(1915 – 1991) Born Syed Vali Ashraf, Ashraf Suboohi is recognised for his short stories, essays, sketches and poetry. The son of Syed Ali Ashrafullah, Suboohi lived in Delhi and later migrated to Lahore after the formation of Pakistan.
He received his education under the tutelage of his father and his uncle Maulvi Bashiruddin Ahmed Dehlvi who inspired his interest in writing. He later studied at the Anglo Arabic School in Delhi and his writing was inspired by his observations of the traditional culture of Jehanabad and its inhabitants.
Suboohi began his employment with the Postal Department in 1928 and worked there for thirty-six years. Unambitious in nature and a recluse at heart, he continued his way of life after migrating to Lahore. Upon retirement he worked for the Hamdard Factory in Lahore and was responsible for organising the Shaam e Hamdard. He spent the last few years of his life in Karachi.
Suboohi is remembered for his amiable personality and lived a simple life with no aspirations for success and fame. It was unfortunate that he did not receive any support for his work in Pakistan and he endeavoured to publish his works on his own expense. His younger brother Syed Vasi Ashraf owned the publishing house Maktaba e Ilm o Adab in India, which published his books. Additionally, his book Delhi ki Chund Ajeeb Hastiyaan was published by Anjuman e Taraqqi e Urdu (India). Bereft of this support in Pakistan, he turned to publishing the second edition of this book in Pakistan on his own initiative and suffered immense financial losses.
Suboohi’s writing career spanned approximately sixty years and his first published work was an introductory essay for Deevaan e Bashir in 1924. He pursued his interest in writing following the encouragement he received for this essay. In 1929 he initiated a literary journal in Delhi under the title Armughan, which was printed by his brother’s publishing house. The journal, which featured the writings of Delhi’s writers and poets, included works by Shaukat Thanvi, Kausar Chaandpuri, Shafiuddin Nayyer and Nasir Nazeer Firaq. During its short-lived but individualistic span the journal also published seminal essays by personalities such as Khwaja Hasan Nizami and Professor Mirza Mehmood Baig. Armughan proved to be Suboohi’s learning ground and while his style matured as a writer he also found opportunities to interact with the writers and poets of Shahjahanabad. When in 1930 Shahid Ahmed Dehlvi introduced the literary journal Saqi, Suboohi decided to abandon Armughan’s publication.
Suboohi’s style that reflected the colloquial language of Delhi and became his recognition is evident in his essay Khwaab tha jo kuch keh dekha, published in Saqi in 1931. The 1940s and 50s established him at the peak of his career and he wrote innumerable essays, stories for children and short stories. His well-known work Delhi ki Chund Ajeeb Hastiyaan (1943), and translations Bun Baasi Devi and Baghdaad ka Johari amongst others were published during this time period along with a collection of sketches and short stories (1944).
Suboohi was deeply interested in the bygone era of the court and sought people who had experienced that age to inform his work. Residing in the vicinity of the Jamia Mosque in Delhi, he encountered people from all walks of life and it was ultimately the common man that became the protagonist in his writings. Craftsmen, food sellers, birdcage makers, storytellers, wrestlers all became integral to his tales. Suboohi’s stories also allow us an insight into the domestic lives of households in the post 1857 period. He presents distinctive female characters such as Saydaani Bibi, Deevani Apa and Naani Basti in narratives that present them in a humane and naturalistic light. His varied interactions allowed him to infuse his narratives with a use of language that faithfully represented the world of his characters.
In additional to humorous short stories and essays, Suboohi’s repertoire includes stories for children that are reminiscent of the storytelling tradition practiced in many a household. Laal Sabz Kabootar, Anda Baadshahzadi, Paristaan ki Sayr and Bilori Jooti are exemplary in their narrative style and use of language. These stories are vital not only for their literary contribution but also in their representation of the traditions, culture and aspirations of a bygone era.
In the last years of his life, Suboohi suffered from a failing eyesight and his final essay Muraqqa e Khayal was transcribed. Ashraf Suboohi died in Karachi on 22nd April 1990.
This text is summarised and translated from the essay “Ashraf Suboohi. Shakhsiat aur Fun” by Dr. Aslam Farrukhi, from the book Bazm e Suboohi. Ashraf Suboohi Dehlvi ki Numainda Tehriroan ka Intekhaab, published by Schehrzade, Karachi, 2008
Image: http://www.urdustudies.com/auinfo/dehlavi.html, accessed 25 May 2013
Zambeel Dramatic Readings is grateful to Asif Aslam Farrukhi for permission to use this text.