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Saturday, 31 December 2011

Attia Hosain -- A Liberal Voice

Betwixt Tradition and Modernity:
A Revisionist Study of the Political, Intellectual and Social Strands in the Works of Attia Hosain


Born in a traditional, Muslim, Taluqdari family of Awadh, the product of a liberal English education, Attia Hosain – and indeed her writing -- shows a unique blend of tradition and modernity. Writing in English, at a time when few women, especially Muslim women, used this medium for literary expression, Hosain presents a picture of her own world, one that was multicultural, pluralistic and syncretic.  Slender though her literary ouvre is, comprising chiefly of her novel Sunlight on a Broken Column (1961) and a collection of short stories entitled Phoenix Fled (1953), its value lies in its depiction of a crumbling social order viewed through the prism of a modern, feminist, left-leaning sensibility. The strength and beauty of her writing is such that the two books have been published in the Virago Modern Classics series, a series ‘dedicated to the celebration of women writers and to the rediscovery and reprinting of their works.’ The series is aimed at, quite admirably, ‘to demonstrate the existence of a female treadition in fiction which is both enriching and enjoyable.’

In revisiting Hosain’s legacy, I wish to make two general points: one, it is time we redefined the definition of feminism and took in those voices that spoke without the table-thumping vigour of the bra-burning school of thought. The existence of self-awareness or the ability to take conscious decisions, to my mind, makes a woman empowered. Also, we must re-examine the stereotyped notion that privilege precludes or excludes suffering or that someone born to privilege, like Hosain was, could not have known suffering or exclusion. I shall try and locate Hosain (1913-1998) in the continuum of women’s writing in English and also compare her with her contemporaries, Muslim writers such as Qurratulain Hyder, Rashid Jahan and Ismat Chughtai who shared her sensibility but wrote in Urdu. I will also explore how the medium, English, shaped and defined her literary ouvre and discuss how Sunlight on a Broken Column can be a regarded as an iconic chronicle of the partition.

First, a look at the 12 stories in Phoenix Fled[1], a collection that has been described by Anita Desai as a ‘monument’ to India’s pre-independence past. The title story is about an old woman who, faced with the threat of communal violence in the aftermath of the partition, refuses to leave her house when the rest of her family has fled. Alone and scared, she faces the mob that comes to set her house on fire but admonishes them thus: “Mind, she scolded, pointing her bony figure, “mind you do not step on the doll’s house.” Evidently, the mythical phoenix that can arise from its own ashes has fled in the face of the barbarism of the times. Elsewhere, as in ‘The Street of the Moon’, unable to take the tedium of marriage to a much-older opium-quaffing cook, a high-spirited nubile young wife runs off with another servant, only to end up in the prostitute’s street. ‘The First Party’ is a touching tale of a young bride’s foray into the westernised world of her husband. In ‘Time is Unredeemable’ a young woman waits long years for her husband to return from foreign shores only to be told that he can never love her and so must leave her.

Quite apart from the stories themselves -- each a compact,  self-contained statement -- there is the quality of Hosain’s writing: polished, impeccably crafted with jewel-like brilliance and bell-like clarity, its sophistication and stylishness quite unlike anything that was being written by other Indian writers in English. Then there were the concerns: her depiction of izzat (honour) and its conjoined twin sharam (dishonor) which are the same among the wealthy and high born as well as the poor and lowest of low; Hosain’s quite evident pleasure and sense of responsibility towards the position of privilege that she occupied by virtue of birth; a rejoicing in womanhood, be it as a mother, wife or ayah. Between the polarity of the Big House and the rows of low-roofed servants’ quarters at the outer edges of the compound, Hosain seems to be saying, in story after story, there is little difference except in a material sense. What is more, in both there is a rejoicing in pluralism, a celebration of syncretism, and a firmly-rooted belief in inclusion rather than exclusion.

However, unlike the social realism of the progressive writers who had seized the imagination of the Indian readers by the time these stories were written, there is no attempt here to identify with the toiling masses or to glorify the labouring classes. Poverty is recognised, though not idealised. Instead, there is a matter-of-fact depiction and an acute, minutely-detailed description that can only come from close observation. Life in the servants quarters of the wealthy, the interaction among the family retainers, descriptions of their clothes, living quarters, eating habits, their intensely-guarded hoard of small, treasures accumulated through years of hard labour for paltry salaries – all this and more is brought to life with vivid detail. As Anita Desai notes in her Introduction,
‘Society was not then in flux, it was static, and it was a feudal society. To know what feudalism meant, one has to read Sunlight on a Broken Column or Phoenix Fled and learn how it was made – how the land belonged to the taluqdars, how the peasants worked upon it, what was extracted from them and what was, in turn, done to or from them. How women lived in a secluded part of the house… and what powers were theirs, or not. How deference had always to be shown to the ancestors, to the aristocracy, to the priests…How the one unforgivable sin was to rock this hierarchy, its stability.’[2]

In almost all the stories, in the conflict between tradition and modernity or westernisation and a time-honoured way of life, Hosain’s empathy seems to be with the traditional because, for all its injustices and inequalities, she found it a more humane order, one where the principle of noblesse oblige entrusted the strong to look after the weak. In this she differed from her more radical-minded contemporaries, especially the progressive writers such as Rashid Jahan and Ismat Chughtai, who wrote also about roughly the same milieu, i.e. Begum sahibs and their retinue of servants and hangers-on, but with far more sympathy for the underdog and a far more scathing denouement of the effete begums. For Rashid Jahan, who had joined the CPI in 1933, Marxism was crucial to understanding, and ultimately changing, many things that were unfair in the privileged world she occupied, such as colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, industrialization, socio-economic developments and other forms of uneven or lopsided development. Rashid Jahan’s own experiences as a doctor reinforced her belief that in an essentially unfair world, women were more unfortunate than most. Ismat Chughtai, born in more straightened circumstances and having had to fight for education and a place under the sun, wrote bold stories that challenged traditional morality and worn-out notions of a woman’s ‘place’ in society. She was feistier, less willing to conform to the traditional notions of feminity or even literary propriety and certainly far more confrontationist than even her male colleagues. Also, given her interest in sexual matters, comparisons between her and Manto have become inevitable. The nearest parallel between Attia Hosain and a contemporary woman writer, to my mind, is with Qurratulain Hyder who was born to affluent parents who were not merely in favour of education for women but were themselves writers and one who straddled the world of Urdu and English with equal ease. Given their privileged birth, both Hosain and Hyder invited derision and scorn. Ismat Chughtai, for instance, wrote a scathing denouement of Hyder entitled Pompom Darling deriding the world of hyper-anglicised characters with names like Shosho and Fofo who swam and danced and played, a world of charming people all cast in the same mould, all living in a Camelot that was destined to end. Ismat’s rants against Hyder typifed the progressive writers’ worst ire for another sort of writer who recreated a world of lost glory. Attia Hosain escaped the outright hostility meted out to Hyder in the early days because she does not look back to lament, instead she celebrates; less requiem to a lost world Hosain’s work rejoices in what once was but is no more. The use of English allows her a certain freedom of expression, certainly more latitude. Writing while living in London in the late-1950s, while working for the BBC, afforded her an audience such as the one the Urdu writers, especially the women writers who were often first published in magazines and only later in a book form, could not even imagine! Writing in English and being published first in the West and much, much later in India did to her what in a sense happened to Mulk Raj Anand; it made them an overnight sensation and the toast of London’s literary circuit.

Its title taken from T S Eliot’s The Hollow Men, Sunlight on a… is an unsentimental look at world where power, privilege and position slips from one hands to another.  Attia’s father was Shahid Hosain Kidwai, a taluqdar from Gadia in district Baranbanki, one of the early batch of western-educated fiercely anti-imperialist young Indians. Her mother was from a distinguished family of poets and writers and judges from Kakori, men of learning who had moved away from land-owning. Attia grew up in a home where Sarojini Naidu, Attia Faizi, Ali Imam, Abbas Ali Baig, Sir Sultan Ahmad, Motilal and his son Jawaharlal Nehru were regular visitors. In their company, families like hers despite being an active member of the British India Association -- an organization of the taluqdars that Husain once memorably described as ‘a kind of a trade union’[3] -- Attia was drawn towards the swadeshi movement. Moreover, with the city of Delhi lying in ruins after the devastation of the Mutiny, it was Lucknow that remained the only citadel of culture and learning, in a word tehzeeb. And it is this world, teetering at the edge of decline and decimation, that Attia Hosain brings to life as only one who had belonged to it can. The plurality of this world is such that even the beggars ask in the name of both Allah and Bhagwan, a childless man makes vows to both the Holy Prophet and Hanuman, and families such as Attia’s celebrate Holi and Diwali with as much fanfare as Eid and Shubarat. Some dietary restrictions were indeed observed but they did not come in the way of friendships. Years later, it was still inconceivable to Attia Hosain that faith could divide; she said: ‘That was their life, our life was ours and it came together in friendship. We were together in marriages, at births, deaths and any festivities.’ [4]

‘Soon you will have to apologise for your birth and breeding, not be proud of them,’ a character prophecies early in the novel. And, indeed, it turns out to be so. The protagonist, Laila, an orphan brought up in a wealthy family, vows to one day join the satygrahis; till then, she stops singing God Save the King at school concerts, and leaves cinema halls when its first chords are struck. At 15, she feels like she is a ‘part of a great movement’. Sunlight… goes on to tell the story of her childhood, adolescence and coming of age. Like Hosain herself, Laila is educated at an English-medium school (the La Martiniere) and then goes on to do a Masters from the Lucknow University. The palatial house she shares with a gaggle of relatives and retinue of servants is a ‘living symbol’. She returns to it five years after the cataclysmic events of 1947 and finds it in ruins. ‘The house had buried one way of life and accepted another.’ ‘In its decay,’ Hosain writes, ‘I saw all the years of our lives as a family; the slow years that had evolved a way of life, the short years that had ended it.’ However, where Sunlight… departs from other partition chronicles is in its complete lack of bitterness and Attia Hosain rises above her contemporaries in her clear-sighted depiction of why some Muslim families chose to leave for the new country, Pakistan, and why some stayed on. Her belief in friendship and tolerance shines through, as does her unsentimental understanding of the human heart. She has her questions and her doubts but she rises above them. Her recognition of struggle – be it against despair or destiny – and her positive acceptance of life makes Sunlight on a Broken Column not merely an engaging story told with a certain style and sophistication but a testament to pluralism and multiculturalism.

(An abridged version of this article appeared in The Hindu, Literary Review, 1 Januuary 2011. The longer version was read at a seminar organized by the Sahitya Akademi and Gujarat University in Ahmedabad.)

[1] First published in 1953 in Great Britain by Chatto & Windus, it was published in 1988 by Virago Press, London. I have used the edition published by Rupa & Co in 1993. All references to page numbers are from this edition.
[2] Ibid, p. ix.
[3] This section is built from an Interview given in 1991 but published in 2004 at
[4] Ibid.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Two Books by Masoodul Haq -- A Review

The Doomsdayers would do well to put away their trumpets. The obituarists too should stay their pens. Those who have been predicting the end of Urdu would do well to pay heed to the great burst of literary translations into Urdu presently happening in India. Surely, a language cannot die till books are being read and published in that particular language. And, if publishing is any indicator of the health and robustness of a language, then evidently things are not as bad as they appear on the Urdu front in India today. Thanks to a clutch of government-funded bodies such as the Sahitya Akademi and the National Council for the Promotion of Urdu Language (NCPUL) we are witnessing a healthy trend in Urdu publishing with good quality, reasonably priced and widely distributed Urdu books. One aspect of this recent trend is in the field of translation – both into and from Urdu. While the books per se draw attention and garner healthy sales, the same cannot be said for the translators. That many of these translators remain unsung and unnoticed is, to my mind, a great tragedy.

One such unsung translator is Masoodul Haq who is a former teacher at the Department of Education at Jamia Millia Islamia. Since his retirement, he has done a yeoman service to the cause of Urdu by undertaking a series of translations; taken together they show the eclectic range of his interests from the fields of education, literature, social sciences, religion and politics. Some of his translated volumes include: History of Indian Education During the British Period by Noorullah and J. P. Naik; Foundation of Muslim Rule in India by A B M Habibullah; John Company to the Republic: A History of Modern India, Pluralism to Separatism: Qasbahs in Colonial Oudh, A moral Reckoning: Muslim Intellectuals in 19th-century India – all three by Mushirul Hasan; Lucknow and the World of Sarshar by Firoz Mukherji; Bachpan ki Dost aur Doosri Kahaniyan by Vaikom Mohammad Basheer; Inside India by Halide Edib, among others. It is the last two that I wish to single out for attention in this review.

Vaikom Mohammad Basheer (1908-1994) is regarded as one of the finest writers in Malayalam. Bewitched by Gandhi ji, he came under the spell of the Satyagraha movement and joined the national freedom movement. Something of a maverick, Basheer set off from his home in Travancore in northern Kerala and travelled the length and breadth of the country, taking up different jobs: as loom fitter, fortune teller, cook, newspaper seller, fruit seller, sports goods agent, accountant, watchman, shepherd, hotel manager, occasionally even living as an ascetic.  His first story, Balyakalasakhi (Bachpan ki Dost), created a stir in literary circles when it was published in 1944 for its unusual depiction of a tragic love story between childhood sweethearts, Majeed and Zehra. And from then onwards, Basheer embarked on a literary journey that would take him onwards and onwards on the path of success and popularity despite two bouts of mental illness. Masoodul Haq’s translation (from English since like many translators in India he accesses the bhasha literatures through English which serves as an effective ‘link’ language) is luminous despite being ‘twice removed’ from the original. He carries into Urdu, seamlessly and almost effortlessly, the serene and sylvan landscape of Kerala and the unhurried pace of life of its inhabitants. Some of the poverty and want of Basheer’s own life seeps into these stories of human frailty and strength, love and compassion,

The other book under review, a translation of Turkish writer Khalida Edib’s Inside India is Dauran-e-Hind. Here, we see ample evidence of the magic that can be wrought by intelligent, insightful translations. In simple but felicitous Urdu, Masoodul Haq re-creates the warmth and beauty of Edib’s sophisticated English prose. He limns it with his own erudition without in any way distracting or diluting the solemn cadences of the original. For example, in the scholarly Introduction provided by historian Prof Mushirul Hasan to the new edition of Inside India(published by Oxford University Press, 2002), Masoodul Haq provides an added dimension; he demarcated each section of the incisely written Introduction into chapters, and provides a fragment of Urdu verse for each. Sample these: ‘Yahan aane se pehle bhi issi mehfil main thi’, Zehr-e-Hallahal ko kabhi keh na saki qand’, ‘Chale chalo ke who manzil abhi nahi aai’, and ‘Faqat zau-e-parwaz hai zindagi’.

Edib (1884-1964), one of the most acclaimed modern Turkish writers, was a woman of many parts: writer, activist, nationalist and feminist. She travelled to India and packed a hectic schedule: she met Gandhi ji and attended a mass prayer meeting;, interacted with some of the most luminous minds of the times during her stay with the family of Dr Ansari in his home ‘Dar-us-Salam’ in Delhi; travelled to cities as distant as Lahore, Peshawar, Lucknow, Banaras, Calcutta, Hyderabad and Bombay; visited the Aligarh Muslim University where the Urdu poet Majaz, then a post-graduate student, wrote a tribute to her called Nazr-e Khalida Adib Khanum; and visited the Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi during January and February 1935 where she delivered a series of lectures entitled ‘Conflict of East and west in Turkey’. This account of her travels and her interactions with the crème de la crème if Indian intelligentsia called appropriately enough Inside India, had been out of print for decades. It has been retrieved by Hasan and placed squarely within the framework of colonial and nationalist narratives. Masoodul Haq’s translation presents both – Hasan’s scholarly Introduction and copious notes and reference material as well Khalida Edib’s own deeply insightful observations – before the modern Urdu readers. The book is especially useful for the Urdu readers because it shows Edib’s concerns with nationalism, pluralism, and secularism – concerns that are as relevant today as they were 80 years ago. 

Bachpan ki Dost aur Doosri Kahaniyan, Vaikom Mohammad Basheer, translated by Masoodul Haq, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, 2010, Rs 300
Dauran-e Hind, Khalida Edib, translated by Masoodul Haq, Maktaba Jamia, New Delhi, 2009, Rs 300.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Transcript of my talk on Delhi at the India Habitat Centre, 20 Dec, 7 pm

Invisible Delhi: the Lesser-Known Monuments of Delhi and the Delhi We See But Don't See

There is a Delhi we see and a Delhi we don’t. There is the Delhi of Lutyens, and the Delhi that came up after 1947 with its tree-lined boulevards, well-kept colonies, flyovers, malls, parks, schools, colleges, and much else. And there is the other part that we don’t quite see. This other Delhi, which I like to call Invisible City, holds an embarrassment of riches in the form of countless little-known, seldom-visited, largely unheard-of tombs, mostly nameless pavilions, mosques, madarsas, pleasure gardens, baolis, cemeteries, and much else. Yet few Delhites bother to notice most of them let alone stop, enter, see, and touch some of these beautifully crafted relics. And the great pity is, that unlike the West, entry to almost all of these monuments is free.

Why is this so? What lies behind the average Dilliwallahs blitheness for the past? Is it merely because most of us are migrants from other cities and have still not, after decades, put down roots? And why has neophyte New Delhi been so quick to discard and dump the great majority of these old monuments on the rubbish heap of history, choosing to validate a bare minimum with a name, an identity and a place of visibility? Related to the city dwellers’ blasé disregard for the past is a general but larger question about the past itself: Why do certain monuments fall off the tourist map? Who decides whether a certain historical building is worth a visit or whether it ought to be consigned to oblivion? Do the custodians of these monuments – the ASI and the Waqf Board – too have a selective approach when it comes to their preservation and upkeep? Are some more worthy of their attention and others less so? If so, why?

Perhaps the answers lie in the way city planners and developers envisage the city itself. Perhaps it isn’t just the people of Delhi who see these old monuments as dribs and drabs from long-forgotten history lessons occupying, in many cases, prime real estate. Perhaps the city planners, too, see them as inconvenient stumbling blocks standing in the path of a cleaner, more modern, more cosmopolitan Delhi.  And that might explain why the two have connived to coax the forces of urban renewal to obliterate these blots on the shining, new cityscape.

Wherever it was possible to make the law look the other way, these old buildings were razed to the ground, chopped and carted away, brick by brick, stone by ancient stone to make space for modern housing estates – all in the name of ‘colonisation’ and ‘development’. A process started after the Revolt of 1857 when buildings in front of the Red Fort were razed and large parts of the According to the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites Remains Act no building activity may be permitted within 100 m and permission has to be taken from the ASI within a ‘protected area’ of 200 m even for e/renovations. There is also a fine of Rs 1 lakh or a prison term for two years for violations and I would be very interested to know how many cases are registered let alone the guilty punished as per law. This law is so routinely flouted that it is a travesty. Anyone here who has been to the villages of Khirki, Mubarakpur, Zamroodpur, Mohammadpur, and many, many others will know what I am talking about. When not pulled down or broken, the great majority of the so-called 174 ‘protected’ monuments have simply been built around. Boxed in by tightly-packed rows of unauthorized constructions that have rendered them virtually invisible, most of the monuments that I have been studying over the years have become, in a very real sense, un-visitable.

From the early 1990s, 1991 to be precise when TOI commissioned me to write a series on the urban villages of Delhi when I first began writing about these monuments, I have seen at first hand the slow effacement of many of these monuments. From one visit to the next, I have seen bits and pieces of old walls pulled down, encroachments extended, balconies of private constructions jutting out and into government-owned land, people blatantly using the wall of a ‘protected monument’ as the fourth wall of their house, sewers spilling dirty water onto or into these monuments.

I have seen baolis covered over and by the next visit built upon. I have seen more and newer constructions in areas where no construction should have been permitted in the first place. I have in mind the frenzied pace of unauthorized building activity in the vicinity of Khirki Mosque near Press Enclave and Teen Burji (in village Mohammadpur on Africa Avenue) where private residences push and jostle their way virtually up to the monument and parts of the mosque walls have been demolished. Teen Burji, for instance, stands hemmed in and gnawed away not by time or urbanisation, but by greed and corruption. It is said, that till the early years of the last century, villagers had occupied the tomb, built small mud houses and used it as a cattle shed. Those were cleared out, but the village and its denizens have been nibbling away slowly and steadily at the space that Teen Burji occupies, engulfing it in its amoeboid grasp before swallowing it up entirely.

The amoeba of greed has already gobbled up a couple of smaller monuments in the vicinity. A narrow gully leads straight from the rear of Teen Burji to another tomb that is now a store of sorts. This pretty domed building with arched niches on its façade originally had doorways on three sides that have now been blocked by adjacent houses. Further up, a mosque is similarly broken down and ‘assimilated’ into adjacent buildings. Along the southern end of Teen Burji is an octagonal tomb, now virtually inaccessible due to the gaggle of buildings close by. Only its eastern wall is visible, its roof has collapsed, while the rest has been absorbed into a private residence.

Along Africa Avenue, opposite Block B-2 of Safdarjung Enclave and to the north of St Thomas Church at the south-east end of Mohammadpur Village, stands a Tughlaq period building with its distinctive sloping walls and small dome. This was once the tomb of Musa Khan, an unknown Afghan nobleman. Its north and south openings have been walled up, its eastern opening modified to a narrow doorway. The saffron flag fluttering atop proclaims it is no longer a tomb but a temple. This change in function has happened in other instances too. I have in mind Gurudwara Dukh Bhanjan in Sadhna Enclave which has completely transformed a small Tuqhlaq period chhatri into a fully functioning gurudwara. Then there is the small Tughlaq period tomb in N Block of Greater Kailash I that has been completely renovated and turned into the Mahavir Library. That this is in complete violation of the law that says that any building that served a religious purpose till August 1947 will continue to do so seems to be a minor matter of little consequence.

In some cases where wanton disregard for the laws of the land has not been possible, where stray vigilante groups have raised voices of protest, the city has allowed – reluctantly and with ill-concealed contempt – some of these structures to stay. Like guests who have long outstayed their welcome, the city has through sheer dint of brutal neglect reduced them to mute spectators. The building all around R K Puram are a good example. Close to the market in Kidwai Nagar lie the remains of a grand three-tiered mausoleum. This is the tomb of Darya Khan Lohani – Mir Adil (Chief Justice) during Bahlol Lodi’s reign and Minister during Sikandar Lodi’s rule. Son of a nobleman called Mubarak Khan Lohani, Darya Khan died when Ibrahim Lodi was the emperor and was buried in this grand and spectacularly unusual mausoleum. Unlike any other tomb in Delhi, either of the Lodi period or before or after, this is a majestic three-storeyed affair. For years, its sole moment under the spotlight had been when the effigies of Ravan and his brothers Meghnad and Kumbhakaran were erected close beside it during the Dusshera festivities. For years no one paid any heed to the damage the noise and air pollution must have been doing to this already fragile monument, till the INTACH moved the High Court to put an end to the onslaught in 2005.

Blatantly violating the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites Remains Act that prohibits lighting of a fire close to a protected monument to prevent any damage to the structure, the police, the Ram Lila organisers as well as the area MLA insisted on burning Ravana within the Tomb enclosure. Scarred by the New Delhi Municipal Council's earlier attempt at ‘beautifying'’ its surrounding, this ancient legacy already stands in the midst of an ugly blue fountain. Newspaper reports carried the Ram Lila organisers and local worthies saying, ‘It was not on the monument just close to it. Only Ravana was near the monument.’ To my mind, the issue is not only about the burning of Ravana in a protected monument, but a reflection of how lightly history is taken. With the law enforcers as well the law framers abandoning their duty, it is unfortunately monuments like the tomb of Darya Khan Lohani that are the sufferers. Dependent on the police to take action for their complaints, the ASI is helpless and unable to protect their territory if the law enforcers decide to turn a deaf ear. After the Ram Lila and the hullabaloo temporarily over, the tomb of Darya Khan Lohani slinked back into oblivion, unvisited and unknown by those who live in the dense colonies clustered all around it.

And, yet despite the odds stacked so heavily against them, many of Delhi’s lesser-known monuments survive. In great part, this is more to do with the sturdy good-sense of their builders than any especial effort on the part of the Archaeological Survey of India who is their official guardian. Unknown and unvisited, they stand about on islands of neglect, rendered virtually invisible by the cloud of unknowingness that hangs about them. Some of us, especially those who live in South Delhi, might drive past them, or walk our dogs in their unkempt grounds, or take a shortcut through them, keeping a vigilant eye for the louts who invariably hang about ‘such parts’, but they seldom cause a blip on our radars. A measure of unknowingness is granted every time you ask for directions. People either shrug or ask: Achha, woh raja rani ka mahal? Or Quila? An old building, for most, is an old building, indistinguishable and not really worth knowing by its correct name.

While several of these monuments are liberally sprinkled all across South and Central Delhi in the midst of bustling planned colonies, a great many are buried deep inside ‘urban villages’ such as Zamroodpur, Kotla Mubarakpur, Shahpur Jat, Hauz Khas, etc. Go to any of the ‘urban villages’ (an oxymoron that makes sense only after you have actually gone to one!) of Delhi and you will be struck by the chaos and clutter of the villages and the glitter of shining India, often barely a few yards away. An invisible cordon clearly demarcates the two spaces, one neatly labeled ‘organised’, the other ‘unorganized’. You can add other epithets too: clean/filthy; authorized/unauthorized; spacious/cramped; cared for/uncared for, and so on. Why we have allowed pockets of abysmal neglect and wanton disregard for the law to co-exist – that too in such close proximity – with oases of privilege. rests on a capricious reading of the law itself. In this case it lies with a much-abused term – lal dora area. Lal dora is an Indian revenue term dating to the British period, literally signifying a border marked with a red pen to demarcate the jurisdiction of a village settlement. Through years of misuse, it has come to imply the territory of a village within which building norms and controls of local government bodies are not applicable. Most urban villages in Delhi are laid out on a certain template: outer rings ‘develop’ into high-value commercial areas while the heart of the village which also usually contains one or more old monuments increasingly becomes an inaccessible and poorly-serviced backwater. And it is these monuments that are worst casualties of this so-called development.

At this point, I want to show another set of images that speak for themselves. Evidently, the better located monuments have a better deal when it comes to care and conservation. I have in mind the Agrasen ki Baoli at Hailey Road, the shikargaah constructed by Firozshah Tughlaq which is located inside the uber-prestigious Teen Murtri House. Compare these VIP locations with those inside, say, Zamroodpur, Begumpur or worse still Kotla Mubarakpur and you realize that the same law doesn’t work in the same way in different parts of this city. Let me hasten to add that while I am mindful of the resource and other constraints under which the ASI works, I do want to show you the difference between the state of affairs in visible and less-visible parts of the city. I also want to show another set of images – from the ultra exclusive Delhi Golf Club. Here we see how ASI-owned buildings are renovated entirely according to the whims of a set of people who regard these buildings as no more that picturesque backdrops.

I also want to show some pictures of a happy middle way: examples of monuments that exist in bustling neighbourhoods, are reasonably well-kept, and very much in use as parks and common ground for leisure. I have in mind the cluster of tombs called kale Khan, Bhure Khan, Bade Khan ka Gumbad in D Block and J block of South Ext Part 1 and Moth ki Majid in Mayfair Gardens near Hauz Khas.

We end up with a different set of questions than the ones we set out with: Should historical monuments be allowed to crumble into dust or “put to good use”, that is, by being incorporated into new constructions? Or , should they be simply razed to the ground and built over? Who is to decide what stays and what goes? Also, what stays in which form and is put to which specific use? Does a monument have a sell-by date pasted on it? Does history not have a sanctity that is above current use? Must we judge history as ‘relevant’ and ‘irrelevant’? For that matter, is the past itself expendable? Must it make way for the present? Is the ASI’s way of walking a tightrope between care and conscience and deliberate brutal neglect the only way to deal with the fraught situation facing the lesser-known monuments of Delhi? Clearly, there will be more questions than answers till someone somewhere decides that there is more to conservation issues than mere catchy phrases. Till the people of this city do not take pride in ownership, till they do not appropriate these spaces I fear there will be no easy answers.

Friday, 16 December 2011

A Large White Crescent -- Review

Toheed Ahmad (ed.), A Large White Crescent: Readings in Dialogue Among Civilizations: The Pakistani Experience, Apa Publications, Lahore, 2011

At a time when Pakistan is being viewed as a rogue state bent upon a path of conflict and confrontation, we have a new book that speaks for the need for dialogue. It does so by offering a collection of readings from sources as diverse as Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Al-Beruni, Muhammad Bin Qasim and Eqbal Ahmad, Dara Shikoh and Shah Waliullah, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Amir Khusrau, M. A Jinnah and Ubaidullah Sindhi. Evidently, the book offers a potpourri of views; that it should include those who were born, in some cases, centuries before the birth of the ‘idea’ of Pakistan is illustrative. It shows, to my mind, a willingness, even need, to appropriate ideas and images that can reconstitute a legacy of thought, one that is more in tune with the exigencies of the times, and one that is more plural, more accepting of differences.

That such an approach is ‘healthy’ and ‘positive’ goes without saying. What needs to be stressed, however, is the editor’s candour. In his Introduction, Toheed Ahmad writes, ‘But all agree that the expectation explosion generated at the independence of this country in 1947, especially concerning national ideology and distributive justice, remains unfulfilled.’ His impulse in compiling these readings from across the spectrum of social, religious and political thought is to facilitate ‘cross-cultural communication’ and provide a selection of texts that will ‘serve as a profitable reading for the practitioners and theoreticians of the fast developing field of cultural diplomacy.’ Frankly, it is this last, the bit about ‘cultural diplomacy’ that piqued my curiosity. For, as we all know, it is seldom the content of such anthologies that reveals anything new; it is more the choice, the editorial voice or the intent behind a critical inclusion (or exclusion) that is far more interesting in an edited volume.

Parts of Touheed’s Ahmad’s A Large White Crescent is old wine in a new bottle, parts are not. First the old wine – full-bodied and still heady though it is; the fairly well-documented writings of Hali, Sir Syed, Iqbal fall in this category. Altaf Husain Hali’s Mussadas-Madd-o-Jazar-e-Islam (‘Story in Verse of the Ebb and Flow of Islam’) was regarded by no less a person than Sir Syed Ahmad as the harbinger of the new and the modern in Urdu literature. Hali, Deputy Nazir Ahmad, Maulvi Zakaullah and others formed a bridge between the old masters and the revivalists; they visualized a world not in terms of Islam but within the framework of a colonized world where one’s claims for survival and prosperity would be buttressed by one’s ability to come to terms with western enlightenment, all the while holding on to the staff of one’s own deep-rooted faith. The sort of optimistic Muslim response displayed by Hali in the Mussadas involved, unlike the revivalist Waliullahi tradition, not the rejection of colonial rule but its acceptance so that he arrived at a seemingly ‘subservient’ position not because he was an unquestioning admirer of British rule but because of his deep engagement with colonial rule and its manifestations. Men like Hali, Zakaullah and Nazir Ahmad – who had served the British government in one capacity or another -- saw colonialism as a necessary evil for it would, they believed most sincerely, pave the way for social re-engineering and open up prospects of growth and prosperity for all Indians, in which the Muslims too would partake.

Similarly, Sir Syed’s pamphlet Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind (‘Causes of the Indian Mutiny’) is written from the point of view of a colonized person. Written in 1858, this is the closest he comes to giving a candid account of the grievances against British Rule among the common man. But this too is written from the point of view of the loyalist who is at pains to clarify the ‘misapprehensions of the intentions of the government’ where he hastens to add, ‘had there been a native of Hindustan in the Legislative Council, the people would have never fallen into such errors.’ Sir Syed, it must be remembered, was knighted by the British in 1879 and remained all through his life a loyal subject of Her Majesty’s Government. Far from a critique of British policies, the Asbab…begins thus: ‘The proclamation issued by Her Majesty contains such ample redress for every grievance, which led up to that revolt,  that a man writing on the subject feels his pen fall from his hands.’

Unlike Sir Syed, Iqbal was no unquestioning admirer In contrast to the former’s largely self-acquired wisdom of the ways of the world, Iqbal (1877-1938) drew on the best resources of a liberal Western education. Educated at the prestigious Government College, and at Trinity College, Cambridge and in Heidelberg and Munich in Germany and also a Bar-at-Law, Iqbal was eminently well placed to question western enlightenment and English materialism on philosophical and religious grounds. However, despite his trenchant criticism of the imperial government, he surprisingly enough accepted a Knighthood in 1922. In 1927 he was elected to the Punjab Legislative Council. The philosophical essence of his writings is distilled in a series of six lectures delivered during 1928-29 at the universities in Aligarh, Hyderabad and Madras entitled Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. A section on Ijtehad has been selected by Touheed: ‘the word literally means to exert. In the terminology of Islamic law, it means to exert with a view to form an independent judgment on a legal question.’ Iqbal’s Presidential address at the Allahabad session of the All-India Muslim league in 1930 is also included; it was here that he fully propounded the idea of a separate homeland for India’s Muslims as their ‘final destiny’.

Now, we come to the new wine. The Sialkot-born, Sikh-convert Ubaidullah Sindhi (1872-1944), was a particularly fiery sort of Muslim alim, given to passionate devotion to nationalism as well as high adventure and political drama. Following in the footsteps of Maulana Mahmud Hasan of Deoband, he had left India, during World War I, to seek support of the Central Powers for a Pan-Islamic revolution in India in what came to be known as the Silk Letter Conspiracy. He reached Kabul in 1915 to rally the Afghan Amir to attack India, and shortly thereafter offered his support to Raja Mahendra Pratap's plans for a revolution in India with German support. Always a firebrand, he joined the Provisional Government of India formed in Kabul in December 1915. After several years in Kabul where he met a Turko-German delegation and men like Maulvi Barkatullah, Ubaidullah left for Russia in 1922. In Moscow he observed, at first hand, how the socialist ideology was a quick tool for mobilizing people and gaining results. Subsequently, Ubaidullah Sindhi spent two years in Turkey and, passing through many countries, eventually reached Hijaz where he spent about 14 years learning and pondering over the philosophy of Islam in the light of Shah Walliullah’s teachings. Upon his return to India, he became not just a vocal anti-imperialist but more importantly, the defender of a new social order. Tauheed has done literary historians a great service by reviving his legacy, putting together his plans documenting a Hindustani University in Kabul; the great pity is that he does so with no references, no dates, no footnoting, nothing to aid the serious scholar.

The same disregard for detail mars much of the book. The editorial notes prefacing each section are frugal, to say the least. Moreover, parts of the book are about neither dialogue nor diplomacy – cultural or otherwise. The section on Sport seems to be an altogether unnecessary insertion and is more in the nature of a straight-out eulogy. It is precisely this sort of reliving past glories and resting on one’s oars that Pakistan can do without at the present moment. The section does little else but put together editorials and reports from the 1950s that eulogise Pakistan’s victories in the field of squash and cricket.

Still, A Large White Crescent deserves to be read; for, it shows how Pakistani writers and opinion-makers view themselves and their country, how they locate themselves in the cross-currents of debate and discussion within the Islamic framework and, more importantly, where they draw their inspiration and intellectual sustenance for the trajectory they wish to forge for their fellow countrymen. The inclusion of a token non-Muslim, namely Justice Cornelius is, to my mind, diluted since the learned Judge, according to Touheed, ‘followed the moral compass of Islam’ and was, apparently, more Muslim than the Muslims. It makes A Large White Crescent more a ‘monologue’ than a ‘dialogue’ as it purports to be, but that is another matter.

(This review was published in HIMAL South Asia, Dec 2011)

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

My talk on Delhi, 20 Dec 2011, India Habitat Centre

Rashnanda Jalil.jpg

I am giving a talk on Invisible Delhi: the Neglected Monuments of Delhi and the City You See But Don't See.

Date: Tuesday, 20 December

Venue: Casuarina Hall, Basement, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi

Time: 7.00 pm.

Talk organised by INTACH and Delhi Tourism

All are welcome.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Dilli Durbar of 1911

As we in Delhi vacillate whether to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Coronation Durbar or not, it might be useful to look at some of the contemporary responses to the Dilli Durbar. Like nearly everything else in modern Indian history, we find there is no uniform, monochromatic, monolithic response either to the shifting of the imperial capital or the presence of firang royalty in one’s midst.

Held in Delhi on the 12th day of December 1911, the coronation durbar was an occasion where, with great pomp and ceremony, King George V and Queen Mary were proclaimed the Emperor and Empress of India. Princes, noblemen, landed gentry and persons of rank and repute sat under a gilded canopy, each according to his stature in the colonial pecking order, to hear His Royal Highness address His subjects. While this durbar, the third and last of its kind held in Delhi, was significant for various reasons, chiefly it marked the return of the imperial capital to Delhi from Calcutta and heralded the onset of near-feverish building activity in the new city. A bit like the Commonwealth Games 99 years later, the Delhi Durbar of 1911 marked frantic preparations to ‘present’ the city to the world. While some preparations for the durbar, such as those in Coronation Park, were of a temporary nature to serve the purpose of the brief royal visit, several other blueprints were shortly drawn up that would, over the next twenty years, transform the hilly outcrops that lay beyond Shajahanabad into a grand imperial city.

While the royal couple had laid the foundation stone for the new capital city within the durbar camp, it was eventually decided to shift it elsewhere: somewhere sufficiently far away from the old city of the Mughals so that the distinction between the Old and the New Delhi would be sharply evident. The village of Raisina offered a salubrious air and excellent views of the surrounding countryside from its top; moreover, it had enough space all around for a new city, laid out according to a grand master plan, to spread itself out. By 1912 Edward Lutyens and Herbert Baker were commissioned to build the new capital: one that would reflect the aims and aspirations of a city that would, henceforth, be not merely the beating heart of the political entity that was India but also embody the Imperial vision in its fullest and minutest detail.

To return to the momentous event of December 1911, it must be noted that the Delhi Durbar had evoked mixed reactions among the Indian populace. This high point of British rule in India was viewed and interpreted in different ways by different people. There was the satirical, questioning Urdu poet Akbar Illahabadi (1846-1921) deriding the Durbar because he saw it as an affront to national pride:
            They are favoured with rising fortune:
            The seven-fold heavens belong to them.
Theirs is the cup and theirs the wine:
Only the eyes are mine: the rest belongs to them.

Ahmed Ali’s seminal novel, Twilight in Delhi, carries a similarly sharp critique of colonial excess in his portrayal of the grief and heartbreak of Delhi’s Muslims through the character of Mir Nihal who goes to see the royal procession, and notes:
The procession passed by the Jama Masjid whose façade had been vulgarly decorated with a garland of golden writing containing slavish greetings from the Indian Mussalmans to the English King, displaying the treachery of the priestly class to their people and Islam.

We get yet another response to the Delhi Durbar in the writings of influential Urdu writers and editors. A few months before the Dilli Durbar, on 22 June 1911, King George V’s coronation had been celebrated by the Muslims of Lahore at a gathering in the Shahi Mosque, and among the speakers was the poet, Iqbal who emphasized the Muslims’ bounden duty to bear allegiance to the ruler of the day.

There was another response, too, to the Delhi Durbar -- one of acquiescence, even celebration – in other parts of the country. Rabindranath Tagore’s, Jana gana mana which was later to become India’s National Anthem, was first sung in Calcutta to celebrate the ‘Dilli Durbar’ at the annual session of the Congress, under the leadership of moderates like Surendranath Banerjee who had decided to accord an appropriate welcome to the visiting royal couple. Besides adopting a loyalty resolution, the leaders arranged for the singing of a suitable song to mark the occasion. The sequence of events on December 27 1911, on the second day of the session, was as follows: (a) singing of Jana gana mana adhinayaka; (b) reading out of messages of goodwill received from well-wishers including Ramsay McDonald, the British Labour Prime Minister; (c) adoption of the loyalty resolution; and (d) singing of a Hindi song in praise of the King specially composed for this purpose.

(. This article appeared in The Indian Express, The Real Page 3, 11 December 2011.)