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LITERARY NOTES: Musings on history, culture and literature: Mukhtar Masood’s swansong

LITERARY NOTES: Musings on history, culture and literature: Mukhtar Masood’s swansong

POURING scorn on the vice chancellor of an Indian university, Mukhtar Masood in his last book Harf-i-shauq, published posthumously, has quoted from an editorial of Inqelab, an Urdu newspaper published from Mumbai, India.

The editorial described a meeting between the then vice chancellor of Mumbai University and the students of Aligarh University. The students had gone to see the vice chancellor to ask for his cooperation in organising Sir Syed Day. But the vice chancellor “very innocently asked who Sir Syed was”. Not to mention that Mumbai (then Bombay) University is one of the oldest universities of the subcontinent.

Narrating another incident that took place in a hotel at Islamabad, Mukhtar Masood seems exasperated. It was an event organised to pay homage to Sir Syed and the programme went along very well, that is, until the end when a “handsome” and “westernised” young man asked the director of Historical and Cultural Institute: “Sir, are the works of the old man available in the market?” The real tragedy was that the young man was a direct descendent of “Sir Ross Masood, Sir Syed’s grandson”.

Yet in another episode, Mukhtar Masood recounts to readers how ignorant our new generation is of the historic role Sir Syed played as nation’s saviour and what a student of Lahore’s F.C. College said to his professor of history. The student said that there were only 343 students enrolled at Aligarh College at the time of Sir Syed’s death and out of them 53 were non-Muslims. So there were hardly 300 Muslim students. He asked what difference could those 300 Muslim students have made to change the “desolate Muslim subcontinent” into a “thriving garden of prosperity”. The professor replied that “the difference without those 300 students would have been that you instead of coming to this institute in your car to gain knowledge would have been cutting grass in this institute’s thriving lawn”. The professor then went on to describe how Sir Syed once had surveyed the grass-cutters of village Tughlaqabad. It was revealed that almost all of them were the descendants of Sultan Muhammad A’adil Tughlaq Shah, the ruler of India. They were princes but were cutting grass to earn a pittance. You, said the professor, are not even a prince and would be doing even a nastier job had Aligarh not been established. Sir Syed had not established a mere college. It was the foundation of a history-making movement.

Mukhtar Masood was a true Aligarian and in this last book of his has devoted a major portion to describe Aligarh, its history, its traditions, Sir Syed’s life, his services and his writings.

Mukhtar Masood was born in Sialkot on Dec 15, 1926, but he spent his childhood in Aligarh and was educated there as his father Shaikh Ataullah was a professor of economics at Aligarh. Ever since then, Aligarh remained a part of Mukhtar Masood’s mind and soul.

The book has four sections. In the first section Mukhtar Masood has narrated -- in his usual stylish prose -- his days at Aligarh as student, from school to being awarded a Master’s degree in 1948. He has visualised, with the help of historical accounts, of course, how the foundation stone of Aligarh College was laid and what hardships Sir Syed had to go through. The account also includes some glimpses of luminaries from Aligarh, visiting dignitaries and events of Pakistan Movement. The book narrates a very interesting history of Aligarh’s famous Strachey Hall, too, named after Sir John Strachey, who helped Sir Syed acquire the piece of land to build the college on.

The second section tells who Sir Syed was and is written, perhaps, in reply to the question raised by Mumbai University’s the then vice chancellor. The third one is a diverse collection of memoirs, sketch-like accounts of personalities, nostalgic introspection of events witnessed during the long years in civil service, critical evaluation of Urdu prose (and condemnation of Fort William College with an utter dislike for the Urdu prose written by its authors), musings on historical events, reflections on our political culture and semi-philosophical ruminations about life and how to spend it. The last section is a long letter to a friend who had written a brief letter to the author.

The book is an absorbing read, though at times it drags and the reader feels that Mukhtar Masood’s swansong is not quite a match for his earlier melodies.

In the preface, Mukhtar Masood has lamented that Taufeeq Ahmed Khan, the reader for whom he had written this book, was no more. But then, he says, many of his beloved readers left this world before reading his other books and the list includes Ghulam Rasool Mehr, Rasheed Ahmed Siddiqi, Waqar Azeem, Mulla Wahidi, Muhammad Tufail, Abul Fazl Siddiqi, Jameela Hashmi and Ibn-i-Hasan Burny. It is such patches that betray a deep sense of superiority, the hallmark of our bureaucracy.

Mukhtar Masood could not see his last book in published form and died on April 15, 2017. The book was first published in September 2017 and, as the booksellers’ jargon goes, ‘flew off the bookshops’. The second edition followed a month later. But then it has always been so: the entire edition of Mukhtar Masood’s books would fly off the market within a fortnight of their publication.

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Published in Dawn, November 20th, 2017

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