Shafeeq-ur-Rahman: the inimitable humorist

By Rauf Parekh
Tuesday, 24 Mar, 2009 (Dawn)

Despite having not written for such a long time, Shafeeq-ur-Rahman did not fade out and new editions of his books were published every few years. –File Photo

Despite having not written for such a long time, Shafeeq-ur-Rahman did not fade out and new editions of his books were published every few years. –File Photo

Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi, one of the most celebrated humorists of the Urdu language, said in an interview early in his literary career that he had decided to quit writing humour. Reason? He thought it was useless to write humour if one could not write it the way Shafeeq-ur-Rahman did. (Though, luckily enough, Yousufi Sahib later decided that he could write humour the way he himself did.)

Such was the influence of Shafeeq-ur-Rahman, a humorist who ruled the world of Urdu humour for about 60 years, and is still doing so.

Shafeeq-ur-Rahman began writing and established himself in the pre-independence era like his contemporaries, such as Ibrahim Jalees, K.L. Kapoor, Krishan Chandr, Shaukat Thanvi and Rasheed Ahmed Siddiqi.

His first book ‘Kirnen’ (1942) was a collection of quasi-romantic and quasi-humorous short stories. His early stories did not show any signs of a great humorist. But in his second book, ‘Shagoofe’ (1943), romanticism gave way to humour and it was his later books, ‘Lehren’ (1944) and ‘Parwaz’ (1945), which established him as a pure humorist. ‘Himaqaten’ (1947) and ‘Mazeed Himaqaten’ (1948) earned him more accolades but the flow of his books shrank to a trickle of articles and then for almost 25 years he wrote nothing.

Zameer Jafri, in one of his columns titled ‘Kuchh na likhne ki silver jubilee’, ‘commemorated’ in his peculiar style Shafeeq’s literary hibernation.

Some believe that for writers it is a must to keep on writing or run the risk of being forgotten and that the adage ‘publish or perish’ is not true of publishers alone, but of writers as well. (In my personal opinion, most of the writers of our times ‘publish and perish’.)

Strangely enough, despite having not written for such a long time, Shafeeq-ur-Rahman did not fade out and new editions of his books were published every few years. The copies of his books that I preserve like a treasure were published mostly in the early 1970s.

So, what are the factors that have kept him very much ‘in’ for such a long time? First, his humour has such a vigour and freshness that it has not wilted even today. Some of his essays in his early books are timeless. His wit and repartee put him way ahead of some of his contemporaries who, for example Shaukat Thanvi, depended more on playfulness or situational comedy.

Azeem Baig Chughtai (though hardly his contemporary, as he died in 1941), like Shaukat Thanvi, relished pranks and his humour consists largely of cheery boisterousness.

Though Shafeeq Sahib’s humour is not shy of practical jokes, he uses it sparingly and his playfulness stops just in time to save the humour from becoming tragedy, which sometimes is the case with Chughtai.Secondly, Shafeeq is the master of parody.

Hardly any humorist in Urdu can match his satire and bubbling wit when it comes to parodies. His five parodies — ‘Qissa-i-chahaar dervesh’, ‘Qissa-i-Hatim Tai bai tasweer’, ‘Qissa Professor Ali Baba ka’, ‘Tuzk-i-Nadri urf Siyahat nama-i-Hind’ and ‘Safar nama Jahazbad Sindhi ka’ — are fine satires on our history and culture.

For instance, in his ‘Tuzk-i-Nadri’, probably the most successful of all parodies in Urdu, he not only mocks the kings and their ‘tuzks’ (memoirs), but our political system is also his target when he writes (in the words of Nadir Shah) that: ‘In those days Delhi was in the grip of election fever. Ulloo Shanaas submitted that I had become so popular in Delhi that I could win election from any constituency, no matter on whose ticket I contest it…Out of my seven opponents, two withdrew when they were presented with large amounts of cash, the third was coerced into withdrawal, the fourth had to be made an ambassador to a country, two turned out to be a bit too obstinate and one of them had to be beaten black and blue and the other died in mysterious circumstances. When polling began, the entire population of the city was invited for a feast and presented with money and valuables. And if there happened to be any impudent voter who did not admit to my popularity, he was made to accept it with the help of a stick.’ (Mazeed himaqaten, p37).

Another factor that contributed a lot to Shafeeq Sahib’s public acclaim was his popularity among the adolescent. The main character in most of his humorous short stories is a young and witty college boy who is fond of cricket and movies.

Also, Shafeeq often portrays infatuations. This gives the youth a vicarious feeling. And his characters appear kind of flirtatious, too. His most famous character, Rufi alias Shaitaan, once quips: ‘Sonny! Don’t be sulky if you miss a bus or a girl, another one will be just round the corner.’ (Himaqaten, p121).

Then he often philosophises about joys and sorrows, sweeping the young readers with the bouts of optimism and pessimism, giving semi-philosophical, semi-romantic explanations to the queries that haunt the youth.

In addition, his many essays are nothing but a collection of jokes and the essay itself is only the thread that binds them together. His characters, novel and funny, such as Rufi or Shaitaan, Maqsood Ghora, Hukoomat Aapa and Buddy, make reading joyful.

All this put together is enough to hook young readers. I don’t know exactly which way the wind is blowing these days, but in my late teens and early twenties, I had read each and every book by Shafeeq-ur-Rahman many times over.
Shafeeq-ur-Rahman was born on Nov 9, 1920, in a small town near Rohtak. He was educated at Bahawalpur, as described by Muhammad Khalid Akhter, Shafeeq’s classmate at Sadiq Dean High School and a humorist in his own right.

Shafeeq-ur-Rahman did his MBBS in 1942 from Lahore’s King Edward Medical College. Having joined the Indian Medical Service as a lieutenant, Shafeeq-ur-Rahman was posted, according to Khalid Akhter, at different war fronts during the Second World War.

He then joined Edinburgh University and London University to further his education. It certainly broadened his perspective. But both Shafeeq-ur-Rahman and Khalid Akhter were already immersed in English literature and it had definitely influenced their writings.

On Shafeeq’s style one can trace the influence of western humorists such as Stephen Leacock and Mark Twain, but he is among those writers of Urdu who are well-grounded in their own literature and culture and have a peculiar style of their own.

After independence, Shafeeq-ur-Rahman held high positions in the Pakistan Army and Navy and in December 1980 was made chairman of the Pakistan Academy of Letters, a post he held till December 1986. His other books include ‘Madd-o-jazar’ (1946), ‘Pachhtawe’ (1948), ‘Dajla’ (1980) and ‘Dareeche’ (1989).

The irreplaceable and inimitable Shafeeq-ur-Rahman died in Rawalpindi on March 19, 2000.


The Legend That Was Shafiq-ur-Rehman

By Dr. Zeba Hasan Hafeez

Dr Shafiq-ur-Rehman was one of our most illustrious writers of extraordinary humor. Like P.G. Woodhouse he has given enduring pleasure to his readers. The similarity between him and Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi, is also striking. Both did justice to their careers, the former serving in the armed forces and the latter in the banking sector, and also reached the heights of literary excellence.

Early in his career as a writer, Shafiq-ur-Rehman became a household name. I recall the words of Akhtar Mahmud Faruqui, a former assistant editor of Dawn: “My dear father had wanted me to become an engineer but I used to spend most of my time reading Shafiq-ur-Rehman and learning his afsanas by heart. That was also true of my cousins and college friends. Even ahmaq in Maddojazar fascinated us and we readily identified ourselves with the character. I was entranced by his writings when I was 15. I found his afsanas equally absorbing forty years later. Perhaps more. Pachtawaey sounded so familiar. So did Himaqataen. ‘Shaffoo bhai’ (Kirnaey or Shagoofae?) was, of course, my ideal, my hero.”

Dr Shafiq-ur-Rehman began writing humorous stories during his school days. His stories were published in a literary monthly magazine called Khayyam. Kirneyn was completed before he joined the medical college and was published in 1938 while he was still a medical student. It was followed by Shagoofay , Lehrain, Maddojazar, Parvaaz, Himaqatain, Mazeed Himaqatain, Dajla (a travalogue), Insaani Tamasha (a translation of “a human comedy”) and lastly Dareechay. His unforgettable characters include Razia, Shaitaan, Hukoomat Aapa, Maqsood Ghora, Buddy, Nannha and others. His work added a new dimension to humor in Urdu literature. He created a world for us that was very real with all its joys, pains and anguish. It was an affirmation of life and of human values: empathy, compassion and respect. Even the seemingly frivolous and trivial situations had hidden meanings that probed deep into the human psyche. His language was simple, spontaneous and expressive.

After passing his MBBS in 1942, Dr Shafiq-ur-Rehman joined the Indian Army Medical Corps. He completed his post-graduation in tropical medicine and public health from Edinburgh, in 1952.

As his niece, I had the rare pleasure and privilege of being close to him. He was always my hero. I found everything about him extraordinary: his literary genius, his conversation, his stature, his handsomeness, his handwriting… I don’t think, I have seen anyone more becoming in an army or naval uniform. We all called him uncle. There was an ancient timepiece on the sideboard in the dining room which he only was able to adjust. When I met my aunt recently, she sadly said that no one manipulated it now. They had many common interests and a great companionship. Dr Shafiq-ur-Rehman was a friend of her brother, Shaukat Hasan. They were classmates at King Edward Medical College, which was the beginning of a life-long friendship. In Barsaati, the “friend” accompanying the author in Spain, is him. Lieutenant General Shaukat Hasan has served as consultant surgeon to the Pakistan armed forces for about twenty years.

Dr Shafiq-ur-Rehman had many nieces and nephews. He had committed to memory some act or conversation of each child in the family. Whenever he met me after an interval, he would say that years ago, I had asked him to wear a suit for an occasion and he had found my suggestion so appropriate that he had quickly gone in and changed. I always felt important when he mentioned this incident. Our families had the opportunity to spend a lot of quality time together in Karachi, from 1972 to 1975 when he was posted as Director Medical Services, Navy with the rank of commodore and later as rear admiral. When he reverted to the army, he became Major General. My aunt took a long leave from her post as professor of English at the Government College, Rawalpindi to join him. He adored his sons and spent a great deal of time with them, playing cricket, swimming and engaging in other activities. Dr Shafiq-ur-Rehman was very much of an outdoor person. He was tall, athletic and slim; strenuous exercise being a daily ritual for him. Every Sunday, he would wear his hat and go for a long walk to the bazaar of used books. He returned with an interesting assortment and gave each one of us a book to read .

Whenever we went to Dr Shafiq-ur-Rehman’s house, we knew that depending upon the time, he would either be at work, outdoors for his daily exercise or in his study. If it was one of the meal times, we would have the memorable opportunity of being in his company. I always felt honored to sit at the dining table with him. He spoke most of the time and we listened, mesmerized. He had an amazing memory and his conversation would mostly be about books, poetry and jokes. His jokes were endless and he never repeated a single one. He had a special way of telling a joke which threw us all into fits of laughter while he sat with a straight face. Later, I found out that most people who had met him shared this impression. It was an unwritten law in their house that meal times were a reunion of the family and that anything unpleasant, including illness, was not to be discussed.

Every time I visited the family in Rawalpindi, my aunt and I took turns in reading out passages from his books. She told me the background of many situations too. I always made it a point to go through all their old picture albums. Dr Shafiq-ur-Rehman was very fond of photography. Each photograph seemed to have a historical perspective to it. My aunt had a story to tell about each one. They seemed to open a gateway to a dreamland of romanticism, youth; a glimpse into life, as he had lived it and as it had inspired him. His room was quite bare. He was an extraordinarily simple and private person. I sometimes caught a glimpse of him while he worked. There was a newspaper stand in his room where he stood for hours, barefoot, reading. He even wrote while standing. His library comprised thousands of books. These were all stacked neatly in steel trunks which were kept locked. He seemed to have a working catalogue in his mind and knew where each book was placed, even the pile and row down to the last detail.

Dr Shafiq-ur-Rehman had given me an autographed set of his books. Somehow Mazeed Himaqatain was missing from this collection. When I went to Rawalpindi after his passing away, I requested my aunt to autograph it for me. She wrote,

Barey shauq saye suun raha tha zamana

Hameey soo gayae dastaan sunaatey sunaatey.

I have tried to translate a few lines from Barsaati that have always moved me. “Alhamra seems like the home of fairies. Every pillar, arch, wall and their beautiful engravings, every inch seems magical. In this solitude, the only sign of life seems to emerge from the sound of these fountains. These springs have never been silent. They have been flowing since the era of the Arabs. The limitedness of human life, the vicissitudes of time, philosophy, creation and destruction; all seem to have become absorbed into the sound of these fountains.”

After retiring from the army, General Shafiq-ur-Rehman, served as Chairman of the Academy of Letters from 1980 to 1985. During his tenure, the Academy of Letters acquired a new dimension as a prominent literary institution of Pakistan. He continued to write till his end in March 2000. He was the only Major General to be awarded the Hilal e Imtiaz for his military and civilian services. He was bestowed the latter honor after his death and his son, Atiq-ur-Rehman, received it on his behalf on 23 March, 2001.
Dr Shafiq-ur-Rehamn is a legend in Urdu literature and lives on in our hearts. His books have been appreciated and read so widely that had he belonged to any other country, he would have been a millionaire. However, he never asked for any royalties and never made any kind of monetary agreement with his publishers. His lifestyle was always simple. On an occasion, a thief tried to break into their house and in the process damaged a door whose repair caused the family considerable inconvenience. I recall uncle saying that a sign should be posted outside for thieves, “The door is open, you don’t have to break it.”


An excerpt from Shafiq-ur-Rehman’s ‘lehreN’
Owais Mughal

Following ‘azad’ poem is by one of my favourite writers, Shafiq-ur-Rehman and it comes from his book ‘lehreN’. The poem is actually a satire on modern day poets who write ‘azad’ Urdu poem by using all the ‘azadi’ they can get. The poem describes a situation of fighting cats in a garden. I hope it brings a smile to you just like it has been bringing smiles to me for the past 20 years.

Here is my attempt at an approximate translation for our English readers:

Cats are fighting
Oh Cats
May be cats are fighting in garden now
There is the haze of dusk
It is time to rest
to work
get rewarded
And cats are fighting
May be they are 4 in number
or may be 3
But this little doubt has made house in my heart
that the cats are 5 in number
and definitely they cannot be 6
and the night is glowing in moonlight
and the moon is shining bright
and the moonlight is ubiquitous
and this moonlight will only last for a little while
and then there is a pitch dark night ahead
What was i saying?
Aah, it just slipped out of my mind
What happened to my memory?
Only God can fix it
Oh Yes, I just remembered!
the cats are fighting
Cats are probably finghting in the garden now!

Photo Credits:


List of his books

  • Kirnein (Rays of Light)
  • Shagoofey
  • Lehrein (Waves)
  • Maddojazar (Ebb and Flow)
  • Parvaaz (Flight)
  • Himaqatain
  • Mazeed Himaqatain
  • Dajla (a travalogue)
  • Insaani Tamasha (a translation of “a human comedy”)
  • Dareechay
  • Pachtaway (Regrets)



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