Believing the unbelievable

 

 

Khalid Hasan
 
 

 

utside of publishing circles few people would know – or for that matter care – that the one book which sells consistently, edition after edition, and has done so since its publication nearly twenty years ago is Qudratullah Shahab’s Shahabnama.

The question to ask is why? Does it sell because of the many stories it contains? There are some revolving around haunted houses (“The restless spirit of Bimla Kumari”); there is an account of the plague in Jammu; the tale of the young Shahab’s encounter with India’s greatest Vedantic philosopher, Dr Radhakrishnan, which the future president of India loses hands down; and stories of the paralysed Ghulam Muhammad ruling Pakistan through sign language and gibberish that only Shahab and the governor general’s memsahib secretary could decipher. Or is the books success because of Shahab’s strange mystical encounters with a spirit codenamed Ninety? I would vote for the latter explanation. In Shahab’s book, the line between fact and fanciful fiction is thin and, more often than not, nonexistent. He could be said to have invented a new genre in Urdu literature that one can best describe as fictionalised fact.

Since his death and that of his acolyte Mumtaz Mufti, many have wondered if the stories they both told about each other were a big put on or if they had any basis in fact. In Pakistan, superstition has been rising over the years, a phenomenon always associated with insecurity and lack of confidence in the living environment. Uncertainty, no one will disagree, has been the only certainty since the break-up of 1971. What other than superstition can one expect in a country where fifty-six years after its establishment, a debate is still going on as to why it came into being. The history of the Indian Muslim urge to be free of economic exploitation and the tyranny of the majority has been entirely rewritten. Were the Quaid-e-Azam to return to life, I doubt he would recognise today’s Pakistan as the country he created. Shahab and Mufti’s “shortcut to nirvana” is popular because, if the stories that the two men have spun are true, then anyone can get to the promised land without much work. Just a few trick mantras or a being called Ninety or Ninety-nine would do the necessary. A lifetime of prayer and contemplation is too long and too arduous. Everyone can now become a saint in his spare time.

Over ten years ago Ajmal Kamal, who runs an admirable magazine and literary publishing house in Karachi, wrote a review article based on the second volume of Mumtaz Mufti’s autobiography Alakh Nagri. He pointed out that the picture on the cover was not the author’s but Shahab’s, which according to Mufti was “in the fitness of things”. His preface said that in the first half of his life, he discovered Woman and in the second half Qudratullah Shahab.

Despite the charm and likeability of Shahab, it is not easy to forget or condone that he authored the infamous editorial “A new leaf” when the Progressive Papers, the flagship of progressivism in Pakistan, were taken over by Field Marshal Ayub Khan, or that he founded the Pakistan Writers’ Guild and even the National Press Trust. Mufti was not concerned with that sort of thing because he believed that it was Shahab who was responsible for some of Pakistan’s seminal events. He caused the capital chosen by the Quaid to be abandoned in favour of the garrison town of Rawalpindi-Islamabad. He had Pakistan renamed an Islamic Republic. He also explained the true concept of Iqbal’s “ khudi” to the field marshal and later helped formulate the 1962 constitution that fell into disuse when its author was pushed out of power by his army chief. Ayub was under the constant spiritual care of spirits and guides, wrote Mufti (whereas they should have attended to the spiritual needs of Yahya Khan).

Guided by the mysterious Ninety, Shahab had gone to Israel, Mufti wrote, as a UNESCO representative to look at Israeli school textbooks, but his actual purpose was to spend a night at the Al Aqsa mosque which he did by giving Israeli security the slip. He had to go to Al Aqsa, according to Mufti, to activate a metaphysical process which would reach fruition with the total destruction of the Zionist entity. One wonders why Yasir Arafat has not retired to the French Riviera since his mission has already been accomplished through the works of Shahab.

Mufti wasn’t alone in promoting what came to be known among the wags of Lahore as Silsala-e-Shahabia. Mufti wrote that Pakistan’s establishment was decided at a meeting of higher beings presided over by Sarkar Qibla, a divine buried near Islamabad. The killing of hundreds of thousands of Muslims was ordered by these otherworldly powers so that they could enter heaven as martyrs and become a spiritual army to guard the border at Wahga (while not forgetting Pakistan’s soft underbelly in the Rajasthan area, one hopes). Pakistan, Mufti disclosed, was being run in accordance with a Master Plan prepared by Sarkar Qibla. Mufti reproduced a letter from one Abdul Ghafoor, advocate, which said that the 1965 war was fought under the command of dervishes wielding “spiritual atomic power”.

Mufti wrote that certain spiritual presences ordered him to move to Rawalpindi and work under Shahab. Once there, he found himself the owner of a plot in Islamabad on which he built a house with money pouring in from mysterious sources. Another member of the Mufti family, the journalist and erstwhile filmmaker Ahmed Bashir had a vision that he had been sent to earth to make movies (all his movies crashed which only shows that angels know next to nothing about the film business). He made Neela parbat which ran for either three or four days (I saw it; it was a scream). Other believers in the Silsala also flourished and had their dreams come true. Mufti’s basic thesis was: nothing is what it appears to be.

In every good thriller, there is a chase scene. In this one, it occurred in Paris when a black limo stopped to offer a lift to Shahab. He should have declined the offer because once he got in, he placed himself at the mercy of a Zionist magician who turned him into a “stinking chunk of flesh” and sent him packing to Pakistan where he arrived as “half a man”.

Well, both Shahab and Mufti are gone and may they rest in peace. My explanation for all this is simple: Qudratullah Shahab had a puckish sense of humour. Mumtaz Mufti just got taken in.

 (Friday Times)

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