Asif, as I Knew Him
Asif, as I Knew Him

As I write about Asif, I feel a mix of emotions which include pride and honor as well as a sense of deep grief and disbelief. It has been more than a year now, yet I cannot come to terms with Asif’s passing away. I still reach for my phone to text him when I come across an Urdu term that I do not understand, or to share a social media post with a subtle play of words that he would enjoy.

My last contact with Asif was when I sent him a video of his father’s literary piece falsely claiming to be in his own voice. I could tell immediately that it was not my khalu (uncle), Dr Aslam Farrukhi’s, voice and wanted Asif to check it out. But I did not hear back from him that day, or the next. Neither had he responded to my Eid greeting that I had sent a few days earlier. Feeling concerned I messaged his younger brother Tariq to ask about him. But even before I could get his response, I got the heartbreaking news of Asif’s sudden passing away…

Asif? Asif has passed away? I checked the message again, sinking into a chair struggling to absorb the shock. It is not easy to receive such messages of loved ones when living in far-away lands; the shock and the heartbreak that followed was unbearable for days. I stared at the last message I had received from Asif a few days earlier telling me that he was not keeping well, which was in itself very unlike him.

Asif was my first cousin, in every sense of the word. He was the next grandchild in the family, born a few years after me. We grew up together in our maternal grandparents’ house as our mothers were busy starting out in their careers and needed the support of extended family to help with looking after us children. My earliest memory of him is that of a cute little baby just some months old. I remember sitting on my bed with my storybooks piled around me when my khala (aunt) sat her baby against the foot of the bed. He sat there staring at me through his bright eyes, and exceptionally thick lashes, intently observing me without any fuss. Asif could sit still for hours as a baby, meditating on anything that caught his attention. He was most fascinated by bird feathers which abounded in those days, with eagles flying over-head in the Karachi skies, and from the exotic birds and pigeons in our grandfather’s birdcages. As he grew older, he would tag with me all over the house. I would read him stories from my English fairytales as well as from every child’s favorite Urdu children’s magazine of those days ‘Bachun ki Dunya,’ which used to be full of fascinating stories of jinn and fairies.

Asif and I in the mid-1960s, picture courtesy Tariq Aslam

Some years later our parents moved to the then newly built Karachi University Campus. Our homes were about a ten-minute walk from each other’s houses and we visited one another frequently, sometimes more than once in a day. We remained just as bonded, spending many leisurely afternoons and weekends together. Our families would go on picnics together almost every weekend. During the monsoon season we would run through the rain puddles to get to each other’s home, and collect velvet beetles that emerged from the rain-soaked ground and spread all over.

By then I had two younger brothers, Asim and Omar, and Asif had a younger brother, Tariq. But amongst all of us, Asif and I were the closest to each other. Our brothers were into sports, whereas Asif and I shared a passion of reading and a love of books that came from our parents. Asif was my mother’s younger sister’s son. Our mothers were descendants of two great scholars, Shah Waliullah from their maternal side, and Deputy Nazir Ahmed from their paternal side, and nieces of another great name in the world of Urdu literature Shahid Ahmad Dehlvi. Therefore, there was great appreciation in our families for scholarly religious literature, and classical Urdu as well as English literature. Our parents’ personal libraries were full of literary classics, including works of famous poets, that we were encouraged to read from a very young age.

Family picture Asif with his brother and parents, mid-1950s. (Courtesy Tariq Aslam)

Entering our teens, we started eagerly reading books from our parents’ collections. I nostalgically remember those long summer holidays when my brothers would head out to play cricket in the vast campus grounds and I would go straight to my aunt’s house. There, I would find Asif sitting on the steps of the porch leaning against a pillar waiting for me to come over. We would sit there in the shade of the large mulberry tree, sometimes picking the purple mulberries that fell around us, and discuss the books we were reading. Whereas my favorite authors at that time were Pearl S. Buck, Daphne de Maurier and Georgette Heyer, venturing as far as Fyodor Dostoevsky in terms of ‘foreign’ English literature, Asif was reading the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Summerset Maugham, and Francois Sagan, to name just a few. I found them uninteresting and sometimes beyond my comprehension. I once gave him a whack on his head, which I often did affectionately, threatening to tell on him that he was reading books not appropriate for his age. He laughed at me saying that this was literature, that he was doing nothing wrong, and that his father knew he was reading those books from his collection.

Lost in the world of fiction, he cared little about his appearance. Remembering one particular incident from our mid-teens, when probably both of us were in college, always brings a smile to my face. I had gone over to their place and found my aunt scolding him for not getting a haircut. His thick wavy black hair had grown into a shag around his head. He sat there calmly on the steps of the porch and seeing me coming suggested, with a twinkle in his eye, why not I cut his hair. Never one to shy away from a challenge, I headed straight to my aunt’s sewing box and pulled out a pair of scissors, picked a comb from her dressing table, and started to cut his hair; much like the barbers you see giving haircuts under the trees on the sidewalks in Karachi. I think I did a fairly good job as Asif was happy and nobody chided me for it.

Asif always considered me his sister, and that is how he introduced me to others all his life, never calling me his cousin. He told his daughters that as a child he thought that sisters live in different homes, like I did, and that it was not necessary for them to live in the same house with all their brothers.

Asif was totally immersed in the literary environment that he was growing up in. To put it in his words “I didn`t come to literature. When I grew up, I was already in it. It was a natural part of my growing up. I didn`t have to make any conscious decision.”1 As mentioned earlier his mother Taj Begum belonged to a family of literary scholars. She completed her Master’s degree in Urdu literature, earning a gold medal as the top position holder in the program, and was a professor of Urdu, and later Principal at Women’s College, Karachi. Her personal history was recorded in an interview for the Stanford Libraries series ‘The 1947 Partition Archive: Survivors and their Memories’2, Stanford University, USA. His father, Dr. Aslam Farrukhi was a renowned Urdu scholar, writer, literary critic, poet, 3and Head of the Urdu Department at Karachi University. He received the Pride of Performance Award by the President of Pakistan in 2009. Dr. Aslam Farrukhi was a disciplined person, with a very simple lifestyle. He had a thoughtful, measured, and philosophical manner of speaking, and had ready wit and sense of humor. His personal library was full of classical English and Urdu literary works. Asif was greatly influenced by his father who was his inspiration, mentor and best friend, just as Asif became for his brother Tariq who went on to become an engineer as was typical in those days, when one son in the family was a doctor. Being so deeply inspired by his father Asif would have taken the same career path if he could have had his way.

My brother Asim, extreme left, and Asif, extreme right, growing up together in the 1950s.

However, being the respectful and obedient son that he was, as well as an outstandingly brilliant student, he fulfilled his parents’ desire of him becoming a doctor. Always a top student, he obtained first position and a gold medal in the Intermediate Board exams. Getting into medical college and excelling there was a breeze for him. Nevertheless, his deeply ingrained passion for literature, and fascination with the written word, remained with him all his life.

Asif continued to pursue his other interests while in medical school. Asif’s father had also been associated with Radio Pakistan, writing features and participating in radio programs. So was one of his paternal aunts, whose daughter Neelofer Abbasi became a popular radio and television artist, most famously known by her role as Shehzori, in the popular television series by the same name. Asif too anchored a radio program for students while in medical college.

In 1982, at the age of twenty-three and while still in medical college, he had his first literary work published, a collection of short stories Atish Fishaan Per Khile Gulab. This was followed by Ism-e-Aazam ki Talash,4 in1984, and then by his famous Urdu translation of Herman Hesse’s novel Siddharta.

Newspaper interview when Asif earned top position in Intermediate Board exams, Courtesy Aqeel Abbas Jafri, Facebook: Remembering Asif Aslam, June 2, 2020
Asif with his father Dr. Aslam Farrukhi, courtesy Tariq Aslam.

It is difficult to comprehend how he managed to do all that, and yet stay focused on his medical studies. He earned his MBBS degree from the then DOW Medical College, Karachi, in 1982; and a Master’s degree in Public Health from Harvard University, USA, in 1989. Coming back, he joined the Agha Khan University Hospital (AKUH) Community Health Services, where he worked from 1985 to 1993 under the auspices of the founding chairperson of the Department of Community Health Sciences at AKUH, Dr. John Harland Bryant. Later he did a short course from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in 2012. Despite all his engagements, he was always there for anyone who needed help. Once my domestic helper’s infant child got severely ill; I feared the child would not survive a day and reached out to Asif for help. He immediately had her bring the child to him at the AKUH and by the Grace of the Almighty the child survived by his timely help.

The author’s last picture with Asif; on extreme left is her brother Asim Tirmizi, on her right is their cousin Maliha Naqvi, then Asif, and his brother Tariq Aslam, January 2020.

His expertise in the field of community health led him to his career with UNICEF where he worked as a program officer from 1994 to 2014 as a Health and Nutrition Program Officer. Raana Syed, Chief of the Field Office of UNICEF in Sindh, 2004 to 2006, remembers him with deep affection and immense grief. She shares many fond memories in a yet to be published article, some of which she has kindly allowed me to share here. According to her, Asif was considered an expert in his field. Like every other person who knew him she remembers him as a pleasant natured, soft spoken and witty person who would make others crack up with his remarks while maintaining a serious countenance himself. She says he was always cheerful and very friendly with his colleagues, ever ready to order samosas and jalebies for his team; and ever willing to help anyone and everyone in any way he could.

While working with UNICEF, Asif was particularly focused on obstetric issues of women in the slum areas of Karachi5, and worked on several projects in collaboration with the Pakistan Medial Association (PMA). During that period Asif also worked with Dr. Shershah Syed6, and was keenly involved with the work done at the Koohigoth Women Hospital7for women suffering from obstetric fistula. Asif worked on several projects with Dr. Shershah Syed, including collaborating with PMA to provide training to first responders on how to respond to cases involving women undergoing complications of pregnancy; and in the establishment of midwifery schools in Sindh, and supported workshops for child sexual abuse and violence against women8.

Besides working together in the medical field Asif and Dr. Shershah Syed had a common interest in writing and literature. They struck up a bond of friendship that lasted till the last moments of Asif’s time in this world and it befell on him to break the sad news to the world. 9

Both of them often travelled together, and I had the opportunity to meet them at Dr. Shershah Syed’s book launching ceremony in Virginia, USA. Most of the articles in the books were based on Dr. Shershah Syed’s experiences when he had gone to help with the victims of the tragic 7.7 earthquake in Sawat in 2015 and it was from his books that I learned the true magnitude of its impact on humanity. I later came to know that Asif too had been assigned by UNICEF to provide medical services to the earthquake victims in Shangla and the adjoining region.

Asif stayed with us the weekend, and the next day I drove him to meet Mehr Afshan Farooqi, 10 Associate Professor, University of Virginia, who in her memoir has expressed what we all feel “There was so much writing left in him, but he was taken away from us so soon” 11. It was a precious, memorable four-hour drive with both of us catching up with each other and the hours flew by in a flash.

Eventually Asif left his medical career, of around thirty years, and turned to his calling by joining the newly established Habib University initially as Interim Dean of the School of Arts and then continuing as Professor of Regional Languages and Humanities, and Director Arzu Center for Literature and Regional Languages12. There, with his dynamic personality and absolute command over the subject, he sparked an interest in Urdu literature in a generation that knew very little about it, or had much interest in it. There he was addressed by the simple “authoritative yet personal and endearing” 13 title, Asif Saheb. Asif’s warm and personal relationship with his students was beautifully reflected in his address at the Annual Award Ceremony14, sporting a Baltistani cap as a tribute to his student who had presented it to him on his visit to Hunza, and proudly commending her work at the Baltic Fort. Charmed by the region, he has also written articles about its pristine beauty15 16.

Though Asif had profound knowledge of English literature, and had excellent command over the language, it was his love and his loyalty to the Urdu language that he never produced any literary piece in English. However, he was a prolific columnist for DAWN English newspaper’s ‘Books & Authors’ section17. He translated several works from English to Urdu, but did not contribute anything of his own in English. He had an interest in, and an appreciation of, all languages; especially the regional languages of Pakistan. His work as a public health officer at UNICEF took him to remote areas in the interior of Sindh where he developed an interest in the Sindhi language and culture. He mingled with Sindhi writers and poets and translated their literary works to Urdu. As his friend Karan Singh said, while remembering him on his first death anniversary, “any place he visited, he would create a relationship with the soil of that area” 18. Speaking at a seminar, Asif reflected on the language issues in Pakistan, lamenting on the confusion caused by the exaggerated importance placed on the English language due to the British colonial rule in the region19.

At the Sindhi Culture Day at Habib University, courtesy Inaam Nadeem, Jun 6, 2021

One of Asif’s major contributions to Urdu literature was his publication of the bi-annual Dunyazaad launched in 2000. It gave him an opportunity to showcase a masterful selection of Urdu literature, including the Urdu translations of literary works of other languages. Asif accompanied his great friend, and lifelong inspiration, Intizar Hussein to England when the latter was nominated for the Booker Award in 2013. Here, he met with all the other nominees and on coming back published a special edition of Dunyazaad which included works of all ten of them. 20 Dunyazaad also provided a platform for upcoming writers and poets. He was always in search of new talent in the field, and eager to extend them his help and guidance in any way he could. Dunyazaad was published by the Scheherazade Press that he established in 1999. Both his publication and his press were aptly named after the two key figures in the classic Arabian Nights. Asif had decided to end the publication with the last issue coming out in early 2020. However, he felt compelled to compile one more issue focused on COVID19, titled Waba Number that was published after his passing away21.

Another remarkable contribution of his, for the promotion of Urdu literature, was the founding of the Adab Festival in collaboration with Ameena Saiyid 22, in February 2019.

Asif had excellent interviewing skills which he compiled and published in a book titled Harf e Man o Tu.His mastery over the art of moderating and interviewing could be seen in him skillfully adapting the style according to the personality of the interviewee, ranging from sharp wit and humor when interviewing Intizar Hussein23, where he kept the “audience in fits of laughter” 24, to the classy refinement and finesse when interviewing the feminist poet Ishrat Afreen25.

Asif was a son of Karachi, and could not think of living anywhere else. At one point he did consider it, when his daughters were planning to study abroad, but soon gave up the idea. Karachi was his natural environment; he could not live anywhere else. He articulated his sentiments about Karachi, and shared his observations on how the city has grown and changed over the years in his talk for the I Am Karachi forum26; and his concern about the ecological and environmental degradation of the city shores is reflected in his short story Samandar ki Chori, that was also recorded by him for the Joy of Urdu YouTube channel27, in Jan, 2020.

It is difficult to portray Asif in just one writeup. Perhaps it would be best for me to pause here and share his interview for the Rekhta Foundation28, where he reflects on his life’s journey in his own words29.

It is heartening that his literary achievements were recognized in his lifetime by being awarded the Tamgha-e-Imtiaz in 2006. Posthumously, he has been awarded the UBL Lifetime Achievement Award for literature. Asif had himself been on the jury for the UBL awards for eight years as a member of the panel of English judges.

This year Asif Farrukhi Ilmo Agahi Awards were announced by Dr. Shershah Syed, instituted by friends of Asif. Through this platform one award for Urdu, and one for a Sindhi writer, will be announced every year in May and will include Rs. 50,000 for the recipient of award in each category.

Asif Farrukhi first 'Ilm o Agahi Awards', May 2021

In his personal life, I always knew him as a devoted family man and doting father to his two daughters. He fully supported and encouraged them in every way to become highly educated, strong, and independent young women. He loved them above everyone and everything else in the world, and was extremely proud about their accomplishments; his face lighting up with pride whenever he spoke about them. His elder daughter Ghazal has recently earned her PhD in Anthropology from the Johns Hopkins University, USA30. His younger daughter Anusha earned her graduate degree in Special Education from York University, Toronto. Credit goes to Ghazal for rushing to Karachi, albeit sadly not reaching in time due to the Covid19 travel difficulties, and taking on the responsibility of preserving his personal collections of books and paintings, and donating his collection of several thousand books to Habib University in accordance with his wishes as expressed in his lifetime. She also took on the challenge of seeing to the compilation and publication of the last special edition of Dunyazaad. She has written the very touching preface of the edition and poignantly left blank Mehfil, the page that was to be written by Asif.

Asif took immense pride in his home too, where his aesthetic taste was reflected in his selection of beautiful plants and collection of valuable paintings, including original sketches by Sadequain and paintings of renowned artists. Among his collection was his own portrait done by the acclaimed artist Tasaduq Sohail in his signature style. Asif’s personal library, his pride, was in the basement of his house. It contained rows and rows of parallel book shelfs filled with his handpicked collection of rare and valuable literary works.

Asif seen here with some of his collection of paintings in his home, picture courtesy Abro Khuda Bux, posted by Inaam Nadeem, 'Remembering Dr. Asif Aslam Farrukhi ' Facebook page, Oct 6, 2020.

I was fortunate to be in Pakistan on the occasion of his younger daughter’s wedding in March 2018. Beaming proudly, he played the gracious host at the event. I visited Pakistan again in June 2019, and asked him to join me for lunch with my other aunt’s daughters. He was busy that afternoon and with humor tried to excuse himself from intruding in an all-girls lunch. Upon my insistence he joined us later for tea, and as usual brightened our afternoon with the sparkle of his wit and humor.

I met him one last time during my visit to Karachi in January 2020. Before I left, he came over to meet me at our youngest aunt Nazma Athar’s house; she has recently written a touching article in his memory31. He looked tired and was very quiet, I missed the usual smile on his face and sparkle in his eyes. He had lost weight and had not been keeping well, struggling with health issues aggravated by the challenges he was facing in his personal life. I voiced my concern and made him promise to visit me during his upcoming trip to the US when visiting his daughter, who was at that time completing her studies at the Johns Hopkins University, not too far from where we live. He promised he would come, and stay with us for a longer visit this time.

But alas, it was a promise he could not keep…

Asif thrived on his interaction with his students, and with his peers in the literary world. The pandemic situation had affected him severely. However, always one to make the best of a negative situation, he felt grateful for the opportunity to teach online and continued teaching almost to the last day of his life32. But that did not provide him with the joy and fulfillment he felt when he was with his students in person. He always stayed very involved with them, often planning field trips even on weekends.

His last writings muse on death and contemplate heavily on the perils of pandemics, and ponder on the dismal situation of those early days of the Covid-19 pandemic when the possibility of developing a vaccine to combat it was still a distant hope33.

He had started a Vlog series to chronicle his days during the lockdown, aptly called ‘Talabundi ka Roznamcha’34 . Watching those episodes makes my heart sink as I see how much his failing health had aged him in the few months since I had last seen him. The loneliness of those mundane, forlorn days, coupled with his health issues, became too much for him to bear. His loneliness is further portrayed in one of his last writings about the empty house Khali Makaan Meh Reh Jane Wale 35. More than anything else, he longed for his daughters’ company, but unfortunately the travel restrictions made it impossible for them to come, or for him to visit them.

Like all writers, poets, and artists, Asif was a sensitive person with very fine sensibilities that are often not understood by others. His otherworldly derveshi soul probably found freedom and solace in the night-long qawwali mehfils that he loved to attend. This world is not a place for the likes of him; and he silently turned his back on it. Yet how much loved he was, and how much he is missed can be seen by the outpouring of grief by all who knew him; through all the publications and social media channels in Pakistan, India and in the USA. In one such virtual condolence meeting organized in the USA, I was extremely moved to see the renowned academic and literary scholar Dr. Satyapal Anand 36, a close friend of his father Dr. Aslam Farruhi, breakdown into sobs when sharing his memories of Asif.

His students at Habib University created a Facebook page ‘Remembering Dr. Asif Aslam Farrukhi,’ which is quite a comprehensive compilation of his memoirs and publications. One of the most beautiful memoirs that I have read about Asif was written by his student Yusra Habib, published in the Images section of the DAWN newspaper. It perfectly sums up his personality and “his kindness and marvel beyond the classroom” 37. I wish to end here by quoting from a post by her on the ‘Remembering Dr. Asif Aslam Farrukhi’ Facebook page, where she writes the very words that have been echoing in my mind while going through the material for writing this article, “It is after an unfortunate loss that I have realized, a man this humbling, this approachable and this down to earth, was a literary icon in the outside world” 38.

The'Mehfil' page of Dunyazaad left blank in memory of Asif, who always wrote the page, picture courtesy Tariq Aslam


I would like to express my deep gratitude to my cousin Tariq Aslam, Asif’s brother, for being a valuable resource for providing pictures for this article, and for being available round the clock to address my never-ending queries. Reliving the immense sorrow of Asif’s loss myself while writing about him, I recognize how especially difficult it must have been for Tariq to do so. He had barely gotten over the grief of losing their father in June 2016 that he lost Asif, his only sibling and his best friend, in June 2019. Asif was a caring and dedicated son, and being a doctor had attended to his father’s medical concerns, and was then looking after his mother, whose health had been declining rapidly since the loss of her husband. Being her caretaker in these difficult times is now solely Tariq’s responsibility, which includes protecting her from this grief; the news of Asif’s passing was not conveyed to his mother since she was too frail to absorb the shock. However, she must have felt it in her heart, and stopped talking completely after asking about his absence several times.

I would also like to express my deep gratitude for the out-pouring of love, and the kind words for Asif, from all who knew him. I am especially grateful to all who shared and documented their special memories of him.


  1. Asif A. Farrukhi, (2009), Ismat Chughtai advised me to make literature a sweetheart, not wife â€, [online] DAWN newspaper at: (Accessed 2 Jun 2021).
  2. Interview with Taj Begum, The 1947 Partition Archive [online]: Stanford Libraries at: (Accessed 2 Jun 2021).
  3. Dr. Aslam Farrukhi official website at: (Accessed 2 Jun 2021).
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  10. Mehr A. Farooqi, Associate Professor, University of Virginia, USA. [online]Faculty Directory. Available at: Mehr A. Farooqi • Faculty Directory ( (Accessed Jul 16, 2021).
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  31. Nazma Ather (May 22, 2021). رنج وہ اٹھائے ہیں کہ جی جانتا ہے  [online] Geo, Huma Samaj Pakistan May 22, 2021, Available at: (Accessed Jul 20, 2021).
  32. Dr. Asif Aslam Farrukhi’s Learning Goes on at HU (2019) [online] Facebook group Remembering Dr. Asif Aslam Farrukhi, Jun 1, 2020. Available at: (Accessed Jul 20, 2021).
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  34. Asif Farrukhi (May 26,2020). [online] Asif Farrukhi Vlog May 26,2020. Available at: (Accessed Jul 22, 2021).
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  36. Satya Pal Anand [online] Available at: (Accessed Jul 22, 2021).
  37. Yusra Habib (Jun 8, 2020). Asif Farrukhi’s students remember his kindness and marvel beyond the classroom. [online] DAWN Images Jun 8, 2020. Available at: (Accessed Jul 24, 2021).
  38. Yusra Habib (June 2, 2020). [online] Facebook page Remembering Dr. Asif Aslam Farrukhi. Available at: (Accessed Jul 24, 2021).

Azra T. Syed is an Instructional Design Specialist and Trainer by profession, and has worked with the US State Department Foreign Service Institute as a Language and Culture Instructor for the South Asian region. She also works as a freelance linguist, specializing in Urdu and Western Punjabi. Prior to moving to the US, she was adjunct professor at private universities, as well as adjunct faculty for the Cambridge University A-Levels program in private high schools, in Karachi. Syed holds a Master of Science degree in Organization Development and Knowledge Management from the George Mason University (GMU), USA, and is currently enrolled in the Leadership Coaching for Organizational Well-Being program at the GMU. She wrote popular articles for the DAWN newspaper before moving to the States. She has inherited a passion for learning and writing from her distinguished parents, Dr. Syed Masoom Ali Tirmizi, former Vice-Chancellor of Karachi University, and Dr. Nasima Masoom Tirmizi, former Dean Faculty of Science, Karachi University, who was also known in literary circles as Nasima-Binte-Siraj, and was the sister of Taj Begum, mother of Asif Aslam Farrukhi. Syed resides in the US with her husband Zafar Ali Syed.

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