Shafiq-ur-Rehman: A Legendary Writer
By Dr. Zeba Hasan Hafeez
Dr Shafiq-ur-Rehman was one of our illustrious writers of extraordinary humor and 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 of serving in the armed forces and banking, respectively and 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 currently the Editor of Pakistan Link, USA, “My dearest father had 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 began writing humorous stories during his school days. His stories were published in a literary monthly magazine called Khayyam. Kirneyn was completed before he joined medical college and was published in 1938 while he was still a medical student. It was followed by Shagoofay , Lehrain, Maddojazar, Parvaaz, Himaqatain, Mazeed Himaqatain, Dajla (a travelogue), Insaani Tamasha (a translation of “a human comedy”) and lastly Dareechay. His unforgettable characters include Razia, Shaitaan, Hukoomat Aapa, Maqsood Ghora, Buddy, Nannha and others. His work added a new dimension to humor in Urdu literature.
He created a world for us that was very real with all its joys, pains and anguish. It was an affirmation of life and of human values: empathy, compassion and respect. Even the seemingly frivolous and trivial situations had hidden meanings that probed deep into the human psyche. His language was simple, spontaneous and expressive. PG Wood House and Stephen Leacock were amongst his favorite writers.
After passing his MBBS in 1942, Dr Shafiq-ur-Rehman joined the Indian Army Medical Corps. He completed his post-graduation in tropical medicine and public health from Edinburgh, in 1952.
I had the rare pleasure and privilege of being close to him, as a niece. He was always my hero. I found everything about him extraordinary: his literary genius, his conversation, his stature, his handsomeness, and his handwriting… I don’t think, I have seen anyone more becoming in an army or naval uniform. We all called him uncle. There was an ancient timepiece on the sideboard in the dining room, which only he was able to adjust. When I met my aunt recently, she sadly said that no one manipulated it now. They had many common interests and a great companionship.
Dr Shafiq-ur-Rehman was her brother, Shaukat Hasan’s friend. They were classmates at King Edward Medical College, which was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. In Barsaati, the “friend” accompanying the author in Spain, is him. Lieutenant General Shaukat Hasan has served as consultant surgeon to the Pakistan armed forces for about twenty years.
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 always felt important when he mentioned this incident.
Our families had the opportunity to spend a lot of quality time together in Karachi, from 1972 to 1975 when he was posted as Director Medical Services, Navy with the rank of commodore and later as rear admiral. When he reverted to the army, he became Major General. My aunt took a long 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 in other activities.
Dr Shafiq-ur-Rehman was very much of an outdoor 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 of used books. He returned with an interesting assortment and gave each of us a book to read.
Whenever we went to Dr Shafiq-ur-Rehman’s house, we knew that depending upon the time, he would either be at work, outdoors for his daily exercise or in his study. If it was one of the meal times, we would have the memorable opportunity of being in his company. I always felt honored to sit at the dining table with him. He spoke most of the time and we listened, mesmerized. He 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 their 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 in reading out passages from his books. She told me the background of many situations too. I always made it a point to go through all their old picture albums.
Dr Shafiq-ur-Rehman was very fond of photography. Each photograph seemed to have a historical perspective to it. My aunt had a story to tell about each one. They seemed to open a gateway to a dreamland of romanticism, youth; a glimpse into life, as he had lived it and as it had inspired him. His room was quite bare. 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 of thousands of books. These were all stacked neatly in steel trunks, which were kept locked. He seemed to have a working catalogue in his mind and knew where each book was placed, even the pile and row down to the last detail.
Dr Shafiq-ur-Rehman had given me an autographed set of his books. Somehow Mazeed Himaqatain was missing from this collection. When I went to Rawalpindi after his passing away, I requested my aunt to autograph it for me. She wrote, “Barey shauq saye suun raha tha zamana Hameey soo gayae dastaan sunaatey sunaatey.”
I have tried to translate a few lines from Barsaati that have always moved me. “Alhamra seems like the home of fairies. Every pillar, arch, wall and their beautiful engravings, every 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 limitedness 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 of Letters acquired a new dimension as a prominent literary institution of Pakistan. He continued to write till his end in March 2000. He was the only Major General to be awarded the Hilal e Imtiaz for his military and civilian services. He was bestowed the latter posthumously and his son, Atiq-ur-Rehman received it on his behalf on 23 March, 2001.
Dr Shafiq-ur-Rehman is a legend in Urdu literature and lives on in our hearts. His books have been appreciated and read 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 one occasion, a thief tried to break into their house and in the process damaged a door whose repair 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.”