Humour in Urdu Travelogues

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Rauf Parekh

Ibn-e-Insha (1927-1978) is credited, and rightly so, for having introduced humour to Urdu travelogues. Before him, Urdu travel accounts were serious, in some cases even melancholy, pieces of writing that could hardly proffer anything in a lighter vein as the writers were more concerned about depicting the historical facts and “moral ills” of the nations they visited than enjoying their journeys.

Nazar Nama, a travel account written by Mahmood Nizami and published in 1958, was probably the first Urdu travelogue that did not read like the report of a ‘fact-finding mission’ and let the readers of Urdu travelogues peep into the inner world of the writer where many storms were raging. Mahmood Nizami steered Urdu travel writing from extroversion to introversion and opened up the door for other writers, such as Ibn-e-Insha, to write in a less formal tone and draw joy from what they observed. Ibn-e-Insha and some of his contemporaries successfully used their gift of repartee and wit to pepper their travel accounts. Among Ibn-e-Insha’s contemporaries, first-time writer Begum Akhter Riazuddin especially made the critics take her seriously when her first travel account Saat Samander Paar appeared. Her other travelogue Dhanak par Qadam, established her as a travel writer who could see through the shiny surface and pinpoint the not-so-serious matters in an otherwise serious-looking world. Colonel Muhammad Khan’s travel account Basalamat Ravi is another example of describing foreign lands with a typical point of view of a humorist that discovers funny aspects even in serious matters.

Bill Bryson is an American writer whose humorous travel accounts remind one of both Ibn-e-Insha and Ata-ul-Haq Qasmi. It is not saying that Bryson copies Urdu travelogue writers but, surprisingly, just like Ibn-e-Insha, Bryson complains of just about every hotel he stays in and every washroom he has been to. Similarly, just like Ata-ul-Haq Qasmi, Bryson at times puts his troubles in such a hilarious way that even the most serious readers find themselves struggling not to laugh. For example, Bryson’s humour is at its peak when he is robbed of his traveller’s cheques in Florence by gypsies and has to report it to the police and get a duplicate issued at an office where nobody seems interested in work. The whole episode must have been very frustrating but the way Bryson narrates it is exactly what one expects of a top-notch humorist: smile at the trouble and make yourself laugh while recounting it. One feels what make these writera—Bill Bryson, Ata-ul-Haq Qasmi, Ibn-e-Insha and Colonel Muhammad Khan—to see the inconveniences in a different perspective and report them in a lighter vein is the fact that they are humorists first and then travelogue writers. Humour is in their bones and it spills over at odd moments, too. And that is exactly the material a natural humorist is made of.

Ata-ul-Haq Qasmi, a not-so-distant contemporary of Ibn-e-Insha, is a humorist first and then a columnist or travel writer. He is a natural humorist. He does not have to think of a preparatory statement to make the reader laugh. He just puts pen to paper and humour begins to flow. Aside from his humour columns that have appeared in many volumes, another manifestation of his bubbling wit is his travel accounts that not only make good reading but offer food for thought, too.

The difference between Bill Bryson and Ata-ul-Qasmi is that Bill Bryson sometimes gets informal to the point of being irreverently rebellious, both in his diction and views. Qasmi stops just short of it, though when it comes to the fair sex, he sounds as lecherous as Bryson. The only difference is that Bryson admits it openly and Qasmi half-heartedly tries to hide it behind a witty remark or an allusion from classical Urdu poetry. While Bryson pokes fun at his fellow American tourists and does not care much about traditions and morals, Qasmi is a Pakistani to the core, wishing to create an admirable society when he sees one abroad. Qasmi is a critic of culture and moral values, too. Despite all his leanings for modernity and certain traits of western society, he is an upholder of eastern values. It is perhaps parental influence that stops him from drifting too much into a territory that is too far away from religion and moral philosophies. Another characteristic that sets Qasmi apart is his language. His a diction that is not for the one who is not familiar with Urdu’s literary diction, though he does not refrain from using slangy or informal expressions, just like Bryson.

Ata-ul-Haq Qasmi’s first travel account, titled Shauq-e-Aavargi, was serialised in Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi’s journal ‘Funoon’ and it shot him to fame. It was in the early 1970s and in those days, he had just begun his journalistic career. His first travelogue was one of his earliest literary pieces and, as Ata-ul-Haq Qasmi has put it, had it not been for Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi’s guidance and encouragement, it would not have been possible. His other travelogues include Dunya Khoobsoorat Hai, Goron ke Des Mein, and Dilli Door Ast.

Now the National Book Foundation (NBF) has published these four travel accounts of Ata-ul-Haq Qasmi in one volume and it has been named Safarname. The foundation has been striving to promote book culture in Pakistan ever since its inception in 1972. In fact, the NBF is Pakistan’s largest publisher and has published thousands of titles. It has established book clubs, mobile bookshops, bookshops at airports and railway stations. It has also arranged book-reading sessions and book fairs.

A hallmark of NBF books is they are moderately priced and the NBF offers hefty discounts to students and common readers, too. Prof Dr Inam-ul-Haq Javed, the MD of NBF, was in Karachi last week to attend the Karachi Arts Council’s Urdu conference. He informed this writer that the NBF had decided to establish a National Book Museum in Islamabad and it will treasure rare books and other items related to printing and reading.

NBF’s monthly Kitaab showcases its new books and its activities, keeping book-lovers abreast with the news of the world of the books. Though it is not quite a match for the internationally famous Publishers Weekly, one feels it is a boon for book-lovers. The NBF is indeed rendering commendable service to a society that is generally averse to books.

Rauf Parekh, “Literary notes: Humour in Urdu travelogues,” in Dawn, October 27, 2014. Accessed on February 22, 2015, at:

The item above written by Rauf Parekh and published in Dawn on October 27, 2014, is catalogued here in full by Faiz-e-Zabaan for non-profit educational purpose only. Faiz-e-Zabaan neither claims the ownership nor the authorship of this item. The link to the original source accessed on February 22, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

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