Of Inner Vultures

It was on an evening in late 1995 as I sat in my hostel room listening to Farida Khanum that tears welled up in my eyes. The image of Ashfaq Ahmed conducting the program Meri Pasand, sitting with his writer wife Bano Qudsia and other luminaries of Urdu literature came to mind – I was homesick. It was at moments like these that I realised that all of these poets and prose writers who were part of my mother Jamila Hashmi’s world lived inside me and were very much a part of me. That evening in my room in South London it didn’t matter that I didn’t grow up as part of the Ashfaq Ahmed-Qudratullah Shahab-Mumtaz Mufti gang, as this group that also consisted of Bano Qudsia was known, but my heart owned them as it did all the others. Whatever their politics, they belong to me as part of that generation that raised me and with whom I am emotionally connected, without being a part of it.

And so when Bano Qudsia died, I wept and said a silent prayer for her – not because I saw her as “ashraf-ul-makhluqaat” (the most superior of creatures) in the way the renowned Sindhi writer Noor-ul-Huda Shah felt about her, but because she was one of the stars of that constellation that made a great era of post-Partition Urdu literature. If I’ve been unable to perceive Bano Qudsia’s “inner sufi”, it’s probably because of the tragedy of seeing many great people from up close – so that the inner vulture of their being blinded me forever from focusing just on the beauty of their words.

Ashfaq Ahmed and Bano Qudsia were at the forefront of the social engineering that began in the 1980s

In many of her last conversations, Bano Qudsia deflected focus away from herself to Ashfaq Ahmed. Indeed, it is difficult to talk about Bano Qudsia without talking about Ashfaq Ahmed and vice versa. In the Lahore of the 1970s and the 1980s where I grew up, you couldn’t separate the two. Was it love or surrender? One can’t tell, but what is for sure is that quite early on, Bano Qudsia opted to not follow the path of the liberal feminist despite being well educated. She had received her degree from Government College Lahore and had married of her own choice. The secret of her inner struggle has gone with her to her grave but the one little indirect accidental peek I once had was when I asked my mother a question that children ask their mothers at least once in their lives: “why did you marry my father?” The response was interesting and unexpected. I still remember my mother snapping back at me, saying, “So what did you want me to do? Be like Ashfaq and Bano? Can’t you see your father gives me the freedom to breathe and pursue my dreams?”

I was too young to answer back. But if my mother been alive, I would tell her that she was probably wrong. The issue was not freedom but a fulfillment of their dreams that Ashfaq and Bano gave each other: the desire to be powerful, influential and movers-and-shakers of Pakistan’s national history. What did it matter if Qudsia marched behind “Khan ji” as she called Ashfaq Ahmed? Indeed, the Ashfaq-Bano duo, which was part of the larger group I mentioned above, was creative in imagining power. Much before they rose to the heights of influence during the 1980s, they were competing for clout and attention during the 1970s. In fact, Bano Qudsia was part of the goodwill delegation that Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto sent to Moscow. They published an Urdu journal called “Dastaan go”, which, in those days was the equivalent of having your own television channel to build influence. Added to this was Ashfaq Ahmed’s long-standing Urdu program Talqeen Shah on Radio Pakistan, that started in 1962. But they knew they would be lost in a world already dominated by Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

In any case, politically they seemed to naturally belong to the right-wing: where the center of national ideology and power was gradually shifting. They were cultivating writers with similar inclinations and they knew how to develop their own lobby. In the mid-1960s, when Jamila Hashmi’s Talash-e-Baharan received the Adamjee prize for literature – which at that time had the same important for Urdu writers in Pakistan as the Nobel prize has globally – instead of Mumtaz Mufti’s Alipur ka Aeeli, the Ashfaq-Bano team ensured that this was pointed out and presented as some kind of unfair politics. The next edition of Mufti’s book carried the label “this is the book that did not receive the Adamjee prize.”

The couple was indeed very modern in its concepts and connected with conceptual and technological developments much more than people of their generation. They had a natural sense for where the centre of power lay. From providing literary patronage to the undeserving rich during the 1980s to accepting largesse from the infamous Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), the couple was at the forefront. It was the Bank which had paid for Bano Qudsia’s treatment at the Cromwell Hospital in London when she was suspected of having some form of cancer. The couple’s sharpness, however, was not limited to seeking benefits but also extended to developing connections internationally and staying ahead of other fiction writers. I remember a meeting with the couple at the Cromwell Hospital during which I got excited hearing Ashfaq Ahmed talk about Amos Oz, an Israeli fiction writer, who seemed more passionate and in ways simpler than another Jewish writer and recipient of the Nobel Prize in 1978, Isaac Bashevis Singer. Those were the days in Lahore when fiction writers read without any major ideological bias. The only issue was availability of books, the problem being that what was available internationally got to Pakistan at a slower pace, which meant that many people had no notion of new poets or fiction writers. The situation has not changed drastically except that now there are more avenues of obtaining material. For me it was such a thrill to find someone who seemed to comment on Oz – except that I later realised that Ashfaq Ahmed and Bano Qudsia had not really read the books but had skimmed through a commentary in the international journal The Economist. At least they were aware of new literature even if it was through reviews. The 1980s was a period when the majority of writers confined themselves to Urdu literature, which is a reason why you will find lesser experimentation and exploration than in fiction from other parts of the world.

Some people believe that the condition of Urdu writers and poets (not all native Urdu speakers) was due to General Zia-ul-Haq’s authoritarian regime. Nevertheless, that is contradicted by the fact that people living under oppressive totalitarian regimes and situations of conflict – as in Egypt, Lebanon, Chile, and other places – have produced great literature. But perhaps a major issue was friction over language. Despite that, after 1947 non-native Urdu speakers made some of the best contributions to Urdu literature, and those who had ownership of the language were reluctant to provide the former recognition and space. This competition was probably one of the reasons why Bano Qudsia was reluctant to appreciate Quratulain Haider’s writings, as some have noted in their commentary on Qudsia. Nonetheless, there was probably a deeper politics to it as well besides professional jealousy. I got this sense from Bano Qudsia’s reaction to another Indian Urdu fiction writer Jillani Bano, who seemed to have been deliberately ignored and called by the name of another writer Wajida Tabassum several times without Qudsia ever correcting her mistake.

I wonder if the attitude was part of the larger persona that the couple acquired during the Zia years, during which they evolved their sufi and nationalist ideas. It was not that other writers didn’t love the country, however, many were ready to debate and understand Pakistan’s historical complexities without the fear of being ostracised as traitors. It is through questions and exploration and a bit of heresy that great literature is produced.

Both Ashfaq Ahmed and Bano Qudsia were at the forefront of the social engineering that began to take place during the 1980s. Many would perhaps get uncomfortable with the mention of the role this couple and their lobby played in changing the face of Pakistani society. However, shedding tears at their departure cannot take away the need for assessing how they treated the world around them. The change in the social narrative was carried out through the introduction of the “baba” culture. In the process they borrowed profusely from the philosophy of a much simpler gentleman, a teacher with sufi inclinations whom they had met in Lahore, Wasif Ali Wasif. Ashfaq Ahmed masterfully built upon his work and singlehandedly turned simple issues into complex questions whose answers only he could give through over-simplification.

This was also the period when Bano Qudsia’s magnum opus Raja Giddh was born. She had certainly experimented with a new style in which she told the story interrupted frequently by a theoretical framework, which made the novel indeed difficult to read at least in one sitting. It had generated a lot of debate primarily because it taught the same lesson of conformity to social norms without questioning their rationale as Ashfaq Ahmed did through his television plays. In many ways, instead of simplifying womanhood, as she explained much later to Noorul Huda Shah, she turned into Ashfaq Ahmed’s Toota Kahani (Story of the Parrot), or perhaps both were parroting what General Zia wanted to spread in society for more effective control.

There is also a possibility that their inner sufi disappeared from the eyes of lesser mortals like me, whose sight was constantly blinded by the vultures of power, position and privilege that floated into the corridors of “Dastaan Sarai”. Ashfaq Ahmed’s appointment as chairman of Urdu Science Board for life by General Zia-ul-Haq, his aggressive anger at being removed from the position, the disposal of the organisation’s assets to close friends – this was there for all to see. Or perhaps this was a breed of Sufis for whom love did not begin where “me” and “I” end.

Note: This article originally published here.