Ashfaque Ahmed: Master Storyteller
By Dr. Ahmed S. Khan
September 7, 2008, marked the fourth death anniversary of Ashfaque Ahmad (1925-2004) --- the prominent Urdu writer, playwright, intellectual and broadcaster. He was a great writer and a magnificent storyteller (dastaango).
His writings, like his personality, were multi-faceted. His themes were compassion, love, social issues, loyalty, philosophy and spirituality. He showed his readers a world of thought and feeling, and he guided his audiences to new ways of understanding the social and spiritual challenges and their solutions. As Allama Iqbal (d. 1938) said: ‘Gahrah hay maray bahray khayalat ka pani’ (deep are the waters of my thought), Ashfaque Ahmad’s intellectual depth and message went beyond the domains of epistemology and into the realms of spirituality.
Ashfaque Ahmed was a seeker and preacher of truth and wisdom. Through his writing and plays he shared with his audience his wisdom, which he acquired by studying mystics and a number of common wise men, whom he called babas. In his drama series ‘Aur Dramay,’ he exposed his audiences to a new level of thinking which went beyond the domains of epistemology and touched on spirituality.
Born on August 22, 1925, Ashfaque Ahmed received his early schooling in his native district, Ferozepur, East Punjab. After partition he moved to Pakistan and made Lahore his abode. In Lahore, he volunteered to work at the Walton refugee camp, where he recorded the details of the refugees arriving from East Punjab, and made announcements on the public address system. The prominent Urdu writer Mumtaz Mufti (1905-95), also working at the camp, was impressed by his abilities and potential. Mumtaz Mufti asked Ashfaque to work for him at a mobile unit of Radio Azad Kashmir, where programs needed to be produced on a short notice. Asfaque’s observations and experience at the refugee camp worked well for this job and provided themes for his later writings and plays.
Ashfaque Ahmed had a brilliant career. After receiving his Masters in Urdu literature from the Government College Lahore, he taught at Dyal Singh College. In early 1950s he joined Radio Rome as an Urdu newscaster. While in Italy he obtained a postgraduate diploma in Italian and taught Urdu and delivered lectures on Urdu literature. While in Europe he also traveled to France and learned French. He also traveled to New York to obtain a diploma in broadcasting.
On his return to Pakistan he launched his own literary magazine “Dastaango” (storyteller), and joined Radio Pakistan as a scriptwriter. He was appointed editor of Urdu weekly Lail-o- Nahar, after the government of President Ayub Khan (d. 1974) had taken over Progressive Papers Limited (publishers of Pakistan Times, Imroze and Lail-o-Nihar from Lahore) because their opposition to his policies. He also served as the Director-General of the Markazi Urdu Board, now known as the Urdu Science Board --- a position he held for 29 years.
He wrote more than 20 books which included Aik Hi Bolee, Aik Mohabbat Sau Dramay, Band Gali, Gaddarya, Haft Zubani Lughat, Hairat Kadah, Jang Bajang, Khail Thamashaa, Khatiya Wattia, Safar Der Safar, Safar-e-Mina, Shahla Kot, Subhaney Fasanay, Tali Day Thallay, Tlism-e-Hosh-Afza, Aik Mohabbat Sau Afsanay, Zawiya, and Ujlay Phool. He also edited Zikr-e-Shahab, an anthology about his friend Qudratullah Shahab (1917-1986), a prominent writer (Ya Khuda, Shahabnama), civil servant, and Sufi mystic.
In the 1940s he started writing Urdu short stories, but he joined the league of great Urdu fiction writers --- such as Sadat Hasan Minto (1912-55), Ismat Chughtai (1915-91) and Krishan Chander (1914-77) --- when he wrote ‘Gaddarya.’ In 1951 he published his first collection Aik Mohabbat Sau Afsanay, and in 1957 his second collection Ujlay phool.
Having found his niche in fiction writing, he moved to radio and television. In 1962, he launched a radio show “Talqeen Shah” (Preacher) which offered humorous and satirical treatment of social and political issues. It turned him into an instant celebrity, and people nicknamed him ‘Talqeen Shah’.
His message of universal truth of human emotions, aspirations touched the hearts and souls of millions of people. His drama serials provided clean family entertainment for the masses --- an alternative to English television programs and Indian films. His work also preserved the cultural and spiritual heritage. Like his writings his plays involved characters, images, symbols, metaphors, and themes which were deeply rooted in the local culture of the provinces of Pakistan.
His plays too were emotionally moving and intellectually stimulating. He followed no agenda. His work was based on reality and the spirit of humanity, and his dramas had instructional as well as ethical values. His popular TV plays include Aik Mohabbat Sau Afsanay, Uchhay Burj Lahore Dey, Karvan Sarai, Tota Kahani, Lekin, Qila Kahani, Hairat Kadah, Mun Chalay Ka Sauda, Talash, Ajeeb Badshah, Ameen, Baba, Panahain and Aur Dramay.
Towards his later years he became a Sufi and a mystic. His most recent television work was in the form of two talk shows ‘Baittakh’ (The Sitting Room) and ‘Zawiya’ (Corner or Retreat), aired by Pakistan television (PTV). In these programs he interacted with the young and old, and enlightened them on a broad spectrum of topics. The viewers were impressed by his epiphany. When he was asked to explain the difference between a Muslim and a Momin, he answered: ‘Muslim wo jo Allah ko maan kay chalay aur Momin wo jo Allah key maan kay chalay’ (A Muslim is one who acknowledges Allah, and a Momin is one who obeys Allah).
Ashfaque Ahmed, a soft-spoken, humble and apolitical figure remained a lifelong champion of social work and reform. He won national and international acclaim, and received numerous awards, including Sitara-e-Imtiaz, and Presidential medal, Pride of Performance. Before his death he told a friend that anyone could be a Sufi; anyone, even a bureaucrat, could be a Sufi; anyone could give you a direction. Indeed he was a true Sufi - he spent his entire life providing guidance and directions to people. His legacy will be a source of guidance for his followers.
(Dr. Ahmed S. Khan (askhan@DeVry.edu) is a Professor in the EET Dept. at DeVry University, Addison, IL. He is the author of Telecommunications Factbook and co-author of Technology and Society: Issues for the 21st Century and Beyond)