Smiling Philosopher of Urdu Literature

Raza Naeem on the work of eminent humourist Mushtaq Ahmad Yusufi (1923 - 2018)

Smiling Philosopher of Urdu Literature
The caliphs of literature have devised a new manner of self-praise. Some great poet, writer or journalist passes on from this world and these people come into the market hawking their memories and initiate their sale of the dead; Abdullah Hussein, Intizar Hussein, Naiyer Masud – all were treated in this manner in the last three years and God knows for how long they might continue to suffer such treatment. All the newspaper articles written so far since the eminent Urdu humourist Mushtaq Ahmad Yusufi passed away at the age of 94 on the 20th of June in Karachi have put the reader in a quandary: is it Yusufi who is the recipient of the offerings of devotional flowers or whether the purpose is to string a garland for themselves? Are the writers looking to manifest Yusufi’s personality or to highlight their own?

Hence this writer’s disclaimer: having not met Yusufi even once over his long life, what follows is strictly a humble reader’s impressions, rather than a conventional obituary.

Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi (left) seen here with Zehra Nigah, Habib Jalib, Ahmed Faraz and others - Image Credits - Doc Kazi on Flickr

On account of the thirteen humorous essays by Yusufi in Chiragh Talay, Caesar, Mata Hari aur Mirza (Caesar,Mata Hari and Mirza), Qaumi Joota (National Shoe) and Hue Mar ke Jo Hum Rusva (When We Were Disgraced in Death) which I have read from beginning to end with great interest, I began to number him amongst those few humourists of Urdu who did not treat humour as mere foolishness, nor did they present it as mere foolishness – but considered it an important reality of life. And thus in doing so, he was truly faithful to the following definition by one of the greatest English humourists William Makepeace Thackeray, which in my opinion is perhaps the best definition of humour possible: “Truth topsy-turvy, entirely logical and absurd.”

Yusufi himself wrote in his essay ‘Cricket’ about the British:

“Their national attribute is that they become extremely emotional in the matter of entertainment and the worst sort of businessmen in matters of love. The result of this pleasing contradiction is that their philosophy is extremely superficial and humour very deep.” This shows that Yusufi would not be upset in any way at my measuring his humour by Thackeray’s definition, whether other popular humourists of Urdu – reading whom I am tired – might say that he was being measured by an extraordinary standard.

I began to number him amongst those few humourists of Urdu who did not treat humour as mere foolishness - but considered it an important reality of life

The reality is that most of our humourists and their supporters regard mere foolishness as humour and, laughing at it just once, do not reflect on exactly what it is that caused the laughter. In fact, even if I laugh at their material by mistake, I begin to feel angry at my own laughter!

But the critic was ready to fight in defence of what he called our national humour. Now, we might have saluted Urdu humour by accepting their statement, had Yusufi not come forward like Rashid Ahmad Siddiqi to prove that even our humour was linked to learning, seriousness, intelligence and true wit. He showed that humour was not mere coarse language, but such laughter or amusement whose effect became greater the more you thought about it.

Yusufi was properly conversant with literature, philosophy and other essential subjects, and this knowledge gave him a vision on the basis of which he was a true critic of objectivity: meaning that he possessed the knowledge to view truth and then his distinguishing feature was that his vision went towards the topsy-turvy feature of this truth. In this matter, along with his inherent ability, he also absorbed the influence of English humourists whose humour he described as ‘very deep’. However, after reading his essays, I did not suffer the stroke which I suffered upon reading Azeem Beg Chughtai, Shaukat Thanvi and Shafiq-ur-Rehman, and the result of which was that I often felt myself compelled to stop reading their essay (whether in a magazine or book).

In ancient Greek mythology, the god of humour Momus boasted about himself and if someone summoned him, he would make faces in disapproval. Such misfortune also befell our humourists. They began to treat themselves as humourists after writing just a bit of natural humour, and magazine editors further turned them into humourists by demanding their writings. As a result, they began to create absurdities and in tedious essays, continuously and unabatedly narrated things which caused laughter. Those who were more educated – with a B.A. or M.A. – began to imitate superficial humourists like P.G. Wodehouse. In fact Wodehouse could control his humour, but our lions began to roar, totally out of control.
Yusufi refrained from bringing a reformist force to satire

Yusufi’s essays definitely had a bit of influence from this tradition and his essays were often long to the point of exhaustion, but he rarely lost his way from the correct way of humour and if he ever accepted the influence of anyone, he made it his own to such an extent that it never read like a spin-off. For example, Wodehouse’s essays and short stories do feature a Jeeves as a character. But in Yusufi’s works, a Mirza Abdul Wudood Beg is also the very life of essays like ‘Yaadish Bakhair’ (Good Remembrance) or ‘Moozi’ (Deadly). Or he drops in here and there, but this character is totally a product of our tradition and of Yusufi’s experience. The stupidities which are the realities of our society are to be found in him with the same force of consistency as are found in society generally.

Yusufi made every human and animal into an effective and comic character. In ‘Aur Aaana Murghion Ka’ (And When the Hens Come), the cocks and in ‘Caesar, Mata Hari and Mirza’, the dog, came alive in front of us. In ‘Junoon-e-Latifa’ (Madness of Humour), various cooks refreshed the memory of Wodehouse’s butlers but were not an imitation of the latter – in fact they are living examples from our own society. In all of these examples, he gave proof of creative power and reached the level which may justifiably be known as true humour and which is said to emerge from seriousness.

With President Mamnoon Hussain

In most of the essays, Yusufi was a very amusing critic of the comical errors of our society. In ‘Parriay gar Beemar’ (Lest You Fall Sick), ‘Sinf-e-Laaghir’ (The Leaner Sex) and ‘Kaghazi he Pairahan’ (The Paper-Thin Dress), he unveiled the common methods of our taking care of the sick, the foolish attempts by people to make themselves thinner and the taste for naked art, respectively. Here he showed us those human stupidities in which we are busy with great dedication and seriousness. In this connection, ‘Mausamon ke Shehr’ (City of Seasons) was very interesting. Migrants coming to settle in Karachi have developed this habit of cursing the weather in Karachi at every opportunity. Yusufi reviewed this in an unbiased manner and one felt after reading it that to complain about the environment of Karachi is foolish to a great extent.

I particularly liked ‘Chaarpai aur Culture’ (The Cot and Culture). The cot (or charpoy) really has such a status in our culture that we can consider it an indicator of our culture and Yusufi’s depiction of its special status – and even its comic uses – affected the heart very gently. Here we also saw how he created funny tales to make the cot extremely comical:

“But the most dangerous type of cot is that in which the aged men of God merely by the power of their faith remain stuck in the remaining, broken ropes (of the cot). The same kind of swinging bed is used as a swing by children and by the old like a receptacle for the purification of the soul. In elite households, now such cots are hid in the nooks and corners like poor relatives for use in bad times. By chance, I myself slept on one such cot one night at Mirza Abdul Wudood’s, a healthy person can well become a noon ghunna(a diacritical noon)as soon as he lies down on it.”

And after this introduction, he narrated the entire tale from the cot in Mirza’s home to the expedition which was very incidental and gave a full indication of the place of the cot in our homes. Thus he brought forward a very fine portrait of both the humour of incidents and the humour of characters.

And as we continued to reflect on these portraits, we laughed. Like a real pearl, it measured up to expectations at first sight. In fact, the effect was the same after multiple viewings, and did not diminish with time. To be influenced by Yusufi’s humour, one required the following criterion set up by Mir Anees: “Sauda he javahir ka nazar chahiye is ko” (The trade is in jewels, and needs far-sighted vision)

In the tradition of our literature, the whole business was about the style of delivery or of spreading the blossoms of language, and humour was not excluded from it. Be it the hijvs (satires) of Sauda, the whole kalaam of Akbar Allahabadi, or the essays of Rashid Ahmad Siddiqui and Patras, the greater effect was created by making fine sentences, sharp lines, far-from-speculative similes, metaphors, proverbs and aphorisms and popular verses comical by altering them. Very many examples of the same process could also be found in Yusufi’s style. Along with this, his style also had digressions which have similarly been used by modern English humourists with great taste. They deliberately went off-topic and then returned to it.

‘Innovativeness’, ‘liveliness’ and other such terms could be used, of course, for the prominent characteristics of his style – much as they can for other humourists. But his quality and greatness was that he never let them become inferior or frivolous. It seemed that a river was flowing whose waves were illuminated with the glimmer of jokes and whose scenes made the bud of the heart bloom. Sometimes it caused a smile, and sometimes it made us laugh loudly. It also had irony and attacks but was never intended for mere satire – let alone vexing someone.

Yusufi refrained from bringing a reformist force to satire. Although his true purpose was definitely reform and like the French humourist Francois de La Rochefoucauld, he also said, “I do not give an opinion. I do not reform. I merely unveil.” The word ‘expose’ had also assumed a lot of importance for his style and purpose.

In ‘Tu Ne Toa Pi Hi Nahi’ (You Did Not Even Drink), the flavour of his mouth turned bitter against coffee and I personally did not like it because I am an affectionate lover of coffee. But this is a personal issue, and I am sure that many readers would not agree with him on a personal basis in the same manner.

His general opinions were bitter medicinal tablets sugarcoated with humour, based on an accurate diagnosis of the ills of society. In ‘Qaumi Joota’ (National Shoe), he very courageously analysed the mistakes associated with the ideology of nationalism and destructive effects, and in this manner, encouraged a more sound concept of nationality. In all of his essays which had appeared so far, his inclination was totally natural and instinctive, where even a trace of artificiality did not arise. He remained at this rank all his life and also succeeded in encouraging concentration on the part of the reader by controlling fluency, something which ensured for him a permanent place amongst humourists and printed his discourse on the heart of the nation forever.

While I was working on this tribute to Mushtaq Ahmad Yusufi, the 63rd death anniversary of another of his predecessors, the Urdu humourist Chiragh Hasan Hasrat was marked on the 26th of June. The contrast between Hasrat who passed away in Lahore in his prime in undeserved obscurity and Yusufi who led a full and accomplished life, being rather extravagantly defined as “the greatest Urdu writer after Ghalib”, could not be greater. Why this differential treatment? I would reiterate here what I noted in an earlier column: that I believe the Urdu language and literature have enough capacity to generously accommodate both masters of the humorous craft.

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic, and award-winning translator and dramatic reader, currently teaching in Lahore. He is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore. His most recent work is an introduction to the reissued edition (HarperCollins India, 2016) of Abdullah Hussein’s classic novel The Weary Generations. He can be reached at:

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached via email: and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979