There’s a certain stoicness when one imagines a banker. A stiffness in the neck, a haste in the step, and a burden on the shoulders. In the 20th century, and even today to an extent, the job defines the 9-5 routine. Men in hats and suits, carrying briefcases and crunching numbers, maybe rolling up their sleeves and smoking a cigarette or two when the going got a little tough. Banks and bankers are titans of global capitalism – after all, their business is money and money is a serious business. So naturally bankers are serious men carrying the weight of the world, and funny is the last thing you would expect them to be.
But funny is exactly what Mushtaq Ahmad Yousafi was. In fact, the man has defined humour for an entire generation, and his passing away at the age of 94 on Wednesday took away from the world of Urdu literature one of its preeminent writers.
The son of a former Jaipur legislative assembly speaker, he followed the path of many other young Muslims of the Indian subcontinent at the time. He was born into the post Sir Syed subcontinent and was destined to be trained a ‘loyal Muhammadan of India.’ He completed his bachelor’s from Agra University, going on to complete a master’s degrees from the same varsity before heading to Aligarh Muslim University to pursue an L.L.B. Promptly after leaving Aligarh, Yousafi joined the Indian Civil Service – completing the circle that so many young Muslims of the time aspired to.
It was only later in 1947 that his life took a different turn when his family migrated to Karachi after partition. It was here that the Yousafi took up banking as a profession.
Yousafai’s trajectory in life was typical of a young, educated, Muslim gentleman of the Indian subcontinent. As a young professional starting off in the immediate aftermath of the creation of Pakistan, he was of the crop that was to have built Pakistan. A refined generation for whom Pakistan was a blankslate for them to fill. With Yousafi’s passing, one realises that this generation has slowly gone the way of time, probably wondering where everything went so wrong.
A banker par excellence, he rose high in his field and came to writing late. His first work, a collection of essays called ‘Chiragh Talay,’ was published in 1961 when he was nearing 40. But the wave it created in the world of Urdu literature was unmistakable. This frail looking, muhajir banker had popped up out of the blue and written a masterpiece that wowed the critics and the greats of the time alike. His contemporaries were all praise, and with his collection of 12 humor essays Yousafi managed to establish himself as a profound literary satirist. Chiragh Talay was his first work, but it gained him the respect and recognition that many who have been publishing from a younger age and with far more frequency crave their entire lives.
And why not? For Yousafi was a special writer. His command over the Urdu language was imperious in the way that only a true Urdu speakers can be. There was a lazy finess to his words that created a tone perfect for comedy. Yousafi was a humour writer – a satirist, but even though he stuck to a single genre, there was astoundingly great diversity within his writing. Within a single piece he could display his mastery over the different tenants of humour writing.
He seemed a fan of wordplay and was prodigious enough with it to remind one just a little of P G Woodhouse out of the English humour writers. The characters and situations he wove were often Shakespearean in their depth and complexity. He found humour in simple things, prodding and poking at things was something his writing naturally does, as all good satire is wont to do, but Yousafi’s goal in writing seemed not to answer life’s great questions, but simply to make the reader laugh. All good satire is social commentary, but at the heart of it should be a love for laughter. Yousufi did not shy away from social commentary of course – far from it. His writing is full of tough topics including religion, gender, family, and society at large. But the love for laughter seemed to loom larger than anything in his writing. Perhaps his greatest quality was the ability to laugh and poke fun at himself. While his talent and wit is exceptional, his loyalty to his art was even rarer, but not even that matched his humbleness. At least in his writing he seemed a man comfortable with self referential humour. He was an equal opportunity offender, and one of his many features was that he did husband-wife jokes well – and not just at the expense of the latter but also at his own expense.
Yousafi’s dedication to his writing was never clearer than in his glee at his own jokes, which somehow inexplicably seemed apparent even through the pages of his published work. This commitment to comedy is perhaps reflected best in the fact that he is not always lost out in translation, so straightforward was the language he used and so universal and clever the tropes he used. But somehow despite this, he had one of the greatest commands on the Urdu language of anyone in our times. He took good puns and subtle statements seriously, much like Mark Twain from the world of English, and while his writing was never absurdist, it sometimes even reflected Beckett or Kellman.
But what Yousafi gave and gave in quality, he did not quite give in quantity. After Chiragh Talay, his eagerly awaited next work Khakam ba Dahan – containing eight humorous essays was published after eight years in 1969. But this is something that the reader and fan have long forgiven, for the genius that Yousafi wove was no simple task and needed time.
His zenith as a writer for many came with his third book, Zarguzasht, which appeared in 1976. The fictional autobiography, which leaves the reader to interpret who the character of Yousafi was, is not only a narrative masterpiece in all languages, but full to the brim with that often subtle, often wry and sometimes uproarious humour he made his own.
That he was still publishing until a few years ago, his last work appearing in 2014 to much fanfare, is testimony to the sharpness of his mind. Until the end in interviews and appearances, he was willing to laugh and offer the near impish grin that marked him as a man that enjoyed life and lived a full one.
Yousafi is a loss to Urdu literature that may hit is with its full impact in a few years. What mayn unfamiliar with his work might not realise is that he was a giant in the world of Urdu literature. Still he was a humble man, one that never took himself too seriously. Poet Iftikhar Arif recounted a small anecdote at the Lahore Literary Festival this year on a session about Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Arif recounted that after a lunch at a hotel, Faiz inquired who that lanky fellow had been – he said he got a good feeling about him. His companions responded saying that was Yousafi, and that he had not introduced them because he assumed they knew each other. Faiz expressed a desire to be introduced so a call was put through to Yousafi by a mutual friend who said Faiz wished to call upon him. Ever the gentleman, Yousafi insisted that Faiz was the senior of the two and that he would like to be the one to come pay his respects.
These were men of character. Men that knew how to look beyond their own egos and in whom still existed courtesy, civility and chivalry. Yousafi lived a long, full life, but his loss is a great one to Urdu and to the country. For he was a rare talent, and the last of a very special generation, and his is a loss to readers, writers, and satirists of all kinds alike.