THE STORY OF A DASTAANGO
Ashfaq Ahmad utilised the techniques of modern media very well to do what he was best at -- telling stories
By Dr Afzal Mirza
In olden days when the written word was not much in vogue, there used to be people who would narrate stories in nightly gatherings which continue till the wee hours. The audience would sit totally absorbed in their tales of love, hatred, debauchery and chivalrous adventures. Had Ashfaq Ahmad lived during those days, he would be surely one of the top storytellers of his time. He would enthrall his audiences in the street of Peshawar, Lahore or Delhi. Or he might have lived and died in Garh Muktasir -- a small town of Ferozepur district -- unsung and unheard of.
Born in Garh Muktasir, Ashfaq came to Lahore during the upheaval of partition with many other people of his ilk. After settling down, they started holding gatherings in Lahore's Pak Tea House. They came from all parts of India. A Hamid -- a contemporary and a close friend of Ashfaq Ahmad -- in his writings drew beautiful picture of those days.
Among them were Ashfaq Ahmad, Ibne Insha, Sahir Ludhianvi, Zaheer Kashmiri, Safdar Mir, Ahmad Rahi, Intizar Husain, Hameed Akhtar and many younger writers who later became famous in Pakistan's literary circles. Initially they exchanged their experiences of partition because all of them had to wade through rivers of blood and fire to reach their adopted homes in Lahore. Soon they started putting down their feelings.
Many of them joined a radical movement called Progressive Writers Association. Some others were more interested in keeping an independent stance. Ashfaq Ahmad, though close to the progressive writers, did not join the movement and followed Manto, Intizar Husain and others in remaining independent of any associational identity.
I first saw Ashfaq Ahmad in Government College, Lahore, in early 1950s. I was a first year student there while Ashfaq Ahmad was in his final year of masters in Urdu. He was a handsome person with a fair complexion, brownish mustaches and a thick crop of hair on his head.
But he was a famous man even then. His juniors, including I, used to watch him with awe and envy. We were impressed with him because of his proximity to our teachers like Sufi Tabassum, Dr Sadiq, Safdar Mir, G M Asar and others.
Besides these famous teachers, Government College of those days had many students who were budding writers and who in later years made a name for themselves. But Ashfaq Ahmad, despite his friendly nature was more at home with his Pak Tea House buddies than he was with his college fellows. That was the period when Manto had written a number of masterpieces on the subject of partition as did many other senior writers like Ahmad Nadim Qasmi, Krishan Chandar and Rajindar Singh Bedi. It was in those heady days that a story entitled Gadarya (The Shepherd) created ripples in the literary circles. The story was written by Ashfaq Ahmad and soon his name became known throughout the subcontinent. Somewhat autobiographical it was the story of a Hindu school master who tutored Ashfaq Ahmad. The man was the model of a devoted teacher. An enlightened man, the old teacher called Dao Ji had as much knowledge of Arabic and Persian and for that matter Islam as many Muslims would not have. That is why when a Muslim mob encircled him and asked him to recite Kalima he shot back "which Kalima?" because he knew all the Kalimas. Gadarya was a moving description of the state of mind of human beings affected by the mutual hatred between different religious factions. This story catapulted Ashfaq Ahmad to the level of one of great short story writers of the subcontinent.
Even during his student days, Ashfaq Ahmad was writing for Radio Pakistan where he made many friends who included people like Mahmood Nizami, Masood Qureshi and Mumtaz Mufti. After completion of his masters, he joined Dayal Singh College Lahore as a lecturer. Situated in the heart of the city, this college had many writers on its faculty including Abid Ali Abid, Tajwar Najibabadi, Anjum Roomani, Shohrat Bukhari and Sajjad Rizvi.
But Ashfaq Ahmad was a restless soul who always longed for travel and learning. The opportunity to fulfil these desires came his way when he was offered a position in Italy where he was to work for the Urdu section of Radio Rome. In his story Fullbright, Ashfaq Ahmad has described how he managed to collect funds for traveling to Rome and how in this venture he was helped by a beggar. The story showed how Ashfaq Ahmad always looked for special traits among ordinary people whom he called babas. These babas became the subject of his talk shows after the advent of television.
Back from Italy, Ashfaq Ahmad married a former fellow student, Bano Qudsia (a famous writer in her own right). He also started a monthly magazine Dastaan Go. It was a unique magazine in the sense that it was shorter in size than other magazines. Ashfaq Ahmad used to design and print its title himself by a technique he had learnt from Italy. In editing he was assisted by his wife Bano Qudsia. The magazine remained in circulation for quite some time. But the venture did not succeed because firstly it was a purely prose magazine and secondly Ashfaq Ahmad was a writer not a businessman.
Then came 1958 and Ayub Khan imposed martial law in Pakistan. Ayub was advised by people like Qudratullah Shahab to expropriate Pakistan Times and other papers published by Progressive Papers Ltd. After these papers were taken over by the government, Ashfaq Ahmad was appointed the editor of one of them, weekly Lail-o-Nahar. Before him the magazine was edited by Syed Sibte Hasan.
Ashfaq Ahmad had the distinction of being first Pakistani editor whom Ayub Khan gave an interview. Though Ashfaq Ahmad tried to maintain the standard of the magazine but after the government take-over the circulation of all PPL papers nose-dived. Ashfaq Ahmad quit his job and was replaced by his teacher Sufi Ghulam Mustafa Tabassum as the editor of Lail-o-Nahar.
The journal seized publication after some time. It was then that Ashfaq Ahmad thought of starting a radio programme, Talqin Shah. The programme was a great success because Ashfaq Ahmad spoke in his native dialect and discussed day to day problems faced by common people with his companions. The programme contributed in a big way towards the media propaganda during 1965 Indo-Pak war.
It seems there were several agendas in Ashfaq Ahmad's mind at the same time. One of them was film making which also proved to be a commercially futile venture. Then TV came into the lives of Pakistanis and Ashfaq Ahmad wrote teleplays and serials that became very popular. Soon his name became a guarantee for the success of the play. He adapted his short stories from his book Aik Muhabbat Sau Afsanay into TV dramas, treating TV viewers to his crisp dialogues and beautiful treatment of the subject matter.
One side effect of his TV activities was that he stopped writing for the magazines. He did not produce any novel or collection of short stories during that period. Ashfaq Ahmad's fame as a prolific and popular writer made him a favourite with changing regimes of the country, especially the military governments who would like to take advantage of his writing skills. Ashfaq Ahmad, whose earlier writings were directly inspired by the problems of common people, had great communicative value for the governments who continued banking upon him without realising how much harm they were causing to his literary abilities in the process.
Of late Ashfaq Ahmad veered into mysticism under the influence of Qudratullah Shahab, Mumtaz Mufti and Masood Qureshi. He embarked on a new path that made some of his writings enigmatic to ordinary readers or viewers. His popularity, however, never waned.
During the last stage of his life, he reverted to TV and staged talk shows wherein he would keep his audience absorbed in his God-gifted capacity to speak alone for hours, telling anecdotes and stories about extraordinary traits found among common people -- his babas.
Last time I met him a few years ago at a dinner thrown by our common friend Dr Zia Samad, who was Ashfaq Ahmad's colleague in Dayal Singh College and later in Italy. I found that in real life he looked flabbier than what he appeared on the television. The gray beard had given him a look of elderliness and piety.
He was a modern day storyteller who lived in the age of printing presses and audiovisual electronic devices but still he was able to captivate his readers and listeners with his artistic rendition of stories and anecdotes.