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Friday, 21 September 2012

Hajira Masroor -- A Tribute

A long time ago, there was a Muslim middle class in India. With one or both parents educated and the father employed in government service, the daughters of such homes were encouraged to read and write and the family took pride in literary accomplishments. One such family was that of the Bronte sisters of Urdu fiction, Ayesha, Khadija and Hajira. Of the three, Ayesha died in comparative anonymity while Khadija and Hajira lived on to enjoy great name and fame as master storytellers and created a niche for themselves in the world of Urdu afsananigari.

Hajira, who died recently at the age of 82, exemplified that world of Muslim middle class with the ease of one who had lived in it. Unlike Rashid Jahan (her predecessor) and Ismat Chughtai (a near contemporary), she chose to tell her stories in a simple and straightforward manner with no overt attempt at being bold or provocative. The progressives, who encouraged the participation of women in all walks of life, had a fair sprinkling of women writers amidst their ranks. While the stories of Rashid Jahan and Ismat reflect the currents of contemporary thought and the testimony of strong-willed, outspoken, independent-minded women who were often at odds with the men in their lives, the generation that followed them wanted to wanted to present a ‘slice of life’ without necessarily finding the need to shock or startle their readers.  Razia Sajjad Zaheer, Hajira Masroor, Khadija Mastoor, Siddiqa Begum Seoharvi, Shakila Akhtar, and Sarla Devi each did this in their way but Hajira and Khadija scored over their contemporaries for greater command over their craft.

Born on 17 January 1930 in Lucknow in a home that was lit by the lamp of new learning (the nai taleem movement spearheaded by men like Sir Syed Khan) she grew up, surrounded by books and literary journals. Her father, a doctor in the British army, died very young leaving his family in a state of genteel poverty. The royalties earned by the two sisters, though frugal, sustained the family first in their years in India and later when they moved to Pakistan. As the sisters’ fame grew, so did the royalties and soon both Khadija and Hajira were not merely established names but earning reasonably well from the fruits of their literary labours. Hajira, in fact, became the first editor of a literary journal when she took to editing Nuqoosh as co-editor with Ahmed Nadeem Qasimi, creating a record of sorts.

While Hajira no doubt drew upon her experiences as a middle-class Muslim woman, unlike Ismat Chughtai with whom she was often compared in the early years, the constant overwhelming presence of the writer’s larger-than-life persona is missing. Hajira is never haavi over her subject. Her strength lay in creating character and evoking ambience; the early stories were especially liked for the whiff of qasbati life they carried and the picture of forgotten corners of the Awadh region they painted with such authenticity. A story like Hai Allah, which drew her early acclaim from critics and readers like, established her reputation. Undoubtedly written from a women’s perspective, stories such as Chori Chhupe, Bhag Bhari, evoke a world view that could only have emerged from a woman’s pen. While it is true that her interest was primarily in women, it is also true that she saw women in the larger social context; the story about a mad woman on the last railway station in the story called Pagli (later made into a film called Aakhri Station) being one such example.  Possibly, under the early influence of the progressives, she and her sister Khadija chose to write socially-engaged, purposive fiction rather than the romantic, domesticated fiction that had been popularized by writer such as Hijab Imtiaz Ali and others. However, the ideological fervor and socially-committed zeal as well as the topicality that earned some progressives the tag of propagandists never a found a place in Hajira’s measured, controlled, defined world.

In later years, in an interview for Radio Pakistan that can be accessed on YouTube, Hajira reacts strongly to the interviewer’s suggestion that she wrote women’s stories. Making a distinction between zanana adab (writing for women) and khwateein afsana nigar (women writers), she makes amply evident her displeasure for labels and compartmentalization. Pointing out, quite rightly, that literary critics ought to be concerned with literary merit (or its absence) rather than the gender of the writer. At the same time, she conceded that while both she and Manto witnessed the partition, but its depiction would vary vastly not merely due to their difference of gender but also of perspective and circumstance. In the words of a critic, Hajira knew how to lance the festering wound of a sick society, but she also knew how to apply a soothing balm.
Inexplicably, the pen that had written so effectively and prolifically for so long, stilled itself for the last thirty years of her life. Becoming the Greta Garbo of the world of Urdu letters, Hajira not only became a recluse but chose to refrain from literary activity in any form whatsoever. By all accounts, the bonds of domesticity and housekeeping over-rode other bonds – those she had forged with the literary community over a span of nearly 40 years. If this is so – and frankly not having met her I cannot say what dictated her decision to not write – it does make one wonder if, somewhere somehow,  tradition wins over modernity when it comes to successful woman? That a writer who has been consistently hailed as a feminist writer should choose to bask in the shade of an eminent and successful husband foregoing her own hard-won name and fame? Would a man – any man – forsake a career, a lucrative and successful one, as a writer over domesticity? What compels a woman – no matter how willingly – to abandon something that lies at the heart of her being? Does a woman set such impossibly high standards for herself that she chooses to abstain rather than miss the mark of her own raised bar?
In an interview to veteran journalist, Asif  Noorani in 2002, Hajira had declared her intention of one day writing her memoir. Unfortunately, she chose to end her self-imposed exile by walking into the endless night without having done so. Possibly it is left to the successive generation of women writers to walk the fine line between tradition and modernity, domesticity and worldly success, individuality and multiple role-playing to reach a space where the twain can meet.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Manto's Daughter's -- In Today's Crest, Times of India

‘He loved cleanliness and order,’ said Nighat Patel, the eldest of Saadat Hasan Manto’s three daughters on a recent visit to India. Disarming in her simplicity and complete lack of pretensions, literary of otherwise, Nikhat inadvertently offered us a clue to what made her father write – with a relentlessness that few writers can possess – of the horrors and brutality that scarred an entire generation. A witness to history, Manto has been accused of being a voyeur and a pervert for his ceaseless exploration of the dark underbelly of society. When Nikhat spoke of his great love for cleanliness, of sweeping the floor of their one-bedroom flat in Bombay, of putting a few drops of Dettol when he shaved, of wearing clean white clothes at home, she has at long last opened a small window, one that allows us to understand why and how the times he lived in outraged his sensibilities, affronted his sense of the way things should be and violated his sensitivity towards disorder and filth.

Dressed in simple salwar suits, Manto’s three daughters – Nikhat Patel, Nuzhat Arshad and Nusrat Jalal -- spoke in halting, simple sentences in a mixture of convent-school English and Punjabi-inflected Urdu. While Nuzhat has recently retired as a teacher and Nusrat volunteers with a hospice near Lahore’s Mayo Hospital, the eldest admitted, quite cheerfully, to doing ‘nothing’! Looking like upper-middle class ‘Aunties’ from any South Delhi neighbourhood, they were a far cry from the Sultanas and Sugandhis of Manto’s ouvre. Yet they did tell us of how their father would make their mother, Safiya, read all his stories, even the most explicit ones and ask her what she thought of them. Safiya, the daughters say, was  a remarkably simple, even innocent person; she would read the stories with a perfectly blank expression causing Manto to ask her (in Punjabi) if she had understood and, knowing she hadn’t,  proceed to explain what he had meant to say through his latest shocking take on the life around him, as he understood it.

On an ‘emotional journey’ to India, to visit Papraudi, near Samrala, the three confess to being overwhelmed. Though unconnected to the world of letters, they know that their father is now widely translated into many languages and is recognised as a ‘global writer, they are nevertheless astounded by the love and affection that they have been continually receiving virtually since the minute they crossed the border at Wagah and stepped, quite literally, on a red carpet. A host of organisations have come together to make this visit a memorable one: the Aalami Urdu Trust, the Samrala Lekhak Manch and the Manto Foundation, the last being an Amritsar-based organisation of energetic Manto-lovers who plan to hold Manto-related events all through this year that marks Manto’s centenary. In Amritsar, Delhi and Samrala, local organisations have gone out of their way to host the three sisters and extract memories of a man who is more loved and more read in India than the country that became his home in the last years of his life.

Nikhat, the eldest and also the slightly more talkative of the three, talks of the crowds that lined the roads, showering flower petals at them as they travelled to lay the foundation stone of a gateway in their father’s memory. However, as Nusrat pointed out, more than Samrala – where Manto’s father was posted as sub-judge at the time of his birth – it is Amritsar that can lay claim to its lost son. For, the Manto family had lived in the Kucha Vakilan neighbourhood of this historic city and it was Amritsar that shaped the young Manto’s literary and political sensibilities. It was in Amritsar, too, that Manto heard of the October Revolution from mentors such Bari sahib and learnt to write ‘Russia-inspired’ stories.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Pico Iyer's The Man Within My Head

Some writers have the spirit of a voyeur. Perhaps none exemplified it better than Graham Greene, the British novelist, playwright and critic, who delighted in his lifelong role of the outsider looking in. His characters, like him, are forever wrenched from their moorings, forever on the move in search of new places, themes and people. But everywhere they go, they remain strangers. In a curious case of life imitating art, we have some one like Pico Iyer, a writer and inveterate traveller, finally writing about the man who has lived inside his head, a man who has influenced Iyer’s ouvre in more ways than he can enumerate, a writer with whom he has had a relationship that is almost obsessive-compulsive. From the day Iyer first read Greene as a schoolboy in a tony British boarding school, the theme that dominated Greene’s writings – that of a the perpetual outsider – became, in a sense, his own, too; it has coloured almpst everything Iyer has written.

A regular contributor to the Time magazine as well as author of seven works of non-fiction and two novels, Iyer has travelled extensively across the world. The son of Indian academics Raghavan N. Iyer, an Oxford philosopher and Theosophist and Nandini Nanak Mehta, a religious scholar who taught at California, Iyer grew up shuttling between America and Britain. Now, married to a Japanese woman, he lives in Kyoto. Straddling cultures and civilisations, grappling with notions of self and identity, home and the world, Iyer grew up to become a global citizen. Like values and friendships, ‘home’ for him is both invisible and portable, something he carries with him like an overnight bag, as he has said in an interview. Whether consciously or unconsciously, his life resembles that of the writer who has most influenced him – Graham Greene who was as peripatetic as Iyer has been all his life.

The Man Within My Head is an extended search for similarities. Iyer goes to places that Greene went to, revisits bars, talks to barmen and bargirls, meets people who knew Greene,  in short takes a long walk down the road that Greene walked almost a half century ago. What is more, he reimagines situations, observes scenes straight out of a Greene story, even writes stories Greene might have written! Why would an established and much-feted writer such as Iyer do that? With a lesser literary talent, it might be seen as literary impersonation but not with someone as prodigiously talented and erudite as Iyer.

Possibly, the answer lies deep inside Iyer’s psyche. Greene’s stories of exploration and escape, romance and chivalry at unexpected places and with unexpected people, stories of innocence and pragmatism, faith and doubt, stories of sinners and saints find an echo in Iyer due to the peculiarities of his own upbringing and education. For both Greene and Iyer travel is a way ‘to see more clearly the questions and shadows it is easy to look past at home’.  For both, the human predicament is of abiding interest, as is the ‘possibility of kindness and honesty even in the midst of our confusions and our sins’. Both have a deep-seated, instinctive compassion for ‘wounded, lonely, seared’ mortals. In writing this book (which I must, confess, reminded me in parts of an extended ‘tutorial’, those wordy, prosy long-winded essays we aspired to write back in my days at Miranda House as  a student of literature), Iyer is on a personal odyssey. He could have written a biography if all he wanted was to write about Greene; instead, he has written, what he calls, a ‘counterbiography’. ‘I’m interested in the things that lived inside him,’ Iyer writes. ‘His terrors and obsessions. Not the life, as it were, but what it touched off in the rest of us.’ What emerges from this rambling, reflexive narrative is a realisation: ‘We run and run from who we are – this was Greene’s theme from the beginning – only to discover, of course, that that is precisely what we can never put behind us.’
(This review first appeared in The Herald, Karachi, September 2012)

Also Read:

1.      The Quiet American by Graham Greene (London, Heinemann, 1955), a British and American journalist vie for the attention of a young Vietnamese woman in war-torn Saigon.

2.      Tropical Classical: Essays From Several Directions by Pico Iyer (New York Knopf, 1997),  book reviews and essays on people and places.

3.      The Gentleman in the Parlour by Somerset Maugham (London, Random House, 1930), the master story teller who influenced both Greene and Iyer, at his best while travelling through Ceylon, Rangoon, Mandalay, Bangkok, Cambodia, Saigon, Hongkok and across the pacific.