Master of the craft of humour

Raza Naeem on the style and writings of the great poet, journalist and humourist Chiragh Hasan Hasrat

Master of the craft of humour
1955 was a cruel year for Urdu literature as three figures – Manto, Hasrat and Majaz – all passed away during that year, their lives tragically cut short by drinking. Yet while we continue to celebrate Manto and Majaz and even make biopics and films about their lives and times, Hasrat’s name barely registers on the hallowed sheet of literary memory.

Hasrat – who passed away 63 years ago last month on the 26th of June in Lahore – was a poet but one who was as miserly in reciting poetry as he was in hearing it. He possessed a uniquely personalised style of writing. He held a very clean and pure taste in humour and satire, but wrote his witty columns under the pen-names of ‘Columbus’ and ‘Sindbad Jahazi’; his graceful personality never permitted him to become his own trumpeter and beat the drums of his craft himself. He really liked to cloak his personality, make it a bit mysterious. Beauty which flashes from behind the veil carries great attraction.

Had Maulana Hasrat so wanted, he, like his contemporary journalists, could have become the owner of bungalows and cars, but there was little room for personal gain in the standard of journalism that he had established for himself. He rather preferred his ascetic grandeur. If he had his way, he would have remained forever unknown. But he was no misanthrope. He had a vast circle of friends and acquaintances. He used to know people of every class, personality and tribe; although he never sat on the edge.During the Second World War, he had joined a militarydepartment. Whoever Hasrat met, he met as an equal, retaining his manner. He was absolutely unaware of flattery and never indulged in it – whether of the city’s elite, or of a national minister. He worked his entire life but followed to the best of his capacity the traditions of a delicate temperament associated with Mir and Dard. If something proved unpleasant to his temperament, he would express it unhesitatingly, not caring for either rebuke or an empty pocket. A ready wit, and brave on top of it, the richest people would be amazed to hear him. The same retention of manner, delicate temperament and gaiety is present in his writings as well.

Hasrat wore a suit, tie and hat but his heart and mind remained far from Westernisation. His style of thought and manner of feeling was purely Eastern. He greatly loved his Eastern culture, its basic values, its colours and delicacies, its literature and art, its dance and songs. He was not against the good things of the West – he accepted and used them with great graciousness, but only to the extent where it did not dominate his Eastern character or hurt his Eastern personality. His intense love for the East is replete in his writings but it was no blind love. Hasrat was fully aware of Eastern culture. He knew not only to rack his brains to our music, but had great awareness about its secrets and mysteries, and was also very sad about the disappearance of these Eastern values.
His intense love for the East is replete in his writings but it was no blind love. Hasrat was fully aware of Eastern culture

Hasrat was not against new movements in literature, but in matters of poetry he was more convinced by the classics. He remembered the poetry of the ancient poets of Farsi and Urdu to a great extent, and in private gatherings it was the verses of the classics which he recited with fondness. Actually he was not very happy with younger poets and writers. He thought that neither are our youth familiar with subtleties of language, nor have they perused the books of prosody and description, or read the divans of ancient poets. He felt they lacked study and reflection, so how could they recite good verses or know anything about understanding poetry? Therefore his humourous essays are replete with attacks on the harmlessness of new writers and he makes fun of the literary sessions and mushairas of the present.

But this was not done in such a manner that it grieves the hearts of others or to create awe of his knowledge and wit. Actually the worth of a humourist is that he should pinch, not sting. A humourist must smarten his sentence, not curse. He should not describe the faults of others so as to glorify himself. Hasrat’s witty columns along with his descriptive style were popular due to this very style. This style was associated with his philosophy of life and character – he was a natural humanist. His temperament appeared free of evil or deceit, depravity or bad intention. He did not have a personal enmity with anybody. For this reason, many of those who he poked fun at would, in fact, join in the laughter.

Unlike the late veteran humourist Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi (pictured),
Chiragh Hasan Hasrat was not as widely acknowledged in his lifetime

If Maulana Hasrat was suspicious of less learned youth, he also did not have a high opinion of book-carriers who privilege the pride of knowledge over its attainment, and such ‘allamas’ were often the butt of his satire. Zarnikh arrives from Mars to tour the earth, Hasrat takes him to university.

“What amazed me the most was the building of this house of wisdom. The building is really vast but its face has neither the tenderness of affection, nor the light of love. Pride is dripping from its eyes and there are creases on the forehead. Upon seeing him, neither are the eyes pleased, nor the heart and mind are at rest, but yes, the heart is actually terrorised. For the people of Earth the image of knowledge is that it is a formidable thing on whose face traces of animosity along with conservatism and obsolescence are visible. So knowledge is not something to be loved, one should only be afraid.”

Zarnikh meets the intellectuals of this house of wisdom, the portrait of their character and manner is sketched by Hasrat’s pen in the following words:

“There is some great weight on the hearts of all these people, some mysterious sorrow is wasting them from within. Is it the burden of knowledge? Is it some grief? Then what is the meaning of such sadness and melancholy? Why are the lips of these people deprived of smiles?”

Chiragh Hasan Hasrat was a man of classic sensibilities

Maulana Hasrat’s lips were also deprived of smiles but not due to the arrogance of knowledge. Instead, it was because he had great difficulty in compromising and negotiating the demands of expedience – such was the state of helplessness of his temperament. It was not possible for him to continue to make do with people who guard the treasures of silvery and golden smiles like snakes.

But does this attractive personality have any position in our literature? Do his light, comic writings have enough life that future generations might read them avidly, be influenced by them or learn from them? These questions could only be answered by a literary astrologer. Only those worry about eternity who have no other care left in the world. We know only that today when there are such few joys in our life, if an artist gladdens sad hearts even for a moment, this is a huge service for literature and humanity. What Hasrat never did was to remove our attention from the bitter realities of life. To confront this bitterness with smiles was an art which few people except Hasrat knew.
It is the plain and simple things, the minor problems of this world, which Hasrat has narrated in very clear and chaste language - all the while having fun with wit and satire

Hasrat was no Plato or Dr. Johnson of his time, but how many people today read Plato and Johnson? His writings are neither weighed down by knowledge, nor do floods of mystic knowledge and enlightenment flow from them. It is the plain and simple things, the minor problems of this world, which Hasrat has narrated in very clear and chaste language, all the while having fun with wit and satire. There are delicate stories. And there are a few ghazals of Indian mythologies – again delicate, which can be hummed while sitting alone in a moonlit night.

We cannot say what future generations will learn from these things, but just as the eternity of life is an expression of its continuity, in the same manner the eternity of culture and its diverse manifestations is also an expression of their continuity. The first group of people who created the arrow and bow, or which invented the art of baking the earth is as immortal as the group which created the television, radio, airplane and internet of today. Life, culture, literature, poetry all continue to move forward. They reach a few hard places in their paths: terrible ravines, steaming deserts and wilderness - impassable routes. And blessed are those people who make this journey easier and offer the members of the caravan the courage to remain alive with their writings, speeches, laughs and smiles.

Gravestone of Chiragh Hasan Hasrat in Lahore

Even as I was working on this tribute to Chiragh Hasan Hasrat, another of his successors, the Urdu humourist Mushtaq Ahmad Yusufi, passed away in Karachi. The contrast between Hasrat who passed away 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 believe the Urdu language and its literature have enough capacity to generously accommodate both masters of the humorous craft.

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic, and an 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 (Harper Collins 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