Glimpses from the Life of Syed Rafique Hussain

I am not sure about the exact year, but as far as memory serves me, it was the summer of early 80’s; I was with my father in his office of Mah-e-Nau at Davis Road Lahore, a regular instance that I was attuned to; accompanying my father to his office twice a week, so that I could do my studies there during the summer holidays. While I was there in his office, the telephone started ringing. Abba attended the phone and the conversation followed. During the course of the discussion, what I made out was that Abba was trying hard to make the gentleman on the other side understand that he would receive a certain book in a couple of days, as he was sending his peon right away to the post office to dispatch the two copies to his home address.

The gentleman on the other side, however, seemed too fidgety and was adamantly not ready to wait even for an hour, and that was on his way to grab his copies personally from Abba. When Abba hung up the phone he held his forehead with his hand in a surrendering manner. He told me that the gentleman on the other side was none other but Ashfaque Ahmed, the iconic writer, and that the man despite the fact that he was burning in high-grade fever, was on his way making sure to grab the book himself. In an hour or so, I heard the typical frantic sound of a rickshaw, and Mr Ashfaque Ahmed visibly in battered condition rushing into Abba’s office. He did not bother with the formal rituals imbuing pleasantries of salam-dua, and snorted “Lao bhai dau; kahan hai meri copy…”.He then got into a fit of coughing which showed that he was not well. Seeing the two copies resting on the table, he—like a hungering hawk—lungedforward and grabbed the books in a fashion which could best be described in Urdu ‘Jhappattna’ turned around on his heels and vanished in a glimpse. The book in question was named Bay Zubaan, a collection of eight short stories. What was different was that these short stories instead of revolving around people spun around eight different animals. The man who authored these stories was none other than abba’s maternal uncle–the only writings of him.Owing to his highly callous and nonchalant nature, his work had not been preserved by him in an organized fashion, and just when it was about to be junked in the trash bin of the household, his daughter Qamar, who had taken some real pains in refining and structuring it, had sent one of these to the monthly Saqi published from Delhi, the first to take the credit.

As soon as the first story published, a kind of pandemonium of eulogy broke loose from all directions, insisting that the journal publishes more work of this unknown ideal. That’s how a treasure of literature was prevented from obscurity. Following this, the collection of these stories was first published in 1944 in Delhi. Besides the first place credit goes to the monthly Saqi published from Delhi, which started publishing these stories and followed by a few more editions in Pakistan with different titles, but those lost in the dust of time.This very edition was the result of my father’s and his elder cousin Major General Syed Shahid Hamid, his nephew, (son of Rafique Hussain’s elder brother Syed Hamid Hussain) personal efforts.

The reason for my declination towards reading the book until now, could neither fall under the notion of a lack of interest, nor indifference to Urdu Literature. My constitutional contempt for reading Urdu brew from my self-induced, half-baked assumption that my Urdu had dwindled over the years, and that made me espouse a certain shying away from reading discourse in Urdu.

Soon when I started to school-walk with Abba, I picked up a liking for Jim Corbett of Kumaon, better known by the locals as ‘Carpet Saheb’ hunting stories. This was the time when I could not read or write anything. Abba would make me sit on his lap and narrated me the stories of Jim Corbett’s travails with the man-eaters in the dark and dingy forests of Kumaon. It was around the same time that he narrated me the story of ‘Kalwa’ (the black orphan puppy that grew into a sturdy dog, later saving the life of its owner, by sacrificing his own) from the book ‘Bay Zuban’ a book that I grew up with. This story transformed me to such an extent that I started imagining myself to be ‘Munnan’, the small boy who first rescued Kalwa when he was barely a puppy. I do not even have the exact recollection of how many times I had heard the story of Kalwa, but the way it impacted me can be judged from the fact that till date, the mere mention of this story, wells up my eyes. 

The author of this book Syed Rafique Hussain was my father’s Mamu. Through my father’s narrative, I had heard a lot about him. He was a man with the thinking deeper than the deepest depths of the ocean. It’s hard to imagine as to how a person, without having had any knowledge of animal psychology could master the art of transliterating their very emotions and sensitivities.His work transcends its creator in terms of its complexities and elevates him to the level of a spokesman for these creatures not endowed with the power of speech. How beautifully he depicts those emotions and sensitivities, translating the most trivial of the movements of the tail, the nudging of the head, or just the movements of the eyes or ears. Reading his stories one gets teleported intoa world where there exists no barrier of speech between the two worlds belonging to humans and animals, and where the two worlds merge. In Orwell’s Animal Farm, or Kipling’sThe Jungle Book,the creatural characters were given the proverbial tongue.They could speak. It is, but, the uniqueness of Rafique Hussain’s thought-provoking expression, and creative imagination that he could elevate these speechless creatures to a pedestal where,by all means, they become parable with humans in terms of theirego, grief, joy, and above all the sense of sacrifice. 

“Janweron ko instinct ka maadda dya gya hai jiss mein ghalati ka ehtamal hi nahi aur hum ko aqal! Jau her qadam per thokar khati hai”

Someone has said, and so true to the hilt; that the manwho does not harborlove for animals cannot be sympathetic towards humans too. This fact has been realized well when the man of today is seen completely ripped off of his humane qualities, and the only being with the vestiges of sincerity left, is the dog. Moreover, it is a staggering reality that in the world of creative arts animal life is more depicted in paintings, than in literature. It’s ironic, that even in pre-industrial time when man’s very existence depended on animals, hecould not develop a bond with them, with just a few, nebulous representations in modern literature. 

Syed Rafique Hussain’s short sojourn with Literature did not eclipse his fame a bit. His work is considered a unique treasure in the world of Urdu literature, as classic as Ghalib, Mir Taqi Mir, or any other contemporary thinker. 

When I was asked to write something about Syed Rafique Hussain, I couldn’t say no… and why not? After all, this was a man whose works, we grew up reading; the content of which contributed in many subliminal layers to shaping our personalities, and to whom we credit our undying love and conscientiousness towards animals. 

As I write these lines, reading the essays of various giants of literature, I find myself slowly bogging down in a quagmire. Though his terms, words and dialogues never seized to resonate my ears, nevertheless something sparked me to read his stories once more. As I attempt to read these, I find myself slowly being sucked into a whirlpool—amorous and unfathomable, an intangibly vast ocean of emotions, sentiments, and wherein one gets immersed, never to emerge on the surface again—a labyrinth that knows no end. In honest words, I find myself underqualified to even render a simple eulogy to his works, and I feel it is justified also for the simple reason that the greatest of our storyteller gods: Ashfaque Ahmed and A. Hameed, called themselves his sons, in meaningful reality. Ashfaque Ahmed at one point in one of his interviews, when asked as to whom he considered his favourite writer, had said that just like him being a mad man, his favourite writer was also a mad man: Syed Rafiq Hussain, Upon inquiring as to whomhe was, he replied said in a fit of anger; “ poochte ho Rafique Hussain kon the  - tau suno;  jiss tarha urdu shairee apna ek khuda rakhti hai, (Mir) isi tarha urdu afsane ka bhi ekk huda tha – Rafique Hussain.” 

A. Hameed once confided to my father; “20 saal guzar gaye hain takye ke neeche iss saheefa e aasmani ko rakhta hun, sone se pehle is ki kuch na kuch tilawat zaroor kar leta hun.”

But since I have promised to write an article, I had to do some justice to the paper also. Feeling helpless, as if standing in a dark tunnel I once again had to seek out for my father’s shoulder –the innumerable sessions on that rickety bench – par excellence that I have fondly mentioned in so many of my writings— to me, an epicenter of knowledge, whether history, politics, or family. I turned back to the innumerable sittings on the park bench in the dark hours of the night not far away from home, where my father had told me so much. Glancing through the kaleidoscope of my mind, I could see many incidents of his Mamu’s life that he had shared with me on that rickety bench. My father used to say that his writings are in reality, the tears of the four-legged that we humans cannot comprehend.


With his 2nd wife Musharraf (whom he married after the death of his first wife Saira) , younger son Usman and daughter Qamar (his elder son from first wife Saira was Captain Sultan Rafique)

In my opinion, a good writing encompasses 3 dimensions, just like a good painting of a maestro, despite the fact that is drawn on a two-dimensional canvas or paper. Yet, reading Rafique Hussain sitting in a quiet and desolate corner transports me to a fourth dimension. What is that fourth dimension? This is a world of reticence where soliloquy is the language, a trans where the physical senses lose their very sensation, where metaphysics transcends all combinations of physical senses in such a way that one feels, sees, hears the emotions of those creatures thought to be having only one attribute of living existence that could neither be seen or encompassed in any way, form or manifestation. ‘Jaan-wer’ which literally means an object with jaan— life or soul, and nothing else beyond this. This fourth dimension is their unseen tears of grief, pain, agony, unfathomable depths of memories, unspeakable feelings, sacrifice, fidelity… that we humans think as the attributes confined to us only.

Before I pen down a few memories that my father shared with me during those unscheduled discussions sitting on that insalubrious bench and which incidentally still continues to reside in some dust-draped niche of my mind, I feel obliged to share a few brief details of his personal life. Born in 1895 in a small Mohalla Shah Gunj to a noble family in Lucknow. His father, Syed Jafer Hussain Musavi, was the chief engineer in in the Irrigation department. He was the first Muslim from the united provinces to have graduated from the engineering college of Rudki. Rafique Hussain’s grandfather was an eloquent poet—a qalander mansh. He was the author of the famous tazkirah ‘sarapa sukhan. His great grandfather Syed Hussain Shah Haqeeqat was a renowned Islamic scholar back in the day. The family was the direct descendent of Syed Amir Kulal, who was greatly revered by Amir Taimur of Bukhara, and considered him his spiritual father. 

As per historians, Amir Taimur owed his conquests to the prayers of his mentor Syed Amir Kulal. At one point in time, he offered him the kingship of Bukhara, which he declined by saying that he was proud of himself for being an ordinary faqir. It is said that the mausoleum where Amir Taimur is presently buried was built by him for his teacher and mentor Syed Amir Kulal. Amir Kulal in a bid to avoid what he considered to be an embarrassment had left the place and taken up living anonymously in a far suburb of Bukhara, where he died quietly unnoticed. The family migrated to Hindustan in the times of Farrukh siere. Rafique Hussain was too naive a man to have known all these details. In a way it was good for him as he remained shielded from the influence/vagaries of zaat paat biradari, which, nonchalantly keeps a bearing on one’s mind and subconsciously acts as a driving force in one’s thinking, whether creative or decisive.   

Closing my eyes, I visit the cold streets down my memory; feeling almost physically the tricks that this mind plays on, catapulting me to that abandoned bench where abba sat, donned in his peanut-brown kurta pyjama, 

“What is your most vivid memory of your Mamu, Abba?” I often asked him, and he used to begin with his reverie.

“Sometimes the banality of words doesn’t do justice to a man of his stature. Many a time I tried gathering words to describe him, but each time language failed me. Have you ever tried defining perfection? It’s hard, isn’t it? There is no set definition for the word “Perfection”. You could be perfect in one aspect of your life, while being a complete failure at something different. Mamu was not a perfect husband, father, or son—he was probably a huge failure at these social roles. He often made me wonder why we must define human beings in absolutes. Couldn’t they be a paradox? Just like he was. A hybrid being existing in a self-created universe that transcended the tangible influences of this world. A time-torn man, whom I found lacking in his make, the constituents of love, care, concern, and other humane attributes. Yes, he wasn’t demonstrativeof these traits. It was only through his writings that I could understand, much later, that he did not belong to this world of demonstrativeness. He was a sentient being in his own unique way who espoused creativity that knew no barriers, and a thought process that ran wild.To many, he came across as someone very temperamental. Callous too, for the most part. Submerged in the depths of his own thoughts, divorced from the rest of the world, engaged in the crests and troughs of his own creative stimulations, purveying with his characters, and living a life that was just his. To many, such people are worthless, selfish… ugly. Nobody wants to be around them. At times I would look at him, and just keep looking. Those deep, wrinkled lines on his face, seemed to be plowed by a hundred years of varying emotions all put together at once.”

I would look at abba during intervals, and each time felt like his eyes would well up silently, just like the characters in Hussain’s Bey Zubaan. He would often mention Hussain’s Fasan-e-Akbar, a pioneer in Urdu Science Fiction; in which Hussain maintains going to Agra for an official tour, and on one of the relatively freer days, while strolling about the historic buildings comes around a Mughal-style amphitheater—a bowli— in which he descends with the aim of washing his face from one of the faucets, in his pursuit to break the curse of the blistering heat now turning his sweat-laden face completely incarnadine. Upon feeling the coolness, he shut his eyes out of pleasure, and when he opens them again he finds himself transported to a time some four centuries ago, handcuffed by Akbar’s darbaris, and submitted before the Shehnshah for a crime unbeknownst to him. 

“Every word is worth reading, offering a unique merger of humour, and morbidity; of reasonable access, and required reality; yes, he was a writer with a purpose; a realist, and there was a method in his madness too.”Abba would go on and on about his mamu’s writings. 

Upon inquiring about his personality as an individual, abba would tell me how Hussain’s callous nature probably brew out from the fact that he was orphaned much earlier in his life. “Social isolation does that to you. It makes you a misfit in this society. It sucks the very energy out of you, hardwiring you to become something that people like staying away from. As a child, you need to be exposed to a nurturing climate, something that mamu was dispossessed of from the get-go” Abba used to tell me.

This is, however, something that I personally disagree with. Casting my eye over what abba narrated to me about Syed Rafiq Hussain, I feel he was a social misfit not because of his childhood experiences, but because of his over-brimming talent. A man whose artistic ventures kept him locked up in his room for days and nights, without having had eaten a morsel; someone for whom, the moment he stepped within the chaar deewaari of his creative realms, the world outside his room seized to exist, how could he practically be a fit for a society that quite literally, then, and still does, depend on sham, and demonstrativeness?  Such people work on the maxims of to be, rather than  to seem, and he gave the world marvels in the shape of his characters, the likes of which find no parallel to date. 

Bey Zubaan is one such book by him. May be the difference between madmen and Hussain, is that he knew he was mad… but then how many sane ones out there, have actually given the world, any marvels at all? From Socrates to Sartre, and from Einstein toDali, they were all mad in their own beautiful ways. You have to unlearn everything to be able to craft rich eccentricities that let us look deep into ourselves for the purpose of self-improvement, self-articulation, and self-correction… something that Hussain’s characters do best. His characters in Bey Zubaan: the emotions, sensitivities, and sentiments in the depictions of creatural life are so deep that they strike a chord with all sentient beings. It hit me as a shock when I learned about Hussain’s personal life through my father; and thought to myself how discordant it is coming from a man like him. How could he, a seemingly callous, indifferent, temperamental man, connect his readers to the deepest levels of humanity within them? But then, was he even thinking of all the ripples that his works would stunningly generate in the sea of human emotions, while he was absorbed in his creative process? I leave the question to be answered by his readership.

The author is a retired Cavalry officer. He has spent 27 years in uniform and has a published collection of short stories 'By the Autumn Trees' to his name. He is an avid traveler and also has ample of well-researched travelogues published in the leading newspapers of the country.

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