Premchand Posts

An extract from “Indian Genre Fiction”

Indian Genre Fiction: Pasts and Present Futures (eds. Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, Aakriti Mandhwani and Anwesha Maity) is a fascinating collection of essays. There are articles on popular fiction in late colonial Tamil Nadu, to novels of Urdu, 19th-century Bengali chapbooks, science fantasy of Leela Majumdar and Sukumar Ray, Hindi pulp literature, retelling of the Mahabharata in Krishna Udaysankar’s The Aryavarta Chronicles and Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva. But the essay that I read and re-read was Ira Pande’s tremendous “Hearts and homes: A perspective on women writers in Hindi”. Being the daughter of the very popular Hindi writer Shivani and a fluent speaker in English and Hindi, Ira Pande shares her fascinating perspective on inhabiting the Hindi literary world and what it means being bilingual.

With the permission of the publishers, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, here are two extracts from this brilliant essay. (pps. 94-95 and 96-97)

Allahabad in the ’60s was home to some of the greatest writers of those times. Harivansh Rai Bachchan had left Allahabad for Delhi by then, but there were other more famous chhayavad poets still around (Sumitranandan Pant, Mahadevi Verma and Nirala), Firaq Gorakh-puri, Amrit and Sripat Rai (Premchand’s sons, both writers and publishers), Ilachandra Joshi, VDN Sahi and Usha Priyamvada, to name just a few. And of course, there was Shivani. However, along with others of her tribe, such as Salma Siddiqi and Mannu Bhandari, her kind of writing was passed off as romantic fluff or domestic sagas that housewives ordered by mail as part of a gharelu (domestic) library scheme. The very popularity of these women writers became a weapon to use against their literary output. To the supercilious self-styled critics who pronounced judgment on what was to be considered accept-able as literature, this space was only meant for those who wrote for a different audience, one that had a sophisticated palate developed on the ‘modern’ fare of European and contemporary American fiction. Certain subjects were taboo in this high-minded world: romance and bourgeois lives headed this list.

Somewhere by the ’70s, then, the small town became an object of ridicule: it was valourised in romantic literature and cinema but actually hated and mocked at in the real. Small wonder then, that its inhabitants (who suffered from a crippling form of low self-esteem since birth) ran into hiding and tried to ape the big-city culture by writing, speaking and dressing like the metropolitan sophisticates they yearned to become. When this happened, the country lost all those delightful rivulets that fed the creative river of the Grand National Dream. The homogenisation of culture took over: slogans replaced feelings. The joy went out of fun as its definition changed into something wrought by high-minded nationalist agendas. Political correctness has a lot to answer for.

Upon reflection, it appears to me that Shivani’s most prolific literary output and some of her most memorable and popular novels date to the years when Hindi magazines were avidly read across North India. Among these, Dharmyug (edited then by the formidable Dharmvir Bharati, a widely respected novelist and dramatist) occupied pride of place. Published by Bennett and Coleman (referred to henceforth as B&C), its owners (Sahu Jain and Rama Jain) promoted creative writing and later endowed the Gyanpeeth Award, the first privately endowed prestigious literary award for writers in various Indian languages. The Bennett and Coleman Group (later known as the Times of India group) also brought out a clutch of other magazines. Among these were Sarika (contemporary Hindi writing, edited by Kamleshwar) and Dinaman (a political and economic weekly, edited by Agyeya), both respected for their content and editorial gravitas. Filmfare, a film magazine, and the Illustrated Weekly of India were their popular English-language publications. The Hindustan Times group, owned by the Birlas, published Saptahik Hindustan (as a rival to Dharmyug), Kadambari (as an alternative to Sarika) and vied with each otherto publish serials by the most popular Hindi writers of those days. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, there was not a single library or reader in North India that did not subscribe to these magazines.

Almost all of Shivani’s novels – certainly her most popular ones – were first published as serials in one or the other magazines mentioned above. Her most well-known novel, Krishnakali, published as a serial in Dharmyug in the ’60s, was later published as a novel by Gyanpeeth (the publishing house run by the B&C group). In addition to these magazines, two others (Navneet and Gyanoday) I can recall from then were modelled on the popular American publication, Reader’s Digest. Shivani’s travelogues, essays and memorial tributes were regularly published in these Hindi digests.

….

Naturally, the serialised novel had its own effect on the writing it spawned. Fans wrote furious letters to Shivani when she betrayed their hopes (such as by killing off a character) or when she did not spend enough time on a particular strand of the narrative. This close bond between writer and reader was perhaps what contributed to the intimacy that readers developed over the years with their favourite writers. My sister Mrinal Pande (who edited Saptahik Hindustan in the ’90s) recalls how typists vied with each other to type out Shivani’s (always) handwritten manuscript when she sent in a fresh instalment so that he/she would be the first to read it! The circulation of magazines jumped by as much as 55 per cent when her novels were being serialised and siblings fought with each other to grab the magazine to read it first when it was delivered to private homes. Often they tore the pages out so that they could share it among themselves.

What gave this genre its enormous reach and popularity was that these stories were significant documentaries. I would say that that it was reality fiction based on real-life characters and episodes and invisible to the writers based in our up-and-coming metros who consciously distanced themselves from these provincial lives to become more acceptable to a wider, international literary world. This is a fact often overlooked when tracing the evolution of Hindi writing. As Vasudha Dalmia’s book on fiction and history reveals, novels located in Allahabad, Agra, Aligarh, Banaras or Lucknow give us an insight into the social landscapes that were shaping middle-class lives in the ’50s and ’60s.2 Beneath the romantic tales of young women and men were rich subplots that reveal the gradual breakup of orthodox joint families, the effect of education on the emancipation of women in provincial India and the effect of migration from small towns to industrial cities. The language of everyday conversation in middle-class homes and amongst families, the social terms of exchange between men and women, workers and employers are important markers of a world we seek today and cannot find because it no longer exists. What are often dismissed as kitchen tales and romantic fiction stood firm on a foundation because it was supported by religion and ritual, food and taboos, folk remedies and aphorisms that nourished clans and villages. In the tightly packed houses of our old shahars that were separated by narrow lanes, the smells and sounds that travelled across neighbours became rich lodes of narratives that had the authenticity of real lives. The bonds between Hindu and Muslim homes, or between upper- and lower-caste settlements were strong threads that wove the fabric of our social communities. A deep suspicion of the other community was balanced by an equally strong love for individual men and women. Look for these common narrative strains and you will find them in all writers who lived and thrived in little India.

3 Feb 2019

Angarey and the Progressive Writers Movement

Angarey and the Progressive Writers Movement

Angarey, RupaThis year has been marked by the publication of Rakhshanda Jalil’s thesis by OUP – A Literary History of the Progressive Writer’s Movement in Urdu and two translations of Angarey, first published in 1932 only to be banned.  ( Here is a link to the introduction by Snehal Shangvi of the Penguin Books India edition, an extract published in Scroll.in on 15 June 2014: http://scroll.in/article/666833/why-fundamentalists-got-this-urdu-book-banned-when-it-appeared-in-1932/ ) The writers associated with this movement were people who wrote not necessarily for the joy of crafting great literature; they wrote because they saw, and were quick to seize, the great inescapable link between literature and socio-political change. Literature for them was a valuable tool in the cause of nation-building and social transformation. ( Jalil, p. xx) With the publication of Angarey the definition of forward-looking underwent a sea-change and the epithets of irreligious, godless, sacrilegious, even blasphemous, came to be used for a radical, new sort of writing. Many of these writers ( and their readers) were conversant with Western literary styles and English-language authors. It is also important to remember that the glory days of the PWM also spanned the most tumultous period of modern Indian history — Gandhi’s call to Satyagraha, India’s response to the rise of fascism, Nehru’s Muslim mass contact programme, Gandhi’s second civil disobedience movement, the Second World War and its impact on India, the Bengal famine, the rise of Telengana, tebhaga, and other movements, Independence, Partition, and the communal disturbances that scarred the nation. ( Jalil, p. xxviii) Some of the ideas that need to be mentioned regularly are that though Urdu literature was not being written by Muslims along, the great majority of nineteenth-century Urdu writers were indeed Muslims.

Here is a list of the major writers and poets associated with the Progressive Writers’ Movement ( as listed in Dr Jalil’s thesis, Annexure I)

Abdul Alim, Abdul Haq, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, Ahmed Ali, Akhtar Husain Raipuri, Akhtarul Iman, Ale Ahmad Suroor, Ali Sardar Jafri, Asrarul Haq Majaz ( his nephew is the poet and lyricist, Javed Akhtar), Ehtesham Husain, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Fikr Taunsvi, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Hajra Begum, Hasrat Mohani, Hayatullah Ansari, Ibrahim Jalees, Ismat Chugtai, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Josh Maliabadi, K.M.Ashraf, Kaifi Azmi, Kanhaiyyalal Kapoor, Khawaja Ahmad Abbas, Krishan Chandar, Mahmuduzzafar Khan, Majnun Gorakhpuri, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Makhdoom Mohiuddin, Moin Ahsan Jazbi, Mulk Raj Anand, Mumtaz Husain, Mohammad Hasan, Niyaz Haider, Premchand, Qateel Shifai, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Rashid Jehan, Razia Sajjad Zaheer, Rifat Sarosh, Saadat Hasan Manto, Sagar Nizami, Sahir Ludhianvi, Sajjad Zaheer, Salam Machchlishahri, Sibte Hasan, Syed Muttalibi Faridabadi, Upnedranath Ashk, Wamiq Jaunpuri and Zaheer Kashmiri.

Both the translations published in April 2014 are readable. Fortunately these now exist and are readily available, a delightful Angaareybouquet of riches for readers. Yet there is a vast difference in the quality of translations, and would be of valuable to interest to translators and academics. The notes on translations by Snehal Shangvi, Khalid Alvi and Vibha S. Chauhan are worth reading.

These are books that will be treasured and should find a place in every library, institution and be read by many.

The only question that I wonder about is how much were these writers influenced by the Irish literary movement of the early twentieth century?

Rakhshanda Jalil A Literary History of the Progressive Writer’s Movement in Urdu Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 490. Rs. 1495

Angarey translated from the Urdu by Vibha S. Chauhan and Khalid Alvi. Rupa Publications, New Delhi, 2014. Pb. pp. 105. Rs. 195

Angaarey translated by Snehal Shangvi. Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 170. Rs. 499

Prof. Alok Rai, writer and translator

Prof. Alok Rai, writer and translator

Alok Rai 2Prof. Alok Rai, Ex Faculty, Department of English, University of Delhi.

Born and bred in Allahabad, Prof. Alok  Rai grew up in an affluent Hindi – Urdu environment which explains his strong linguistic background. He holds a graduate degree in modern English literature and became a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. At, the University College of London, he had written a Ph.D. dissertation on George Orwell and later he has also published books on the said author while also writing on the formation of modern Hindi. As a translator his translation of Nirmala was published by Oxford University Press many years ago. He has been involved with the business of writing, with language in society. His interests include, Modern English Literature; cultural processes in modern North India, with particular reference to issues of language and literature.

He is also the grandson of the legendary Hindi writer Premchand. Years ago when I was guest-editing the special issue of Children’s and Young Adult literature of The Book Review I asked him for a review of series of biographies that had been published in Hindi by Children’s Book Trust. ( Chirsmaraniya Mahaan Vyaktitva Vol 1-9, Illustrator: Sahana Pal Children’s Book Trust, 2001) I no longer have the bibliographical details with me but I discovered that the review had been posted online. ( http://www.orchidapps.com/goodbooks/node/5968#.Uhs0T5Jgdsl ) . I am reproducing the review as is. 

We hate poetry, Keats wrote, that has a design on us. This set of short “inspirational” biographies, published by the Children’s Book Trust – with an average of 5 or 6 worthies per each one of nine volumes – goes well beyond design. This is, as the criminal lawyers say, “intent”- as in “loitering – and the intent is deadly serious. Because of course the underlying purpose of the series, indeed of such series, is nothing less than the abduction of the young, seizing their minds well before they have reached the age of consent. Even more crucially, of dissent.

There is a tendency in our gerontocratic civilization to treat matters pertaining to children as being not very important. There is no reason, here, to run through the familiar complaints about the priorities that enable aging gentlemen to acquire toy phalluses at enormous state expense even as they can’t find the funds to provide schools, or meals, or medicines for millions of children. And yes, of course, I know that there is a distinction to be made between the said aging gentlemen and the good men and women who have collaborated in this CBT project of providing these inspirational biographies – and of course I’m joking when I accuse them of “criminal” intent. But there is a serious argument here: what we do to our children, whether with the connivance of the NCERT or without it, is crucially important. And while this CBT series might seem a somewhat modest vehicle to bear the burden of a serious argument, at least there is no danger here of offending Their Lordships, and so understating the seriousness of the issues on which They have pronounced breezy obiter dicta.

But let us get over the grosser matters first. No one can assemble a list that is universally acceptable, and while one may quibble about why X or Y is or isn’t one of the persons chosen for such hagiographic, inspirational treatment, the actual CBT list is, for better and worse, catholic and random. There are sundry 19th century figures – Gokhale, Dadabhai Naoroji, Sir Syed – and lots of the other kind. Muslims? – aforementioned, and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Kidwai, Azad –and I wouldn’t expect Jinnah here anyway! (No Nehru or Gandhi, either, by the way.)  Women? – Vijayalakshmi Pandit (!), Annie Besant, Kamla Nehru, Ba. Writers – Bankim, Bharati, Iqbal – and scientists – Meghnad Saha, Bhabha, Visweshwarayya. Lots of politicians, of course: whatever would we do without them? More importantly, whatever shall we do with them?  I might have said that the inclusion of Savarkar and Shyamaprasad Mukherji in this august company is surprising – but it isn’t, is it?

It is also not my case that there is no room for inspirational stories in the necessary socialization of the young. Indeed, I would argue that it is the neglect of this essential dimension of education in our schools that is both a cause and a symptom of the coarsening of our society, the rampant desensitization that emboldens a Modi or a Singhal or a Togadia to gloat over the grief of the victims of Gujarat in the hope of reaping an electoral advantage. Persons – and so, a collective, a civilization of persons – is distinguished by the texture of their moral anxieties, by their unique sense of moral occasion, and by the narratives in which the implications of their defining moralities are laid bare. Nothing very complicated, this is Arjuna at Kurukshetra, being lectured to by his charioteer – endlessly kitschified, this still fulfils an essential sustaining function. Just as the moral conflicts that are regurgitated by Bombay melodrama do. We are the kind of people who notice, so to speak, moral conflicts. And that indeed is exactly where my problem with this inspirational gallery assembled by the CBT lies. Quick clarification: whether or not our society is rapidly descending into anomie, into a moral vacuum, is not at issue. The question is, how is this situation to be addressed? Are the self-proclaimed and much-touted doctors really equipped with a cure – essentialized religion, 100% proof ! – or are they themselves only symptoms of the malady, and more likely than not, will only exacerbate the situation by their crude ministrations? My answers to these question are, respectively and respectfully, no, yes, and yes.

Elizabeth Taylor, the well-known philosopher, once said, “The problem with people who have no vices is that generally you can be pretty sure they’re going to have some pretty annoying virtues.”  Well, there aren’t many vices on offer here – but there is a serious danger of OD-ing on virtue!  OK, cut to the chase – obviously, every “life” is a selection – children discover very early on that you can’t even tell a single day in its entirety. So, my problem is not with the fact that the biographies here assembled are selective – but rather with the understanding that motivates the selection. The way I understand it, inspirational narrative works through the common narrative experience of identification: above a certain minimal level of complexity, the reader/listener is enabled to identify with a number of characters or, modishly, subject positions, with good and bad, with high and low, so that one can experience moral difficulty, because it is only out of moral difficulty that one develops a sense of moral complexity. Children’s fables about always  being good and always telling the truth and always always respecting your elders are treated by children with the contempt they deserve.  The trouble with these monsters of goodness is that no one can identify with them – one may be forced to admire them, or one admires them, but one cannot identify with them: they inhabit a mythic realm far above the muddled worlds in which we must live. So, what’s wrong with that? They are models of goodness, towards which we aspire, right?

Wrong! In fact, such “heroic” biography has been the staple of fascist pedagogy: larger than life characters who never never do anything wrong, except to draw some significant moral lesson from it, so that their narrated lives are a relentless accumulation of virtue – virtual money in a virtuous bank, so to speak. However, this dread moral lesson works rather paradoxically, because its highly coloured universe succeeds only in communicating not the possibility of virtue for us mere mortals, but its impossibility. The humanist alternative to such fascist “heroic” biography is biography that enables us to identify with the common humanity – common to reader and narratee, to mahaan vyaktitva and child reader – by showing the great man also as being vulnerable to human frailties etc. The possibility of virtue. We are enabled, ideally, to redeem the ordinary life we live by aspiring to live it differently. “Heroic” biography – the mode that I have designated as fascist, both by association and tendency – on the other hand, encourages one to turn to such biographies as necessary and necessarily mythical for a life that is rendered unredeemed and unredeemable. That is the sense in which such simple-minded, direct reaching after unalloyed virtue, through the instrumentality of selective biographies is not just naïve and pointless, it is positively harmful:  even worse than the TV that our poor children would rather watch. And who can blame them?

26 Aug 2013

(C) Prof. Alok Rai

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Prof. Alok Rai will battle it out along with three other renowned experts at the forthcoming JumpStart festival

( http://www.jumpstartfest.com/home ) during the session entitled ” The Great Language Debate”. It promises to be provocative – even revolutionary – ideas about the future of our languages and cultures. Are we building a healthy and sustainable ‘bibliodiversity’ for the next generation? Or are we creating a whole generation of linguistic exiles, neither ‘at home’ in their mother tongue nor in English? Can we move towards a common language without ‘flattening’ culture?