Remembering an age when Urdu literature thrived in India

[Book extract] In his autobiography Khwab Baqi Hain, abba has given a good account of the literary environment which existed in the houses of shaurfa in the early decades of Biswin Sadi.

 |  6-minute read |   23-06-2018
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Even after coming to Delhi, our connection with Aligarh was never broken as we used to go there to see our grandparents during vacations. But Aligarh now seemed like a different world, contrasting sharply with the one which we inhabited in Delhi.

One was the world of Biswin Sadi – the 20th century – symbolising forward movement, progress, and modernity, while the other seemed to be deeply rooted in the past and, yawning to a slow leisurely pace, appearing to be lagging behind, like an old man ambling along at a sluggish pace.

Aligarh, and the other muffasil towns of Uttar Pradesh which we visited, seemed medieval in character where people had all the time in the world. They did nothing much except talk, and talk endlessly, looking at the world from a distance, while we enjoyed a ringside view of the Biswin Sadi.

[Our grandfather] Abba’s stature in the university and the fact that he was a leading light of Urdu literary criticism made a huge impact upon us. In some ways, he was a rather unconventional Urdu professor – here was a man who was progressive, slightly Left leaning, wore western clothes (though on occasions, also the traditional sherwani and pajama) and had read widely in both English and Urdu covering subjects as diverse as sex in society to modern science and arts besides western literary criticism.

Unlike many other Urduwallas, he had started his formal studies by studying science, a BSc course in chemistry and biology from St John’s College, Agra (where one of his teachers had been the great botanist Pancham Maheshwari, then a young lecturer in Agra), followed by an MA in English literature (first class, first) from Aligarh. Having come to Urdu largely on the basis of his own books and writings, he was a different kettle of fish and the people who gathered around him were similar in their value system and tastes.


They exuded confidence in the plural culture of western Uttar Pradesh and took immense pride in the wide sweep of Urdu language in particular.

Though being fairly modern in most respects, in one respect abba was quite traditional – he had the habit of chewing paan (betel leaves) along with tobacco to which he remained addicted for most of his life (which by the way, was by no means unusual for those times as chewing paan was quite common).

Our house, therefore, had a paan daan with all the necessary ingredients for preparing them – katha, lime (chuna), etc, and a large stock of paan leaves kept in a moist cloth. For cutting betel nuts into small pieces, an instrument known as sarota was also there.

The tobacco was kept in a small glass vial and whenever abba went out of the house, about half a dozen paans were folded in a tiny metal box, shaped like a book, and a small purse (batua) containing a liberal helping of betel nut and tobacco were deposited in it.

He rarely left the house without these. In fact, so strong was his addiction to these edible leaves that when he travelled to the USA as a visiting professor, attempts were made to keep his paan supply intact. Smuggling dried paan leaves inside letters was tried and the special tobacco, which he relished, was sent through parcels or through friends travelling abroad.

biswin-sadi-copy_062318114148.jpgBiswin Sadi memoirs: Growing up in Delhi during the 1960s and 1970s; Rs 450

Besides abba, there were others who were addicted to tobacco and some smoked the hookah too. The hookahs that I remember seeing in my childhood days were of the fixed pipe variety, in that the pipe was fixed rigidly to the frame, and though its height and distance could be adjusted, it had to be kept in a correct position while smoking.

Getting the hookah going was an elaborate affair. The chillum, the earthenware pot, was lined with burning coals and the tobacco placed on top of the heap. The hookah’s base was a water flask and the gurgling sounds that the contraption made while a person puffed at it and the nice smell of wet tobacco, still lingers in the memory.


In my family and in the circle of friends and acquaintances, most people that I came across took enormous pride in the "Urdu culture", referring to it as not just as a product of the cosmopolitan Persianate culture of the Mughal’s but as a vibrant, soulful language. (For instance, the gentle reminder which Urduwallas make that in "Inqilab Zindabad", coined by maulana Hasrat Mohani, the freedom movement got its first major slogan.)

I remember that family elders tried their best to encourage us to read as much as possible in Urdu, conscious of the fact that there was an overbearing pressure of English. For instance, on one of my visits to Pilibhit, my uncle seeing the English book that I was pouring over, vainly tried to encourage me to read something in Urdu also.

He proceeded to enlighten me about the huge diversity of reading material that existed in Urdu—informative articles on science, plenty of interesting things for children, puzzles and magic tricks, and of course detective fiction, Jasoosi Duniya, occupying a place of prominence among them. I found scores of Jasoosi Duniya stacked in his room in Pilibhit.

Forty years down the line, there seems to have been a renewed interest in Jasoosi Duniya, as some of them have been translated into English and reprinted in the Devnagri script. The older generation feels very nostalgic about Ibne Safi’s works, which are now even discussed in serious meetings and seminars.

People who grew up reading these detective novels recall the peculiar artwork adorning the covers, the characters such as the suave, upper-crust Faridi and his sidekick, the bumbling Hameed. A few times I also made an effort to read these novels but since my Urdu reading was quite slow, I must admit that it took its time.

Overall, it was an interesting read and all in all I must have read three and a half Jasoosi Duniya novels – two on train journeys, one at home when I was sick and lying in bed, and another one which I started but gave up mid-way.

In his autobiography Khwab Baqi Hain, abba has given a good account of the literary environment which existed in the houses of shaurfa in the early decades of Biswin Sadi. There was a glut of Urdu periodicals which people with literary ambitions relished, since they carried reviews and critical articles on what was being written.

For a budding literary critic, perhaps a small contribution or a column in one of those periodicals was a great achievement. That is how, as abba writes, his literary career started, by contributing small pieces to the plethora of journals which existed then.

Urdu continued to be in regular use throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s and I remember that at railway station book shops, at least four or five Urdu periodicals used to be on display. They included Rumani duniyaAaaj kalJassosi DuniyaFilmi Duniya, ShamaBiswin Sadi, etc. Hindi films had the name of the film in three scripts — Roman (English), Devnagri (Hindi), and Persian/Arabic (Urdu). Gradually, the trend of having the title of the film in Urdu during the credits disappeared; now films rarely, if ever, feature the titles and credits in Urdu.

(Excerpted with permission from Cinnamonteal Publishing.)

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Jamil Urfi Jamil Urfi

The author teaches environmental science at Delhi University.

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