All posts by Mahmood Farooqui

Punjabi Qissas and the Story of Urdu

Heer-Ranjha in a Pakistani film poster, circa 1970s

The Social Space of Language: Vernacular Literature in British Colonial Punjab
by Farina Mir
Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2010.
pp-277, price Rs 695

This book straddles several anomalies that are rather obvious once stated but are rarely formulated as such. How is it that the world of Urdu literature becomes so dominated by people from the Punjab in a span of fifty years, beginning circa 1900s, and in a sense, continues to remain so? Iqbal, Faiz, Meeraji, Rashid, Bedi, Manto, Krishan Chander and down to our times Mushtaq Ahmed and Zafar Iqbal, a top twenty or top fifty list of modern Urdu litterateurs would likely contain eighty percent Pubjabis. And how is it that Punjabi, which produced such a brilliant and varied repertoire of stories, epics and poems until the late medieval era by such extraordinary luminaries as Baba Farid, Bulle Shah, Waris Shah, Haridas Haria seems to drop out of our horizon in the modern era, where all we know of is an Amrita Pritam or, less likely, a Surjit Patar. Where such poverty after such riches, where such preponderance from such invisibility? And yet, how is it that Punjabi still continues to enjoy immediate and even aural connotations that transcend nationality, religion and, even as it defines a community, a specific ethnicity. What then is a Punjabi community and where and how has it existed specifically in the colonial era but, in many resilient ways, down to our times? Continue reading Punjabi Qissas and the Story of Urdu

A Tribute to Moin Akhtar (1950-2011)

For many of us in India he was Amitabh Bachhan and Dilip Kumar combined in one, although he did no action. His action consisted of something else altogether. He could play any character in the world, sometimes animals too. His impersonations of Dilip Kumar were sometimes better than the thespian’s own act. He could speak well, emote well, mimic brilliantly, parody, caricature, satirize and imitate almost anything and anybody. He could do all of this without appearing crude in the slightest way. His understated demeanour, his timing and his ability to retain a straight face through the most ridiculous of situations was more than a gift, through it he brought class to whatever he did. He has often been described as a comedian but if he was a comedian then he redefined the art of comedy and created a genre which could be performed only by himself. He was a one man entertainment industry and unlike film starts from this side of the border he needed nothing other than himself. He was his own writer, performer, director, presenter. Here was a fusion of an artist and his material that is rarely seen in the performance arenas in the subcontinent. Continue reading A Tribute to Moin Akhtar (1950-2011)

On the fuzziness of Personal Identity: UIDAI and the national identity card of India: Taha Mehmood

Guest post by TAHA MEHMOOD

I – The spread of Identity cards in Southasia:

An identity card virus seems to be spreading across south-Asia. The pathogen emerged long ago in 1971, when Pakistan established a paper based personal identity system. !971 was also the year when Pakistan was engaged with India in a military conflict which led to the creation of Bangladesh. In 1972, a year later, the Department of Registrations of Persons located at Colombo, Sri Lanka, was entrusted with the responsibility of issuing a national identity to citizens who were over sixteen years of age. In 1972 the name of the island was changed from Ceylon to Sri Lanka and Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran formed the Tamil New Tigers (TNT), which later became LTTE or Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The state of Sri Lanka was at war with LTTE for the next three decades. Nothing new happened on the national identity card front for the next two decades. Continue reading On the fuzziness of Personal Identity: UIDAI and the national identity card of India: Taha Mehmood

On Thinking Pakistan—Rambles and Recollections of an… upon Intezar Husain’s ‘Chiraghon ka Dhuvan’

Once it is granted that in India we practise a different kind of secularism, a secularism which is unique to us, it becomes very difficult not to grant the same status to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. This may seem bizarre given the fact that religion seems to pervade life in all these places, and a struggle over the definition of the state continues everywhere. However, defining oneself is different from the way one may be read. Many an avowed Muslim appears highly heretic to others. In fact the contemporary state, given the kinds of tasks of enumeration, surveillance, discipline and welfare that it is asked to command can only ever be secular, a fact that the Emory based legal scholar Abdullah Bin Naimi has been trying to hammer home to different kinds of Muslims over the last decade. For more of his works one can go to here and here.

The reason I bring this up in particular relates to the case of Pakistan. An avowed Islamic state, it has found it difficult to satisfy the urgings of different kinds of Islamists. And indeed it never can do so simply because protecting its citizens and assuring them equality is also one of its declared goals. The clash between the principle of treating each citizen as an individual, equal before the state, and the demands of different kinds of communities which may be ethnic, linguistic, regional or religious is precisely the playground of struggle that all South Asian, and now some European, states grapple with in their pursuit of secular goals. Continue reading On Thinking Pakistan—Rambles and Recollections of an… upon Intezar Husain’s ‘Chiraghon ka Dhuvan’

Bhaiyya Troubles in Mumbai

The Juhu Versova beach is divided into two sections, guarded by two stray dogs and the bare dirty arses of bhaiyyas who step off their kholis to shit straight into the sea. The other side of the invisible divide is reserved for the civil society which comes to walk, exercise and meditate in the morning. Including well off bhaiyyas like ourselves.

Returning from the beach when I accosted the panwalla by calling him bhaiyya, three bystanders gave me a sharp look. I figured they were marathi manoos. Leaving the shop I tried to inject some pathos by saying that it has become so dangerous to call anyone bhaiyya these days. They did smile, all of them. But I detected a gleam of satisfaction in their expression.

Continue reading Bhaiyya Troubles in Mumbai

Taslima Nasreen and the Spirit of Islam

It is said that after he announced his Prophethood Hazrat Mohammed suffered severe persecution in Mecca. The vitriol and calumny extended from the verbal to the physical. There was one woman who would always throw filth on him whenever he passed by her house. He would unfailingly take the same route everyday and she would equally invariably throw filth on him. He never protested. One day as he passed her house, she was missing. He inquired after her and learning that she was sick he went up to her room, and finding her bed-ridden, tended to her. I grew up listening to a lot of stories from my grandmother about the Prophet Mohammed. Told in an anecdotal form, the stories largely avoided his image as a conqueror and concentrated instead on his personality, specially his grace under hardship. I narrate this story especially to remind my compatriots about what they might do when faced with hostility, or criticism.

I write this particularly in the context of Taslima Nasrin, whose vise expires this week and she still does not know whether it will be extended or not. Taslima Nasrin must be given an opportunity to stay on in India, and must be provided that opportunity not as a grace or favor but because she is, as a South Asian, as a fellow human, fully entitled to it. My appeal rests not merely on a liberal idea of freedom of expression, or on making this a litmus test for India’s pluralism. India’s pluralism, where it exists in practice, is not dependent on appeals or testimonials from intellectuals. Our pluralism does not, and has not, precluded violent confrontations between different social groups. However, we also have countervailing traditions of coming to a working adjustment with each other, which, as an aside, partly explains why the word ‘adjust’ is so popular in all Indian languages.

Continue reading Taslima Nasreen and the Spirit of Islam

Aini Apa

It turned out that she was being rash. I am referring to Ismat Chughtai’s summation of Qurratulain Hyder following the publication of the latter’s second novel in the early nineteen fifties. Ismat had asserted that “the star that had emerged on the literary horizon with all the promise of becoming a Sun dazzled so strongly in one place that it lost all its splendour.” Chughtai wrote this before ‘Housing Society’, before ‘Agle Janam Mohe Bitiya na Kijo’ and above all before ‘Aag ka Dariya’ were written. She also wrote this before Hyder’s gradually expanding sweep harmonized the dichotomies of History and Past, Civilisations and personal identities, stream of consciousness and feminism and nostalgia into a meta-historical plane where no Urdu writer has ever reached.

Through many a desolate month of the English winter the County library at Oxford provided me nourishment and succour by allowing me access to Qurratulain Hyder’s novels and short stories. Reading works like ‘Roshni ki Raftar’ and ‘Patjhar ki Aawaaz,’ titles which resounded with movement when all around me was depressingly still, I was doubly reassured. My own nostalgia for a warm home was echoed by the nostalgia for the lost world that resounds in all her works. Continue reading Aini Apa

Why I hate the Aussies

When it comes to the sporting arena, Scotland is not well known to set the imagination of fans on fire.

However, I was strongly praying for them to acquire an unexpected life in their opening World Cup game and hoped that they manage to give the Australians a crash course in the funniness of the game called cricket.

In the last five years, I have had only one agenda when it comes to cricket. I want the Australians to be thrashed, beaten, bullied and plummeted. The ultimate cricketing sight for me is to see Glenn McGrath’s shoulders droop and his arms hanging low and his mouth clenched tightly and his eyes unable to meet the batsman’s eyes. I don’t really care who the batsman is, it could be Henry Olonga for all I care, or any team that produces this effect. Continue reading Why I hate the Aussies

The Relief of Blogistan

For those of you who read Hindi, there is a feast waiting to be devoured. Over the last couple of years, the world of Hindi blogs has witnessed a mini revolution. The quality of writing, the variety of fare and the freshness of the style has left the world of traditional Hindi letters far behind. This page lists a total of over 300 blogs and it is by no means exhaustive.

Many of these blogs are run by television journalists. Those of us who have ranted endlessly about the degeneration of Hindi TV news would be surprised by this. While TV news seems to have left no space for serious analysis or comment, the world of Hindi blogs is awash with biting pieces about news as well as the production of news. The viewers loss has been the readers’ gain. Continue reading The Relief of Blogistan

Spectre of sameness

I always find it slightly odd that those among us who read and write for newspapers, or for blogs, for that matter, there is such a great identity of lifestyles.

Most of us not only lead similar lives but also live in similar conditions and do similar sort of jobs. I had written some weeks ago about the diversity a hospital waiting room can present. I had found that diversity is so striking in part because of the sameness I encounter when I go to a party in Delhi or Bombay. It is not merely a question of my profession, as a semi-journalist and stage performer that I am likely to meet similar people everywhere.

But even if I go to a place where lawyers predominate or where there are lots of bankers, our interests and pastimes would not be vastly different. We would have read the same books, seen the same films, would holiday in the same places and have more or less the same aspirations.

I have wondered whether my discontent has to do with the confinements of a bourgeois life. Continue reading Spectre of sameness

Patient India

Other than trains, hospitals are the most secular spaces in contemporary India. This applies as much to upper-end luxury hospi-resorts such as — Apollo and Escorts — as it does to the lowliest nursing home in any corner of the country. However, even as I assert this, a caveat comes to mind — the aftermath of the Gujarat riots, which had hospitals and even doctors sharply divided along communal lines.

In itself, it may or may not be a picture post card communal harmony moment, but if you keep the Gujarat experience in mind, then this little incident certainly substantiates my assertion. Continue reading Patient India

Humane slaughter?

By a coincidence that is entirely explainable, the Arabic word Baqar, meaning cow or ox, gets fudged into the word Bakra, originating from the Sanskrit varkar.

Thus in India, Baqr Id, the festival commemorating Abraham’s sacrifice, quite often becomes Bakr Id. As I noticed this time round, even as Bakri Id, it makes absolute sense of course, since it is goats that are the primary object of sacrificial affection, and mutton is the prized meat anyway.

Through another onomatopoeic twist, in the purabiya region Baqr Id is also known as Barki Id — the big Id. People would sometimes enquire whether this is the big Id or the small Id or whether it is the sewain Id or the meat Id. For youngsters, though the fixating charm of watching animal slaughter is leavened by the disappointing fact that as far as Idee (or tyohari) — the money gift that is customarily doled out to them by seniors — is concerned, they come off much the worse on Baqr Id. Continue reading Humane slaughter?

Pal do pal ka shayar

What exactly is the status of Sahir Ludhiyanvi, as a poet and as a film lyricist? A debate currently raging at Kafila pits two radically different views about Sahir against each other.

Against the conventional view, which sees him as a towering icon in the poetic movement of India as also in our cinema, Panini Pothoharvi maintains that Sahir was an ordinary versifier, who cannot even be placed along side Shailendra and Majrooh Sultanpuri, as a film lyricist.

Lest I do some injustice to Mr Panini’s views, I will quote the relevant paragraph in its entirety.

“It must be remembered that Sahir’s reputation rests largely — go around asking the cognescenti (and who care about them, anyway) what they think of Sahir’s poetry and you would know a thing or two you wouldn’t wish to hear in your adolescent exuberance — on his film songs. And I must say that I am not greatly enamoured of his Chin-o-Arab Hamara — the refrain may be catchy but the stanzas simply do not work. Continue reading Pal do pal ka shayar

Begging for an answer

[First published in Mid-Day]

The blogosphere has imperceptibly risen to great importance in my life. The same time as being intangible, (that is why it is called virtual isn’t it), it is also a more visible sphere. The readers have names, you can interact with them, the comment-war can sometimes become unending. And there are no national boundaries.

A piece I wrote for a web journal called Kafila was linked to some other blogs and in one day alone, at one blog alone, there were over a hundred comments.

Apart from blogs, which is a sort of personal space with a public view, there are also mailing lists where critical discussions take a different form than a newspaper or a printed magazine. Continue reading Begging for an answer

Walled away in faith’s defence

Like today’s ‘secular’ or ‘moderate’ Muslim, a species called the ‘nationalist Muslim’ was extremely sought after, and equally rare, in pre-Independence India. The nationalist Muslim was the counterpoint to the problem of Muslim disaffection that surfaced after 1857 — a statist problem to which the colonial solution was the creation of a set of collaborators. In turn, the nationalist retort was to create a nationalist Muslim i.e., one willing to consider mutual agreements to resolve disputes rather than the colonial state as a bulwark. That is to say, a Muslim who ratified the Congress was a nationalist, one who did not was a communalist. But since even the best nationalist Muslims remained disaffected — read Maulana Azad’s ministerial correspondence — and many who started as nationalists ended as communalists or separatists — take Jinnah, Mohammed Ali Jauhar or Iqbal — a Muslim’s only respectable political choice was to become a communist. Continue reading Walled away in faith’s defence