Jamil Urfi on Biswin Sadi Memoirs, the status of Urdu today and growing up in a different India

Editor’s note: Jamil Urfi’s memoirs bring together the cultural zeitgeist of the 60s and 70s to describe a way of life that has since eroded in practice. This is especially true when one considers the place held by the language of Urdu, and the many modernisms it launched in India.

In an interview with Firstpost, the author recalls reading popular Urdu journals, finding their influence in films, Urdu's politicisation and what its disappearance means to those who grew up living alongside it.

Can you explain why you used the two lines, “Janab ye Biswin Sadi hai, aaj kal insaan chaand pe jane ki baat kar raha hai”, as a precursor to the book?

This line is a dialogue spoken by popular Hindi film actor Dev Anand in the film Johny Mera Naam, which was a super-duper hit in the 70s. I thought it captures the essence of the contents of my book of memoirs very well, in that it brings in the words ‘biswin sadi’, which is the 20th century, and also one of the defining moments of the bygone century, namely the landing on the moon.

What was 'Biswin Sadi', its history and its importance to you and those living in Delhi during the 60s? And why has it stuck better in memory as compared to other periodicals or publications at the time?

Biswin Sadi — the Urdu periodical brought out by Mr Ram Rakha Mal Chadha alias Khuster Girami, my neighbour in Nizamuddin — in a sense, the name of the magazine said it all. Biswin Sadi or the 20th century was the new century and its defining features were modernity, progress, development etc. Among the many notable moments from it were the two World Wars, Partition in our part of the world, but also the independence of many nations from colonial rule (including of course India and Pakistan), paradigm-altering discoveries and developments in science (quantum physics, unravelling the structure of DNA etc) and technology (landing on the moon, among others) and other firsts (the scaling of Mt Everest etc). In a sense, by virtue of its name, the magazine Biswin Sadi does capture the spirit of the times.

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Urdu literature at the time, as you mention in the book, was as contemporary as Hindi or the emerging English literature. It had pulp fiction, it had pop-romance and so on. What were some of the most famous books and periodicals that people read? What was it like growing up through this period?

I really don’t know if Urdu literature during the 60s and 70s was as contemporary as Hindi or the emerging English literature. Short story writing in Hindi was a well-developed genre with writers such as Kamleshwar and others, who wrote for magazines like Dharamyug. Contemporary Urdu poetry, I thought, remained trapped in the shama-parwana metaphors of classical Persian poetry and only experts can tell if anything new or original was happening in Urdu then. But generally speaking, reading was a popular pastime in those days, before the television and later the Internet came on the scene. Besides the Sunday magazine sections of newspapers of all languages (which contained informative articles) and magazines like the Illustrated Weekly of India, magazines in both Hindi and Urdu sold well and had a substantial readership. Some of the popular Urdu periodicals were Shama, Biswin Sadi, Rumani Duniya, Jasoosi Duniya, Pakeeza Anchal, Khilona (for children) and many others.

Covers of Jasoosi Duniya (left) and Khatoon- e-Mashriq (right)

Covers of Jasoosi Duniya (left) and Khatoon- e-Mashriq (right) from Urfi's collection

You mention in the book an intriguing takeaway from films – how the title that used to be written in Urdu has now disappeared. What was Urdu’s relationship with films like, and other than its presence in lyrics, why has it disappeared from the screen today?

I think Hindustani — a hybrid between Sanskritised Hindi and Persianised Urdu was immensely popular. To quote from my book, "The tone and tenor of the dialogues and the songs was largely Hindustani, and often Urdu was used alongside the usual etiquettes of North Indian Sharif culture, common to the landed gentry of both Hindus and Muslims, particularly in the United Provinces." In Yash Chopra’s Waqt, the type of language which the characters are shown to be speaking, their mannerisms, social etiquette, etc. are all those of Urdu-speaking elite. So, those films which had dialogues and songs in Hindustani, rather than pure Hindi or highly Persianised Urdu, seemed to go well with the masses, which also means that by and large, most of the Indian film-going public, comprising of all religions, was comfortable with Hindustani and a pluralistic, composite culture. In those times, when divides were being needlessly created (the communal divide, because language came to be associated with communities, Hindu and Muslim), some films were bold in making the point that language fanaticism of any kind was pointless. When it came to the differences between Hindi and Urdu, there would be an admission, almost deliberate, that Urdu was also a legitimate language of India. Remember Rajesh Khanna in Bawarchi? Talking to the music teacher (played by Paintal) who speaks in highly Sanskritised Hindi, Rajesh Khanna playing the role of the cook chooses to reply in Hindustani, using plenty of Urdu words. The surprised music teacher, unable to understand a word, asks him why he is speaking in Urdu and not in ‘our’ language (hamari bhasha). To which Khanna replies, ‘Urdu bhi toh hamari zabaan hai. Hai na?’ (Urdu is also our language. Isn’t it?)

You dedicate a whole chapter to an Anglo-Indian family that you grew up with, and their importance to your own life story. Why are such connections crucial, and why are they under religious or cultural scrutiny these days?

I think the crucial takeaway is that if people of different communities co-exist together, then one has an opportunity of knowing the ‘other’. Opportunities for this are fast dwindling and people are living in bubbles, never having to get to know the other, except through the media, TV and the Internet. Sadly, they are confronted with stereotypes and form an image about the ‘other’ accordingly. During my growing up years, living in a cosmopolitan locality, I got a chance to live alongside the Andrews (the Anglo-Indian family mentioned in the book) and Partition-displaced Punjabi families, which in turn allowed us to form personal bonds that have lasted a lifetime.

Glimpses from a bygone era. Adds from magazines, and a still of Dev Anand and Hema Malini from Johny Mera Naam

Glimpses from a bygone era. Adds from magazines, and a still of Dev Anand and Hema Malini from Johny Mera Naam placed on a box of candy

Having said this, often it is not a matter of choice for Muslims in post-Independence India to find accommodation in a cosmopolitan locality in towns and cities, and this negative trend seems to be only increasingly fuelled by a fear of the ‘other’. Some years ago, a well known journalist wrote a very a meaningful piece in a newspaper — ‘Why can’t Mr. Zaveri live where he wants to’ — in the wake of a rather unpleasant incident which occurred in a town in Gujarat. A Muslim businessman who had purchased a house in a predominantly Hindu locality was harassed by right-wing Hindu activists. The author (Siddharth Varadarajan) took us back to the filmy world of the 50s in his piece, citing the example of the 1957 Subodh Mukerji classic Paying Guest, starring Dev Anand and Nutan. He wrote, "A young Hindu lawyer (played by Dev Anand) is unable to rent a flat in Lucknow because potential landlords don’t trust his youthful exuberance. Our hero then disguises himself as a bearded, elderly Muslim gentleman—complete with the exaggerated sartorial and linguistic appurtenances of a Bollywood ‘bade mian’—and is warmly taken in by a Hindu landlord with a young daughter (Nutan). Seeing the film 52 years later, one is struck by how improbable this scenario is in the urban India of today."

Perhaps in the good ol’ days, when a young daughter could be trusted in the company of a bade miyan as compared to a young chail chabila, there were greater occasions for living together and, in the process, knowing ‘the other’. But now with residential localities becoming more and more exclusive, such opportunities are dwindling, and consequently there is little chance to interact and know the other at a personal level and not just at a professional level, except for the stereotypes which the media, TV serials and films portray.

What has been more hurtful to readers like yourself — Urdu’s dwindling strength over the years or its association with a kind of political agenda at times? Can you give a broad timeline of how and why the language declined after the 70s?

As far as the decline in Urdu is concerned, well let me say it is not just Urdu but a host of other regional languages too. But Urdu’s dwindling numbers over the years and its association with a kind of political agenda is certainly a factor. In post-Independence India, Urdu has been identified with Muslims (and Pakistan) and so it has been targeted. (To begin with Urdu was a language which enjoyed popularity among urban elites, both Muslim and non-Muslim). In recent times the focus has shifted with terrorism, especially in the subcontinent. So, when a news anchor on a TV debate says, ‘a dreaded terrorist was apprehended with material in Urdu’, one shouldn’t be surprised. What the Urdu material was — a book of poems, personal letters to their family — is never investigated. This is something which was touched upon in a court room scene in the popular film Jolly LLB 2 with Akshay Kumar in the main lead.

Urdu is identified as a Muslim language, rightly or wrongly. In the past it was not – most urban folk were familiar with it. I think the politics of the late 19th century and early 20th century was particularly divisive, especially during the language wars of the late 19th century, which snowballed into the politics of separatism.

Another tendency a couple of decades ago was to regard the language as having an effeminate, sophisticated, declining elite, a theme nicely explored in the film Muhafiz.

And lastly, there is another dimension, when it comes to official patronage of Urdu and politicians using it in vote bank politics. For instance, as far as Muslims are concerned, official attempts to save Urdu usually turn out to be superficial in nature. This is because their real issues — as indeed those of the marginalised sections which includes Hindus, Dalits and others (Muslims included) — are bread and butter issues, that is, those linked to employment, surviving with dignity and so on. Issues of development of roads, health, sanitation, education etc which are common to all people. Thus the efforts of the State towards what they call ‘saving’ or ‘helping’ Urdu amount to nothing more than ‘tokenism’ and are aimed at pleasing the electorate.

Some critics and authors have of late written that Urdu alive and flourishing. What is your opinion about it and what do you think can be done to improve the situation?

I think many people today regard Urdu as a living language and immensely popular because of Hindi films. This is something which the noted script writer and lyricist Javed Akhtar has often emphasised in his public talks and interviews. It would seem that Urdu is alive and kicking, despite its rejection at the state level and with no support from any quarter.

But on the whole, it is also not just a question of Urdu alone when it comes to regional languages. If you ask in context of what can be done to improve the situation, then there is a decline in liberal arts, languages and humanities in Indian universities. In universities and colleges across the board, posts of language teachers lie vacant for years (and this certainly includes the Urdu departments of some universities). In today’s context, while science and technology, finance, computers etc rule the roost, I think there is an urgent need to develop the language departments, including of course those of Urdu and Persian, and encouraging good scholarship.


Updated Date: Jul 04, 2018 13:20 PM

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