Sunday, November 03, 2019

'शायरी मैंने ईजाद की'

ये मेरी पसंदीदा नज़्मों में से एक है, उर्दू के नामी शायर अफ़ज़ाल अहमद सय्यद की लिखी हुई:

'शायरी मैंने ईजाद की'

काग़ज़ मराकेशों ने ईजाद किया

हुरूफ़ फ़ोनेशनों ने

शायरी मैंने ईजाद की

क़ब्र खोदने वाले ने तंदूर ईजाद किया

तंदूर पर क़ब्ज़ा करने वालों ने रोटी की पर्ची बनाई

रोटी लेने वाले ने क़तार ईजाद की

और मिलकर गाना सीखा

रोटी की क़तार में जब चींटियाँ आ कर खड़ी हो गईं

तो फ़ाक़ा ईजाद हो गया

शहतूत बेचने वाले ने रेशम का कीड़ा ईजाद किया

शायरी ने रेशम से लड़कियों के लिए लिबास बनाया

रेशम में मलबूस लड़कियों के लिए कुटनियों ने महलसरा ईजाद की

जहाँ जाकर उन्होंने रेशम के कीड़े का पता बता दिया

फ़ासले ने घोड़े के चार पाँव ईजाद किए

तेज़ रफ़तारी ने रथ बनाया

और जब शिकस्त ईजाद हुई

तो मुझे तेज़ रफ़्तार रथ के आगे लिटा दिया गया

मगर उस वक़्त तक शायरी मुहब्बत को ईजाद कर चुकी थी

मुहब्बत ने दिल ईजाद किया

दिल ने ख़ेमा और कश्तियाँ बनाईं

और दूर-दराज़ के मक़ामात तय किए

ख़्वाजासरा ने मछली पकड़ने का कांटा ईजाद किया

और सोये हुए दिल में चुभोकर भाग गया

दिल में चुभे हुए कांटे की डोर थामने के लिए

नीलामी ईजाद हुई


जब्र ने आख़री बोली ईजाद की

मैंने सारी शायरी बेच कर आग ख़रीदी

और जब्र का हाथ ज़ला दिया

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Looking at oneself grow

Indications that you might be an adult: You are able to sit down to a meal in a dining hall full of bright young people with whom you have no special desire to converse, nor any special desire to not converse. The hum of a hundred voices and clatter-tinkle of a hundred forks and knives rising and falling, washing over you like a clean rinse.

Indications that you might be regressing: You are able to eat like you are hungry, when you are hungry, with crumbs in your hair, and you can brush them off with no attempt at camouflage, while a dozen people look on.

Indications that you might be progressing: You stop taking people personally, because you accept that they are not yours to take.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Hindi divas

हिंद में हिंदी बनते बनते बनी, कई सौ साल लगे। अब भी बन ही रही है। संस्कृत के ताने पे तुर्की फ़ारसी का बाना और फिर जाने कौन-कौन ज़ुबान की कढ़ाई। अब अंग्रेज़ी के पैबंद लग रहे हैं।

हिंदी पे रहम कीजिए, फलने फूलने दीजिये। जब ज़ुबान नए धागे ढूंढ़ने लगे, नया मज़बूत रेशा, समझ लीजिए वो ज़िंदा रहना चाहती है। जितना उसे एयरटाइट डिब्बे में बंद करेंगे, उतनी जल्दी घुट के मर जाएगी। जिसे प्यार करते हैं उसे आज़ाद छोड़ना पड़ता है। नहीं तो, या तो प्यार मर जाएगा या वो, जिससे प्यार है। 

हाँ, हिंदी से प्यार नहीं है तो कोई बात नहीं। लेकिन सोच लीजिए, ज़ुबान माँ भी होती है, बेटी भी। जहाँ प्यार मिला, वहीं मुड़ जाएगी। हैप्पी की तरह, जूते पहन के भाग जाएगी। 

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Why did the chicken cross the road?

A new poem published in Narrow Road (Vol 8) is an attempt to examine chickens, roads and crossing over to the other side: Why did the chicken cross the road?

This issue was meant to be dedicated to 'anecdotal poetry', guest edited by Sivakami. My submission can be read as either anecdotal or a multiple choice question poem.

Click the link above and keep flipping pages until you find the poem.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Ertugrul in the age of Erdogan

As a child, I had thrilled to the story of a powerful, warrior woman on the throne of Delhi but had never wondered about who her ancestors were. I had not thought of medieval Turks as nomads, casting about in whirlpools of contested nationalities. In the modern Indian imagination—especially the Hindutva narrative—Turks are seen as usurpers of power, lumped with Persians, Chagtais and Mongols like Changez Khan who was the Oguz Turks’ biggest foe. Through watching Resurrection: Ertugrul, I began to see them as landless tribes whose only chance at life was a strong sword arm.

The world these characters inhabit is an intensely cosmopolitan one. The bazaars, inns, port towns are melting pots of race and civilisation. The actors come in all shades of brown, reflective of the mixed Greek, Roman, Armenian, Arab, Assyrian and Moroccan ancestry in the region. Watching them I felt something shifting but it took me about a hundred episodes to understand what it was. It was the stone of cultural imperialism and it weighed a few centuries... our awareness of the greater world was minimal—everything between Bombay and Britain was an indistinct blob in our minds. Millions of South Asians worked in the Gulf but we didn’t know its history. We read about Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990; the newspapers mentioned the decade long Iran-Iraq war before that. But we didn’t know how Iraq and Kuwait came to be on the map.

All I knew about Turkey was a couple of lines in my history textbook: The Indian struggle for independence was entwined with the Khilafat movement, which opposed British attempts to strip the Caliph of all power. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk defeated colonisers and made it a secular nation.

In fiction, I read about King Arthur, Joan of Arc, Papal politics. I read about the Crusades and knew that these were wars fought between Christian knights and Muslim hordes. The knights, I thought of as vaguely noble: knight in shining armour; knight to the rescue of damsel in distress; knight on a white horse; people “knighted” after great achievements. The Muslim hordes, I thought of as... The truth is, I did not think about the Muslims at all.

Read the full text of my essay on cultural politics, Netflix, and the shaping of minds via storytelling and media exposure in Fountain Ink magazine : 

Sunday, July 28, 2019

A profile of Akhil Katyal, bilingual poet and rising star on Delhi's literary horizon

By now, he had published his first poem in the school magazine. It was written in Hindi, during his “Casio phase”. He had been taking private music lessons for a few years, tabla in Dehradun and Casio (the keyboard) in Lucknow. A man came to their Ganga Sinchai Puram home and taught him and his brother to play simple Bollywood tunes. “It was songs like “Roop Suhana Lagta Hai”, and “Didi Tera Devar Deewana”. I played these tunes at public events, especially at the colony’s officer’s club, where children would perform at dinners.”
It was the 150th-year celebration of their school, and both his brother and he took ill. He was still keen on participating somehow, so he wrote a poem for the school magazine. It was called “Ghar”, and he admits he had help with it. “I wrote the first six lines and my keyboard teacher wrote the second half.”
Over the years, his language skills were getting sharper but so was the pressure to focus on science. “My mother is a double graduate. My father went to IIT before he joined the state irrigation department. Most of the men on either side of the family were in engineering or the air force.”
Katyal ended up studying science for another two years, but it was a miserable time. After school, he was sent to a private coaching centre, full of young men preparing to crack the big entrance exams – medicine and engineering. He began to cut classes. “I would take my moped and wander around Lucknow. I’d go to the imambara, or to the riverside. I rode far out, waiting until it was time to go home.”
He fared badly in his 12th board exams and failed the IIT prelims. His parents finally took him to a career counsellor who tested his aptitude and told them that the boy’s interest and talent clearly lay in English literature. “She said, ‘Take him to Delhi University and let him study literature’.” By now, his older brother had been put through the grind and ultimately allowed to go his way, into hotel management. “So I was a little freer to do this non-serious thing, literature.”

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Naught Naught Narrative Justice

For a moment there, the prospect hovered on the horizon: a female 007. Fans need not worry. It hasn’t happened yet. However, a less Bond-like Bond is on the anvil. In the wake of #MeToo and a string of feminist critiques, the world’s most famous spy is set to get a makeover and a woman is helping write him as less of a “seedy, sexist dinosaur”, as Danny Boyle reportedly described the character.

Other famous screen characters, however, have already seen female reprisals. Spymaster ‘M’, Bond’s handler, was a woman for a while. The show Elementary, based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, has a female Watson. Ghostbusters was rebooted with an all-woman lead cast. Even Dr. Who has found a female incarnation.

One can argue that these reprisals were inevitable, particularly for characters who are now firmly embedded in pop culture. With actors and show creators pushing back, demanding to place women in compelling, powerful roles, it was only a matter of time. In 2010, The Guardian had published a story headlined: “Will we ever see a female-led franchise?” By 2017, bookies were reportedly taking bets on who the next Dr. Who would be, and there were at least two women in the reckoning as serious contenders.

Arguments have also unfolded about whether such changes amount to tokenism. In the case of Bond, for instance, the films work as a predictable cocktail of sex, danger and machismo. Some critics have argued that, given its genre, female antagonists are already powerful — ruthless, clever, using their looks and sex to their advantage, as Bond himself does. The more interesting question, in my view, is not who writes or plays a particular character but how our view of the world changes as a result of the story being re-imagined, cast anew in a new socio-political framework.

An obvious example is the retelling of fairy tales. In the cultural zine, Toast, writer Anne Thériault argued that fairy tales were probably women’s narratives to start with. They spell out fantasies — “a prince, a castle, a happy ending” — and fears, such as being taken advantage of by a man or losing one’s children. It wasn’t until the Grimm brothers gained control of fairy tales that “beautiful and reasonably spirited young women” morphed into obedient and hard-working ones.

Then, there is the question of medium and money. Storytelling forms have changed dramatically over the last 200 years. Women were rarely in control of the popular narrative because they did not control printing presses, newspapers, or film studios. With the tide turning in recent decades, we are seeing fairy tales being re-interpreted again. Newer versions, particularly animated films, tend to portray princesses as headstrong and quite capable of looking after themselves.

In literature, women have often trained a feminist lens on society. Jane Austen’s sardonic novels discussed property inheritance and marriage laws that placed women’s money at the disposal of their husbands. The Brontë sisters too wrote of the trials and hopes of young women who don’t always have parents looking out for them. Charlotte Brontë gave us a memorable character in Jane Eyre: she does not allow anyone to ride roughshod on her dignity, not even her boss, and she dares to dream of love. However, there is a darkness embedded in the novel in the form of a mentally unstable Bertha, Rochester’s wife, who is imprisoned in her own home and whose existence is not acknowledged by her husband.

This dark corner of the novel captured the interest of another writer, Jean Rhys. In Jane Eyre, Bertha is a beautiful Creole woman from a wealthy family in Jamaica. By Rochester’s own admission, his father encouraged him to marry her for her wealth. But once he sees that she is mentally unstable, why does he not leave her in Jamaica and return to England? Why does he bring her to a new country where she is friendless, and lock her away for ten long years?

Rhys, who grew up in the Caribbean herself, brought a fresh interpretation to the story in the form of Wide Sargasso Sea, taking the story back to Bertha’s mother, a Creole woman and a single mother of two. Bertha, whose name here is Antoinette, grows up beautiful and is left vulnerable after her mother’s death. She is wealthy and in marrying her, Rochester gains control of her fate, even of her name.

Both stories are about women’s relationships in the context of wealth and personal freedom. Rhys' version is not unsympathetic to the governess. However, she chooses to shine a light over the character who was, literally, hidden out of sight and not allowed her say. Several other women have examined the classics, looking for gaps, silences, shadowy figures.

Margaret Atwood wrote The Penelopiad based on Homer’s The Odyssey. Penelope, married to Odysseus, is seen in Western literature as a symbol of fidelity: she waited for her husband for 20 years, holding fort for him and refusing to accept offers of remarriage. She must be clever, careful not to hurt too many egos. In her slender novella, Atwood tells the story from Penelope’s perspective, also giving a voice to the twelve maids who served her honestly, only to be killed by Odysseus when he returns. Penelope reflects on the events of her own childhood, her brief marriage to a husband taken away by a war driven by vanity and ego, even as a bevy of suitors mill around, eager to seize control of her estate.

With The Other Boleyn Girl, Phillipa Gregory brought back into public consciousness Mary, the sister who was also the king’s mistress and who, unlike the ill-fated Anne, survived. The novel also highlights the powerlessness of daughters of the time: even those born into noble families had very little control over their lives and were often used as sexual pawns by their fathers.

Another famous retelling is The Mists of Avalon. Author Marion Zimmer Bradley picked up the myth of King Arthur, wizards, knights and all, and wrote it from the point of view of his half-sister, Morgan. Arthur’s reign coincided with the rise of Christianity, and the decline of pagan beliefs. In older narratives, Morgan or Morgana was sometimes cast as a sorceress who plotted against Arthur. In Zimmer’s version, Morgan is rooted in Celtic culture, trained as a sort of oracle-healer with magical powers. In her world, a goddess spirit is worshipped. The contest of power is configured in the novel as not just between kings or siblings but also between the feminine divine and the masculine divine.

Retelling the classics, however, is not a new trend. Across cultures, we have been telling the same stories, layering myth upon myth. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata have been told dozens of times and with each retelling, certain characters get a bigger platform, or they begin to speak in new languages, bringing a degree of cultural agency to the speakers of that language.

Women have also retold India’s epic narratives. In recent years, Telugu writer Volga lends fresh voice to women from the Ramayana, Sita and Surpanakha. Karthika Nair’s Until the Lions retells the Mahabharata from the perspective of dozens of near-invisible minor characters, and with an exhausted Satyavati as narrator. Odia writer Pratibha Ray retells the epic in Draupadi’s voice in her celebrated novel, Yajnaseni.

Underpinning these retellings is the idea of narrative justice. Female characters have rarely been centre-stage in the great epics or screen fantasies of the last century. Sometimes they occupied the margins. Where they did have a major share in the story, it was either to enable, support, or thwart the male protagonists, or to be the prize that must be won. Now, with women occupying more and more public and creative roles and with some semblance of a share in media resources, they have begun to seek out stories that allow us to collectively rethink gender and power.

A lot has changed since Ian Fleming first wrote his spy thrillers and perhaps it is only a matter of time before we see a female Bond. We do already have Salt occupying the high-voltage female spy thriller zone. In contemporary times, particularly for those of us who live in nations other than the U.S. or the U.K., a better question to ask might be: why do people keep making (and watching) Bond films?

Will the politics of the film change merely through the display of Bond as a more vulnerable man, or perhaps a tough-as-nails woman, as long as bombs keep going off in the background with no account of collateral damage? What new balance of power will the retold story serve? Your guess is as good as mine.

This essay was first published in The Hindu

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Where to, from here?

The messages doing the rounds are on the lines of “What can India expect if…?” “What should we brace for?”

Those who felt the need to brace for something in the event that the BJP-led NDA returned to power through the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, are well aware of what they need to brace for. The last few years have offered some indication.

There is an assumption that bracing will help. It is unlikely. Bracing helps to break a fall, either in a crash landing or in a somewhat evenly matched martial contest. Once you fall, even if you’ve managed to land without breaking your collar bone, you are still down and defenseless, and whoever put you down must have done so with some intention. There is precious little you can do to prevent the realization of that intention in the moment.

Whether the results are an accurate reflection of the people’s mandate and whether majoritarian ambition is all that will be permitted expression henceforth, remains to be seen. The question to focus on is not what to worry about, or even what to combat, but what we value, and how to achieve such values.

For too long, the national conversation has been dominated by unacceptable ideas, and people we want to reject rather than embrace. For some citizens, the idea of secularism was unacceptable. But I find it hard to believe that they valued hatred as a life principle. For others, corruption or crony capitalism was unacceptable. But not much energy and time was spent building the road to the opposite values – honesty and small, independent enterprise.

We may rail against wealth being concentrated in the hands of industrialists who fund the careers of the most powerful people in Parliament, and who will inevitably extract their pound of flesh. However, we continue to use the services and goods that make these business houses richer. We do not build or invest in more independent services because using them is inconvenient.

We don’t mind taking long drives or wasting fossil fuels because the mood strikes us. We do mind going two kilometres to pick up groceries and clothes from non-big corporation owned, non-shopping malls. We don’t like other people consuming hateful rhetoric. We do mind paying the full price for independent media. We don’t like surveillance. We sign up for Aadhaar based surveillance. We are aghast at men threatening to beat up women for drinking in pubs. We do little to counter such men except make cartoons or memes to share on social media.

We would like to think these two strands of choice are unconnected. We would like to do our thing and remain safe, remain free, remain a basically good, inclusive society, all the while surrendering our time, money, our bodies to the processes that fund the exact opposite of what we truly desire and value.
The way to recover our sense of who we are is by inhabiting and embodying our stated values. There is no other way. That is why the leaders of the independence struggle were successful in turning hearts – they didn’t just state, they strove to inhabit, their cherished values.

Ultimately, there are only two things that keep us going as individuals and as a people – love and justice. Take away either and it’s like living with one lung; take away both and the organism starts to collapse.

The nation may yet survive as an anxious, under-nourished, over-worked citizen continues to breathe, work, pay bills. But her being suffers. As hope of love and justice fades, it is replaced by bitterness and rage. While bitterness may yet be diluted through fear or the occasional candy bribe, rage is a hungry beast, not easily domesticated.

It cannot be that some Indians consistently get away with destroying lives and livelihoods. They merely open the floodgates for all others to follow their lead. As it is, India has long suffered from a lack of active, visible justice. Many people already believe that existing systems and processes subvert the Constitution rather than enable it. If people were to stop participating even in the facade of justice, if expectation of dignity and respect were abandoned, then the law, its makers and its administrators will cease to mean anything.

Then, we will need to brace for the end of hope. I am not sure if it is possible to brace against such a thing.

Published in The Quint

Saturday, May 25, 2019

A banned lullaby (Ek zabt-shuda, aur thodi si daraaoni 'Lori')

Level of expectations dekh lo, भई! कभी-कभी देश भक्ति के आवेग में बह जाते हैं लोग, तो ऐसी नज़्में लिख डालते हैं जो अपना जोश तो दिखाती ही हैं, अगली पीढ़ी के मैदान-ए-जंग में क़ुर्बान होने का वायदा कर डालते हैं। ये वीर रस में लिखी अनोखी 'लोरी' है। सोचती हूँ, इन साहब के साहबज़ादे को रात में नींद आती भी थी?

नज़्म: लोरी
शायर: अख़्तर शीराज़ी

कभी तो रहम पर आमादा बेरहम आसमाँ होगा
कभी तो ये जफ़ा पेशा मुक़्क़दर मेहरबाँ होगा
कभी तो सर पे अब्र-ए-रहमत-ए-हक़ गुलफिशाँ होगा
    मस्सर्रत सा समाँ होगा
    मेरा नन्हा जवाँ होगा

किसी दिन तो भला होगा गरीबों की दुआओं का
असर ख़ाली न जायेगा ग़म-आलूद इल्तिजाओं का
नतीजा कुछ तो निकलेगा फ़क़ीराना सदाओं का
    ख़ुदा गर मेहरबाँ होगा
    मेरा नन्हा जवाँ होगा

ख़ुदा रखे जवाँ होगा तो ऐसा नौजवाँ होगा 
हसीन-ओ-कार्दां होगा दिलेर-ओ-तेगरां होगा
बहुत शीरीं ज़ुबाँ होगा बहुत शीरीं बयाँ होगा
     ये महबूब-ए-जहाँ होगा
     मेरा नन्हा जवाँ होगा

वतन और क़ौम की सौ जान से ख़िदमत करेगा ये
ख़ुदा की और ख़ुदा के हुक़्म की इज़्ज़त करेगा ये
हर अपने और पराए से सदा उल्फ़त करेगा ये
        हर एक पर मेहरबाँ होगा
        मेरा नन्हा जवाँ होगा

मेरा नन्हा बहादुर एक दिन हथियार उठाएगा
सिपाही बन के सू-ए-अर्सा-गाहे रज़्म जायेगा
दुश्मन की ख़ून की नहरें बहायेगा
       और आख़िर कामराँ होगा
        मेरा नन्हा जवाँ होगा

वतन की जंग-ए-आज़ादी में जिसने सर कटाया है
ये उस शीदा-ए-मिल्लत बाप का पुर-जोश बेटा है
अभी से आलम-ए-तिफ़ली का हर अंदाज़ कहता है
         वतन का पासबाँ होगा
         मेरा नन्हा जवाँ होगा

है उसके बाप के घोड़े को कब से इंतेज़ार उसका
है रस्ते देखती कब से फ़िज़ाएँ कारज़ार उसका
हमेशा हाफ़िज़-ओ-नाज़िर है परवरदिगार उसका
       बहादुर पहलवाँ होगा
       मेरा नन्हा जवाँ होगा

वतन के नाम पर इक रोज़ ये तलवार उठाएगा
वतन के दुश्मनों को कुंज-ए-तुर्बत में सुलाएगा
और अपने मुल्क को ग़ैरों के पंजे से छुड़ाएगा
      ग़ुरूर-ए-ख़ानदान होगा
      मेरा नन्हा जवाँ होगा

सफ़-ए-दुश्मन में तलवार इसकी जब शोले गिराएगी
शुजा'अत बाज़ुओं में बर्क़ बन कर लहलहायेगी
जबीं की हर शिकन में मर्ग-ए-दुश्मन थरथराएगी
       ये ऐसा तेगदान होगा
       मेरा नन्हा जवाँ होगा

सर-ए-मैदाँ जिस दम दुश्मन इसको घेरते होंगे
बजाये ख़ून रगों में इसकी शोले तैरते होंगे
सब इसके हमल-ए-शेराना से फेरते होंगे
      तह-ओ-बाला जहाँ होगा
      मेरा नन्हा जवाँ होगा

         *       *        *

[ज़ब्त शुदा नज़्में; पेज 232]
[source : आज़ादी की नज़्में]

दवाल: चमड़ी, belt
गुलफिशाँ: फूल बिखराता
मस्सर्रत: ख़ुशी
ग़म-आलूद: ग़म में सना हुआ
कार्दां: समझदार, होशियार
तेगरां: तलवार चलाने वाला (swordsman)
आलम-ए-तिफ़ली: बचपन (infancy)
पासबाँ: रखवाला, चौकीदार
कारज़ार: जंग का मैदान
सू-ए-अर्सा-गाह: मैदान की ओर
रज़्म: जंग
कामराँ: सफ़ल (successful)
मिल्लत: क़ौम या देश 
हाफ़िज़-ओ-नाज़िर: रखवाला, नज़र रखने वाला
सफ़-ए-दुश्मन: दुश्मन की क़तार (ranks of the enemy)
कुंज: कोना
तुर्बत: क़ब्र
शुजात: बहादुरी
हमल-ए-शेराना: शेर जैसा हमला
तह-ओ-बाला जहाँ: दुनिया को उल्टा करना


Nazm : Lori
Poet: Akhtar Sheerani

Kabhi to reham par amaada be-reham aasmaan hoga
Kabhi to ye jafa pesha muqqadar meharbaan hoga
Kabhi to sar pe abr-e-rahmat-e-haq gulfishaan hoga
    Massarat sa samaan hoga
    Mera nanha javaan hoga

Kisi din to bhala hoga gareebon ki duaaon ka
Asar khaali na jaayega gham-aalood iltijaaon ka
Nateeja kuch to nilkega faqeerana sadaaon ka
     Khuda gar meharbaan hoga
     Mera nanha javaan hoga

Khuda rakhe, javaan hoga to aisa naujavaan hoga
Haseen-o-kaardaan hoga diler-o-taigraan hoga
Bahut shireen zubaan hoga bahut shireen bayaan hoga
     Ye mahboob-e-jahaan hoga
      Mera nanha javaan hoga

Vatan aur quam ki sau jaan se khidmat karega ye
Khuda ki aur khuda ke hukm ki izzat karega ye
Har apne aur paraaye se sada ulfat karega ye
         Har ek par meherbaan hoga
         Mera nanha javaan hoga

Mera nanha bahadur ek din hathiyaar uthayega
Sipahi ban ke su-e-arsa-gahe razm jayega
Dushman ki khoon ki nehre bahayega
         Aur aakhir kaamraan hoga
         Mera nanha javaan hoga

Vatan ki jang-e-aazaadi mein jisne sar kataaya hai
Ye us sheeda-e-millat baap ka pur-josh beta hai
Abhi se aalam-e-tilfi ka har andaaz kahta hai
         Vatan ka paasbaan hoga
         Mera nanha javaan hoga

Hai uske baap ke ghode ko kab se intezaar uska
Hai raste dekhti kab se fizaaein kaarzaar uska
Hamesha haafiz-o-naazir hai parvardigaar uska
        Bahadur pehelvaan hoga
        Mera nanha javaan hoga

Vatan ke naam par ik roz ye talvaar uthaayega
Vatan ke dushmano ko kunj-e-turbat mein sulaayega
Aur apne mulk ko gairon ke panje se chhudayega
       Guroor-e-khaandaan hoga
       Mera nanha javaan hoga

Saf-e-dushman mein talvaar iski jab shole giraayegi
Shujaat baazuon mein barq ban kar lahlahayegi
Jabeen ki har shikan mein marg-e-dushman thartharayegi
       Ye aisa taigdaan hoga
       Mera nanha javaan hoga

Sar maidaan jis dum dushman isko gherte honge
Bajaaye khoon ragon mein iski shole tairte honge
Sab iske hamle sheraana se pherte honge
      Tah-o-bala jahaan hoga
      Mera nanha javaan hoga

[Source - Aazaadi ki Nazmein]
[Zabt Shuda Nazmein, Page 232]

Monday, May 20, 2019

Single does not translate into unselfish

Sometimes I wonder what we would do if India – as a political entity – had a Facebook account and had to update her relationship status with her citizens. I suspect she would say, ‘It’s Complicated’.

It is, indeed, complicated in a country where most relationships are suspect and where even the most conventional family structure is starting to be politically problematic. At the crux of it, of course, is the argument against ‘dynasty’. In Hindi, it sounds even more complicated. The term parivaar-vaad is used which suggests the support of one’s own family.

The assumption is that a leader with a spouse is likely to hand down the mantle of power to his/her own children, and this looks too much like monarchy for our comfort. There is also the rhetoric around single politicians – by virtue of being footloose and child-free – devoting all their time and energy to the well-being of other people’s children. In actual practice, they might be devoting their time to poetry, photography, or changing outfits a few times more than is strictly necessary.

Those who don’t have their own children often end up grooming a relative who can be trusted – to the extent that trust is possible in politics – or someone not related by blood or marriage but who has hung around long enough to become a substitute child, or mentee.

Some political careers have probably been constructed thus – through the willingness to hang around older politicians who may not have their own children to groom. This method of doing politics, however, is the exact opposite of what a democracy needs. We need people who are agitating towards the resolution of problems – including the difficulties of raising babies and caring for ageing or sick parents – and are willing to risk something in order to do so.

We all know single people in our own lives: an unmarried aunt, a widowed grandparent, a divorced cousin. In my own experience, they are not exceptionally self-sacrificing merely by virtue of being single. On the other hand, some of the most generous people I have known – those who work twice as hard and also volunteer time for public causes, especially to the care of other people’s children – are married mothers.

This is not because they are filled with the literal milk of human kindness. It is because they are care enough to fight their way out of the moment and look beyond. Many of them want to create a nation, a planet, a city, a village fit for their kids. Many fathers also work towards similar goals. They manage to be decent husbands and dads, while fighting legal battles for those who need their services, or writing extensively, traveling to meetings and joining demonstrations.

However, deep down, we all know that being single is not the answer to anything. Single people just are what they are – single. Not better, not worse, perhaps a little more vulnerable in their old age. Then why do we idolise single politicians in India?

Part of it is our brutal approach to personal joy. It could be that it makes us peevish to think of a man who wields power, with all its trappings and its endless retirement benefits, also finding love, with its full spectrum of hope, joy and purpose. There must be a spot of envy in our collective soul that demands the sacrifice of happiness at the altar of public validation. Of women, we ask twice the sacrifice. The smallest hint of reaching out for sexual satisfaction and out come the snarling teeth, the howls of disapproval.

Many Indians also assume that all laws will be broken, all systems corrupted in the interests of one’s own child, because this is precisely what they themselves do. What they want, then, is the freedom to go on corrupting the nation for the sake of their biological offspring – starting from kindergarten admissions to Vyapam-like scams, all the way up to offshore bank accounts in tax havens – while reveling in the knowledge that their chosen leader does not have the pleasure of doing the same.

That our chosen leaders might be bending all the laws of the land to empower a handful of business dynasties does not occur to most of us. Perhaps we are so preoccupied with our own families and communities, we find it hard to wrap our minds around the idea that someone can just take a chunk of public resources and hand it on a platter to another’s man’s children.

I am no advocate of dynasty, be it political, cultural or business. At any rate, as history teaches us, no dynasty lasts unless each generation works hard to retain its position. However, what India does need urgently is a nurturing leadership, one that has a serious stake in her future. We do not need leaders who are devoid of all filial, maternal or sexual attachment. We do need leaders who are willing to support everyone’s right to live, with or without dependents and attachments.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

देश प्रेम पे ध्यान: २

मेरी माँ ने एक बात कही थी जो ज़हन में गहरी जा के अटक गयी है। उन्होंने कहा: ख़ुदा/ भगवान/ प्रकृति किसी को दुनिया में भूखा मरने के लिए नहीं भेजता है; बच्चे के साथ उसकी रोटी भी भेजी है। माँ के ज़रिये उसके खाने-पीने का इंतेज़ाम किया है।

किसी बच्चे से उसकी रोटी, दूध छीना जा रहा है तो इसमें धरती का दोष नहीं है, न ऊपर वाले की कठोरता। ये इंसान का काम है, जो ऐसे हालात पैदा कर देता है कि माँ के पास कुछ नहीं बचता अपने बच्चे के लिए।

उन दिनों मैं अपनी माँ से अक्सर बहस किया करती थी। मुझे लगता था, ऊपर वाले (या वाली) की अच्छाई पे कोई कैसे यक़ीन कर सकता है जब नीचे, दुनिया में, देश में इतनी तकलीफ़ है? अब समझती हूँ। कुछ इंसान हैं ऐसे जो दूसरों से सब छीन लेते हैं, अपने पास बटोर के रख लेते हैं। इस बटोरने की कोई इन्तहा नहीं। ज़मीन, पेड़, साफ़ पानी और सुरक्षा, सुकून की नींद - इतना छीन लो और माँ की सेहत बिखरने लगेगी। लाचार माँ, भूखा बेज़ार बच्चा।

मुझे ये भी लगने लगा है, छीनने के सिलसिले की शुरुआत माँ की ज़ुबान से होती है, ताकि जब एक-एक कर सारी सहूलियतें, जीने के ज़रिये ख़त्म होते नज़र आएं, वो अपनी तकलीफ़ बयान न कर सके।

शायद छीनने वालों को डर है, कहीं बच्चे किसी तरह पल ही गए तो कौन सी कहानियाँ सुन कर सोयेंगे? माँ की मजबूरियों की ज़िम्मेदारी ठहराने चले, तो कहाँ रुकेंगे?

इसलिए माँ की ज़ुबान पे ताला ज़रूरी है। कभी उसे डराया जाता है - मुँह बंद रखो नहीं तो जान सलामत नहीं। कभी उसे छोटी-छोटी रिश्वत से बहलाया जाता है - ये लो एक रोटी और एक बोटी, चुप बैठ के खाओ नहीं तो कल दोबारा ये भी नहीं मिलेगी। जो माँ बेचैन रहे, चीख़े चिल्लाए कि जो हक़ प्रकृति ने दिया है उसे छीनने वाले तुम कौन हो? उसकी ज़ुबान खींच ली जाती है। जो लोग ज़मीन-पानी-हवा का शोर मचाएँ, उनका मुल्क ढेर कर दिया जाता है। 

देश. माँ. माता. Motherland. रोटी।  दूध।  बग़ावत।  शहादत।

कब से? कब तक?

शायद हर दौर में माँ एक रोटी का सौदा कर गयी है, चार रोटी की भूख को कुचलती हुई। हर दौर में एक मटका पानी लाने में इतनी मसरूफ़ रही, नदी की धार पे क़ब्ज़ा करना भूल गयी। बच्चों की जान बचाने के लिए पैसों का इंतज़ाम करती रही और जिस जगह पैसे पे बच्चों की ज़िन्दगी का सौदा टिका है, वहाँ के निज़ाम को खदेड़ने की ताक़त नहीं बना पाई।

प्रेम करती रही, वोट भर्ती रही। अपने हक़ में खड़ी कम ही हुई। बच्चे बच सके तो बच गए। 

Monday, May 06, 2019

Seasons of joy

Tradition and ritual, especially unthinking ritual, hold little appeal for me. Those of us who grew up celebrating almost every religious festival there is on the Indian calendar would have also grown weary of the expectations attached – to cook, buy gifts or new clothes, visit the same set of ten to 15 people, rinse, repeat.

As an adult, I tired of the seeming emptiness of these rituals and wondered what exactly we celebrated. Those of us who are not farmers cannot experience the joy and relief of a harvest season in the physical or social way our ancestors would have. Those of us who do not rear sheep or chickens cannot expect to truly participate in a celebration of sacrifice.

The first festival that gave me a sense of homecoming had me standing beside my mother, along with thousands of strangers, gasping at the magic of Ustad Zakir Hussain’s hands on the tabla. The performance was free and open to all. We had no seats. It didn’t matter. The Ustad was playing at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in Mumbai, the year after his own father, Ustad Alla Rakha, had passed away. So we knew that he was playing in some grief. Under the cool night sky, we listened, marveled and felt quietly grateful.

Read the full article here in GQ India

Friday, May 03, 2019

A place of beauty, and of harassment

Cars are not my happy place. Yet, for over two years, I wrote a road column for The Hindu. 

My view was that of a citizen who uses the road, sometimes as motorist, sometimes as pedestrian and sometimes as a person dependent on public transport. This was the last column of the series:

A road is more than an enabler of motor transport. It is public space. It is a place of pathos, of beauty. It is also the venue of a dozen contestations of power – who gets to stand where, talk how loudly and to how many people, and who is frightened off the road.

On Holi this year, I had a strange experience. Actually, a commonplace experience but it felt strange because I had forgotten what it's like to be followed, , in Mumbai and in broad daylight, and to struggle against unwanted male attention.

I stepped out in the evening after Holi celebrations were over, to buy groceries. A sleek, expensive-looking black car slowed down.

Read the whole column here:

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Coops and cages

Citizens old enough not only to vote but also to marry and have children (some of them even old enough to contest parliamentary elections) were locked in, unable to participate in the cultural and academic life of the university. These were adult women who could not take a walk around the lawns or eat a meal off campus without written permission from local guardians.

All Indian colleges and universities insist on a “guardian” rather than a local emergency point of contact for undergraduate, graduate and even doctoral scholars. This guardian decides whether or not a student can watch a movie or attend a workshop.

The sexism extends to guardians too. A college teacher wrote in to say that when a friend’s daughter needed a local guardian, she volunteered. However, Daulatram College hostel refused on the grounds that she was single; in addition, she was treated to a lecture on the “morals of womanhood”.

Read my essay on women students across India breaking hostel curfews and demanding that colleges change the rules. Full text here:

Friday, April 19, 2019

Proscribed Poems: 'Door Tak Yaad-e-Vatan Aayi Thi Samjhaani Ko'

Another proscribed poem credited to Bismil in the collection 'Zabt Shuda Nazmein'. About this poem, the editor has added a note saying, this is the simple and sincere poem that was sung in court by the prisoner Prem Dutt during the Lahore Conspiracy Case trial, and that it had reduced people to tears.

Further, Prof Chaman Lal writes here that Prem Dutt Verma was one of the young associates of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru, and that he was barely 18 years old when he was arrested and accused, among other things, of trying to establish a “Federated Republican Government”. Prem Dutt was listed as accused Prem Dutt alias Master alias Amrit lal, son of Ram Dutt Khatri of Gujarat.

Poem: 'Door Tak Yaad-e-Vatan Aayi Thi Samjhaani Ko'

Hum bhi aaram utha sakte the ghar par rah kar
Humko bhi paala tha maa baap ne dukh sah-sah kar
Waqt-e-rukhsat unhein itna bhi na aaye kah kar
God mein aansoo bhi tapke jo rukh se bah kar
                   Tifl inko samajh lena jee behlaane ko

Desh seva hi ka bahta hai lahu nas-nas mein
Ab to khaa baithe hai Chittorh ke garh ki qasmein
Sarfaroshi ki ada hoti hai yoon hi rasmein
Bhai khanjar se gale milte hain sab aapas mein
                 Behenein tayyar chitaaon pe hain jal jaane ko

Naujavano jo tabiyat mein tumhaari khatke
Yaad kar lena kabhi humko bhi bhoole bhatke
Aapke uzv-e-badan hovein judaa kat-kat ke
Aur sad-chaak ho mata ka kaleja phat ke
                   Par na mathe pe shikan aaye qasam khaane ko

Apni qismat mein azal se hi sitam rakha tha
Ranj rakha tha mahan rakha tha ghum rakha tha
Kis ko parvah thi aur kis mein ye dum rakha tha
Humne jab vaadi-e-gurbat mein qadam rakha tha
                  Door yak yaad-e-vatan aayi thi samjhaane ko

Apna kuch ghum nahin hai par ye khyaal aata hai
Madar-e-hind pe kab se ye zavaal aata hai
Desh aazaadi ka kab hind mein saal aata hai
Qaum apni pe to ro ro ke malaal aata hai
                   Muntazar rahte hain hum khaak mein mil jaane ko.


From Zabt Shuda Nazmein; page 88
[1 - Bande Matram, 1921]

The poem is credited to Ram Prasad Bismil. But some poems have been mistakenly credited to Ramprasad Bismil in this collection, such as Sarfaroshi ki Tamanna, which was written by Bismil Azeemabadi, so I am not entirely certain which ones might belong to which 'Bismil'. 


'दूर तक याद-ए-वतन आयी थी समझाने को'

                                                   - बिस्मिल

हम भी आराम उठा सकते थे घर पर रह कर
हमको भी पाला था माँ बाप ने दुःख सह-सह कर
वक़्त-ए-रुख़सत उन्हें इतना भी न आए कह कर
गोद में आँसू भी टपके जो रुख़ से बह कर
                      तिफ़्ल इनको समझ लेना जी बहलाने को

देश सेवा ही का बहता है लहू नस-नस में
अब तो खा बैठे हैं चित्तौड़ की गढ़ की क़समें
सरफ़रोशी की अदा होती हैं यूँ ही रस्में
भाई ख़ंजर से गले मिलते हैं सब आपस में
                      बहनें तैयार चिताओं पे हैं जल जाने को

नौजवानों जो तबियत में तुम्हारी खटके
याद कर लेना कभी हमको भी भूले भटके
आपके उज़्व-ए-बदन होवें जुदा कट-कट के
और सद-चाक हो माता का कलेजा फट के
                      पर न माथे पे शिकन आये क़सम खाने को

अपनी क़िस्मत में अज़ल से ही सितम रखा था
रंज रखा था महन रखा था ग़म रखा था
किसको परवाह थी और किस में ये दम रखा था
हमने जब वादी-ए-ग़ुरबत में क़दम रखा था
                       दूर तक याद-ए-वतन आयी थी समझाने को

अपना कुछ ग़म नहीं है पर ये ख़याल आता है
मादर-ए-हिन्द पे कब से ये ज़वाल आता है
देश आज़ादी का कब हिन्द में साल आता है
क़ौम अपनी तो रो-रो के मलाल आता है
                        मुन्तज़िर रहते हैं हम ख़ाक में मिल जाने को।


Note: एडिटर ने इस नज़्म के बारे में लिखा था के ये वो सादा पुरख़लूस नज़्म है जो मुक़दमा-ए-साज़िश लाहौर की समा'अत के दौरान में असीर प्रेम दत्त ने गा कर लोगों को रुला दिया था। 

ज़ब्त शुदा नज़्में (पेज 88)
[Source 1 - बन्दे मातरम, 1921]

Potentially difficult words: 

तिफ़्ल: छोटे बच्चे (infant)
उज़्व-ए-बदन: बदन का हिस्सा, अंग 
सद-चाक: सौ बार चीरा गया 
अज़ल: अनादि/आदि काल (eternity or  beginning )
महन: दुःख 
ज़वाल: पतन (decline)
मुन्तज़िर: इंतज़ार में 

[Credited to Ram Prasad Bismil. But note: Some poems have been mistakenly credited to Ramprasad Bismil in this collection, such as Sarfaroshi ki Tamanna, which was written by Bismil Azeemabadi, so I am not entirely certain which ones might belong to which 'Bismil']


Have just been pointed to a link that has the same poem in a much more expanded form. Perhaps the whole thing was not published in Bande Matram magazine from where it has been sourced for this anthology.

Please find the whole poem at Kavita Kosh

Proscribed Poem 3 (ghazal)


Poet: Ghani

Surat-e-barq tadap jis ghadi dikhlaoonga
Tere phande se main sayyaad nikal jaaoonga

Larzish paa hoon gar dast-e-karam se tere
Saaqiya peete hi yak jaam sambhal jaaoonga

Bhool jaayega falak shoabda baazi jis dum
Apni teenat se main sau rang badal jaaoonga

Phir na manoon vo lakh manaayein ae dil
Vaada-e-vasl pe jis dum main machal jaaoonga

Dil kisi shokh tarah vaar ko de doonga Ghani
Shokhi-e-ishq mein jab khoob main dhal jaaoonga

From: Zabt Shuda Nazmein (page 129)
(Source listed: Bande Mantram 1)


शायर : ग़नी

सूरत-ए-बर्क़ तड़प जिस घड़ी दिखलाऊँगा
तेरे फंदे से मैं सैय्याद निकल जाऊँगा

लर्ज़िश-ए-पा हूँ गर दस्त-ए-करम से तेरे
साक़िया पीते ही यक जाम संभल जाऊँगा

भूल जायेगा फ़लक शोब्दा बाज़ी जिस दम
अपनी तीनत से मैं सौ रंग बदल जाऊँगा

फिर न मानूँ वो लाख मनाएँ ऐ दिल
वादा-ए-वस्ल पे जिस दम मैं मचल जाऊँगा

दिल किसी शोख़ तरह वार को दे दूंगा ग़नी
शोख़ी-ए-इश्क़ में जब ख़ूब मैं ढल जाऊँगा

(1 - बन्दे मातरम)

ज़ब्त शुदा नज़्में (पेज १२९)

Difficult words:

बर्क़: बिजली

लर्ज़िश-ए-पा: काँपते पैर

शोब्दा बाज़ी: तमाशे बनाना, खेल खेलना (trickery)

तीनत: सीरत या स्वभाव (temperament )

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Tweak the system in order to save elections

Words like “party” are slowly being leached of meaning. What does it mean to vote for a party when the person you vote for ceases to represent that party? Post-election alliances also appear to be based on who can be persuaded to surrender a slice of power. There is little pretence about smaller parties wanting to ally with others based on common values. In such a climate, those who speak of values — their own or those of the voters — elicit mockery, while those who can successfully dismantle the public mandate are admired.

It doesn’t have to be like this. All over the world, voters participate in elections because they take for granted that their candidates represent a set of values. Some nations go a step further and account for the fact that individual leaders have their own following, regardless of party affiliation.

Perhaps it is time India also tweaked our system so that our vote does not get highjacked so easily.

Some suggestions in this column here:

Friday, April 12, 2019

'Vo Chup Rahne Ko Kahte Hain Jo Hum Faryaad Karte Hain'

Another proscribed poem. The interesting thing about it is that the poet 'Bismil' (Ram Prasad, or Azeemabadi? As mentioned in the last post, I have a doubt because of at least a few mis-credited poems) uses the tropes of a romantic ghazal to speak of 'aazaadi'. Freedom, imprisonment, tyranny and the longing to be free.

'Vo Chup Rahne Ko Kahte Hain Jo Hum Faryaad Karte Hain'

Ilaahi khair, voh har dum se nayi bedaad karte hain
Humein tohmat lagaate hain jo hum faryaad karte hain 

Kabhi aazaad karte hain kabhi bedaad karte hain 
Magar is par bhi hum sau jee se unko yaad karte hain 

Aseeraan-e-qafas se kaash ye sayyaad keh deta 
Raho aazaad ho kar hum tumhe aazaad karte hain 

Raha karta hai ahal-e-ghum ko kya kya intezaar iska 
Kar dekhain vo dil nashaad ko kab shaad karte hain 

Ye kah-kah kar sabr ki umr ne qaid-e-ulfat main 
Vo ab aazaad karte hain, vo ab aazaad karte hain

Sitam aisa nahin dekha jafa aisi nahin dekhi 
Vo chup hone ko kehte hain jo hum faryaad karte hain 

Ye baat achhi nahin hoti, ye baat achhi nahin karte
Humein bekas samajh kar aap kyun barbaad karte hain

Koi bismil banaata hai jo maqtal mein humeen bismil
To hum darr kar dabi aavaaz se faryaad karte hain 

  (Ram Prasad?) Bismil (Azeemabadi?)
     From: Zabt Shuda Nazmein (page 86)

'वो चुप रहने को कहते हैं जो हम फ़र्याद करते हैं '

इलाही ख़ैर वो हर दम से नई बेदाद करते हैं
हमें तोहमत लगाते हैं जो हम फ़र्याद करते हैं 

कभी आज़ाद करते हैं कभी बेदाद करते हैं 
मगर इस पर भी हम सौ जी से उनको याद करते हैं 

असीरान-ए-क़फ़स से काश ये सय्याद कह देता 
रहो आज़ाद हो कर हम तुम्हे आज़ाद करते हैं 

रहा करता है अहल-ए-ग़म को क्या-क्या इंतेज़ार इसका 
कर देखें वो दिल नाशाद को कब शाद करते हैं 

ये कह-कह कर सब्र की उम्र ने क़ैद-ए-उल्फ़त में
वो अब आज़ाद करते हैं, वो अब आज़ाद करते हैं

सितम ऐसा नहीं देखा जफ़ा ऐसी नहीं देखी 
वो चुप होने को कहते हैं जो हम फ़र्याद करते हैं 

ये बात अच्छी नहीं होती ये बात अच्छी नहीं करते
हमें बेकस समझ कर आप क्यूँ बर्बाद करते हैं

कोई बिस्मिल बनाता है जो मक़्तल में हमें बिस्मिल
तो हम डर कर दबी आवाज़ से फ़र्याद करते हैं.  
(राम प्रसाद?) बिस्मिल (अज़ीमाबादी?)
[ज़ब्त शुदा नाज़में (पेज 86)]

Some difficult words:

बेदाद : अन्याय
अहल-ए-ग़म : ग़म रखने वाले लोग
असीरान-ए-क़फ़स : पिंजड़े में बंद क़ैदी
मक़्तल : क़त्ल की जगह

Half the night is indeed gone

Had reviewed Amitabha Bagchi's beautiful novel 'Half the Night is Gone' last year. Thinking of it again today, with admiration for its craft as well as it's insight.

Is the narrator Vishwanath telling a lightly fictionalised story of his own family? We cannot be sure. But there are parts of himself in all those characters, as there must be in the work of any writer. The story of two brothers, but these are not the same two brothers.

The foundations of 20th century India are revealed through the fractures within these twin narratives. We read the story of two families and a nation, of its classes and its schisms, of religious texts and poetry, and its place in the minds of people. The Ramcharitmanas (referred to just as Manas) is at the centre of the narrative, much like the figure of Ram himself has been central to the storm raging through the heart of the nation since the 1980s.

Part of the problem, Vishwanath realises, is that the nation was being ruled by a class that had moved so far from its cultural roots, it had forgotten the hold of religion over people’s hearts and how it could be channeled by political forces. Help, he writes, could have come from a different sort of intellectual, such as Hindi speakers like himself. “At the very least we knew who Tulsidas was and had read his work… Perhaps, together we could have created an alternative narrative that didn’t reduce people’s faith to complaints about noisy loudspeakers.”

Review here:

An addendum to Sarfaroshi?

चर्चा अपने क़त्ल का अब यार की महफ़िल में है
देखना है यह तमाशा कौन सी मंज़िल में है

देश पर क़ुरबान होते जाओ तुम, ए हिन्दीयों
ज़िंदगी का राज़ मुज़मिर खंजर-ए-क़ातिल में है

साहिल-ए-मक़्सूद  पर ले चल ख़ुदारा, नाख़ुदा
आज हिन्दुस्तान की कश्ती बड़ी मुश्किल में है

दूर हो अब हिंद से तारीक़ी-ए-बुग़्ज़-ओ-हसद
बस यही हसरत, यही अरमाँ हमारे दिल में है

बाम-ए-रिफ़त पर चढ़ा दो देश पर हो कर फ़ना
बिस्मिल अब इतनी हवस बाक़ी हमारे दिल में है

Words that may be difficult:

मुज़मिर: छुपा हुआ (hidden)
मक़्सूद: उद्देश्य (purpose)
नाख़ुदा: मल्लाह, कश्ती चलाने वाला (oarsman)
तारीक़ी: अंधेरा (darkness)
बुग़्ज़-ओ-हसद: नफ़रत और ईर्षा (spite or malice and jealousy)
बाम-ए-रिफ़त: ऊँची छत, ऊँचाई  (on a high terrace)

[कॉंग्रेस पुष्पांजलि 1930]

Another proscribed poem, from 'Zabt Shuda Nazmein (page 85)

Roman version available here:

These verses follow the pattern of the famous Sarfaroshi ki Tamanna, and are credited to Ram Prasad Bismil in the book. However, poems have been mistakenly credited to Ramprasad Bismil, including Sarfaroshi ki Tamanna which was actually written by Bismil Azeemabadi and perhaps made popular by Ramprasad. So I am not entirely certain which of these belongs to which 'Bismil'.

[Source cited for this poem: Congress Pushpanjali 1930]

Thursday, April 11, 2019

A Proscribed Poem - Jallianwala Bagh by Sarju

'Jallianwala Bagh'
Poet - Sarju

Begunaaho.n par bum.on ki be'khatar bauchhar ki
De rahe hain dhamkiyaan bandook aur talvaar ki

Baagh jallian mein nihatto.n par chalaai goliyaan
Peyt ke bal bhi rengaaya zulm ki had paar ki

Hum ghareebo.n par kiye jisne sitam be'inteha
Yaad bhoolegi nahin us Dyer-e-badkaar ki

Ya to hum hi mar mitenge ya to le lenge swaraaj
Hoti hai is baar hujjat khatm ab har baar ki

Shor aalam mein macha hai Lajpat ke naam ka
Khwaar karna inko chaha apni mitti khwaar ki

Jis jagah par band hoga Sher nar Punjab ka
Aabru badh jayegi us jail ki deewar ki

Jail mein bheja hamaare leader.on ko be'qusoor
Lord Reading tumne achhi nyay ki bharmaar ki

Khoon-e-mazloomaa.n ki Sarju ab to gahri dhaar hai
Kuch dino.n mein doobti hai aabru agyaar ki


नज़्म - जालियाँ वाला बाग़
शायर - सरजू

बेगुनाहों पर बमों की बेख़तर बौछार की
दे रहे हैं धमकियाँ बंदूक़ और तलवार की

बाग़ जलियाँ में निहत्तों पर चलाईं गोलियां
पेट के बल भी रेंगाया ज़ुल्म की हद पार की

हम गरीबों पर किये जिसने सितम बेइन्तहा
याद भूलेगी नहीं उस डायर-ए-बदकार की

या तो हम ही मर मिटेंगे या तो ले लेंगे स्वराज
होती है इस बार हुज्जत ख़त्म अब हर बार की

शोर आलम में मचा है लाजपत के नाम का
ख़्वार करना इनको चाहा अपनी मिट्टी ख़्वार की

जिस जगह पर बंद होगा शेर नर पंजाब का
आबरू बढ़ जाएगी उस जेल की दीवार की

जेल में भेजा हमारे लीडरों को बेक़सूर
लार्ड रीडिंग तुमने अच्छी न्याय की भरमार की

ख़ून-ए-मज़लूमां की सरजू अब तो गहरी धार है
कुछ दिनों में डूबती है आबरू अग़यार की

*                *                *
(ज़ब्त शुदा नज़्में; पेज 132)
[Source: पंजाब का हत्याकांड]

Urdu words that might be difficult and some context:

बेख़तर - without danger or fear
बदकार - evil-doer
ख़्वार - Disgrace
ख़ून-ए-मज़लूमां - Blood of the oppressed
अग़यार - Strangers, foreigners, or rivals

Lord Reading was Governor General and Viceroy of India in 1921. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre took place in 1919.

'Dyer-e-badkaar' is a reference to General Dyer who ordered the troops to open fire on unarmed people who were meeting or just sitting in the park.

Lala Lajpat Rai was at the forefront of the protests against the massacre in Punjab. The reference to 'Sher Nar Punjab' is to him. He was also known as Sher-e-Punjab. He was President of the Indian National Congress in 1920, and the All India Trade Union Congress. He had been arrested and exiled to Mandalay in 1907.

I am guessing this poem was written in the early 1920s. I could not find much about the poet 'Sarju'. Happy to hear from those who might know.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Ali Jawad Zaidi sahab ki ek nazm: Kadi Dhoop

कड़ी धूप

अब के धूप कड़ी है, यारो!
ज़हन जहाँ तक जा सकता है, तप्ता रेगिस्तान है, यारो!
आशाओं की लू चलती है सन-सन जैसे आग
दहक रही हैं मन की चिताएँ और बदन का त्याग
जीवन की मुस्कान के पीछे भी है एक शमशान
और राही अंजान है यारो!

ख़ूनी काँटों की सौ नोकें तलवों में चुभ-चुभ कर टूटें
हर एक गाम पे छाले फूटे, उभरे और फिर फूट गये
कितने साथी छूट गये
रेगिस्तानों में कुम्हलाए कितने चेहरे, कितने शौक़!
गर्म हवाओं ने झुलसाए कैसे चेहरे, कैसे शौक़!
यारो अब के धूप कड़ी है!
लू के थपेड़े खाते खाते शायद हम कुछ थक से गये हैं!
क्या हम दम भर को सुस्ता लें या फिर यूँ ही चलते जायें?
काली आँधी से लड़ भिड़ कर सहराओं में बढ़ते जाएँ
दिल के फफोले फूटते जाएँ, रेगिस्तान दहेकता जाए?
अब के धूप कड़ी है, साथी

कैसे कैसे मीना टूटे, कैसे कैसे शाहिद छूटे
मुरझाए यादों के चमन में कैसे कँवल, क्या-क्या गुल बूटे!
शाखें उजड़ीं, पत्ते टूटे, फव्वारों के आँसू सूखे
बस्तियों के मतवाले नग़मे घुट-घुट कर दम तोड़ चुके हैं
जान छिड़कने वाले साथी कब के आँखें मोड़ चुके हैं
जीवन के इस रेगिस्तान में कैसी मय, कैसे पयमाने?
प्यास में भी मस्ती की सोचें हम जैसे कितने दीवाने!
साथी अब के धूप कड़ी है


मानवता के रेगिस्तान से शायद उभरे कोई हड़प्पा
कोई मोहनजोदारो उभरे!
टूटे घड़ो की नक़्क़ाशी के पीछे
कितने प्यासे लब हैं
जो सदियों ख़ामोश रहे हैं!
टूटी दीवारों के नीचे
क्या तहज़ीबें दबी पड़ी हैं
कितनी यादें दफ़न हुई हैं
कितनी कलाएँ, टूटे सपने, बिखरे गाने
उजड़ी माँगें, घुटती रूहें चीख़ रही हैं!

गंगा जमना की भूमी पर
जिसने राम, कृशन और बुध की ख़ाक-ए-क़दम से तिलक लगाया
अपने माथे पर सदियों तक
इस भूमी पर धूप और साये गले मिले हैं, लड़ते रहे हैं
कौरव पांडव एक बार क्या, सौ सौ बार लड़े हैं
पीपल और बरगद की छाया अब भी प्यार लिए है
धूप से पपड़ाए होंटो पर शबनम की नन्ही बूँदों ने
झुलसी झुलसाई आँखों को एक कैफ़-ए-मख़मूर दिया है
साक़ी की तीखी नज़रों ने ज़हन को एक नासूर दिया है!

अब के धूप कड़ी है, साथी!
आज अजंता के ग़ारों के सारे नक़्श चमक उठे हैं
गौतम की गोया खामोशी ताज़ा सरगम छेड़ रही है
संग तराशों ने पत्थर को सनम का सुंदर रूप दिया है
ज़हन-ए-मुसव्वर ने रंगों में जान भारी है, हुस्न भरा है
इन सनमों को दिल दे देना, श्रद्धा देना आदर देना
सदियों का दस्तूर रहा है
विंध्यांचल से परे दखन में द्रविड़ भाषाओं की भूमि
गंगा जमना की गोदी में मिलने वाली भाषाओं से
सुंदर शिव और सत्य सरापा
नर्मी गर्मी माँग रही है
यूँ ही नर्मी गर्मी सहते, कितने युग बीते ए साथी!
लेकिन - अब के धूप कड़ी है!

ख़ुसरो के नाज़ुक लफ़्ज़ों में फ़िक्र-ए-हिन्दी की गहराई
वेदांत और तसव्वफ की रंगा रंगी में, हम आहंगी
ताज महल की हुस्न आराई, "सिर्र-ए-अकबर" की दाराई
चिश्ती और नानक के नग़्मे, मीरा के गीतों की लए पर
वारिस और निज़ामुद्दीन के बोल सुरीले गूँज रहे हैं!
कितने धारों के मिलने से बेपायाँ सागर बनता है
कितने तूफाँ टकराते हैं साहिल के पथरीलेपन से
पत्थर कट जाते हैं लेकिन साहिल फिर भी रह जाता है
तूफाँ की ज़द में तहज़ीबें मिट-मिट कर बनती रहती हैं
मिनारा जलता रहता है
लेकिन - अब के धूप कड़ी है!

बाबुली यूनानी तहज़ीबें, हिन्दी ईरानी तहज़ीबें
तप-तप के निखरी तहज़ीबें
हमसे अब क्या माँग रही हैं?
धूप की तेज़ी हर चेहरे पर आब-ओ-ताब नयी लाई है
नया पसीना, नयी तवानाई की रग-रग से खिंच-खिंच कर
हर अबरू को कमान बनाता, हर मिस्रगान को तीर!
सीने के हर ज़ेर-वहम में एक नयी उम्मीद जगाता
आवाज़ों के कोलाहल में मुस्तक़बिल के गीत घोलता
नये सवेरे के क़दमों में आशा की पायल छनकता
नई दुल्हन की मंद चाल से ख़ुशी सरमस्ती बरसाता
तेरे जवान रौशन माथे पर मोती की माला है पसीना!
मेरे बा-हिम्मत सीने में मस्ती की ज्वाला है पसीना!
हम माथे से पसीना पोछें, जाम उठाएँ, साज़ उठाएँ
जब रुकते क़दमों को देखें, मस्ताना आवाज़ उठाएँ
अब के धूप कड़ी है यारो!
अब के फिर हम जाम उठाएँ।

अली जवाद ज़ैदी ( तेश-ए-आवाज़ , पेज 15)

Thursday, April 04, 2019

One tile at a time, repairing the democratic road

Sometime I think of democracy as a giant, never-ending public participatory art project: a people throwing themselves into the creation of a vision.

Perhaps it is like building and maintaining a giant city inside a fort on the banks of a river. Only, a million times bigger in scale. Fortifications, homes, roads, water supplies, bridges, stables, garages, religious structures, schools, hospitals, boats, bazaars: all of this built and performed by the people, and funded by the people.

Theoretically speaking, one should be able to count on those who ‘represent’ us. They show us a blueprint of the vision though manifestos and speeches. We expect that they will make it real. But often, they don’t. They are human, after all, and given to greed, self-aggrandising, ennui.

Part of our job is to vote in new people who might actually do the job. But we also have to repair the infrastructure that exists and use it so that it doesn’t disappear. Our representatives can ensure that a facility – school, hospital, road – exists. They cannot force us to use it, nor can they keep track of our changing desires and needs, unless we are visible and audible.

One example of how people participate fully in the democratic project was seen in the Nilgiris. In Iduhatty village, the panchayat school was on the verge of being shut down. It had only six students enrolled; others were going to private schools. When citizens heard, they decided to intervene. After all, they themselves were alumni of the panchayat school. It had got them to a point in life where they could afford to pay the fees that private schools demand. So, they enrolled their own kids at the panchayat school. They also pitched in with labour – painting and covering the old school walls with murals.

I have not heard of a better citizenship story in months. The villagers of Iduhatty demonstrated what they wished to protect – public education that everyone can access.

Across India, parents send children to private schools even though the government is committed to funding free public education. This is partly because government school teachers take the job for granted. If they do show up, they don’t teach. Or the teachers that are hired are not educated enough themselves.

I’ve dropped in at private and public schools in villages across north India and while it is true that government schools don’t always offer high quality education, many private schools also don’t offer high quality. Still, parents who can ill afford it will pay private players because they don’t believe they can make the government change things. This is as big a blow to democracy.

To lose faith in our collective ability to create and maintain a right to education and healthcare is to lose faith in the democratic project. We must learn from Iduhatty. Something was wrong, people examined their own role and they tried to fix it.

In a democracy, we don’t get to sit back between elections. There will be some wear and tear of institutions. There will be those who gain power and money from damaging what already exists and then telling us that our lives are broken and now we must pay twice as much to get back on track.

If we want schools and hospitals, electricity and transport to be clean and affordable, we have to stop ceding our vision. Squeaky wheels get oiled. We shouldn’t be afraid to squeak for what is ours.

First published in The Hindu

Thursday, March 14, 2019

A splendid road

If you run an online search for good roads in India, you might come upon a question someone asked on Quora: Why aren’t the roads in India as good as the roads in Pakistan?

It is, like all things India-Pak, a touchy question that draws spirited responses from both sides. People have posted pictures of the best, smoothest highways from across the two countries. There are photos of rain-washed vistas, Marine Drives, sun-kissed or snow crusted mountain roads. There was Mumbai’s famous sea link and the distinct curliques of the Lahore ring road. All these roadways looked quite splendid and it took me a while to figure out the secret of their beauty – it was the fact that there wasn’t much evidence of traffic. In other words, roads look great as long as they aren’t being used.

I’ve been thinking ever since about the beauty of modern cities, and our ideas about it. In every pretty picture posted of a great road, there is little or no vehicular transport visible. The photos suggest quiet, openness, easy access. Looking at those photos, you feel you could go anywhere at all, and nothing could stop you.

Where motor vehicles are visible, they have been carefully framed so that you see just one truck, or a handful of cars seen from a distance on a road that, in South Asian cities, would most likely be choked by a few hundred cars at any time of the day.

The more impressive photographs are taken aerially. But who among us ever gets to look at our roads from an aerial perspective? What we see of our own roads is, in the day time, a sea of car bumpers, and a moving river of light at night. If you want to live the fantasy – open, empty, wide road, smooth enough that you want to gulp it down – you have to be out between midnight and dawn, when you can hardly see anything of the city.

Apart from emptiness, there is one more thing that makes roads appealing: nature. Trees and flowers, lakes and canals. Water in any form immediately improves the picture. So does a touch of green hanging overhead. Roundabouts and road dividers look positively cheery when blooming with bright pinks and yellows.

Trees and flowers can make any street corner look appealing. Put an untarred road next to a big, green park and chances are, you won’t notice the quality of the road’s surface.

Just looking at such photos should tell us how to make urban lives beautiful. We need to plan the city around water, and to create large waterscapes in and around the city if they do not occur naturally. We need to limit motor transport. Above all, we need trees.

It goes without saying, of course, that trees and flowers cost time and money to maintain. It also goes without saying that this sort of expense is not spared in the enclaves of the rich, although a lot of this beauty is funded by ordinary citizens. Delhi is beautiful in late winter and spring, but much of this beauty is limited to the corridors of power – the diplomatic enclaves, the President’s residence, the ministerial bungalows.

On another Quora thread comparing India and Pakistan, commentators have truthfully said as much, that village roads in both countries are mostly bad, that expressways on both sides look much the same, and that the roads serving “VIP houses” are excellent. There is little need to say more. The beauty and limited access of VIP enclaves contains every other truth.  

First published here

Friday, March 01, 2019

"ईश्वर को एक भारतीय नागरिक के कुछ सुझाव"

केदारनाथ सिंह की आज बहुत याद आ रही है। ये कविता आज ख़ास सुनने का मन किया।

"ईश्वर को एक भारतीय नागरिक के कुछ सुझाव"

ईश्वर, अगर दुनिया फिर से बनानी हो
जिसमें देर हो रही है
तो मेरे कुछ सुझाव हैं

अधिक नहीं , बस पांच या सात

सबसे पहले
अणु बम को पृथ्वी से उठा कर
रख लेना स्वर्ग में
स्वर्ग का तो शायद कुछ न बिगड़े
पर हम पृथ्वी वासी
एक भयानक दुःस्वप्न के आतंक से
उभर जायेंगे

पैसे को दुनिया से ले लेना वापस
और हवा को बना देना
उसका विकल्प

बदल देना ब्रम्हांड का जर-जर पहिया
और अपनी पुरातन घड़ी को
मिला लेना पृथ्वी की धूप घड़ी से

यहाँ शहरों की गलियाँ अब पड़ रही हैं छोटी
इसलिए कुछ ऐसी जुगत करना
की पृथ्वी के बच्चे
कभी कभी क्रिकेट खेल आएं
चाँद पर

भारत का सृजन अगर फिर से करना
तो जाती नामक रद्दी को
फेंक देना अपनी टेबल के
नीचे की टोकरी में

बनारस को रहने देना
वरुणा और गंगा के बीच के दयारे में

पर दिल्ली को ?

यहाँ बहुत धुंध है
यहाँ से उठा कर
यमुना और क़ुतुब समेत
रख देना कहीं और
ताकि केंद्र को मिलती रहे
हाशिये की रौशनी

इस उलट फेर में
बस इतना ध्यान रहे
मेरा छोटा सा गांव कहीं उजड़ न जाए
और दलपतपुर चट्टी की बुढ़िया की बकरी
लौट आये घर

सुझाव तो ढेरों हैं
पर जल्दी-जल्दी में
ये अंतिम सुझाव

इधर मीडिया में
विनाश की अटकलें बराबर आ रही हैं
सो पृथ्वी का कॉपीराइट
संभाल कर रखना

ये क्लोन समय है
कहीं ऐसा न हो
कोई चुपके से रच दे
एक क्लोन पृथ्वी

   - केदारनाथ सिंह

For those who cannot read Hindi, you can listen to this poem and some others, recited here:

Friday, February 22, 2019

A town painted red, and blue too.

Odisha was in the news for a good reason recently. It was named best state for promotion of sports at the Sportstar Aces Awards, on account of Bhubaneswar having hosted three successful international events – the hockey World Cup in 2018, and the Asian Athletics Championships and the Hero Super Cup in 2017.

I am sure the state has invested in training infrastructure too. Certainly, Odisha has invested time and money in making sports more visible in the capital city. I was Bhubaneswar recently for a literature festival and found that commuting an aesthetic experience. Long stretches of street-facing walls were covered in murals.

A lot of the art focused on hockey, especially around the Kalinga Stadium. Apart from dynamic images of players in the middle of a game, there was a lot of conceptual art around hockey sticks. One of my favourites was a mural that shows large black ants winding their way around a stick. Another artist had flashes of lightning – or was it a blue pulse? – rising off the stick, as if to suggest an electrifying game.

Mural art has picked up in several cities but the murals in Bhubaneswar struck me as particular. Figures of athletes in motion brought a sense of dynamism to an otherwise quiet street. There was something of their spirit up on the walls, something akin to enthusiasm.

In another part of town, walls have been painted with flowers. Giant blue morning glories are painted such that it seemed the homely flower was demanding its due. There were a few Frida Kahlo murals too, and one I especially remember of the famous artist's face crowded in by a crush of flowers. It was almost as if flowers were emanating from her. Her hand was across her mouth, as if she was trying to hide it, or hold back a laugh, or simply posturing in a manner that could be seductive if you want to see it as that. Or, aghast at such riotous beauty.

There’s another whimsical mural where the artist has painted the feet of an Odissi dancer in motion. The adjacent wall has the eyes of the dancer, dancing with fun, with astonishment, full of rasa.

Looking at those murals made me wonder whose mind and heart was behind them. Who loves morning glories so? Who wants to make Bhubaneswar dance with its eyes?

The murals made me think about how under-utilised public space has been so far. While interiors and a few expensive homes are decorated well, as per the owners' tastes, the side of the wall that faces the street is considered nobody's personal property. Individuals rarely invest in their maintenance.

I grew up looking at urban walls covered in posters, advertisements for everything from black magic to underwear, films to political parties Then, a few years ago in Mumbai, a tiny corner was transformed through the efforts of an art collective that calls itself the Bollywood Art Project. It took nearly a decade for other public spaces to open up, especially suburban railway stations. In Delhi too, there are a few walls covered with graffiti and artwork. By and large though, our cities remain overwhelmingly grey.

Perhaps it is time our city councils and state governments start funding the creation of murals. India barely supports her artists and it is time citizens got access to a glimpse of art through the year, every year. This would serve to keep us interested in each other's imaginations. It would also make commuting a lot less dull.

First published here

The young and the political

We all maintain an internal list of things that happen to people out of luck. Things too awful to contemplate: hunger, arrest, getting beaten or stripped naked, being declared an enemy of the state.

How does a literature graduate with no political ambitions end up in jail? How does the son of an urban trader wander from the political right to the left? Is rebellion picked up on campus like a virus or is it seeded in the cradle? Questions like these led me to meet students and political activists who have taken political positions that they, or their families, could not have foreseen.

... One of the things common to aspiring activists was that they are inspired by each other. Chandu, Umar Khalid, Jatin Goraiya, all were inspired by Bhagat Singh. In turn he was inspired by boys like Kartar Singh Sarabha, executed by the British in 1915 at 19 for participating in the freedom struggle. Bhagat Singh kept a photograph of Sarabha in his pocket and made a point of garlanding it during organisation meetings.

Chaman Lal, a retired professor who has authored multiple books on the subject, believes Bhagat Singh’s “greatness” lay in his being a thinker and organiser as well as a revolutionary. He courted arrest after throwing a bomb into the Central Legislative Assembly and used court appearances, newspapers and every opportunity he got to argue his cause. He read hundreds of books and maintained notes on what he read—Wordsworth to Marx, Thomas Paine to Omar Khayyam, Plato to Gandhi, until they took him off to the gallows.

Bhagat Singh also wrote extensively about the state of the nation, imperialism, exploitation through capitalism, and religious faith. He forbade his parents from petitioning for mercy on his behalf. He went to the gallows with the cry of “Inquilab Zindabad” on his lips.

His family owned enough land for them to be comfortable. True, the country was under British control and Indians were second class people. Still, there was more to gain by finishing his studies and securing a comfortable position from where he could take on institutional racism. It is worth asking: how did a boy born into relative privilege end up on the gallows?

Read the full essay in Fountain Ink magazine

Monday, February 18, 2019

The ‘M’ in Aligarh, the ‘H’ in Banaras and what’s at stake

Days before being slandered as a university of terrorists, Aligarh Muslim University was in the news for a letter written by the local unit of the BJP’s youth wing to the vice chancellor. It sought land for a temple on campus and threatened that, permission or not, an idol would be installed and a temple built.

My first response was to wonder if the youth wing of the BJP would support the construction of a mosque and church on the Banaras Hindu University campus, where students of all religions have enrolled. There is nothing wrong with allowing prayer space for all faiths as long as both universities are held to the same standards.

AMU and BHU are two strands of Indian self-definition, separate but inextricably linked and a comparison of the two is a useful way to understand our polity and what has happened to our country.

Both universities are in Uttar Pradesh and were established – BHU in 1917, AMU in 1920 – with an emphasis on identity. Founder Madan Mohan Malaviya had been clear in his objectives when he chose to insert “Hindu” into the name of the university and insisted upon religious instruction. In Students and Politics in India (1975), Anil Baran Ray writes that in 1915, some members of the Imperial Legislative Council expressed apprehensions that the proposed university would widen the gulf between Hindus and Muslims, or foster separatist tendencies. But Pandit Malaviya argued that “religious instruction, he asserted, far from producing narrowness, liberates the mind and promotes brotherly feelings between man and man.”

How might it have turned out for India if Pandit Malaviya had dropped the word “Hindu” and been content with just Banaras University. Perhaps those who were setting up AMU would have been content with just Aligarh University?

Soon after independence, the government proposed to remove “Hindu” and “Muslim” from their respective names. In 1951, education minister Maulana Azad sought the opinion of both universities. AMU was initially amenable but BHU was not, so Azad and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru decided to quietly drop the matter.

Then, in 1965, Lal Bahadur Shastri’s government proposed to rename BHU as Madan Mohan Malaviya Kashi Vishwavidyalaya. The Jana Sangh and the RSS, which had rooms on the BHU campus since the 1930s, encouraged students to agitate. Ray writes, student organisations linked to the Sangh claimed that “the attack on the ‘Hindu’ name of the university was only the beginning. It would be followed by cutting the ‘shikha’ (top knot) and sacred thread worn by Hindus and by idol-breaking and mass conversion”.

The fact that education minister M.C. Chagla was Mohamed Ali Currim Chagla did not help matters. Torchlight processions were organised at night. Students from Gorakhpur, Patna, Allahabad, and Lucknow showed up to lend weight to the agitation.

Despite the government’s decision to postpone the Bill, students continued to agitate. Ultimately, they had their way and BHU retains “Hindu” in its name.

1965 was also the year Chagla set off ripples among Muslims. In the Lok Sabha, he denied that AMU was founded by Muslims and that it was a minority institution. Ali Yavar Jung, the Vice Chancellor, countered by pointing out that though it was a “national” university in the sense that there was no discrimination, it was created primarily to secure an education for Muslims “in their religion, philosophy and traditions”.

An essay in Frontline magazine records that the Congress party issued a whip to its members in Parliament “to secure the passage of the Amendment Act of 1965 which completely deprived the university of its autonomy. It, however, allowed a free vote on the proposal to change the name of the Banaras Hindu University (BHU).”

The question of minority status was settled in 1981 – or so we thought. It was raked up again in 2005 and continues now with the government arguing in court that it is not a “minority” institution. Meanwhile, there is no denying that Muslims, even those who have nothing to do with AMU, see this as an assault upon their civil rights. Muslims all over the country attend Catholic and Jain institutions; they go to BHU. However, AMU represents cultural freedom. It is a space where their names don’t raise brows, where they can wear jeans or a fez and loose pajamas with equal ease.

Since the 1992 demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, Indian Muslims have experienced great social isolation. They find themselves pushed into ghettos. They worry about their safety and future prospects while surrounded by shrill political rhetoric and hate speech. However, Aligarh in particular has always been kept on the boil.

In 1978, after a serious riot, journalist Suchitra Behal wrote in India Today that AMU was “a perpetual thorn in the side” of people whose names figured prominently in course of the riots. Witnesses swore that the President of the local unit of the Janata Party had been “personally directing the loot and arson” during the riot. Besides, seven young Muslims were shot dead but no Hindus died of bullets fired by the Police Armed Constabulary. “How do the PAC bullets recognise only the Muslims?” Behal asks. “How long can such a tenuous and uneasy peace be maintained?”

The peace did not hold. So far, riots had been confined to the town; students were protected. In 1979, for the first time, students of AMU were dragged into the communal riots. After deaths and police firing, the university had to be shut down.

Students have got into violent confrontations for one reason or the other ever since but matters reached a new low in May 2018. Former Vice President of India, Hamid Ansari, was visiting campus and being conferred with life membership of the students’ union. The guest house he was in was approached by men, allegedly affiliated with the Hindu Yuva Vahini, shouting slogans. Shots were allegedly fired. When student representatives went to the police to lodge a complaint, they were beaten with lathis and tear-gassed.

This week’s fracas involved a team from Republic TV followed by students affiliated with right-wing groups, some of them carrying guns. The police responded to a complaint about alleged anti-national slogans by charging 14 students with sedition.

At this juncture, we must recall Nirad C. Chaudhuri. In an essay about AMU’s history of political interference, AG Noorani quotes Chaudhuri, who grew up disliking Aligarh for he saw it as the cradle of the Islamic revivalism in India. “Under the teaching of Bankim Chandra Chatterji and Vivekananda most of us had become Hindu revivalist, but were not on that account prepared to concede to the Muslim the right to his revivalism, because we regarded our Hinduism in its revivified form as nationalism, and reformed Islam as anti-national.”

Chaudhuri also noticed that the academic standards at AMU were fairly high, and said, “If loyalty to the Islamic way of life has given this stability to the academic life of Aligarh, it would be madness to take it away or try to destroy that loyalty.”

This dual standard continues to rent asunder the fabric of India. The “Hindu” student – at least, a student affiliated with right wing political or cultural outfits – at BHU, AMU or anywhere else can be regressive, discriminatory, even violent while laying exclusive claim to a patriotic agenda. The Muslim student, no matter that he focuses on his studies, is unarmed or even a victim of violence, is constantly suspect. Worse, he dare not count on the state machinery to do the right thing.

In the context of Aligarh, Nirad C. Chaudhuri had said that Hindus and Muslims can come to terms only if the two ways of life are recognised to be equally valid and good. I can do no more than echo him.

First published in Arre:
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