When I first met Ameena Saiyid, then Managing Director of OUP (Pakistan) at a literature festival in India many years ago, she said to me: “Aap Karachi Literature Festival mein zaroor aaiye. Asif Farrukhi aap se mil kar bohot khush honge. (Do come to the Karachi Literature Festival. Asif Farrukhi will be very pleased to meet you.)”

I hardly knew, then, who Asif Farrukhi was, and thought that the casual invite was just Ameena’s way of saying: “you speak decent Urdu” (while referring to him, she had vaguely said something about Urdu tehzeeb). It turned out that Ameena was serious and, some months later, an email appeared in my inbox carrying an invitation to the Karachi Literature Festival. It was signed by the Festival co-founders, Ameena Saiyid and Asif Farrukhi. My half-decent Urdu had earned me an invite to one of the biggest literature festivals of the world!

When I met him on the first day of the Festival, Asif saheb, as he was affectionately called by his friends, seemed as amused to see me as I was to see him. I had, by then, made my preliminary enquiries from my sister in Karachi, Sania Saeed, who had testified to his grand literary stature. Slaves to our respective stereotypical assumptions, I had not expected an English-speaking middle-aged gentleman, a trained physician, in a suit – and he had probably expected an older person.

When I introduced myself, he said: “Achha aap hi hain jinki Ameena itni taareef karti hain (So you’re the one whom Ameena praises so much),” in a tone I then thought was a bit patronising. He did not pay more heed to me that day and I dismissed him as one of those many imperious men (and women) of letters who seem to have walked out of the tombs of literary grandiose.

Next day, at a plenary session of the Festival, I interviewed the celebrated Urdu poet Zehra Nigah. An hour or so later, as I was trying to make my way through the overcrowded lawns of Karachi’s Beach Luxury Hotel where the Festival was hosted, I heard a familiar voice call out to me: “Arre bhai, Saif saheb, kya khoob session kiya aapne Zehra apa ke saath! (What a wonderful session that was with Zehra apa).”

Asif saheb shook my hand and asked me to accompany him to the Authors’ Lounge. Thus began a camaraderie of exploration which soon turned into a friendship beyond the lush, and sometimes thorny, fields of literature. In the years that followed, Ameena and Asif invited me to every festival they organised in Pakistan, once prompting a renowned Urdu poet to comment that I was a “permanent fixture” at their festivals!

There was no one he hadn’t read

From the merit of latest Urdu writings, through bad translations, to interpretations of Urdu couplets, Asif saheb and I would frequently chat on a variety of things. He was a highly acclaimed writer and translator; I, a practising lawyer who had just ventured to dabble into Urdu literature, but not once did he make me aware of his exalted literary standing. Exceedingly generous in his approval of some of my works, he almost embarrassed me on a few occasions by publicly lauding them.

I soon realised how terribly wrong first impressions can be! Asif saheb became my “go to person” for everything that had to do with Urdu literature in Pakistan – a book I would be looking for, an author I would be wanting to get in touch with, or names of prospective invitees to literature festivals in India.

He was himself a voracious reader. I can’t think of any good Urdu or English writer he hadn’t read. He carried a whole library in his head. Before each of my visits to Pakistan, he would send me a list of books he wanted me to carry for him from India, and, before my return, he would hand me a bag full of books to be carried back for his friends. He made the man-made border seem so insignificant.

Once we had a long chat on Brij Narayan Chakbast’s oft-quoted sher:

Zindagi kya hai, anaasir mein zahoor-e-tarteeb 
maut kya hai, inhi ajza ka pareshaa’n hona

What is life – elements becoming ordered 
What is death – the same elements falling apart

As a trained physician, he agreed with Chakbast and believed that the poet had actually alluded to a scientific truth about the fragility of life. Few, he thought, had described life so matter-of-factly.

A man of pellucid language

There are certain words in Urdu for which there are no English equivalents; among them are khuloos and wazadaari – two words which are inextricably intertwined with the definition of sharaafat. The word khuloos has been translated by some as “genuineness” or “sincerity” and wazadaari as “etiquette”, but none of these translations convey the essence of the original, even remotely.

While khuloos, in addition to genuineness and sincerity is typified by an underlying element of lovingness and warmth, wazadaari entails a certain enduring attachment to one’s social values. Both are reflections on the essential character of a person and not merely attributes of culture. Asif saheb epitomised both.

He was so careful with his speech that sometimes people would find him a bit dull for public speaking. Little did they realise that his mildness was not a sign of his dullness but was actually innate to his sharaafat. He was a gentleman through and through.

Tracing his lineage on his father’s side from Awadh and on his mother’s side from Delhi, he would speak fine Urdu in delightful Lucknowi andaaz – pellucid language, mild punctuated manner of speech and a highly refined sense of humour which would produce an unmistakable twinkle in his eyes.

I had never heard Asif saheb speak ill of anyone, not even people who had openly been unfair to him. When Ameena parted ways with OUP (and, consequently, with the Karachi Literature Festival), he stood by her like a rock and co-founded the Adab Literature Festival with her. Despite a litigation-ridden parting, he maintained his friendships at OUP and never let bitterness take the better of him.

In 2019, he invited me to speak to his students at Habib University, where he was Professor of Language and Literature and a founding member of the academic staff. I was not a bit surprised to see how he treated his students like friends, at par with him, and egged them on to incessantly question him – something not common in our part of the world. They, in turn, adored him deeply.

“Nothing has happened to me”

A vociferous short story writer, Asif saheb also edited and compiled the works of many of the great contemporary Urdu authors. He was widely acclaimed both for his brilliant translations from English into Urdu as well as his newspaper columns in Urdu dailies. For years he edited Duniyazad – one of the most reputed journals of contemporary Urdu literature. He took Urdu literary journalism to another level.

Asif saheb could not stay idle. If he was not reading, he was writing. Last year, because of personal reasons, he had to relocate to another house in a new neighbourhood in Karachi. His heart and mind did not take kindly to this “disorder” of the hitherto “ordered” elements of life but he continued to find solace in literature.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, he started a very interesting video blog – Taalabandi ka Roznaamcha (Daily Diary of the Lockdown) in which, almost every evening, he would read a 10-minute account of his day written in his distinctive style.

He posted his last reading on 21 May. It is titled Aspataal se adaalat tak – a biting satire on the decision of the Pakistan Supreme Court to do away with the lockdown. With his characteristic gentleness, he berates the mulla for claiming that the virus will not affect the faithful namazis and ends his narration with these words:

“‘Mujhe kuchh nahin hua’, mai’n apne aap ko baawar karaata hoon. Mere honth hilte hain aur dohraate hain: ‘khuda ko haazir o naazir jaan kar kehta hoon, jo kuchh kahoonga sach kahoonga, sach ke siwa kuchh nahin kahoonga. So, meri madad kar, ae mere khudavand, meri madad kar’”

“‘Nothing has happened to me’, I tell myself. My lips move and I repeat, ‘I swear in the name of god that whatever I state shall be the truth, and nothing but the truth. So, help me god.’”

Devastating and unexpected

Ten days after taking this YouTube oath, Asif saheb complained of stomach ache and died on his way to the hospital. He was 60. The devastating news came to me from our common friend in Karachi, the fiction-writer Sameena Nazir, while I was discussing with Jashn-e-Rekhta the possibility of a virtual session with him.

For a few seconds I thought she was referring to a character in one of her stories who I had, perhaps, missed but soon she clarified who she was talking about. In utter disbelief, I was transported back to our discussion on Chakbast’s sher, of which I otherwise had no memory till then. I suddenly remembered how Asif saheb had vehemently agreed with the poet on how fragile life was. He was so right – elements had now fallen apart and life had turned into death.

It was at our annual mehfil at Sameena’s house in 2019 that, while talking about our favourite renditions of Urdu poetry, both Asif Saheb and I had sworn allegiance to Nasir Kazmi’s well-known ghazal, sung by Zehra Nigah:

Gaye dinon ka suraagh le kar, kidhar se aaya, kidhar gaya vo
ajeeb maanoos ajnabi tha, mujhe tou hairaan kar gaya vo

Vo hijr ki raat ka sitaara, vo hum-nafas hum-sukhan hamaara
sada rahe us ka naam payara, suna hai kal raat mar gaya vo

I couldn’t then imagine, even in the wildest of my dreams, that I would have to quote these verses for Asif saheb, and in less than a year.

PS: Asif saheb’s death has not yet sunk in. Somewhere in my heart, I have a lingering feeling that when I post this obituary on social media, he will comment on it – Bhai, Saif Saheb, kya khoob piece likha hai aap ne Asif bhai par!