Remembering Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi, Urdu’s Greatest Wordsmith

A master of Urdu satire and humour, he was ever-ready with a delightful turn of phrase and kept us enthralled for more than half a century with his unparalleled wit.

Explaining how he survived the dark decade of General Zia Ul Haq’s dictatorship, Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi, who passed away last month, quoted the great French writer Joseph Emmanuel Sieyes. Abbé Sieyes, the catholic priest, was once asked what was his significant contribution to the French revolution and he said, “J’ai Vecu” (I survived).

After migrating from India in 1947, Yusufi survived through four dictators, 71 years of Pakistan, and nearly a hundred of life. Writing about the third world’s preference for dictators, Yusufi notes that when leaders become selfish, mullahs become opportunists, the people terrified and intellectuals sycophants. Then a strongman takes over by invitation and soon enough he begins to label his opponents:

“Anti-God, his critics as traitors and the declares Allah’s land, its produce, its moonlight and its sanctuary out of bounds for all discontent. He feeds writers and intellectuals from the Royal Kitchen in order to instruct them in the art of writing and commissions a cohort of under-conscience-sellers to certify that freedom of expression reigns supreme in his regime – everybody is free to use any form, meter or rhyme they like to write a panegyric to the leader.”

No wonder Yusufi sometimes pronounced the Quranic verse Min ash Shaitan ur Rajim [seeking deliverance from Satan] as Min ash Shaitan ur Regime.

Yusufi was not only the greatest humorists of modern Urdu but also its greatest satirist and its most erudite prose stylist who purveyed the arcane and the abstruse in a delightful turn of phrase but always in a classical diction.

Even his colloquial was recondite. Of the dozens of WhatsApp and Facebook one-liners that are now circulating as examples of his unparalleled wit, let me reproduce a few while cautioning you that they mislead in their simplicity. Yusufi was a flowing ocean of highly refined wit who forced you to smile and to go on smiling for hundreds of pages on end:

‘The problem with Pakistani rumours is that they often turn to be true.’

‘There are three kinds of enemies – enemy, mortal enemy and relatives.’

‘The thing that has made the greatest sacrifice for Islam is goats.’

‘Once a man becomes a professor, he remains a professor all his life even if towards the end of his life he starts spouting sense.’

‘Ghalib is the only poet in the world who gives you re-doubled joy even when, or particularly when, you don’t understand him.’

These WhatsApp aphorisms have a purpose: they make Yusufi palatable to the ordinary reader for whom Yufusi was not easy to consume. He wrote in chaste, classical Urdu, often coining words at considerable will and labour such as maskhaina for distorting mirror, lateefa-e kaseefa for dirty joke, and gharq-e arq-e khud for ‘stewing in his own juice’. His writings are replete with re-moulded Persian and Urdu verses, with choice quotation from world masters such as William Shakespeare, John Donne, Marcel Proust, Rudyard Kipling, W.H. Auden and Mark Twain as well as anecdotes and stories from ancient China, Greece and classical Persian and Arabic literature. From Buddha to Wajid Ali Shah, from Jonathan Swift to George Bernard Shaw, historical characters flit in and out of his narratives. Undoubtedly, he was one of Urdu’s most learned writers as also probably its most multi-lingual one.

Yusufi was born in Tonk, Rajasthan, which he celebrated and caricatured in equal measure (Rajasthan is famous for its Bhand-Rand-Sand-Khand, or jesters-women-bulls and sugar). Along with singers Mehdi Hasan and Reshma, he formed the troika of the three greatest gifts which Rajasthan bestowed on the newly-formed Pakistan.

Born to a distinguished family, Yusufi’s father was the speaker of the Jaipur legislative assembly. Yusufi joined the Indian Civil Service but soon after bade goodbye to the service and to India. In Pakistan, he became a banker and eventually became the chairman of the Banking Commission of Pakistan in the 1970s.

The cover of Zarguzasht, published in 1976. Credit: Goodreads

It was also a profession he caricatured with great finesse in his memoir Zargushazt, the account of money, a pun on the Urdu word for memoir Sarguzasht. His first collection of essays was published as Chiragh Tale (Below the Lamp) in 1961 and over the ensuing six decades, he only published three more books, Khakam Badahan (With Dust On My Face), Zarguzasht and Aab-e Gum (The Mirage). His final publication, Sham-e Sher-e Yaran (‘The Evening of Friends’ Verses’, again a play on one of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’ collection titled Sham-e Shahar-e Yaran) , was a compilation of his speeches and other writings, and not really a finished work of prose like the others.

Yusufi was understandably parsimonious in publishing. He worked on each of his books, chapters, lines, for years, chiseling and refining it further and further so that each sentence became as well polished and as well laid out as a Mughal miniature. Like the latter, you can read his works in small samples, page by each page, read them whole, read them again and again and read them from anywhere and they always delight and always surprise with their innovation and their sharpness.

He reworked the old Urdu genre of inshaiyya, or essay and reinvigorated it as being more than an essay – a memoir, profile, portrait, character sketch, history and biography and thereby invented a form for himself. I first read his greatest work Aab-e Gum, literally, ‘The Lost Water’, when I was in college and my Urdu was, as they say, kamchalau, workmanlike, and I struggled through the form as well as the prose.

Like all his works, the book is hard to characterise. Perhaps the word faction was invented for him. Outwardly, it is a series of memoiristic essays about a fictional character Basharat Ahmed Farooqui. The essays describe the protagonist’s early life in India, his early years and professions in Pakistan, his father’s life and his nostalgic return to India for a short visit. It is a story without a plot and Yusufi adduces Proust, James Joyce and Eugene O’ Neil to explain his plotlessness, but, like the authors he quotes, he attempts nothing less than a totalising narration of the Indo-Islamic civilisation before Partition and the denouement it faced afterward. I read it without mastering it but for years afterwards I described my vocation as being a social critic, for the book taught me to critically engage with language and social mores, and their connection, like few have done before or after. Consider this:

“No country in the world has laid so much store by izzat as South Asia has done. ‘May God keep you and/or recall you in izzat.’ You will not find this prayer or blessing in any other part of the world. Perhaps those engaged in [colonial] naukri accept a certain amount of humiliation as being par for the course…It will be long before we are fully rid of our feudal notions of honour and self-respect.”

Elsewhere in the same work, Yufusi reflects, with marvellous humour, on why South Asians have such a passionate contempt for the ass or the donkey, which is revered in other cultures, or their teachers’ particular penchant for the ‘murgha position’ as punishment. Clearly, he was more than a humorist, he was also a sociologist and, going by the numerous historical references from around the world, also a historian.

The literary culture in which Yusufi flourished came into being in the aftermath of the Partition where Pakistani Urdu writers in general and muhajir writers in particular were trapped between the compulsion to celebrate Pakistan and the impolitic impossibility of doing so. Like his immigrant contemporary Intizar Husain, Yusufi satirised the reality of Pakistan but also the nostalgia of the migrants who longed for the India they had left behind not necessarily because it was any good but simply ‘because they longed for their own youth’.

After the initial years of dismay, this literary culture, as I have written elsewhere, created a robust space for itself, centering around coffee houses, PTV programmes and a far from subdued leftist protest culture. Like Intizar Husain, Yusufi relentlessly poked fun at muhajir condescension at other ethnic Pakistanis and their grandiloquent claims of what they had left behind. They both deal in nostalgia, but Yusufi punctures its myths through his characters’ memories of India as well as its present, sordid and shabby, reality.

Apart from being a humorist, Yusufi was also an ethnographer and an urban anthropologist. He celebrates the North Indian qasbas and cities and the patriotism they generated, but he also lampoons their quixotic fancies. As a prose stylist, he brings us different variants of Urdu: Gujarati Urdu, Pashto Urdu, Punjabi and Sindhi Urdu and the different registers of Urdu in India.

Through his profiles and sketches, he satirises different ethnicities with all their foibles intact. He is after arcane coinages and such esoteric details such as Ghalib’s diet on his last day but also words for common objects such as the dark spot on the tabla (khiran), the blade used to sample grain through sacks (sambha) and the compulsive truth speaker (sachar). Police speak and double speak, bankers’ talk, tongawallahspatois, rhapsodies on the ubiquitous gamchha, Yusufi’s encyclopaedic gaze celebrates high literary culture as well as demotic usage and the objects of everyday life. If there is Karachi and Pakistan bashing galore in his work, then there is also mohajir nostalgia bashing, India bashing and history bashing in equal measure.

Shri Lal Shukla, (1925-2011).

It is impossible to read Aab-e Gum or Yusufi’s other writings without thinking of Shri Lal Shukla and his cult classic Rag Darbari, whose fiftieth anniversary is being celebrated this year. Yusufi’s Dhirajganj  and Shukla’s Shivpalganj resemble each other. Their common mockery of the emphasis on Brahmcharya, saving your semen and your breath and other North Indian nonsensical beliefs contain mutual echoes. The colleges they describe and their non-functioning are similar as are their police and local bigwigs and remind you of Vijay Tendulkar’s marvellous play Jaat hi Poochho Saadhu Ki.

Like Shukla’s Rangnath, forever taunted for being educated yet still, or perhaps because of it, being useless, Yusufi admits that in South Asia there is no abuse ‘greater than being called an intellectual’. Undoubtedly Shukla is more obviously political than Yusufi but then Yusufi’s prose is so sophisticated that it is said to be the best since Ghalib’s.

Harishankar Parsai, Hindi’s greatest satirist was much more biting than Yusufi (quick recall – ‘Bapu, a day will come when they will remember you only because you were killed by Godse’), whereas Yusufi mocked without insulting. He could also satirise without wounding, as he does with Mehdi Hasan and several other giants, and that is a great skill indeed. There is more humor in Yusufi than in the two Hindi greats mentioned above. He mixes wit, satire and humour in equal measure. He could make you smile, smile wryly, laugh bitterly and laugh out loud.

In trying to conserve words and memorialise a culture, Yusufi was after more than humor or satire. He was against the amnesia that is the lot of the colonised. He wanted to denigrate the present without slipping into what he satirised as a maazi-e tamannai, a fantasy past. There was no piety that he would not demolish on his holy search for a South Asian identity that was healthy without being hypocritical, that could be critical of itself without being servile and where otherness often lay inside, rather than outside. Here he is poking fun at the Mullas who heal or protect by the power of their breath:

‘He used to say that he is preparing such a wazifa (spell) that whatever I breathe upon will either be sold within a month or I will go blind. Three or four times a day he would scrutinize his hands and count his fingers to ascertain that he still had vision. After reciting his spell he would walk from the mosque to the shop, very carefully preserving his breath in his tightly shut mouth, lest the wazifa leaked [sic] from his mouth and expended itself on something else.’

For nearly half a century, Yusufi kept us enthralled with a unique spell and wazifa of his own. No doubt we are now more unprotected and more unprepared to face our future without him. 

Mahmood Farooqui is known for reviving Dastangoi and is the author, most recently, of A Requiem for Pakistan: The World of Intizar Husain, Yoda, 2016.