Thursday, August 28, 2008

Ahmed Faraz - an ‘Un-Partitioned’ poet

with Ahmed Faraz, October 1994, Islamabad

AFTER joining the Indian Foreign Service in 1971 and allotment of Persian as the language to be learnt – and there by learning Urdu by proxy – during training period, I had been keenly entertaining hope to be posted to Pakistan at an early or middle stage of my career. The dominant deeper thought-impulse was to undergo the intimate experience of the special circumstances of being among the people who became ‘Foreigners’ for Indians by an unprecedented man-made tsunami of human history.

The opportunity to serve in Pakistan came my way in 1992 when I had least expected it. ...

... It was a chance 'poetic encounter' in Islamabad club with Ahmed Faraz which made my two year plus posting a rewarding experience of enduring friendship. I had walked across to him, 'Faraz Sahib!...Main sifart-e-Hind mein Naya Naib Safir hun' without a moment's hesitation, he embraced me, saying, 'aap se tou bahut baaten aur mulakaaten honi chahiye!’ And a friendship forever was forged.

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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Humanistic roots of Islam

A Tribute to Shri A.J. Zaidi

  At the function with the Vice President of India, Shri M. Hamid Ansari
HAVING spent my childhood years in the village and later growing up in a town, both located in the closer vicinity of Malerkotla, the only princely state in the East Punjab ruled for centuries by the Muslim Nawabs, I had started wondering and pondering since long over the harmonies and divides between the Hindus and Muslims. The small state of Malerkotla had remained comparatively immune from the mindless violence during the Partition of the country. I have a vivid memory of an inscription, intact in 1951 but decimated soon after, of the name of Nawab Iftikhar Ali Khan on the front wall of the Gurdwara in Ahmedgarh for his donation of Rs. 500.00 – it must have been a princely sum in those days ! I had instinctively developed a faith in the mutual accommodation among faiths long before I was destined to be an Indian diplomat in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Maldives!!

This is a prologue to my tribute to late Ali Jawad Zaidi (1916-2004) who embodied for me the highest virtues of all the faiths of mankind. It was during the period of my posting to Iran in 1975-78 that I had opportunities of extended interaction with Shri S.A.J. Zaidi who had been posted as a Special Correspondent of All India Radio based in Tehran, covering other countries of the Gulf also. It was my first diplomatic posting, while it was the swan song assignment for Shri Zaidi.

I discovered in Shri Zaidi a thorough gentleman steeped in the composite culture of Awadhi Lucknow. He was soon able to gather around him many talented persons among the recently arrived doctors, engineers and other professionals interested in literature. A regular routine of literary meetings emerged attended by Indians and Pakistanis. Shri Zaidi made extra efforts to engage the Punjabi Sahitya Mandal also. It was his magnetic personality which brought people together for livelier literary sessions, particularly of Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi poetry. All this indeed provided me a rare learning opportunity to witness in action the strength of the composite culture of the sub-continent, notwithstanding the under currents of suspicions and rivalries of the Indo-Pak kind.

Never a person to talk about himself, I could some time engage Shri Zaidi to share some of his first hand experiences during the freedom struggle as a student leader and a poet. He had worked along with other youthful activists for the election in 1939 of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose as President of the Congress against Pattabhi Sitaramayya, the candidate proposed by Mahatma Gandhi. He told me about the touching experience when Subhas Babu, as the President of the Congress, had himself come to meet the group of students putting up in an ordinary dharamshala in Calcutta for a mid-night session of discussions!

On being pressed to tell if he had ever met Mahatma Gandhi, Zaidi narrated how he and his two other student friends had got late for an appointment with the Mahatma - and received a severe reprimand from Sarojini Naidu. He, nevertheless, could meet the Mahatma during the same week, but did not touch Mahatma's feet like his the two friends accompanying him. After the brief meeting, however, according to Zaidi, his hands unconsciously were at the feet of the Mahatma!

Ali Jawad Zaidi had started with the themes of patriotism and national unity in his early poetry. He had the distinct advantage of knowing Hindi and Sanskrit. He was soon to excel as a scholar and critic also. It was in the fitness of the things that after Independence, he was inducted into the Indian Information Service. He was deputed as Adviser to Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, the "Prime Minister" of Jammu & Kashmir - he distinguished himself in this position beyond the call of duty by producing admirable works on the literature and culture of Kashmir. He served as the Secretary of the High Powered Committee on Urdu headed by Shri I.K. Gujral. He was also the convenor of the Golden Jubilee Celebrations of the All India Students' Conference held in Lucknow in August 1986.

Shri Zaidi did not rest on his laurels after retirement. Apart from his multifarious responsibilities as Chairperson of the UP Urdu Academy and later as Advisor to the State Govt on National Integration, he wrote, in English, the monumental History of Urdu Literature, published by the Sahitya Academy in 1993. During the sunset years with failing eyesight, he was intensely occupied with the editing of the various versions of Ramayana written in Urdu. It is indeed noteworthy that four scholars have already obtained their PhD degrees for research on the literary works of Shri A. J. Zaidi. It is only appropriate that the Zaidi Foundation has been recently established to propagate literary and philosophical legacy of Zaidi Sahib. A large quantity of manuscripts left behind by him awaits scholarly scrutiny and publishing.

  Shri Ansari releases 'Islami Taraqqui Pasandi'

It was a solemn Function on 15th July, 2008 at his residence when 'Islami Taraqqui Pasandi' i.e., 'Progressivism in Islam' by late Shri A.J. Zaidi was released by the Vice President of India, Shri M. Hamid Ansari. Professor Ilyas Shauqui, the book's editor, highlighted the features of this highly researched and timely book. The former Vice-Chancellor of the Jamia Milia, Shri Shahid Mahadi, recalled his long personal association with Shri Zaidi. He quoted Shri Zaidi's lines:

Yeh To Sach Hai Kar Guzarta Hai, Jo Dil Mein Than Le
Kya Ghalat Hai, Log 'Gar Zaidi Ko Diwana Kahein.
It is indeed true that he does accomplish, whatever he determines to
The people are not wrong if they call Zaidi a crazy fellow!

Shri M. Hamid Ansari, in his thoughtful remarks, observed that the book was a commendable effort in putting the tenets of Islam in proper perspectives. He said that Shri Zaidi has demonstrated a rare capability to explain complex issues. He welcomed the publication of this book of great contemporary relevance.

Dr. A.S. Brar, the Vice-Chancellor of Lucknow University, proposing Vote of Thanks, dwelt on the role of Lucknow University in institutionalizing the memory of its great alumni. He said that there are opportunities in terms of an annual memorial lecture; a chair of national integration in his name; seminars on his seminal literary output etc. He remarked that a healthy competition with other relevant institutions to propagate the invaluable literary legacy of Zaidi Sahib would indeed be welcome.

While enjoying the wonderful company of many friends and admirers of late Zaidi Sahib during the tea following the Function, I was lost in the myriad memories of Shri Zaidi who became a kind of Murshid or a Guru as well as the most admired elderly friend for me. I quote the lines from his poem, 'Ajeeb Tanhaee', penned during his Sojourn in Iran:
Raasta Naapne Wale To Bahut Hain, Lakin
Inmein, Dekhein To Zara, Aabla Paa Kitnein Hain!

The surveyors of path are many
Look, how many of them have blisters under their feet!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Thoughts on Bhagat Singh, Birth Centenary

Bhagat Singh and his comrades-in-arms, Sukhdev and Rajguru have indeed come to symbolize the rarest example of the ultimate supreme sacrifice for the Independence of India ...

In terms of the historic milestones, the year of the birth centenary of Bhagat Singh also commemorates the 150th Anniversary of India’s First War of Independence ...

It is a matter of great satisfaction that Bhagat Singh was not only a voracious reader but also a compulsive writer and a communicator who was at ease writing in English, Hindi and Urdu. ... See article

Monday, January 28, 2008

Book Review: Chhangia Rukh - Dwarfed Tree

* Published in 'Balbir Madhopuri di Svai-jeevni Chhangia Rukh da Sahitak -Samajik Mulankan' - a socio-literary evaluation of Balbir Madhopuri's autobiography

An Autobiography By Balbir Madhopuri

A Critical Appraisal and an Overview : Baal Updesh Anand

This bare, bold and tragically-touching beautiful literary creation of the autobiographical kind, first published as a book under the above title in January, 2003, has been receiving a wider appreciative acclaim of the select top critics and the limited but cultivated readership of the Punjabi literature. The fact that the book has already run into two hard back and three paper back editions is indeed a great news which should cheer up all those who are always complaining about the vaporous nature of the readership of Punjabi language. The poetic title of the autobiography – Madhopuri made his literary debut with an anthology of poems titled, ‘A Tree of Desert’ (1992) to be followed by ‘The Smouldering Underworld’ (1998) – could, perhaps, be faulted by a Botanist but it does pinpoint the deep deprivations and corroding compulsions encountered by an Indian born an Untouchable in a landless family in rural India – here in a comparatively progressive State of Punjab – even decades after Independence and adoption as law of the land of the noblest Constitution crafted by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the greatest thinker-emancipator in the history of mankind.

It may indeed be educative to note how the Untouchables have undergone significant transformations since the scriptural Shudra / Achhuth / Bahishkrit; socio-economic Depressed classes; Gandhian Harijans; Secular and constitutional Scheduled Castes till the contemporary nomenclature of the Dalits, echoing daring defiance, political protest, solidarity with all the oppressed in the world, particularly the Black in the U.S.A. It is mainly since the sixties of the twentieth century that, in practical parlance, the word Dalit becomes an explosive catchword for social, cultural and political revolutionary movements launched by untouchable castes, essentially the Mahars, in such expressions as “Dalit literature” and “Dalit Movement”. The period was to witness an eruption of many luminous minds – hitherto branded ‘the lowest’ in the Hindu social dispensation – in powerful literary outbursts challenging the social & cultural value system. The ‘Dalithood’ has signalled its arrival as an ideology: its literary reach has been spreading to all the languages in India. While the poetry and short stories with the ‘Dalit’ themes have been in the forefront, it is the Dalit autobiographies which have created waves and with their translations in Hindi and English; they have led to literary discourses at not only the national but international level also. The Dalit autobiographies ought to be studied ‘as an authentic source of Dalit Cultural identity as well as an attempt to re-inscribe Dalit identity in positive, self-assertive terms.’

In the opening chapter, ‘The Rationale of a Dwarfed Tree’, Balbir Madhopuri is disarmingly candid in explaining the idea of the writing of this autobiography and the genesis of this book of deeply personal and intensely closer encounters and experiences of the life of the ‘Dalit kind,’ Intriguingly, he was ‘provoked’ – rather than inspired – and even challenged to attempt a better piece of writing than the one he was belittling, elaborating on the pains, privations and the dehumanizing realities attendant upon the Dalits. He further adds how the real-life portrait, ‘My Grandmother – a History’ was first published in the eminent Punjabi monthly of the yester-years, Aarsi, in Dec., 1997 by the generous patriarch publisher Bhapa Pritam Singh who also promised to publish the full autobiography. Madhopuri also acknowledges that the words of encouragement and appreciation by the well-known Punjabi writer Ajit Cour became a source of inspiration for the 42 years old budding poet-author who, although a lower – middle rung official of the Govt. of India, started receiving recognition in the ‘big-complex- literally-world’ of the capital of the country as an author with a ‘distinct point of view’. The author, in the opening remarks of the book, has painstakingly pointed out how he had to, as if, “unfold” his “self”, layer by layer; enter into a deeper dialogue with “self” : searching for the ‘identity’ of the ‘self’ and attempt to make up his mind to ‘write down all that’. He further admits, “Believe me, when I would read what I had myself put down on paper, tears would trickle down my eyes and I would feel choked”. The author confesses that he had to pause a while, reading what had been written, thinking ‘what horrible indignities my forefathers must have endured!’ A few more autobiographical articles were published later in the other important literary magazines of Punjabi – more accolades from the leading Punjabi writers followed, ‘it is nice that you are writing, focussing on this topic i.e. Dalithood – so far it has been an ‘unploughed’ field (in Punjabi)’. There were also a few doubting Thomases suggesting that it was, perhaps, too early in life and that there were not enough literary or personal attainments justifying a full length autobiography. The dilemma of all these factors coupled with sheer shortage of time, according to the author, caused a delay of almost five years for the publication of the book under reference.

The author states in clear terms that the events elaborated in the autobiography are ‘one hundred per cent true’ and even the names of characters have been retained in their popular nomenclatures – ‘imagination has been brought into play, more to carry forward the sequence of conversations and to maintain the contexts’. The author further underlines that he did not to make any special effort to ‘build up the typical atmosphere of the rural life (of Doaba region of Punjab) and that the purpose of writing the autobiography had become quite clear in his mind – ‘to make the contemporary and the generations to come to be fully aware of the stark realism of the heritage of the dire poverty and excesses at every step in the lives of the Dalit community’. The author wonders why the progressive intellectuals have mostly chosen to remain aloof and do not raise their voice against the ‘conspiracies’ against the Dalits. He describes the writing of the autobiography ‘as one of the bricks in the foundation of the edifice of the structure of efforts to make the socio-economic transformation a reality’.

It will be more purposeful to attempt an overview of the text of the book before discussing its literary merits and limitations. The opening chapter titled, ‘The Land of my Birth – Madhopur’ introduces the reader with the geography, topography, folk history and the overall environment of the region situated in the catchments area of river Beas joining the Sutlej at the edge of District of Kapurthala. The author takes the reader on a socio-economic survey trip of Madhopur in District Jalandhar with the help of verifiable official documents and other land marks, ‘the first double-sided village well was dug up in 1800 A.D. using 419811 bricks!’ The background on the social divides and the various land legislations denying the basic rights to land ownership to the untouchables in the community have been elaborated. The author’s comments on the unjust social system have been elaborated. The author observes that there is no comparable example in the world of an unjust, discriminatory and unequal social system prevalent in India but also refers to the emergency of leaders with enlightened vision – he quotes Karl Marx, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru in the same paragraph. He also refers to the stellar role of the local Dalit hero, Babu Mangu Ram Mugowalia, as a revolutionary for the cause of social justice. He concludes the first chapter on a hopeful note – ‘social change demands dedication and courage from all the segments of society; there is a dire need of rational outlook in life; the Dalits are keen that the entire country becomes prosperous.’

The chapter titled, ‘A Thick Writing on a Blank Paper’ gives a graphic account of the situation of the Dalit community living on the periphery of the village called ‘Chamarali’ vis-à-vis the interaction with the upper caste ‘Jatt’ community. The scene of the distribution of ‘Prashad’ in the Gurudwara made a mockery of all the subtle teachings and the tall claims of the practice of equality among the Sikhs in a Punjab village. The author has exactly reproduced the piercing degrading remarks laced with un-uttered abuses hurled at the low caste children by the Sikh priest. We are also introduced to interesting characters like Gurdas claiming ‘possession’ by the Peer (dead Muslim Saint) and a few members of the author’s family including his father, Thakar Das. There is the most memorable and touching incident when the author, as a small child, is hung up side down in the well by his father to frighten and forbid him against eating the soil. It was the intervention of his mother which saved the day for the author. There are references to the utterly unclean food and drinks in the home including the white worms infested gur i.e., jaggery used to make tea. The lack of proper protective clothes in the winter season for the children of the Dalit community has also been described with wit and pathos. The description of attack of the locusts in the village and the experience of the author (he was then studying in the second grade in the school) of eating the fried locusts are indeed touching! The next chapter, ‘The Story of the Cracked Mirror’ presents the reader with a rare account of the verbal clash between a high caste Jatt and Phuman, a tenth class student of the Dalit community and a cousin of Madhopuri. The shortage of household requirements including the food grains in the Dalit homes have been vividly described explaining the resultant miseries. The author’s childhood nickname, ‘Good’ ie ‘ a male doll’ also tells the readers his humiliating experiences of ‘Bhitt’ ie untouchability, an ‘untranslatable’ word indeed, and also refers to the severe skin disease common among children of the untouchables.

The chapter entitled ‘The Flowers of the Wild’ presents an interesting picture of the female characters in the author’s family including the strong minded and colourful, Grand-Mother. During discussions in the family, the stories of Brahamanical mythologies including those of strange-bodied gods are ridiculed. The glorification and sanctity of the vegetarianism are also challenged, quoting counter historical and other sources. The tensions in the village, particularly during the difficult period of heavy rains, are described by the author in a very interesting manner. The author also touches upon the acute financial difficulties faced by his family and the unfulfilled hope that his maternal uncle who is a high official would be able to help the family in getting a regular job for the author’s father or his elder brother. The author returns to give to the reader a more intimate portrayal of his grand-mother, particularly her fondness in earlier times for the cattle meat. The pent up feelings of the author’s father find bitter expressions: “They worship the cattle…we are considered worse than animals…they say, keep off, you will make us unclean!” The chapters titled, respectively, ‘Travellers of Thorny Paths’; ‘Sun Gazing through the Clouds’; ‘Our House, Home of Sorrows’; ‘Brahama’s Empty Vicious Circles’; ‘Hunger and Thirst have no Caste,’ The tangle of Kinship’; ‘The Drought in Rainy Season’ bring out most realistically the pains and sufferings of the author’s family viewed both from the angles of an innocent child and a literary artist. The image of the IAS maternal uncle looms large at several places – as a role model and also for his inability in bailing out the family.

The chapter ‘The Banyan Tree’ provides a live portrayal of the most popular place for the community life of the Dalits of the village. The shelter of this big-ancient tree was even used to carry out the various small time professions including plying the handlooms. The author was studying in the 10th class when this banyan tree was cut down by the order of the village panchayat and it was indeed the end of an era and a whole world came down crumbling with the tree. Symbolically, the grandmother of the author did not survive this tragedy. The chapter titled, ‘A River Flowing in the Desert’ describes at length an extremely good natured family of the Jatt caste of Baba Arjan Singh which remained the best of friends of the author’s family till their last – “now when I recall the genuine affection of this Jatt family soaked in all the pores of my body, I feel that he (Arjan Singh) was a river in the desert of the life of our family; it did result in sprouting of some greenery”.

The chapter of the book titled, ‘Hatred with My Name’ recounts several bitter experiences of the author during the period of his early youth. He is frank and bold in stating that he felt ashamed over the large size of his family. He could even dare to tell his mother that he did not need any more brother or sister and that he felt terribly shy while carrying the younger sisters around. When the mother somehow mentions the author’s remarks to his father, his ringing comment needs to be quoted in original, “Saala Angrezan da, laapia mattan den…tere kahe main raddi hoke ghar bah jaaman”, translated loosely, ‘you, brother-in-law of the English, you dare advise me…do you think I should become a ‘wasted’ good for nothing fellow, sitting at home on your suggestion’. The author mentions that he wanted to tell that the small house was so overcrowded with ten persons including several animals under the same roof during the winter. The author refers to the environment in the college in 1972 when the students had resorted to a 39 days’ strike. During the studies in the college, he became deeply interested in the progressive literature and came closer to the Community Party of India in 1974-75. The poems written by him expressing anti-American sentiments were regularly published in the CPI Daily Nawan Zamana and other magazines and he felt convinced that India also needed a revolution like the Soviet Union, ‘ with economic equality established with some magic and where there were no caste distinctions in the society’. He also joined the college for doing post-graduation in Punjabi in Jalandhar and came into contact with sympathetic teachers and also became friendly with the militant poets like Pash and Sant Ram Udasi.

The author got a job in the Food Corporation of India in 1978 and continued his involvement with the activities of the Union. He was, however, to discover soon the narrow mindedness and weaknesses of character of many so-called progressive colleagues. The next turning point in the life of the author was his selection for a Class-II non-Gazetted Officer in the Press Information Bureau in 1983. The rise of the extremists Khalistani movement in the Punjab deeply upset him. The chapter titled, ‘Literature and Politics’ contains telling comments describing the situation during this dark period. The family of the author was immensely relieved when he was transferred to Delhi in 1987. The next two chapters describe respectively the author’s accidental encounter with the terrorists and also a hypocritical Guru in Delhi. The last chapter of the book, ‘The Curse of being a Tenant’ describes all the attendant difficulties of renting an accommodation in Delhi – with the caste factor also playing a role for the author.

The two hundred page book by Madhopuri is certainly a landmark in the category of autobiographical writing in Punjabi literature. The eminent novelist Gurdial Singh has earlier written powerful and sensitive prose describing the trials and tribulations of the marginalized people in rural Punjab. Madhopuri has, however, brought alive the physical pains and the deep sufferings of the souls of those at the bottom of the caste divides – an area which has hitherto remained almost untouched in Punjabi literature. It is hoped that Madhopuri’s autobiography would soon be available to a wider spectrum of readers in translations in Hindi (already published by Vani Prakashan, Delhi) and English. To capture the exact nuance of lyrical prose in the typical dialect of the Punjabi of the Doaba would indeed be a challenge for the translators. A Dwarfed Tree – an autobiographical diagnostic of Dalithood - certainly needs to be studied for the bigger issues and larger perspectives of the social and economic scene in India in the beginning of the 21st century.

(The reviewer has recently retired from the Indian Foreign Service.
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