Remembering Nisar Aziz Butt (1927-2020) - II

Raza Naeem offers an overview of her literary accomplishments

Remembering Nisar Aziz Butt (1927-2020) - II
Indeed the preface to In Search of Days Past is worth quoting in full here – both as an introduction to her work for the uninitiated and as a means to understanding Butt’s writing craft:

“What are the dynamics of writing? I cannot narrate this with confidence. Definitely these must be different for every writer. In my case all I know is that in my mind, some events, conversations, scenes and influences remain present for a long time in such a clear and insistent manner that until I do not preserve them by shaping them into words one way or another, they remain dominant over the mind. So to free my mind of the trap of these influences, writing indeed became my compulsion. In this state of being, I wrote four novels. ‘Nagri Nagri Phira Musafir’, ‘Ne Chiraghe Ne Gule’, ‘Karvaan-e-Vujud’, ‘Darya Ke Sang’ and then thought that now this is enough. The type of limited life that I have spent, its experiences, observations, feelings must have come within the grasp of these novels but there was still an affliction in the heart; as if the work is still unfinished. Actually, the novel is a very strict genre. You cannot include such material within it, which has no relation with the warp and woof of the novel. In fact, as soon as the novelist begins writing the novel, he does not remain free. Before the eyes, the novel transforms into a living and stubborn animal; the characters begin to do as they please by becoming autonomous. Some mysterious internal logic takes the events too within its grasp and instead of the writer writing the novel, the novel begins to write the writer; and not only does it vomit all his secrets, but cuts and clips his experiences and observations such that whole lengths of cloth fall far off after being cut. In this situation a novelist sitting near this absurd heap begins to think with wistfulness and sorrow how to preserve all this, which has been rejected by the novels? And where to pour it in?

Perhaps this is the very reason that most novelists are compelled to write their autobiography at some stage of their life. Especially the writers of our generation who to date have been the witnesses to the most sensational and revolutionary period of human history, in that whenever some generation is the trustee of some important and explosive era, its writers try to preserve their era from their respective angles for future generations; or perhaps over and above future generations, they themselves are so spellbound by their own era that they are forced to pen it down.

Nisar Aziz Butt also wrote short stories but her analytical mind could not bear the burden of brevity

Our generation which was born in the second and third decade of the 20th century, was simultaneously very fortunate and very unfortunate. We were fortunate that many great events of history took place before us. Our childhood was spent during World War 2, when the world was swiftly shrinking and whatever important event happened on the world stage, became a part of our experience through the wireless. Then since India was still a part of the British empire, there was the colourfulness of three great cultures, meaning British culture, Hindu culture and civilization, and Islamic manner of thought and way of life. So the philosophy, way of life and civilization of Indians had become complex and diverse due to this mixture. We lived all of this directly. The long struggle for the freedom of India too became a part of our experience and we saw its zenith. We are also the witnesses to the greatest transfer of populations in history post-independence. On an international level, countless inventions, ever-increasing speed and scientific miracles of the 20th century too moved alongside us. The generation of our parents could not see the rise of the scientific revolution; they saw only its advent. The generation after us remained unacquainted with this tumultuous era overflowing with hopes, ideals and dreams which was available to us during the struggle for freedom. Our generation came of existence at the confluence of the 19th and 20th century. The manner of thinking of the 19th century was to a great extent a thing of the past after World War 1. But the 20th century bloomed with its particular identity only after World War 2. In this way, there was a sort of ideological vacuum between the two wars; our generation was born in this vacuum. The hope and Progressiveness of the 19th century had all but ended but the ideals were still present; and the infinity and relativity of the 20th century had not yet fully thrived. People, forgetting deep philosophy, were intoxicated by the speed of motor cars, buses and trains. They listened to gramophone records and remained spellbound with a child-like amazement by the voices coming over the radio and the airplanes flying in the air. These were relatively innocent days and our generation came of age in this innocent, relatively romantic atmosphere.

Therefore we were romantics, in fact still are. We feel the beauty of the world intensely. We love trees, flowers, rivers, deserts, seas, the moon and stars, rain, clouds, golden sunshine, planets, everything. We still believe in goodness and ideals. We easily get emotional, do not like violence. We become very sad with our and the human generation’s failures. We are often afflicted with sorrow and anger. We remain embarrassed about the tiniest of our defects and those of others. This is the very boundary of separation which prevents us from becoming the pure citizens of the 20th century and now the 21st century. The generation coming after us do not feel that hatred and aversion for violence which we feel. The heroes of our time used to be happy in every situation – noble, humane people who would not kill anybody even while being killed. The heroes of today are those who lay a city waste without winking an eye and are much more cruel than the villain. Therefore we are unfortunate that we remained neither here nor there. Thus cynicism has now entered our romanticism. Our beliefs are shaky. Our hopes have all been shaped into despair. Even our values have left us.

Whether you will be able to see all this in my story I do not know. When I was in college, I said to my principal Ms Thakur Das, “I have a complaint from Allah that He created me in the form of a helpless girl in the most backward province of the world.” So my narrative begins from this point of view in that my paternal grandfather had to go to Lahore far from his home to do Matriculation and my father left the world unsuccessful and unhappy due to being unable to come to terms with the style of action of the British. Whereas I had to make inestimable effort merely to get education; and afterwards my whole life passed in the study of the struggle between modernity and tradition in that the drama of the 20th century was taking place at some other stage, and we were helpless spectators of this drama or its victims.

And as Allama Iqbal had said,

‘Hum Mashriq ke miskeenon ka dil Maghrib men ja atka he

Vaan canter sab bilauri hen yahan aik purana matka he’

(The heart of us wretches of the East is stuck in the West

There the canters are all crystalline, here an old pitcher serves us best)   

So for this reason my story is the story of the old pitcher. We were mostly enchanted by and deprived of the fading dazzle of the crystalline canters.”


Another important aspect of In Search of Days Past is the detailed mention of Urdu writers – among whom Quratulain Hyder, Hijab Imtiaz Ali, Mumtaz Mufti, Qudratullah Shahab, Ada Jafri and Nurul Hasan Jafri, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, Hajra Masrur, Khadija Mastur, Mumtaz Shirin, Aziz Ahmad and many other greats are included. Through the autobiography, the literary atmosphere appears with all its brilliance.

Nisar Aziz Butt, featured in the Oct/Nov 1983 issue of Takhleeqi Adab - Image Courtesy - Rashid Ashraf

The samples of letters included in the autobiography are also an important source of interest and information for the reader. The memories of the last days of Hijab Imtiaz Ali and Mumtaz Shirin have been recorded in a very open-hearted and passionate manner. On can find mention of the external circumstances of a lot of writers at many places but Nisar Aziz Butt’s relation as a friend which comes forward in this autobiography is very helpful in understanding the personal and internal matters and complexities of many writers.

Nisar Aziz Butt’s English columns, which were published frequently in Dawn, were carried under the title of Prelude in book form. In these columns, the social, political and world situation has been presented in a very scholarly and analytical style. The individuality of these columns is Butt’s depth of knowledge, unbiased analytical perceptive power and her approach to the clash of civilizations and the contemporary sensibilities of Western and Eastern literatures.

Another of her notable books is Zambeel (Purse). The book has been divided into two parts. Part One consists of essays written about Quratulain Hyder; whereas in the second part impressions about various writers have been penned down. This book will serve not just the lay reader of literature, but also remains a basic source for researchers and critics of Urdu literature.
The canvas of her novels illustrates the political and social milieu of the 20th century

Nisar Aziz Butt also wrote short stories but her analytical mind could not bear the burden of brevity. The main reason was her presentation of events with a background and examining the internal and external attitudes of characters by joining them with psychology. That is why she indeed selected the plot of the novel in such a way that she could present the story through its minutiae.

Nisar Aziz Butt wove the warp and weft of the story by joining history and culture. The canvas of her novels illustrates the political and social milieu of the 20th century. But along with it, the contemporary sensibility of the novelist allows her to pick up the sound of the footsteps of the 21st century. Butt’s novels Nagri Nagri Phira Musafir, Ne Chiraghe Ne Gule and Karvaan-e-Vujud present within them the dirge of the making and breaking of time, but upon reaching Darya Ke Sang, the writer, deeming the current of time to be a natural act like the flow of the river, accepts its changes. She appears to be welcoming the bright future, seeing the 21st century as the century of the new human.

I regrettably never interacted with or met Nisar Aziz Butt over the course of her long life, but those who were fortunate to do so always described her as being good-natured, cooperative and possessing the dignity that comes with being descended from a family of rank. In addition, she was blessed with traditional Pashtun hospitality.

All her life, Nisar Aziz Butt kept moving on the Bridge of the Righteous the Pul-e-Sirat of fiction –  and one can say that in passing on into literary immortality, she has now finally crossed it.

Note: All the translations from the Urdu are the writer’s own.

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently based in Lahore, where he is also the President of the Progressive Writers Association. 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