Finally, the great Pakistani novel
When a count is taken of great Pakistani novels, Ahmed Bashir’s Dil Bhatkay Ga , published near the end of his restless and turbulent life, will stand on its own, right next to Qurratulain Hyder’s Aag ka Darya , Abdullah Hussain’s Udas Naslain and Shoukat Siddiqui’s Khuda ki Basti . There is always a great deal of an author’s life in his fiction: that goes without saying, but what is remarkable about Ahmed Bashir’s 890-page book is that it is both a novel and an autobiography. I would go so far as to say that it is the story of Pakistan and of the decade preceding independence. No one has produced a more graphic, more chilling account of the savage killings, arson and looting that took place in Lahore in 1947 than this impeccable reporter with a gift for storytelling that few can match.
Ahmed Bashir being the iconoclast that he was, makes little, in fact no attempt to hide the identity of those who appear in this panoramic, picaresque work. Mumtaz Mufti, to whom he was also related, is Mufti, Meeraji is Meeraji, Krishen Chander is Krishen Chander, Abul Asar Hafeez Jullandhari is Abul Asar, Maulana Kausar Niazi is Maulana Niaz Ali Kausar, Qudratullah Shahab is Qudratullah, Maulana Charagh Hasan Hasrat is Maulana Charagh Hasan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
It is a pity and a shame that Pakistani journalism has never acknowledged that it was Ahmed Bashir who invented feature writing in Urdu and the interactive interview. His imitators came later but no one could quite match the bite and slash that were characteristic of both the man and his style. To read through Dil Bhatkay Ga is like walking through a portrait gallery. Every face painted is vivid. The contours are clear and no one has been airbrushed. If anyone comes close to Saadat Hasan Manto – and excels him at times – in what has come to be known in Urdu writing as khaka naveesi or character sketches, it is Ahmed Bashir and no one else. There are several delightful and unforgettable portraits in this riveting novel, but none more so than that of Maulana Charagh Hasan Hasrat, the founding editor of Imroze , the finest Urdu newspaper ever to have appeared in Pakistan or elsewhere.
Here is Ahmed Bashir’s first encounter with Maulana Charagh Hasan Hasrat. Imroze is going to publish its first issue after three days when Bashir – the novel’s Jamal – walks into Maulana’s room. He writes: “Had Maulana had a taste for drinking alone or for listening to music by himself, he would have immediately turned Jamal out of his room because he neither had any experience of journalism, nor could he come up with an example of his writing. That apart, he had walked into the room without an introduction. He had never seen a teleprinter in his life. Maulana raised his head and said, “Yes, sir?” With rustic simplicity, Jamal replied, “Sir, I hear you are going to bring out a newspaper.” “Yes, that we are,” he replied. “I’m here for a job.” “You are late,” Maulana said. “That cigarette is about to burn your fingers,” Jamal said. Maulana flicked off the ash, looked at Jamal with some curiosity and asked, “What kind of a job would you like? We have a clerk’s vacancy.” “I am not fit to be a clerk,” Jamal replied. “What are you fit for? Have you ever written anything?” Maulana asked. “Yes, but I do not write well.” “And what have you read? Or haven’t you read anything?” “Nothing really,” Jamal answered. “The Kok Shastra when I was in class eight but I could make nothing of the 84 methods of sexual congress shown in the illustrations. I have read the entire output of the Progressive writers and some English fiction, but most of my time has been spent playing cricket. What it all boils down to is the fact that I cannot be counted among the well-read, but a bum I certainly am.”
Maulana was intrigued. Taking a long drag at his cigarette, he said: “Journalism’s raw material you do appear to be, but have you any experience of working in a newspaper?” “No.” “That’s good, we don’t need experience.” “Then what sort of person do you need?” Jamal asked.
Maulana was lost in thought for a while before he spoke. “We need young men who have an enlightened temperament and good taste, who are fond of bumming around, who work hard and who want to learn. We need young men who are not for sale, who don’t bow from the waist, and who believe in social change.” Jamal perked up. “Then you are in urgent need of me and if I am in amiable company, I also like to drink. What else do you need, Maulana!” After more questions about what he had or hadn’t read and what sort of cricket he had played, Maulana said: “All posts stand filled. Had you come earlier, perhaps something could have been worked out. I think you have the makings of a journalist.” Jamal rose to leave and when Maulana asked where he was going, Jamal replied “home.” “The evening is falling and that is not the time to go home. Spend an hour with us at Volga Hotel (a Lahore bar of those days) and if you like our company, perhaps you could down a drink or two. You are an interesting person,” Maulana said. In Volga,Maulana drank to his gills. At about 10pm he said: “It is time to find out what is going on in the other part of town. Do you like the raga Malkauns? I like it immensely.” Their next stop was Billo Bai’s kotha in Heera Mandi, whose stairs Maulana climbed with alacrity, followed by garland sellers and beggars. When around midnight, they left Billo Bai’s kotha , Maulana said, “Maulvi, we better get going. Office hours are from 10 in the morning. Your salary will be Rs 210 a month. I do not tolerate latecomers.” That was the beginning of an association that lasted until Charagh Hasan Hasrat’s death. He was in his early fifties.
Ahmed Bashir was one of the first to join the PPP party paper Musawaat but did not last long because of his mistaken belief that the party was serious about socialism. His constant sniping at the compromises and betrayals that were made every day finally cost him his job, which was when Qudratullah (Shahab) called him to Islamabad where he was asked to write a report on a new film policy. It was another matter that there was never going to be a new film policy, only Shahab wanted the perennially out-of-work Ahmed Bashir to earn a bit of money. Shahab gave him sensible advice, which was of course lost on the rebel that his bohemian friend was. Shahab told him: “The bureaucracy’s one aim in life is to maintain the status quo and to block fundamental change.”
Ahmed Bashir lived in Islamabad for some years but hated it. This is how he describes it in his book. “Islamabad is a barren city. When people leave their offices, they shut themselves into their homes. You don’t call on anyone unless you have phoned first. Before you light a cigarette, you look for an ashtray. Coffee is preferred over tea as that’s the American way. The expression on your face must remain harsh and the treatment of people of no consequence such that they feel humiliated. All colleagues are suspect. You say little and keep your conversation vague. Pakistani officers avoid taking decisions. Their proposals are ambivalent and files are passed on to other officers to escape the responsibility of decision-making.” Shahab was right, Mumtaz Mufti tells Jamal/Ahmed Bashir: “There is only one principle to follow when in government: what can be put off until tomorrow, should never be done today.”
Dil Bhatkay Ga is not a book: it is a tour de force and a mirror in which we will see our faces as we have never seen them before.