By Gopalkrishna Gandhi
As one year dips and another dawns, a calendar of anniversaries is un-scrolled. In India, this happens with the hectic intensity of a traffic jam. The year that begins today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi and the death of Mirza Ghalib.
What is it notably the 100th anniversary of? Curiously, not of historic persons as much as of three historic happenings. First, a much-hailed enactment, the Government of India Act of 1919, which increased the participation of Indians in the Government of India. Second, a much-hated law, Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act of 1919, known notoriously as the Rowlatt Act or Black Act, which entrenched war-time restrictions on civil liberties — indefinite preventive detention or judicial review of those suspected of terrorism, trial without juries, jailings without trials. Third, a national trauma that arose from the vortex of protests against the Rowlatt Act — the massacre by army bullets of 379 according to the Raj, and some thousand men, women and children according to the Indian National Congress, at JallianwalaBagh, Amritsar. Terrorism is wrong, Gandhi and other leaders said, violence evil. But are the civil liberties of a whole people to be frozen? Rabindranath Tagore returned his knighthood a hundred years ago, this year. But scores of other ‘Sirs’ and ‘Rai Bahadurs’ did not.
So this is the centenary of something that brought enchained India some hope, as well as huge despair and, hauntingly, mass death. And it is also the centenary of heroic courage, of sacrifice.
And 50th? This is the 50th anniversary of the Gujarat riots of September-October 1969, that involved massacre, arson and looting said to constitute “the most deadly Hindu-Muslim violence since the 1947 partition of India”. Out of the 512 deaths reported in police complaints, 430 were Muslims. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, then nearly 80, visited India that year. A guest of the state and of the people of India, he fasted for three days for communal peace, went to Ahmedabad to see things for himself. In his acceptance speech while receiving the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding, he repeated to the audience what a Muslim girl in Ahmedabad had told him: “Muslims were being asked by Hindu communalists to leave the country or live like untouchables.” And in an address to a joint session of Parliament, he was brutal in his assessment: “You are forgetting Gandhi the way you forgot the Buddha.” This is the 50th anniversary of that chastisement.
Thirty-five is not a particularly memorable number but when an event is of some moment, its 35th anniversary carries something of that moment’s star-dust. This year marks the 35th anniversary of one such.
The year was 1984, the month April. Squadron Leader Rakesh Sharma of the Indian Air Force was going round the earth aboard the Salyut 7 Orbital Station (picture). He was the first Indian to be in outer space. The ISRO-Intercosmos Indo-Soviet space programme had put six men into space, five from the U.S.S.R. and our own Rakesh, then all of 35 years old. Rakesh received a satellite call from India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. She asked Rakesh, “Upar se apko Bharat kaisadikhtahai? (How does India seem to you from up there?)” Footage shows the hero-in-motion slightly startled by the question but collecting himself in a moment to respond reflectively: “Sarejahan se achha (Better than all the world).” That immortal half-line from Allama Iqbal’s song reverberated through the air-waves into millions of homes watching the first-ever Indian orbiting the planet we live in. And as the nation heard and saw him, a sense of India’s greatness stirred within it. This year is the 35th anniversary of that dizzy moment.
Not a star twinkles over India as an envious eclipse veils it. We celebrate India only to be checked by our misfortunes.
Orbiting with stars Rakesh Sharma did not know that India had a date with another ‘star’ within two months that very year — Operation Blue Star, leading to Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the killing of anything between 8,000 and 17,000 Sikh Indians at the hands of fellow Indians. Large numbers of Indians reached out to the victims, taking them to hospitals, sheltering them. And, most important of all, documenting their trauma to fight for them another day. But much larger numbers did no such thing. They stayed put, watching with glazed eyes.
This year is the 35th anniversary of that tragic sequence as well. And so, as we enter another new year, a question to pose to ourselves is: Will India in 2019 look sarejahan se achha? Or will it be a blend of pleasure and pain, glory and shame? No one can tell. But if one may have anniversary wishes, this citizen-nobody does.
On this anniversary of hopes and of griefs, of courage and of cowering, we must look at the opportunities that knock at our country’s great and gaunt gate. We must make the national elections due in a few months a great example of democratic self-assertion, making the weak self-assert. In 2019 the people of India must vote, even more emphatically than ever before, without succumbing to manipulation and to fear.
Seventy years ago this year, speaking in the Constituent Assembly, B.R. Ambedkar said: “…it is quite possible in a country like India – where democracy from its long disuse must be regarded as something quite new – there is danger of democracy giving place to dictatorship. It is quite possible for this new born democracy to retain its form but give place to dictatorship in fact. If there is a landslide, the danger of the second possibility becoming actuality is much greater.”
Why should we be so alert to the danger that he pointed out? Not just because an opportunity has come for effecting a change of government but because far-reaching, liberating changes are needed in the country.
What are these liberating changes? The first is the liberation of our public life from fear. Under Swaraj no less than under the Raj, fear can paralyse dissent, immobilise free speech, free association. It is not just an insecure state but insecure techno-commercial monopolies as well that are uncomfortable with freedom.
Threats to Right to Information (RTI) activists and whistle-blowers and attacks on them, trolling of dissenters on social media and even murder, constitute democratic India’s single greatest failure, shame. In the eighth decade of its independence, India ought to be afraid of nothing, save its conscience.
The second is the liberation of our politics from the stranglehold of money. Which, in effect, means saving our national resources from the darkness of deceit and exploitation. Money minted by illegal mining, unauthorised clandestine monopolies and brazen preferment has a vice-like grip over our polity, particularly over our electoral politics. Money frustrates democracy, negates it. Ruling parties everywhere say, “Our hands are clean!” The Opposition says, “Show us your pockets.” And when they change places, the charge changes direction.
The third — and most difficult — is the liberation of ethics from the hegemony of lifeless conformism. For far too long, centuries in fact, have custom, and callousness overwhelmed conscience in India. Routine and rote rule over humane instincts, making women, tribals, the Scheduled Castes, children, prisoners, the mentally challenged and physically unable exposed to danger. The same dullened sensitivity has rendered our wetlands, rivers, coasts and commons vulnerable to misuse, misappropriation. Whoever be the Asoka or the anti-Asoka on Magadha’s throne, India’s Bodhi-tree needs an Enlightened One to sit by its root-bed and speak to it now, more than ever before, to be able to say to it to become not just ‘sarejahan se achha’, better than all the world, but ‘apnedil se sachcha’, to its own self, true.
INDESCRIBABLE JOHN ELI
By Shabbir Aariz
This indeed is proverbially a herculean task to describe or define John Elia in any particular frame. Whosoever while mentioning him, is either trapped in contradictions of one’s own opinion or is able to confine to a few verses of John Elia to judge him. But the more one tries to understand John, the more confused one is and I believe that you need another John Elia to explain him. He is a phenomenon, a thing like a live fish to hold in your hand or an elephant amongst blinds to be described. Wusatullah Khan, a noted broadcaster, holds that knowing John is as good as dating with a liberated lady. And it is quite obvious that a man who in him is a philosopher, a scholar, a biographer, a linguist with command over Urdu, Arabic, English, Persian, Sanskrit and Hebrew and needless to say that the Ismaili sect of the subcontinent could not find anyone other than John to translate Ismaili treatises from Hebrew, it becomes a tedious affair to be conclusive about John. Common perception though with an element of truth is that John is a progressive Marxist, an unconventional poet and always in denial of everything including himself while himself saying in three line verse,
“KISKO FUSAT K MUJSAY BAHAS KARAY…..
OOR SABIT KARAY K MERA WAJOOD….
ZINDZGI K LIYAY ZARORI HAY
(Anyone prepared to argue and prove that my existence is imperative for life). His poetry is admittedly very close to life and his verses in the words of a legendry poet, Majrooh Sultanpuri, are like a dialogue which no other poet has the distinction to be capable of. John has an extra-ordinary craft of connecting with his audience that has created an unprecedented fan following which no other contemporary poet can claim to have. So magical is his poetry and its rendition that it has created a cult of his admirers with such an obsession and longing for the life of melancholy lead by John Elia himself. It is no secret that he was never a happy man with defiance and protest against everything and anything around. Loudly a nonconformist when he says
“unjaman main mayri khamooshi…..
burdabari nahin hay wehshat hay”.
His style made him famous and popular. He appears to be disgusted even with creation when he says … “HASILE KUN HAY YEH JAHANE KHARAAB….
YAHI MUMKIN THA AYSI UJLAT MAIN”.
His admirers strangely wish to pass through the same pain and despair that is hallmark of John’s poetry besides satire and the disdain for the system which contributed to his sadness in life. He has so glorified and romanticized the pain and sadness that it leaves his audience in frenzied ecstasy.
John Elia was born in the year 1931 and died in 2002. He originally belonged to Amroha in the state of Uttar Pradesh, younger brother of Rayees Amrohi, a known journalist and writer. John migrated to Pakistan in the year 1957 and settled in Karachi where he is buried now. But Amroha never left his heart and mind. He never felt comfortable after leaving Amroha partly because his stay in Karachi brought him in conflict with the system too. Many other things have also contributed to his sadness in life. He was married to a well-known writer of Pakistan, Zahida Hina but in mid-80’s , the relation between the two became bumpy and ended up in divorce which left John devastated and for ten long years thereafter went in depression without writing a word.
As is true about many in the history of literature, John earned his name and fame more after his death than in his life time while he was not received well and felt a strange type of suffocation when he says,
“AAP APNAY SAY HUMSUKHAN REHNA…..
HUMNISHEEN SAANS PHOOL JATI HAY”.
Thanks to the electronic boom and You Tube that brought him to the lime light and enabled audience to reach him and his works. As if this was not enough that his first poetic collection only came to be published when he reached the age of 60. It is worthwhile mention that he has as many as seven poetic collections to his credit namely SHAYAD, YANI, LEKIN, GUMAAN, GOYA, FARMOD and RAMOOZ. Except one, all other are published posthumously. This is besides his scholarly works in prose which may require greater insight to go into.
John all his life remained honest, direct and straightforward in expressing his views on matters of public interest. He also never demonstrated any pretentions or reservations while expressing the truth of his personal life. He never made any secret of his fantasies, love affairs or drinking habits. Yet he was never at peace either with the times or with himself. John Elia, in my humble opinion lived ahead of times and even the desire of dying young without being bed ridden was not granted to him except that he strangely enough wanted to die of tuberculosis and which he did.
(The author, a senior lawyers, is a well known poet and writer. Feedback at: [email protected])
Manto: Why I wanted to read a ‘lewd’ writer
By Naveed Hussain
I first read Saadat Hasan Manto as a teenager and the spirit of what I’m writing now was etched on my memory in those years.
I was too young to understand the intricacies of his stories but I enjoyed what I read and craved for more. Back then, Manto wasn’t available in the small town of Haripur where I lived. A friend introduced me to a schoolteacher, a bibliophile who had a modest collection of Manto in his personal library.
“Why do you want to read Manto, he’s a ribald, lewd writer,” he quipped. “This is exactly why I want to read him,” I replied, almost impulsively. He smiled and agreed to lend me Manto’s books. Thus began my journey to explore Manto. The more I read, the deeper my love for him became.
Manto was a nonconformist, an unorthodox and ruthlessly bold writer. He didn’t believe in the so-called literary norms of ‘decency’ and ‘civility’ set by didactic writers of his time. For him, truth is truth. No matter how bitter and despicable the reality, Manto never dilutes the truth. Like a muckraker, he pokes his nose into the muck, rakes it, and then holds it up to the reader – in all its profound ugliness and twisted beauty. “If you don’t know your society, read my stories. If you find a defect, it’s the defect of your society, not my stories,” he says.
Manto wrote on socially taboo topics like sex, incest and prostitution, which earned him the wrath of contemporary traditionalists, conservatives and even progressives. For some of his ‘lewd’ and ‘obscene’ stories he had to face lawsuits – among them were great stories such as Thanda Gosht, Bu, Khol Do, Dhuan and Kali Shalwar.
But it is to miss the point to simply say that Manto wrote about sex. He wrote about the sexual debauchery of men and the sexual exploitation of women; about our patriarchal society where women are often treated as a ‘sex toy’, not a human being. Unlike many, I don’t compare Manto with DH Lawrence, because Manto is not lustful, even though he explicitly writes about the female anatomy. He’s more like Guy de Maupassant, who sees the throbbing heart, not the sensuous body, of the prostitute.
Manto blames the ‘diseased mind’ for reading ‘ribaldry’ into his stories. If a sex maniac derives morbid gratification from Venus De Milo, should we blame Alexandros of Antioch for chiselling such a ‘graphic’ sculpture? No, certainly not.
For contemporary literary pundits, Manto was also unacceptable because he wrote ‘indecent’ language. “They [the critics] criticise me when my characters verbally abuse one another – but why don’t they criticise their society instead where hundreds of thousands of profanities are hurled on the streets, every day,” he wonders.
I also love Manto because he was honest. He was an unflinchingly true writer who believed in calling a spade a spade. Sketch-writing was introduced as a genre in Urdu literature much earlier, but Manto created his own peculiar tell-all style. He didn’t write only the good qualities of his characters. “In my bathroom, everyone is naked. I don’t clothe them because it’s the tailor’s job,” he writes.
Manto’s sketches, which he initially wrote for the Lahore-based Daily Afaq newspaper, were later collected and published as Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wasn’t a hypocrite. He minced no words while writing about his dead friends. “I curse a thousand times a so-called civilised society where a man’s character is cleansed of all its ills and tagged as ‘May-God-Bless Him’,” Manto wrote in Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wrote sketches of filmstars Ashok Kumar, Shyam, Noor Jahan, literary figures such as Meera Ji, Agha Hashar and Ismat Chughtai and some politicians. “I have no camera that could have washed smallpox marks off the face of Agha Hashar or change obscenities uttered by him in his flowery style.”
Before embarking on his literary career, Manto had read Russian, French and English masters like Chekhov, Gorky, Victor Hugo, de Maupassant and Oscar Wilde and translated some of their works into Urdu. Surprisingly enough, despite his love for revolutionaries, Manto was not a Marxist ideologue. He was a humanist who was pained to see social injustices, economic disparities and exploitation of the underprivileged. He hated the obscurantist clergy and parasitic elites alike.
Although Manto had migrated to Pakistan after 1947, he couldn’t understand the rationale of partitioning a land along religious lines. His stories of bloodshed and cross-border migration, such as Teetwaal Ka Kutta and Toba Tek Singh, made him unpopular with ‘patriotic’ Pakistanis. To this day he remains a shadowy figure on the official literary lists of Pakistan: our school curricula, our national awards, our drawing room conversations.
Manto was acknowledged as a creative genius even by his detractors. And he knew this, which is perhaps why he wanted these words to mark his grave: “Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie all the secrets and mysteries of the art of short story writing. Under tons of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greater short story writer: he or God.”
Manto’s family feared his self-written epitaph would attract the unwanted attention of the ignorantly religious, so on his grave one finds a Ghalib couplet. He faced censorship all his life and even now has chunks of his stories taken out by the authorities. But as we mark his centenary year, I can say this with the instant certainty I felt as a young man in Haripur: the words and stories of Saadat Hasan Manto will outlive us all.
Gauhar Raza: Giving Poetry the Power to Protest
By Asheesh Mamgain
If things were different his poems would have been different, or maybe he would not have been a poet at all. But things are what they are. And that is why Gauhar Raza, the poet is writing, and it is why he writes his poetry of protest.
“Maybe I would have written about love, the beauty of nature and science. But as things stand my poetry is predominantly about resistance and protest,” said Raza, who is faithful to the tradition of resistance poetry to the extent that he has throttled, without much difficulty, the romantic and the scientist in him. “The need to write poetry always arose when something happened around me which affected me, to the core. I have never written and will never write poetry just for the sake of it.”
“The murder of Safdar Hashmi, the breaking up of the Soviet Union, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the killing of an activist in Afghanistan, the death of Rohith Vemula are some of those things,” he said.
Raza’s second published collection of ghazals and nazms (71 in all) came out in November 2017 and is titled Khamoshi, or Silence.
Is there a lot of anger in his poems? Yes, there is definitely a lot of anger. But then there is also hope. That is where Raza becomes special.
“For me, a poem that merely complains or rants about the injustice, violence and persecution happening all around is not enough. A poet has to go beyond this; he has to give a vision. The vision of an alternative world, of a better world. Only then will his poetry be successful and meaningful. A poet has to show the consciousness he wants to bring into society.”
So how does he define good poetry? “Well, a good poem should be able to raise the level of the reader at least one notch higher, and also give him a fresh perspective about the aspect being dealt in the poem. Something new to dwell upon,” said Raza.
The influences that shaped his poetic thought came pretty early, at home and at the Aligarh Muslim University where he studied. Raza’s father, Wizarat Hussain, worked in the education department there and was a second-generation Leftist.
“The question about the existence of God came up very early in my life and soon I became an atheist for life,” said Raza. Literature was read with passion at home and by the time he was 15 he had read all the Urdu literature available at the AMU library as well as a solid portion of Russian literature.
“During my growing years, Leftist thought had a major presence in the university. On the other hand, the fundamental forces were also steadily getting stronger. I was smitten by the leftist idea. I was part of a literary study circle, we served tea at the secret meetings of leftist groups and listened to discussions at home between my father and other intellectuals such as Irfan Habib and Iqtidar Alam Khan.”
There was a lot of churning in his mind and soon he started pouring the remnants of all that into his poems. When it comes to poetry some of Raza’s major influences have been Ghalib, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Sahir Ludhianvi. He is often seen reciting their work at length during his various lectures, with Sahir Ludhianvi’s long poem ‘Parchhaiyan’ or Shadows one of his favourites.
“Writing the kind of poetry I do is not easy. Each time a write a poem I must relive all the pain and emotion I went through when the particular incident happened that forced me to write. All those disturbing images come rushing back to me. It is a difficult thing to undergo.”
Nor is poetry Raza’s only means of reaching the people. He recently retired as chief scientist from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. He is also into documentary filmmaking, his documentaries on Bhagat Singh and the 2002 Gujarat genocide being very well known.
Where does poetry stand today, as a means of communication with the reader? According to Raza, “for one, social media has helped. It has helped poets reach a wider audience. Also, the tradition of musharias and kavi sammelans (poetry meets) is still very strong in India. So even if a poet is competing with the multimedia world, it is easy to reach one’s audience with one’s poetry, provided you have something pertinent to say.”
More broadly speaking, however, “I have to say that things have progressed in a disturbing direction. A poem I wrote 20 years ago, I could rededicate it to Rohith Vemula and then to Gauri Lankesh. This disturbing trend is seen all over the world. I believe that the fall of the USSR has been a major turning point in the way our World has evolved.”
A few lines from one of his poems brings out his concern and struggle.
Mein phool khilata hoon jab bhi,
Woh baad e khizan le aate hain,
Mein geet sunata hoon jab bhi,
Yeh aag se ji bahlate hain.
Whenever I make a flower blossom
They bring the autumn wind
Whenever I sing a song
They give the soul succour with flame.
But Raza is still hopeful. “There has been a resurgence of resistance poetry in Urdu in the recent past. The trend of religious poetry in Urdu has also reduced in recent times. The youth today has become more involved in this attempt to bring a positive change. I have seen young people reading protest poetry and reacting to it. Once again universities have become a place of resistance and struggle for change.”