Guest post by AMITAVA KUMAR
Till a few days ago, I hadn’t heard of Aqeel Shatir. A friend sent me a link to a report in the Indian Express on December 20 about a poet who had been asked to pay for an anti-Narendra Modi remark in his anthology, Abhi Zindaa Hoon Main (I Am Still Alive). I got in touch with the reporter, in Ahmedabad, who had filed the story and soon after that spoke on the phone with Shatir.
Aqeel Shatir is his takhallus or literary alias. The name his parents gave him was Aqeel Ahmed. His ustad offered him a choice of two pen-names. One was Aazar, which means a sculptor, someone who carves beautiful forms from marble. The other was Shatir, whose literal meaning is chess-player but denotes someone who possesses cunning.He was born in Pratapgarh in Uttar Pradesh in 1962. His father was a weaver and, when Aqeel was still a boy, the family migrated to Ahmedabad where the father found work in a textile mill. Shatir writes poetry in Urdu. He has five children. He owns a STD/PCO shop, but this is barely enough to make ends meet.
He told me that while most people think of ghazals as offerings on the altar of love or beauty, the ordinary reader in this age wants to understand the circumstances in which he or she lives. What is needed then is poetry that offers an explanation for one’s pain.
This was the first time I was talking with Shatir. It must have been dinnertime in Ahmedabad. I was calling from a house in Washington, DC. We were talking on the day after Christmas, and outside my window, the first few snowflakes of the morning had begun to float down from the heavens. Shatir told me he was sitting in his shop and I could hear the noise of the street, cars honking, shouts, people paying him for the calls they had made.
The Gujarat Urdu Sahitya Akademi had issued a notice to Shatir last month, asking him to explain why he shouldn’t have to return the award of Rs. 10,000 that he had been given to assist in the publication of his 2008 collection. The reason for this notice, apparently, was the presence of a few lines in a critical essay about Shatir’s poetry included in the volume. The essay’s writer, Raunaq Afroz, had been critical of Modi in these lines which I offer in an approximate translation: “May good come the way of Narendra Modi who, as soon as he came to power, killed Urdu in Gujarat. Not only did he do that, but in 2002, under a well-thought-out plan for the whole of Gujarat, Modi played so nakedly with violence and barbaric riots that he shamed the whole of humanity. Everywhere, with loot and killings, murder and mayhem, rape, burning and genocide of the minority community, he created a climate of terror in the entire country.”
At the book’s release function, an official from the Akademi advised that these words should perhaps be whitened out. Without much hesitation, Shatir deleted those lines and got the page reprinted. Only the copies that had been inscribed and distributed at the release function retained the attack on Modi. The copies in the market, about four hundred in all, came out in the new format. That, perhaps, would have been the end of the story. But earlier this year, Shatir began to file, under the Right to Information Act, a series of official inquiries into the accounting practices of the Gujarat Urdu Sahitya Akademi. He told me he had first submitted sixteen questions and then, perhaps a bit eccentrically, a hundred and thirty-five questions. The recent notice against him was a way that the Akademi had found to tell him to desist. The debate over Modi was almost a diversion: the real struggle was about transparency and access to funds.
I told Shatir that I had become interested in his case because a group had formed on Facebook to provide help. Sixty-odd writers in India and Indian writers abroad were joining together to give him support against censorship. I asked Shatir if he was true to his pen-name? Does his poetry address power? It was a slightly impertinent question but Shatir was patient with me and recited these lines of his to explain where he stood:
Abhi zindaa hoon main, dekho meri pehchaan baaki hai
Badan zakhmi hai lekin abhi mujhmein jaan baaki hai
Tum apni hasraton ko zaalimon marne nahin dena
Shahadat ka mere dil mein abhi armaan baaki hai
(I am still alive, the person I was is left in me
This body is wounded but there is still life left in me
You, my killers, don’t let your ambitions die
The desire for martyrdom is still left in me.)
I asked him if he thought his work was compromised when he cut the passage from his book that the Akademi member had found troubling. “This gentleman was an elder,” Shatir said to me, “and I didn’t think anything would be lost if the words were cut.” So much for my concern about censorship!
And Narendra Modi? Were Raunaq Afroz’s words about his role in the riots incorrect? “No,” Shatir replied, “Raunaq Afroz’s views were no different from my own And yet, if one were to remove that one page about the riots from the book of Modi’s history, it could be said that Gujarat had never found a better Chief Minister.” I thought he was being very kind to Modi and decided to test his limits. I said to Shatir that Modi might have been responsible for the death of Muslims, but was there any evidence that he had also killed Urdu. Again, Shatir was forthright. He said, “If the Muslim is killed, then his tongue, his zubaan, will die too.”
Which made me think, again, of Shatir’s declaration: “Abhi zindaa hoon main.” I had begun to think that in his fight with the Akademi, we were seeing a poet in distress. A poor man wanting, demanding, his share of public funds. That might still be true. But let’s also ask in what circumstances would a declaration about being merely alive appear even significant? When he was reciting his lines on the phone, I tried to imagine Shatir reading them at a mushaira in Ahmedabad to an audience of riot victims. Think for a moment about the atmosphere at such a gathering in Gujarat where people, listening to a man reciting poems in Urdu, hear that despite the injury done to them they are still very much alive.