from Ghulam Abbas to Amrita Pritam published in 1989. He launched a book series in 2000, titled ‘Dunyazad’, which later emerged as a literary journal. Its first volume also included eight poems by Harris Khalique and a brief introduction to his poetry that rattled the literary scene in Pakistan. Dr Asif Farrukhi in the past 20 years has compiled and edited dozens of volumes of ‘Dunyazad’. He also runs a publishing house ‘Scheherzade’ which publishes literary works.

In addition to writing some of the best short stories in Urdu, published in collections such as ‘Shehr-e-Maajra’ (1995), ‘Mein Shaakh se Kiyun Tuta’ (1997), and ‘Mere Din Guzar Rahe Hain’ (2009), he has also written articles and essays on literary criticism published in ‘Alam-e-Ijad’ in 2004. His anthologies of writings from some of the best writers in Urdu have been published by the Oxford University Press (OUP) regularly. One is amazed at his literary potential and capacity to work as he is also one of the pioneers of literary festivals in Pakistan.

Dr Shershah Syed is a class in himself. Belonging to a family of medical professionals, he opted for gynecology as his specialization, an area not particularly a domain of male doctors in Pakistan. He has earned a name as a top-notch short story writer in Urdu in the past couple of decades. His nearly a dozen collections of stories have a titular motif of Dil (heart), such as ‘Chaak Hua Dil’, ‘Kaun Dilan Diya Jaane’, ‘Dil Hai Daagh Daagh’, ‘Dil Ki Wohi Tanhai’, and ‘Dil Mera Balakot’, and others. He was one of the first doctors to reach Balakot with his team after the devastating earthquake in October 2005.

His experience as a doctor in the post-earthquake days and weeks, led him to delineate his eye-witness accounts in his short stories that help you understand how the affected people were helped and exploited in the aftermath of that tragedy. In addition to short stories, Dr Sher Shah Syed has written works of non-fiction such as ‘Ilm-o-Agahi Ka Safar’ – a short history of universities from around the world. From the ancient universities of Taxashila (Taxila), Nalanda, and Nanjing to the medieval ones such as Al-Azhar and Nizamiya, Dr Syed takes us on a journey of education and knowledge through centuries.

His entire family is devoted to education and medical practice coupled with a spirit of civil activism and social work. In 2012, Dr Syed wrote the story of his parents, Abu Zafar Azad and Atia Zafar, who made it possible for their eight children to excel in medical practice and also become socially conscientious citizens of society. The book titled ‘Vision’ was written in collaboration with senior journalist Humair Ishtiaq, and narrates how the family could nurture as many as 40 doctors in their immediate family and bound them in a loop of camaraderie.

Dr Hasan Manzar was born in UP, India, in 1934 and he received his early education in Moradabad. His family moved to Lahore when he was 13. He did his MBBS and then moved on to work as a doctor in Pakistan and then in some other countries of the world; always kept a life-long interest in literature. He published his first collection of short stories ‘Rihaee’ (Freedom) when he was around 50. To date he has published half a dozen collections of his short stories, and a couple of novels such as ‘Al-Asifa’ and ‘Dhani Bukhsh Ke Betay’ (The Sons of Dhani Bakhsh).

Before discussing Hasan Manzar’s novelette 'Waba' (Pestilence), I would like to discuss Dr Asif Farrukhi’s contribution to our understanding of Deputy Nazeer Ahmed’s novel ‘’ (The Penitence of Nasooh). Dr Asif Farrukhi is a great-grandson of Deputy Nazeer Ahmed who is considered by many as the first novelist in Urdu. Nazeer Ahmed’s novel ‘Taubatun Nasooh’ was first published in 1874 and since then has seen hundreds of reprints and in India and Pakistan.

Prof Iftikhar Siddiqui published its definitive edition in 1964 with a preface and a detailed introduction to it. Prof Siddiqui informs us that he took a lot of pains to collect various editions of this novel from across the Subcontinent and finally was able to correct many mistakes that had crept in the novel over many decades. Its first translation was done by Kempson in 1884 and published in London. Siddiqui’s introduction spans 66 pages and discusses in detail the novel’s unique features and what made it an instant success among its readers. This is a good introduction but does not match the critical insights provided by Dr Asif Farrukhi.

Dr Farrukhi’s Urdu analysis of ‘Taubatun Nasooh’ was written in 1991 and is included in his collection of critical articles ‘Alam-e-Ijad’ published in 2004. Its English translation appeared in the OUP’s Classics series in 2008. This book includes a new translation of the novel by Wajid Naeemuddin; and Amina Azfar’s translation of Mirza Farhatullah Baig’s ‘Nazir Ahmed Ki Kahani Kuch Unki Kuch Apni Zabani’ (The story of Maulvi Nazir Ahmad in his words and mine). The translations by Amina and Wajid are contemporary and excellent, but it is the introduction by Farrukhi that draws your attention.

The title of Farrukhi’s introduction is ‘Nasooh and Nazir Ahmad: from Cholera to Book-Burning.’ He briefly describes the theme of the novel and then critically analyses it. The novel begins in Delhi where the cholera epidemic is raging through the streets of the city decimating its population. The titular protagonist is Nasooh, a mediocre man who recovers from the attack of cholera and repents for his sins by transforming himself into a preacher-like personality. That results in a conflict in his family. There is an entire sequence of events triggered by the epidemic.

Farrukhi’s introduction is erudite and highly readable. Replete with references to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ and other writings on pestilence, Farrukhi opens new avenues for us to understand the novel and its intricacies. The arguments between Nasooh and his son Kaleem are a reference point to gain an understanding of a dilemma the Muslims in the Subcontinent have been facing for at least two hundred years now. Nasooh emerges as a born-again Muslim who tries to impose his conservative ideas on his whole family that more or less accepts his edicts.

Kaleem is not one of them; he argues and refuses to obey the commands of his father. Nazir Ahmed writes compelling dialogues in favour and against both conservative and liberal thinking of his times. But ultimately, the novel shows that Nasooh ends up burning the books that his son Kaleem has collected and read. Farrukhi is right in pointing out that in a way the same arguments have continued since the time Nazir Ahmad wrote this novel. The burning of books symbolizes the refusal of the conservative lot to grasp new realities of a changing society, and Nazir Ahmed ultimately is an advocate of conservatism that has prevailed.

To Be Continued

Dr Naazir Mahmood holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Original Headline: Doctors and Urdu literature

Source: The News, Pakistan