Dr Shafiq-ur-Rehman, Illustrious Raconteur
By Dr Zeba Hasan Hafeez


Dr Shafiq-ur-Rehman was one of Pakistan’s most illustrious writers and his extraordinary humor has given enduring pleasure to his readers. The similarity between him and Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi is striking in the context of literary humor and satire. Both did justice to their careers, serving in the armed forces and banking respectively, and both also reached the heights of literary excellence. Early in his career as a writer, Shafiq-ur-Rehman became a household name. I recall the words of Akhtar Mahmud Faruqui, former Assistant Editor of Dawn and current Editor of Pakistan Link, USA, “My father wanted me to become an engineer, but I used to spend most of my time reading Shafiq-ur-Rehman and learning his afsanas by heart.”
Dr Shafiq-ur-Rehman was born on November 9, 1920, in Haroonabad, Bahawalnagar District. He began writing humorous stories during his school days. They were published in a monthly literary magazine called the Khayyam. His work Kirneyn, completed before he joined medical college, was published in 1938 while he was still a medical student. This was followed by Shagoofay, Lehrain, Maddojazar, Parvaaz, Himaqatain, Mazeed Himaqatain, Dajla (a travelogue), Insaani Tamasha (a translation of “A Human Comedy”) and lastly Dareechay. Memorable characters include Razia, Shaitaan, Hukoomat Aapa, Maqsood Ghora, Buddy, Nannha and others. His works added a new dimension to humor in Urdu literature. The doctor created for his readers a tangible world fraught with joy, pain and anguish. It was an affirmation of life and of human values: empathy, compassion and respect. Even the seemingly frivolous situations spoke of hidden meanings that probed deep into the human psyche. His language was simple, spontaneous and expressive. PG Wodehouse and Stephen Leacock were among his favorite writers.
I had the rare pleasure of being close to him, as his niece, and he was always my hero. I found everything about him extraordinary; his literary genius, his conversation, his stature, his handsomeness, his handwriting.
I don’t think I ever saw anyone more becoming in a military uniform. My aunt, his wife, had met Dr Rehman through her brother, Shaukat Hasan. The two young men were classmates at King Edward Medical College, Lahore, which was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. In Barsaati, the “friend” accompanying the author in Spain, is Dr Hasan. The two friends lovingly addressed one another as “Doolha” (bridegroom). I remember Dr Rehman’s words on the occasion of General Shaukat Hasan’s daughter’s wedding. They had embraced, and he had said, “Doolha, doolha mubarak ho.”
Dr Shafiq-ur-Rehman had many nieces and nephews. He had committed to memory some act or conversation of each child in the family. Whenever he met me after an interval, he would say that years ago, I had asked him to wear a suit for an occasion, and he had found my suggestion so appropriate that he had quickly gone in and changed. I had always felt important when he mentioned this incident. Our families had the opportunity of spending quality time together in Karachi, from 1972 to 1975 when he was posted as Naval Director of Medical Services in the rank of commodore, and later rear admiral. When he returned to the army, he was made Major General. My aunt took extended leave from her post as professor of English at the Government College, Rawalpindi to join him. He adored his sons and spent a great deal of time with them, playing cricket, swimming and other activities. Dr Rehman was very much an outdoors person. He was tall, athletic and slim; strenuous exercise being a daily ritual for him. Every Sunday, he would wear his hat and go for a long walk to the bazaar to browse second-hand books. He’d return with an interesting assortment and give each of us a book to read.
Whenever we went to the doctor’s house, we knew that depending on the time, he would either be at work, outdoors for his daily exercise or in his study. At meal times, we would have the memorable opportunity to enjoy his company. I always felt honored to sit at the dining table with him. He spoke most of the time and we listened, mesmerized.
Dr Rehman had an amazing memory and his conversation would mostly be about books, poetry and jokes. His jokes were endless and he never repeated a single one. He had a special way of telling a joke, which threw us all into fits of laughter while he sat with a straight face. Later, I found out that most people who had met him shared this impression. It was an unwritten law in the house that meal times were a reunion of the family and that anything unpleasant, including illness, was not to be discussed.
Every time I visited the family in Rawalpindi, my aunt and I took turns reading out passages from his books. I always made it a point to go through all their old picture albums. Dr Rehman was very fond of photography. My aunt had a story to tell about each picture. They seemed to open vistas to a lost, romantic youth – offering a glimpse of life as he had lived it and as it inspired him. Yet, his room was quite bare, and he was an extraordinarily simple and private person. I sometimes caught a glimpse of him while he worked. There was a newspaper stand in his room where he stood for hours, barefoot, reading. He even wrote while standing. His library comprised thousands of books, all neatly stacked in locked steel trunks. He seemed to have a working catalogue in his mind and knew where each book was stacked, every pile and row down to the last detail.
There used to be an ancient timepiece on the sideboard in the dining room that only he was able to adjust. When I met my aunt in Rawalpindi, after his passing away, she sadly mentioned that there was no one to fix it any more. Dr Rehman had given me an autographed set of his books, but somehow Mazeed Himaqatain was missing from the collection. I requested my aunt to autograph a copy for me. She wrote: “Barey shauq say sun raha tha zamana. Hameey so gayey dastaan sunaatey sunaatey.” ("The world was listening raptly, only I fell asleep as I told my tale".
My aunt always spoke of her husband fondly, more so during the last days she spent at a hospital in Rawalpindi. She would often recall a day long ago in England, when he had stood by the fireplace and read out aloud from Nadir Shah, as she and Dr Shaukat Hasan listened. She said that had loved the name ‘Shafiq-ur-Rehman’ long before she had even met him. However, their association of almost sixty years had finally come to an end. The ten books that he had written were permanently placed by her bedside and she took joy in having selected excerpts read out to her.
I have tried to translate a few lines from Barsaati that have always moved me. “Alhambra seems like the home of fairies. Each pillar, arch, wall and its beautiful engraving, each inch seems magical. In this solitude, the only sign of life seems to emerge from the sound of these fountains. These springs have never been silent. They have been flowing since the era of the Arabs. The limitations of human life, the vicissitudes of time, philosophy, creation and destruction; all seem to have become absorbed into the sound of these fountains.”
After retiring from the army, General Shafiq-ur-Rehman served as Chairman of the Academy of Letters from 1980 to 1985. During his tenure, the Academy assumed a new stature as a prominent literary institution of Pakistan. He continued to write till his death in March 2000, and was the only Major General to be awarded the Hilal-e-Imtiaz for his military and civilian services. He was bestowed the honor after his death and his son, Attiq-ur-Rehman, received it on his behalf on March 23, 2001.
Dr Rehman is a legend in Urdu literature and lives on in our hearts. His books have been read and appreciated so widely that had he belonged to any other country, he would have been a millionaire. However, he never asked for any royalties and never made any kind of monetary agreement with his publishers.
Dr Rehman’s lifestyle was always simple. On an occasion, a thief tried to break into their house and in the process damaged a door the repair of which caused the family considerable inconvenience. I recall him saying that a sign should be posted outside for thieves, “The door is open; you don’t have to break it.”


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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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