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Thursday, 31 October 2013

Invite for Hindustani Awaaz event

All RUMI lovers, listen up...

Fahmida Riaz, feminist, poet and writer, will speak about Rumi in our monthly series 'Why It Speaks to Me'.

Her talk will be followed by a Q&A session moderated by Subodh Lal.

Organised by Hindustani Awaaz in collaboration with the Attic.
Date: Thursday, 31 Oct
Time: 6.30 pm sharp
Venue: The Attic, Regal Building, Connaught Place, New Delhi

Please join us for Tea at 6.00 pm.

Monday, 21 October 2013


Another new book, a collection of Urdu short stories, edited by me. Called NEW URDU WRITINGS: FROM INDIA AND PAKISTAN, it has 30 stories reflecting the best of contemporary Urdu fiction. Published by Westland, it will be formally launched in November. Meanwhile, it is available on Flipkart and other online stores as well as major bookstores in India. Here is a link:

New Urdu Writings from India & Pakistan (Paperback) Price: Rs.328

This could easily be for audiences who read in both languages: Hindi and English. Further with Sufism coming up on the charts in music and films, this anthology could well become a favorite with those who are passionate about the sensibilities in the subcontinent: India, Pakistan and even Bangladesh. The sense of a great literary tradition and emotions which are similar. As the editor of this collection, Rakhshanda Jalil makes it amply clear in the Introduction It will make very little difference if you read this book from back to front or the other, more conventional way, around and puts the 30 stories from India and Pakistan in the context of a shared language involving similar emotions. If in the Mourner of the Feet, an itinerant shoe witnesses an adulterous wife with merciless hips conducting her marital life, in Revulsion a young boy chances upon the sexual escapades of an ageing maid with young servant boys, almost mirroring the desperation of the household ; in Joginder Pauls story, the futility of war between countries throws up a tragic-comic situation involving the picture of a girl child, even as a father awaiting his sons arrival on an airplane fervently prays for his co-travellers in Mansha Yads story; Laila in Jeelani Banos Empty Bottles is urban affluent and decidedly rejects her poetic lover for the comforts in her parents home and Sonu in Tarannum Riyazs City struggles to care for his infant sister and a dead mother in their fortified and spacious flat; Farzana blames her burqa for her transgression involving the murder of her children while Noor Bano is forcibly married to the Holy Quran and defiantly.

My new book, Excelsior: The Story of Wynberg-Allen School

Here is the cover of my new book, Excelsior: the Story of Wynberg-Allen School, published by Niyogi Books. The book celebrates the history of this 125-year old institution and revisits the legacy of Anglo-Indian schools to the Indian school system:

Monday, 23 September 2013

Mera Paigham Mohabbat Hai, 26 Sept: Invite

Hindustani Awaaz, in collaboration with the Attic and SAHMAT, takes great pleasure in inviting you to an evening of poetry recitations.


thursday 26th september
6.30 pm “Mera paighaam mohabbat hai” organized by Hindustani Awaaz & SAHMAT

An evening with SAHMAT – to coincide with the three-day seminar on Secularism and the Arts -- where Saif Mahmood, Panini Anand and Kanishka Prasad take you through a journey of the pluralistic landscape and secular ethos of Urdu and Hindi poetry.

Saif Mahmood
Saif Mahmood is a New Delhi-based litigating and corporate lawyer, holding a doctorate in Comparative Constitutional Laws in South Asia. He speaks and writes on diverse issues ranging from law to literature. Founder of the online group, South Asian Alliance for Literature, Art & Culture (SAALARC), he remembers most of his Ghalib, Iqbal and Faiz by heart, recites them effortlessly and translates them into English cautiously. Saif has been associated with both Hindustani Awaaz and SAHMAT. He blogs on and is currently writing a series on Urdu poets of Delhi titled “Dilli jo ek sheher tha”.

Panini Anand
A fearless journalist and courageous writer, Panini Anand, has been involved in theatre, documentaries, puppet shows, songs and poetry for mass movements and people’s struggles for more than a decade. He has frequently aroused audiences with his heart-warming recitation of prominent as well as lesser-known Hindi poets alike.

Kanishka Prasad
Architect by profession, photographer by passion, peoples’ rights activist in practice and romantic at heart, Kanishka Prasad is almost omnipresent when it comes to literature, art and culture. His mobile handset is a repository of Hindustani poetry and his calendar reads like a Delhi Diary.  Having inherited a rich cultural, literary and academic milieu, Kanishka has been involved with SAHMAT since childhood.

A Seminar on Secularism, followed by poetry readings

Friends, I have helped put together a seminar on Secularism with SAHMAT. The seminar will be from 26-28 Sept at the Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi. The details are given below. Do try and come for some of the sessions.
Also, join us on the evening of 26th September at the Attic, Regal Building to hear Saif Mahmood, Panini Anand and Kanishka Prasad recite poetry in a programme entitled 'Mera Paigham Mohabbat Hai'. This part of the programme is in collaboration with Hindustani Awaaz and the Attic.
 All are welcome.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Pages from Mamu's Autograph Book, circa 1947

Flipping through the pages of my Mamu's ancient, somewhat battered Autograph Book (Mamu is Masha Allah close to 75 years of age), I came across this little nugget by Sahir Ludhianvi, written in his own hand:

Hameen se rang-e-gulistan, hameen se rang-e-bahar
Hameen ko nazm-e-gulistan pe ikhtiyar nahiin


Btw, Mamu's Autograph Book contains gems from some of the greatest writers, thinkers, poets, teachers of his times including the one much-quoted one by Zakir sahib, 'Jo kaam karo dil laga kar karo; agar woh iss qabil hai ke kiya jaye to iss qabil bhi hai ke dil laga ke kiya jaye.'

Here's another gem from Mamu's Autograph Book; this one is by his own father, Ale Ahmad Suroor and is dated October 1947:

Kaash tumhe hum se achcha zamana mile aur uss zamane ke badalne mein tumhara bhi hissa ho. Mulk aur qaum se mutalba kum karo; usse do bahut kuchch. Yeh baat mushkil hai magar badi baat hai.

And another treasure, a sher by his father Ale Ahmad Suroor:

Har ek jannat ke raste ho ke dozakh se nikalte hain
Unnhi ka haq hai phoolon pe jo angaron pe chalte hain

Haqayaq unn se takra kar naye pahloo badalte hain
Bade hii sakht jaan hote hain jo khwaabon pe palte hain

On Bhimbhetka, in The Hindu, 1 September 2013

My article on Bhimbhetka, near Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh in The Hindu, 1 September 2013. It begins with these lines by Ijlal Majeed, the Urdu poet from Bhopal:

Jangal jangal phire darinda
Gharon mein but garhe darinda

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Invite for 29 Aug: Why Sahir Ludhianvi Speaks to Me

Dear Friends, I am delighted to announce the next event in the Hindustani Awaaz series 'Why it Speaks to me'.

 Pervaiz Alam, broadcaster-journalist-academic, will tell us why Sahir Ludhianvi 'speaks' to him on Thursday, 29 August 2013.

Venue: The Attic, Regal Building, Connaught place, New Delhi
Time: 6.30 pm sharp

Please join us for Tea at 6.00 pm.

All are invited.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Syed Rafiq Hussain's The Mirror of Wonders: A review

The Mirror of Wonders and other tales by Syed Rafiq Hussain, Translated by Saleem Kidwai, Yoda Press, New Delhi, 2013, Rs 250, pp. 165.

Syed Rafiq Hussain’s literary career was as remarkable as it was brief. A challenge issued by his younger sister and daughter spurred him to write in Urdu, a language he could barely read. Claiming that the ‘difference between English and Urdu literature was like that between a spinning wheel and a cotton mill or a bullock cart and a train’, he felt no need to read Urdu fiction. Yet, he chose to pick up the gauntlet thrown by his sister and daughter and write something to improve the prevailing standard! Replete with spelling mistakes, Hussain wrote the outlines of his stories in a mixture of Urdu and English. He would bring the drafts, written in his unformed Urdu handwriting, to the two ladies who would go over it painstakingly and insert Urdu phrases for the English ones. His niece recalls those frenetic sessions: ‘Between him, his sister and daughter there was a special bond; they also played an intellectual game between themselves where each had to tell a tale which made an assigned impossible situation probable.’

Hussain’s first short story, ‘Kalua’, was about a dog. In a short autobiographical sketch, he reveals the method behind his seeming madness: ‘Before I wrote [‘Kalua’] I walked all those streets and lanes of Lucknow where Kalua had wandered. The details of the railway crossing at Aish Bagh, where Kalua sniffs at the corpse of his mentor Bucha are still etched in my mind.’ Hussain wrote over a span of less than a decade, crafting his stories during his spells of unemployment and never accepted remuneration for any of his stories. He died of cancer in 1944; his first collection, Aina-e-Hairat (‘The Mirror of Wonders’) was published a fortnight after his death.

Hussain’s personal life was unconventional, to say the least. Born in 1895, he lost his mother at the age of seven; after some haphazard home tutoring and erratic schooling, he ran away from home. He reached Bombay with a bundle of books on mathematics and two sets of clothes, worked as a coolie in a foundry, carried iron for 12 hours a day, ate at roadside eateries and studied. Eventually, he took admission in an Engineering College in Bombay, was reunited with his family and after quitting several jobs found himself working on the Sharada canal in the Terai region. The Terai exercised a spell over him and appeared in his writings in all its vastness and mystery. Its densely forested tracts, its ravines and gullies, its valleys crisscrossed by many rivulets and the animals, especially the tigers, that had made it their home for centuries appear in this collection in a manner that is startlingly new even for English readers; when they first appeared in Urdu they must have charted unknown territory.

For someone who claimed to hate animals and never kept pets, Hussain showed a keen eye for detail in describing the behaviour of animals. Also, for someone who claimed to have read ‘four or five’ Urdu books, his stories established his reputation as a prose stylist and master story teller; the fact that this reputation rested on the eight stories included in the collection that, incidentally, comprised his entire ouvre, is no small feat. Combining the lyricism of William Wordsworth’s nature poetry with the exactitude of Jim Corbett’s shikar stories, The Mirror of Wonder and Other Tales is quite unlike anything in the repository of modern Urdu literature.

‘Unfortunately, my intelligence and the fickleness of my temperament had ruined me,’ Hussain writes with no trace of false modesty. And elsewhere, he admits: ‘I am a small man, I am true, I am mad, I am crazy. Whatever I am, here I am.’ Arrogant and enigmatic, yes, but also immensely talented and profoundly philosophical as is borne out by these stories that deserve to be read at leisure rather than described in a few short sentences for the purpose of this review. Yoda Press is to be congratulated for re-discovering these hidden gems, immaculately translated by Saleem Kidwai.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Invite for Hindustani Awaaz programme, 30 May, at the Attic

All are welcome. Please see details below...

thursday 30th may
6.30 pm Tarannum Riyaz will speak on 'Why Qurratulain Hyder and her epic novel, Aag ka Darya, speaks to me'.

'Monthly Monologue: Why it Speaks to Me?'
Hindustani Awaaz, in collaboration with The Attic, presents a monthly series of monologues: Poetry, literature, short stories, plays, essays, nazms, ghazals. A series of eclectic speakers will present/sing/recite their favourite Urdu text and explain why the text ‘speaks’ to them the way it does. We hope this series will highlight a neglected aspect of the Delhi cultural scene.

Qurratulain Hyder was an influential Urdu novelist, short story writer, academic and a journalist. One of the most outstanding literary names in Urdu literature, she began writing at a time when the novel was yet to take deep roots as a serious genre in the poetry-oriented world of Urdu literature. She instilled in it a new sensibility and brought into its fold strands of thought and imagination hitherto unexplored.

She graduated from IT College, Lucknow and moved to Pakistan in 1947, then lived in England before finally returning to India in 1960.

She is best known for her magnum opus, Aag Ka Darya (River of Fire), a novel first published in Urdu in 1959, from Lahore, Pakistan, that stretches from the 4th century BC to post partition of India.

She received the 1967 Sahitya Akademi Award in Urdu for Patjhar Ki Awaz (Short stories), 1989 Jnanpith Award for Akhire Shab Ke Humsafar. She also received the Padma Bhushan from the Government of India in 2005.

Tarannum Riyaz is a Kashmiri novelist, poet, critic, columnist, short story writer and essayist; she writes in Urdu and Punjabi. Her works include Barf Aashna Parindey (novel, 2009); Mera Rakhte Safar (short stories, 2008); Fareb-e-Khitta-e-Gul (four novellas, 2008); Purani Kitaabon ki Khusbhu (poetry, 2005); Chashme Naqshe Kadam (critical essays, 2005); Beeswi Sadi Mein Khawateen Ka Urdu Adab (anthology, 2005); Moorti (novel, 2002); Yimberzal (short stories; 2002); Ababeelain Laut Aaengi (short stories, 2000); and Yeh Tang Zameen (short stories,1998). Tarranum Riyaz is the recepient of several awards.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Shamshad Begum: Obit

There was a time in the history of Hindi cinema when the singer was the song, when the persona of the singer did not exist;the listener heard and was entranced by the song and its words. We have moved a long way from that age of self-effacing artistes. Reality TV and live shows have brought the singer centre stage and made the singer a 'performer' in a manner that playback singers of yore could never have dreamt of.
Nothing illustrates this better than the recent death of Shamshad Begum at the age of 94 on 23 April at a suburban hospital in Mumbai. Shamshad Begum who made her debut as a radio artiste and went on to steal millions of hearts with a voice that was as remarkable as it was powerful, died unsung and largely unknown.
Perhaps it is one of the ironies of fate that at a time when Hindi cinema is celebrating its centenary with a series of high-octane, eyeball-grabbing extravaganzas many of its stalwarts continue to live on the fringes of popular consciousness and die - when not in abject poverty and hardship - certainly without any of the benefits that today's stars take very much for granted. Coming from a conservative family, Shamshad chose to shy away from the camera yet could not hide her light under a bushel when it came to her stunningly formidable voice. Over the decades, while her numerous songs continue to be aired, she herself remained unrecognised.
In her heyday, as a playback singer, such was the range and depth of her voice that every note she sang was distinct from that of her near-contemporaries such as the Mangeshkar sisters and Geeta Dutt. Perhaps that is why she has sung songs for the heroine as well as the vamp, the village belle as well as the courtesan. The duet she sang with Mohammad Rafi for the film CID (1956) - Leke pehla pehla pyar - is redolent with the fervour of young love. Then there is the qawwali from Mughal-e-Azam : Teri mehfil mein qismat aazma kar hum bhi dekhenge (sung with Lata Mangeshkar) that is remembered even today for its archness and coquetry. Another of her songs still enjoyed in its remixed version is Kajra mohabbatwala akhiyon mein aisa dala sung with Asha Bhonsle for Kismat (1968); like several of Shamshad Begum's songs this too was composed by O P Nayyar, who possibly knew better than most how to use this powerful voice in the matrix of popular Hindi cinema.
Some of her other songs that were a rage in their time and are still remembered include: Milte hi aankhen dil hua deewana kisi ka with Talat Mahmood for Babul; Chali chali kaisi yeh hawa chali with Usha Mangeshkar for Bluff Master; Kabhi aar kabhi paar laga teer-e-nazar for Aar Paar; O gadiwale gadi dhirey haank re and Holi aaye re Kanhai for Mother India. As anyone who remembers this 'golden era' of Hindi film songs will vouch, if there was the alhadpana (playfulness) of a gurgling brook in Boojh mera kya naam re there was also the sombreness of Naina bhar aye neer, the entreaty of Nazar phero na humse and the poignancy of Chod babul ka ghar in Shamshad Begum's oeuvre. Then there were also the romantic duets such as the one with Kishore Kumar, Meri neendon main tum, mere khwabon mein tum, that effortlessly conjured a far-off world
Years later, it is hard to imagine Saiyan dil mein aana re from the film Bahar or the evergreen hit Mere piya gaye Rangoon, wahan se kiya hai telephoon from Patanga sung by anyone else but Shamshad Begum. Or, Reshmi salwar kurta jaali ka...

Sunday, 7 April 2013

The Blind Man's Garden by Nadeem Aslam: A Review

Every now and then you read a book that surprises you by its combination of contraries. No matter how rich a lode of raw material a writer may have struck, nor how vast or variegated a canvas he may have appropriated, regardless even of how talented or dedicated he might be, he evokes exasperation rather absorption in his reader. Not consistently, not always but every now and then, sometimes every few pages but enough to make you put down the book, and pick it up again through sheer dint of will power. For, I must confess, were it not for the purpose of writing this review I would have abandoned Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden after the first 50-odd pages. I must also confess that the loss would have been mine. For all its ponderousness and portentousness, The Blind Man’s Garden, hides within it a story that was waiting to be told.

Shortly after the American bombing of Afghanistan, we had heard of the countless Pakistanis who volunteered to help the victims of the west’s ‘war on terror’; some crossed the porous border into Afghanistan, others flocked to shelters and refugee camps to help the waves of Afghan refugees who sought safe haven on Pakistan soil. But save for stray newspaper reports, largely one-sided depending on where or by whom they were being published,  no substantial account emerged of the compulsions of those who offered help, of what they saw and experienced, let alone the reception they met at the hands of the ‘victims’. In this, his fourth novel, Nadeem Aslam takes off from his previous book, The Wasted Vigil, which had dealt with the depravity and horrors of Taliban territory. In fact, all of Aslam’s literary offering have been marked by the confrontation of the East and the West, the Islamophobia that has gripped the West and the murder and mayhem unleashed by the events of 9/11.

‘History’ is the third parent,’ so begins The Blind Man’s Garden as it sets off to explore the flawed marriage between politics and religion. It is October, a month after the attacks on the Twin Towers. American forces have launched a military offensive; the buildings, orchards and hills of Afghanistan are being bombed, for an aggrieved America has decided that there can be ‘no innocent people in a guilty nation’. Rohan and his son, Jeo, travel from Heer, an imaginary town somewhere in Pakistan, to Peshawar where the wounded and injured are being brought in. Mikal, Rohan’s foster son and the son of Communist arrested and never seen again, is also planning to offer help; while Jeo is a third-year medical student, Mikal works at a gun repair shop where a day after the West invaded Afghanistan a ‘piety discount’ is being offered to those who wish to buy an AK 47 to go to jihad. Jeo and Mikal cross the border and are promptly sold to the Taliban; they find themselves amidst a ragtag army of jihadis from the wider Muslim world: Egyptians, Algerians, Saudis, Yemenis, Uzbeks and Chechens. Jeo is killed shortly thereafter in an American attack on a Taliban fortification and a grievously wounded Mikal taken prisoner by a warlord ‘who cut off the trigger finger on each of his hands and nailed the two pieces to a doorframe along with those taken from dozens of other captives.’

What follows is an unimaginable litany of horrors: A game called ‘Nail’ where a captive is asked his age; if the boy says twelve, he is raped by twelve men, if he says fourteen, then fourteen men are sent to him all of whom keep shouting ‘Nail! Nail! Nail” as they go about brutalising him. Desperate parents of captive boys who sell off a kidney to pay the ransom seekers who may be defeated or banished Taliban, al-Qaeda gangs or rogue warlords.  A room filled with the rubble of the broken Buddha and his companions. A graveyard of vandalised Russian helicopters, MiGs and Hinds covered with lichens. Blood-thirsty bandits bartering their prisoners for ransom, or failing that putting them to hard labour like galley slaves from an ancient age. With all the solemn ponderousness of a church bell, Aslam’s voice pierces through the veils of dispassionate reporting as, for instance, when he observes:

‘The opposite of war is not peace but civilisation, and civilisation is purchased with violence, and cold-blooded murder. With war. The man [a warlord] must earn millions of dollars for guarding the NATO supply convoys as they pass through his area, and for the militia he must have raised to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda soldiers alongside American Special Forces.’

Interspersed with the brutalities of a war-ravaged land and horrifying vignettes of a people desensitised by a relentless, never-ending chaos and carnage, is a tender love-story – between Mikal and Naheed, Jeo’s widow. Mikal, who reminded me constantly of Ayn Rand’s iconic protagonist, Howard Roark, because of his self-destructive idealism, who has come to Afghanistan to fight a holy war, instead finds himself wounded and enslaved, brutalised and humiliated, trapped and sold for $5000 to the Americans. Through a series of incongruous twists and turns – no less incongruous than the war that has devastated countless lives – Mikal rescues an American stranger. In the end, while the American is rescued and spirited away in a Chinook helicopter Mikal’s own fate is left ambiguous. ‘Damaged and scarred, he is still perfect’; he appears as a ghost to convince Naheed, the love of his life, to continue with her life without him. Aslam’s last words are moving and prophetic: ‘The insects weave a gauze of sound in the air. She moves towards him and her eyes are full of a still intensity – as though aware of the unnamed, unseen forces in the world, and attempting in her mind to name and see them.’ Perhaps, it is these unnamed unseen forces that govern history and the complex weave of time and circumstance.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Notice about Next Hindustani Awaaz Event -- Talk by S M Ashraf on Mera Safar

I am pleased to invite all the next talk in the monthly series: 'Why It Speaks to Me'.

Syed Muhammad Ashraf, Commissioner Income Tax and an award-wining short story writer, will speak on Mera Safar by Ali Sardar Jafri. He will tell us why, from all that he has read, this particular poem 'speaks' to him.

Mera Safar opens with these lines:

Phir ek din aisaa aaega

aankhon ke diye bujh jaaenge

haathon ke kanval kumhalayenge

aur barg-e-zabaan se nataq-va-sadaa kii

har titlii uD jaaegii

ik kaale samandar kii tah mein

kaliyon kii tarah se khilatii huii

phuulon kii tarah se hanstii huii

saarii shaklein kho jaayengii

Khuun kii gardish dil kii dhaDkan

sab rangiiniyaaN so jaayengii

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Khud-garifta -- a review of Ijlal Majeed's stunning new book

Zehra Nigah, the pre-eminent poet today, once made a very interesting observation in the course of a conversation during one of her frequent Delhi visits. She pointed out for me how, the majmua-e-kalam of even some of  the greatest poets have a lot of padding or fluff; she used the delightfully colloquial but apt description: bharti ke sher, alluding to the unevenness that is inevitable and therefore taken as a matter of course while reading a diwan or majmua from cover to cover. It is a rare poet, indeed, she said who exercises enormous self-restraint and is capable of a rigorous self-edit to publish a collection of his or her poetry. I was reminded of Zehra Apa’s words when I first glimpsed through Ijlal Majeed’s debut collection of poetry, entitled Khud-garifta. A slender volume, no more than 140-odd pages, there is nothing here that can remotely be described as fluff. Certainly no bharti ke sher whatsoever mar the evenness of tone and the immaculate, even stringent selection of what goes, and what stays back.

A writer of both the ghazal and nazm since the 1970s, Ijlal sahib has chosen only ghazals for this selection. Such nafasat, too, is rare for the modern poet seldom makes so stern a distinction between the two; Ijlal sahib does so on grounds of lehja and mizaj. He says the two are completely different in the ghazal and the nazm. In fact, his own lehja, his own idiom is far removed from the conventions of the Urdu ghazal. His choice of words and images is starkly modern. As he himself says:

            Badsaleeqa, lu-ubali, baavla, phakkad mizaj
            Ab use jo chahe kah lein who magar achcha laga

And elsewhere:

            Kiss-kiss jatan se jisko kiya tha kabhi shikaar
            Khwabon mein ab bhi chawkrhi bharta hai woh hiran

A retired Professor of History at the Saifia College, Bhopal, Ijlal sahib has been known and well regarded as a poet as his poetry and essays on poetry have been published in both Urdu and Hindi. In Bhopal -- the city of enlightened Begums who nurtured literature, among a circle of connoisseurs and rasiks who can be best described as a latter-day ‘Halqa-e-arbab-zauq’ – Ijlal sahib has enjoyed a reputation as a ba-zauq person and a poet for over five decades. When I meet him for the launch of his book in Bhopal (launched, incidentally, by another ‘son of Bhopal’, Javed Akhtar), I ask Ijlal sahib the reason for this kam-goi. For a person known as a poet to publish his first collection at the age of 74 is unusual in ange when every nausikhiya poet is in a hurry to publish. Ijlal sahib tells me that while he has always read and reflected and ruminated on poetry, literature and the arts, for long periods of time he ceased to think of himself as a poet: ‘Sirf tab likha jab kuch kehne ko hua.’ Giving a glimpse into the oceon of loneliness that lies within every creative person, he writes:

            Ek ek kar ke uddh gaye panchchi
            Khud-garift chattan tanha hai

Literature is understood to mirror social realities. To what extent is Urdu poetry, especially the ghazal, capable of reflecting this reality, with all its violence, contrariness and extremes, I ask him? While, no doubt, the Urdu poet has wrenched himself free from the limitations of the time-honoured ghazal format and freed himself of the classical repertoire of shama-bulbul-parawana, can the ghazal reflect contemporary reality? Can it say as much or as freely as the nazm can, I ask Ijlal sahib. While he agrees that the nazm enjoys far greater freedom, the ghazal can nevertheless allude to many things; it can, for instance, give ample express to the angst, alienation and exclusion that is such an integral part of the modern-day reality:

            Dariya chadha to paani nashebon mein bhar gaya
            Abke bhi barishon meon apna hii ghar gaya

Another remarkable quality about some of the ghazals included in Khud-garifta, is the compactness of the metre; while no poet myself, I believe the chhoti behr ki ghazalein demand that much more brevity and compression from a poet than one with a more languid metre. As for instance:

Udti chiriya ka saya hai
            Main samjha patthar aaya hai

            Ik girti deewar girakar
            Apne bheetar kuchch dhaya hai
            Khod ke hamne in teelon ko
Kya khoya kya paya hai

Published by Yatra Books in both Devnagri and Urdu, Khud-garifta brings to the fore a fresh, ‘new’ voice; the fact that it is not new at all, and that the poet has been active and well-known in the Hindi-Urdu circles of Bhopal tells us how provincialism has become the bane of good literature in modern times. One particular ghazal, written in 1979, has been known and loved by a select few for decades; yet it had to wait for a mainstream publisher to be placed before a larger audience:

            Shiryanon mein phire darinda
            Qaid mushaqqat sahe darinda

            Fursat mein kya kare darinda
            Ghaaron mein but gadhe darinda

            Patta-patta lahu bahaye
            Jhaadi-jhaadi chhupe darinda

            Purab-paschim wahi shikari
            Yaan nikle waan chhupe darinda

My Interview with Javed Akhtar, for Doordarshan

Here's a link to my interview with Javed Akhtar for Doordarshan

This is an abridged version of an hour-long interview. Hope to post the longer version soon.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

First Talk in the Hindustani Awaaz Series: Why Ghalib Speaks to Me by Prof Gopichand Narang


Those of you who missed the first talk in the monthly series : Monthly Monologues: Why It Speaks To Me, here is a recording of the talk by Prof Gopichand Narang. He delivered the first talk in the series, called Why Ghalib Speaks to Me.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

'I Don't believe in Destiny...' Shahnaz Husain

Flame: The Inspiring Life of My Mother Shahnaz Husain by Nelofar Currimbhoy, Hachette, 2012, Rs 295, pp. 236.


Engaged at 14, married at 16, mother to a little girl at 17, Shahnaz Husain’s life is an inspiration to those who passionately want to turn adversity into success. Losing has never been a choice for her nor has being anything less than successful; hitting upon the winning formula of age-old home-grown beauty cures has been a consuming passion for over four decades. The story of her life, told by her daughter Nelofar Currimbhoy, is as riveting as it is remarkable. Despite highs and lows, losses and gains, personal tragedies and professional triumphs, Husain’s life and career reveal her boundless courage and conviction and her relentless determination to face any challenge that comes her way. Her persona – always larger-than-life, as is amply reflected in her huge kohl-rimmed eyes, chunky jewellery, outsize sunglasses and crimson mane – is as compelling as the story of her life, making her products ‘Shahnaz Herbals’ indelibly associated in the mind of every user with their creator.


Currimbhoy, showing great promise in her first outing as a writer, reveals the innate qualities of a born story-teller. Having had a ringside view to her mother’s life and career, she studs her narrative with not only the enthusiasm of one who has watched this incredible story unfold but also the warmth of one who has loved unconditionally. The Shahnaz Husain that emerges from these pages is intelligent, driven, astute yet child-like, dreamy, glamorous, and yes, larger than life. Currimbhoy paints an intimate portrait of a woman who launched her multi-million dollar empire in a glazed verandah in a rented house in the summer of 1970. With little more than a frugal budget and endless reserves of energy and enthusiasm (not to mention a hugely supportive husband) Husain built, literally brick by brick (or more appropriately jar by jar and potion by potion) a range of treatment-based products that would soon take the world by storm. Keenly aware of the responsibility that comes with unquestioning love, she tells her mother’s story with panache and perception. Likening her mother (‘Mum’ as Currimbhoy calls her) to a flame, a flame that could not be doused by all of life’s storms, she refers to her mother as an ‘intensely free spirit’: ‘Every time a wave splashed on her, she rose again with an irrepressible – the energy of life and passion. How else would you explain the path she steered her life through?’


In a series of Chapters entitled ‘How the West was Won’, ‘When east Met west’, and ‘When the Future Came, She was Already There’, Currimbhoy gives a sampling of Husain’s astute business sense. Asked how her company would face up to the innumerable foreign brands flooding market, she narrates how her mother answered with complete nonchalance: ‘I don’t have to face them. They are coming to my country; they will have to face me.’ Speaking at Harvard, after attending President Obama’s summit of world entrepreneurs and taking in a short course on business management, Husain rued her lack of formal education (she dropped out of School at 16) but also asserted:

‘Would I have done it any better if I had come to Harvard at 16? I am not sure if I would have but I am sure of one thing – I would not have wished my career to be any different. Strangely, I have found that almost everything that was taught to me in my course, I have already applied over the years.’


A quintessential and intuitive entrepreneur, Husain and the Shahnaz Herbals model has been studied by marketing gurus the world over. What made a flourishing franchise of salons dispensing the signature Shahnaz Herbal products turn to building a distribution network from scratch? Primarily, the thriving grey market of fake Shahnaz products coupled with an overwhelming demand that the franchises could not meet. Commenting on this fortuitous serendipity Currimbhoy writes: ‘Shahnaz Herbals was an interesting example of a company that first created a market quite incidentally by remaining exclusive and then supplied an already existing demand.’

Why Should a writer's gender matter? in the Tribune, today

Ahead of International Women's Day, here's something on women's writing, the Tribune, today...

Review of Attia Hosain's Distant Traveller, The Hindu

The Hindu, today carries my review of Attia Hosain's Distant Traveller:

Thursday, 28 February 2013

My Talk on Media and Literature at the Sahitya Akademi


Here's a link to my talk on Media and Literature during the Festival of letters at Sahitya Akademi, 21 February 2013:

Monthly Monologues: Part I

Friends, I have been running a small organisation called Hindustani Awaaz since 2002, to position and promote Hindustani literature and culture. From this month I have a started a series of monthly talks -- in collaboration with the Attic -- called 'Why It Speaks to Me'.

 On the last Thursday of every month we will hear a creative writer speak of why a particular writer/poet/text 'speaks' to him/her like nothing else does.

 This Thursday, 28 February, we will have eminent Urdu scholar Prof Gopichand Narang speak about why Ghalib 'speaks' to him like no one else!

 Time: 6.300 pm

 Venue: The Attic, Regal Building, Connaught Place, New Delhi.


Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Tribute to Shahryrar on his first death anniversary,


This tribute was delivered at the first Delhi Literature Festival on sunday, 10 Feb 2013

Friday, 1 February 2013

In Good Faith: A Review

While much work has been done on exploring and exposing communalism in India, relatively little attempt has been made to understand its conjoined twin, secularism. Is it because communal forces outweigh secular ones? Or, is it because communally-charged narratives make more compelling reading than the gentler milder cameos that are seen as picturesque and quaint rather than hard-hitting and gritty? Or, is it because, cynical and jaded as we are, we find it difficult to expect words like syncretism, pluralism, tolerance, inter-faith dialogue, to mean anything much as a lived reality?

Saba Naqvi, Political Editor of Outlook, makes a valiant attempt to hold on to her idealism and, in the process, pick clean the tangled skeins of religion, politics and culture. Despite the nature of her work (she has been covering the major political parties) which inevitably breeds cynicism, she explains why it is important for her to believe in an India that is ‘tolerant and safe for all communities, an India that synthesises identities instead of atomising us all into a Hindu atom here, a Muslim particle there, a Christian molecule some distance way, a Sikh on the periphery.’ Giving a glimpse into her own mixed background – with a Shia Muslim father, a Protestant Christian mother and her former husband a Hindu from Bengal – she writes:

‘This is my offering in an age when Hindu majoritarianism is always raising its ugly head, when Islamic puritanism is on the rise across the globe, and when issues of identity still determine our politics.’

The product of several years of journeying into the distant corners of India, In Good Faith brings together the many ‘little cultures’ that have survived – sometimes on the margins of and sometimes cheek by jowl with – the dominant ‘big tradition’. We are familiar with some that pop up as tokens of ethnic chic in cultural festivals and melas: such as the Baul singers and the qawwals, the Manganiyars and Chitrakars. But others are new and startling in their combination of contraries: such as Bonbibi, a Muslim goddess in the Sundarbans or the Sufi saint in the temple town of Trichy.

In Urdu literature, there has always been a tradition of studding abundant and vivid descriptions of composite culture into larger narratives. Many Urdu writers have presented composite culture – referred to commonly as ganga-jamuni tehzeeb -- as an antidote for communalism and other forms of sectarian strife. Naqvi takes us into obscure nooks and crannies to show how widespread this tradition is, how many people have created a space for themselves in the face of an orthodoxy that demands exclusivity and unitarianism. What is more, these essays also show the importance of culture in the daily lived lives of the Indian Muslims and, in the practice of a myriad different rituals and mores, how far removed Indian Islam is from the homogenous monolith of popular imagination.

In picking out the secular thread in the fabric of modern India, Naqvi reminds us of the futility of viewing religion and politics as adversaries. By drawing our attention to those communities and traditions that have successfully countered majoritarianism, she shows us that there is hope, yet. Like a candle in the wind, her book tells us that a belief in pluralism and composite culture is intrinsic to the Indian Muslim ethos. It is challenged day by day, yes, but is not hopelessly eroded yet. The horrific communal violence of the partition, the continuing communal clashes in the decades thereafter, the sense of besiegement and alienation that came in its wake, events triggered by Assam and Kashmir or Ayodhya and Gujarat challenge and occasionally weaken it. Its pattern – sometimes muted, sometimes vibrant – can nevertheless be traced in the many little cultural pockets that survive in the face of all odds. The warp of religious-cultural pluralism and the woof of secularism weave a tapestry that is as richly textured as it is sturdy. In compelling prose, Naqvi plucks these little local pictures from the threat of obscurity and places them for a larger viewership.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Khushwant Singh's New Book: review in The Herald

I must begin this review with a confession: I am an unabashed admirer of Khushwant Singh. I have known him for years and enjoyed many a delightful evening in his cozy flat listening to his yarns and talking about his three great passions: people, poetry and politics. Ensconced in his favourite armchair, his feet atop a cane stool, a fire blazing in the hearth, surrounded by piles of new books gifted to him in equal numbers by aspiring and established authors, he is witty, curious, engaging; in fact, a very far cry from the ‘dirty old man’ of popular imagination. Till his health permitted, he would permit two or three or four (never too many to make a crowd) of his friends and admirers to drop in (always after taking a prior appointment) at a scheduled time (starting from 7.00 pm sharp and ending on the dot of 7.45 as he sits down for his dinner at precisely 8.00 pm). Recent years have seen him retreating from public life and meeting fewer and fewer people; though, as the number of his books continues to grow at a steady pace and his columns continue to appear, the ‘Sardar in the Bulb’ (immortalised by the cartoonist Mario Miranda) continues to light up the life of countless Indians with his deep insight into human nature.

After several best-selling books in a career spanning six decades, comes his newest offering: The Freethinker’s Prayer Book and Some Words to Live By (Aleph, 2012). Only someone who does not believe in God yet recites the Gayatri Mantra without fail when he gets up before dawn every day, who proclaims to be an agnostic yet knows large chunks of the Bible and the Holy Quran by heart, who has consistently tossed his hat at the windmills of the gods yet evidently draws his strength and inspiration from some hidden source somewhere could have written such a book. The words of Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Kabir, Marcus Aurelius, St Thomas Aquinas, Lalan fakir, Shah Abdul Latif and many more merge seamlessly and effortlessly. Prayers and snippets by poets, philosophers and prophets ranging from William Blake to Maulana Rumi to Lao Tsu, passages from religious texts as diverse as the Vedas, Upanishads, Avesta, Granth Sahib, as well as verses from Tagore, Ghalib and Keats make this an eclectic and individualistic culling from a man who has sipped long and deep at the fount of learning. Yet, in a manner typical of Khushwant, he remains characteristically irreverent:

‘Once you have decided not to bow to any gods, and if you have a good bullshit detector, it is possible to separate the sublime from the ridiculous and derive inspiration from the words of prophets and poets, gurus and rogues, grave men and clowns. There is a lot to be learned from both the sacred and the profane. I have done that nearly all my life and put down in my notebooks hundreds of lines from different sources that appealed to me… I offer them to you as life codes from an ancient and unrepentant agnostic. Read them with an open mind and an open heart.’

Justifying this wide-ranging selection, Khushwant concludes thus:

‘Since I am not obliged to hold any scripture as sacrosanct, I think I have been able to cull the valuable and memorable from each holy book, ignoring a lot that is of indifferent literary quality, illogical or contrary to a humane and liberal world view.’

At 97, Khushwant has been saying that it is time for him to hang up his boots and go. But those of us who have grown up on a steady diet of Khushwant Singh’s writings – be they in the form of columns, editorials, translations, book reviews, books of fiction and non-fiction -- can only wish him long life and good health, and say: ‘Allah kare zor-e-qalam aur ziyada…’

Also Read:

1.     Train to Pakistan, Chatto & Windus, 1956: a historical novel that placed Khushwant among the finest chroniclers of the partition

2.     A History of the Sikhs, Princeton University Press, 1963: it established Khushwant’s reputation as a serious, even scholarly, writer.

3.     Sex, Scotch and Scholarship, Harper Collins, 1992: the title says it all; the selection comprises vintage Khushwant with dollops of readability.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Interview with Prof Gopichand Narang in the Hindu, today

Stalwart, scholar, spokesperson for Urdu, Prof Gopichand Narang is also a symbol of the pluralism and secularism that was once the hallmark of Urdu tehzeeb. He talks to Rakhshanda Jalil, soon after receiving the Moortidevi Award, on the state of Urdu today, newer ways of making it more accessible and the perils of politicising culture.

           What do you have to say to those who claim Urdu is the language of the Muslims?

           They are misguided. This is part of the communal divide created by the politics of partition. They are not friends of Urdu. The most unfortunate thing is that sometimes our administrative machinery succumbs to such narrow views and implements wrong policies. In fact, the larger issue is the communalisation and politicisation of culture. This is also connected to the harmful and unhealthy vote bank politics. The fact is that Urdu is a product of the composite culture of India and provides a bridge between not only communities but countries also. The labelling of Urdu by religion goes against the very grain of the secular genius of Urdu. It is detrimental to its growth. Why only Urdu and Hindi? Why is no other language marked by such a divide? English is the largest spoken language of the world, but has it ever been restricted by Christianity or any other religion?
           Is Urdu in India dead, or dying?

           Urdu is neither dead nor dying. It is surviving though with difficulties. It is a victim of the aftermath of the two-nation theory and facing problems at the school level especially in north Indian states. It is well known that Urdu is the most cultivated form of Khadi Boli Hindi, and being the core of Hindustani, it is at the heart of the lingua-franca not only of India but all of South Asia. It has been sustaining Bollywood movies, satellite TV serials and entertainment industry. Can anyone think of all this activity minus Urdu?
Can investments in cultural capital sustain a language? Or must languages be linked to employment to survive?

           The two are interlinked. Language is a construct of culture and culture a construct of language. A speaking community must have equal opportunity for growth and progress so that it can partake in the development of the country. Our democratic structure has all the provisions; similarly, subaltern Urdu needs to be guaranteed all those rights and privileges which are enjoyed by other regional languages in India.

Music, be it in the film industry or ghazal gayeki, has done much to sustain Urdu. But most mehfils and mushaira see a largely ‘grey’ audience? How does one draw younger audiences towards Urdu?

           It’s true. Language and culture are dynamic. They are not static. All art forms are perpetually changing. The ghazal from Ghalib to Faiz to Shaharyar, Gulzar and Javed Akhtar has also changed. So is the ghazal gayeki and singing styles and popular music. Urdu has the resilience and capacity to cope up with new challenges. The moot question is the provision of equal protection under Right to Education Act and honest implementation of three-language formula in our general education system at the school level.

Comparisons between the state of Urdu in India and Pakistan are made all the time. Don’t you think this is an unfair comparison? For most Pakistanis, Urdu is an effective second language whereas we still have a substantial number of ‘native’ Urdu speakers?

           Unnecessary and wrong comparisons are generated by politically-motivated vested interests. You are right. Even today 7 to 10 crore Indians claim Urdu as their first language, though there is no state in India where Urdu speakers are in majority, although Urdu is the second largest spoken language after Hindi and a source of strength to Hindi. In north-western areas covered by Pakistan, Urdu has been a link and cultural language from the pre-partition times. Good that it now has State patronage, but English has the upper hand as it is in India. The fact is that Urdu in Pakistan is yet not the State's official language. I am of the view that with increasing globalisation the rise of multilingualism is a must. The age of mono-lingualism is a thing of the past.

How can the teaching of Urdu in the Urdu script, for a lay person, be made simpler? At present it is daunting and only the very diligent manage to learn the script.

           Like Bengali, Urdu script is cursive, artistic and beautiful. It is not difficult. Rather it is close to short hand as it is more consonantal than vocalic. The short vowels are generally omitted and not written. It might appear difficult as opportunities for learning it at the school level have been denied. Not to mention my own series of books Let's Learn Urdu in both English and Hindi, there are scientific materials by which one can learn Urdu script in a matter of weeks. Much depends on the motivation and time spent practicing it.

On a personal note, can you single out one text/verse that speaks to you again and again, no matter how many times you read it?

           There is none other than Ghalib. He always speaks to you and is so refreshing. He is a poet of all times and ages. His world is too vast and too contradictory to fit into any one category of things. His poetry is unique not only for the intensity of emotions and depth of thoughts it expresses, but also for the exquisite charm and the beauty of the world which he reveals. Ghalib is also valuable for a completely fresh approach to the world. He is endowed with a passionate appreciation of life, yet he deeply questions the very fundamentals of faith and dogma never compromising on the unity of mankind and freedom of human spirit. He has a range and touch of magic no other Urdu poet has.