AUTHOR: Shamim Hanafi: The humble critic
Succumbing to the common notion that intellectuals are cynical (and they have reason to be so), I was nervous about my meeting with the much acclaimed Indian Urdu short story writer, critic and poet, Dr M. Shamim Hanafi. An interview with a person of his stature on the status of Urdu literature in the present world was indeed a challenge. “Today the situation is that if any Tom, Dick or Harry fails to understand the masterpieces of literature, he holds the writer responsible for it, not his own comprehension,” he writes in his book Khayal ki Musaafat. I couldn’t help imagining myself being one of the three.
On meeting Dr Shamim Hanafi, my fears seemed to subside. Here was a scholar who does not mince his words while putting his mind across. “I am a man of simple words,” he says, “and am quite weary of istilahat and difficult ideologies. Though I write literary essays that demand a certain finesse and standard in the use of language, I am weary of writings that are too loaded.” Khayal ki Musaafat is a proof of his statement as he touches upon the burning issues in Urdu literature with such clarity of thought and a simple style that a lay reader not only understands but is also encouraged to form a humble opinion on these issues.
“People say that I’ve written valuable critiques. I wonder why as I don’t feel I qualify as a critic,” he says. This aura of humility in his views also wears all over his personality. Clad in a neat shirt and a pair of pants adorned with a waistcoat of check earthly motifs and open sandals, he truly breathes what he believes in.
Dr M. Shamim Hanafi retired recently as dean of the department of arts from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, after a long teaching career in various universities for 40 years. Born in Sultanpur, UP, which is 30-35 miles away from the Babri Masjid, Dr Hanafi did his masters in history and Urdu from Allahabad University. While moving on to his PhD, he was offered the job of a lecturer where he spent four years. Later he joined the Aligarh Muslim University in 1976 from where he did his DLit. (Jadeediat aur Falsafi Ehsaas and Nai Shaeri Riwayat) which was published in two volumes.
At the Jamia Millia, he was director of correspondence courses in Urdu and also served as editor of the famous magazine, Risala Jamia, of which Dr Zakir Hussain and Dr Abid Hussain were also editors. He remained as editor of the magazine for 12-14 years and on retirement requested to be relieved of the editorship as well, but the Jamia refused to part with him. He still serves as honorary editor of the magazine. These days he teaches at the Academy of Third World Studies as visiting professor, particularly the Pakistan Studies department that has recently been set up.
So I posed the most commonly asked question to him that triggers many an emotion in Pakistanis — the issue of script. “My friend Yaginder Singh Yadev who is the editor of the magazine, Hans, that was once edited by Premchand, asked me whether I wanted the script to be saved or the language. He believes that if Urdu is written in the Devanagri script it will be preserved. Professor Jamil Ali Akhtar goes a step further. He believes that the use of alternate scripts should be sanctioned like the Roman script, which is now widely used by immigrants living in the West. There are also many magazines and newspapers that are making use of the Devanagri script in India. The Jamaat-i-Islami publishes a magazine in the Hindi script.
“This situation is worrisome as there was a lot of antagonism against Urdu after partition which has put the Urdu language at a disadvantage ever since. Though many organizations were set up by successive governments, it was a situation where a tree’s branches are watered but the roots whither away. Urdu language sprawls over a history of almost 300 years. It could not be transferred to another script.
“I do not mind writers making use of the Devanagri script but I do feel that the script of a language cannot be changed like a dress. The relationship of a language and its script is that of the heart and the soul,” he says.
Was then Fort William College a good idea for the uplift of Urdu? “It definitely benefited Urdu. Who can deny the treasure trove that was created at the college like Mir Amman’s Bagh-o-Bahar.
“The British had their own set of values, their system of government, ideology and policies. But I need to emphasize here that we should blame ourselves for the disunity among us. We should size up ourselves before blaming others for our meloncholies. The aim of the Anjuman-i-Punjab, for instance, was to improve relations between the rulers and the ruled but the fact remains that the movement gave us some good writers. The progressive writers nurtured some very good writers but the incipience of extreme emotionality damaged the cause. A good writer does after all make it to the top.”
There is no denying the fact that Urdu is widely spoken and understood today but Dr Shamim Hanafi feels that it is infested with too many futile controversies that damage people’s perception of the language. They need to be cleared. “Urdu breathes in many ideological controversies like progressivism, modernism and the latest stir, post-modernism. Such controversies are beyond me. Speakers of other languages make fun of us for being embroiled in such a situation. I feel that good literature is good literature at the end of the day. If a writer indulges in sloganism for instance, but adds no creative value to literature, his writing would not impress me,” says the tough critic.
Shamim Hanafi celebrates the fact that today there is less bias against Urdu in India than it was years ago. “The reason is that there is democracy in India and the current government is more enlightened.” He does lament, however, that there has been no proper system of teaching Urdu in educational institutions. He agrees with Dr Ralph Russell who has pointed out in some of his articles that Urdu-wallahs (the thekedar of Urdu as Dr Russell calls them) are largely to be held responsible for causing damage to Urdu language. “There is a crop that has used Urdu for ulterior motives, to make progress in their careers. They have made it to the parliament or become governors, etc. Urdu is also made a means of getting access to power. I am more interested in people who stay out of the limelight. I am myself a person of seclusion who prefers to sit in a corner and work,” he adds.
Among his famous translations are Muntakhab Tehriren: Jadd-o-Jehd Ke Saal (Pandit Nehru’s Writings: Years of Struggle) and Hamari Azadi (Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s India Wins Freedom) which are his magnum opus. “I have translated writers that I have been impressed with. I haven’t translated for a living,” he adds. Translations, Dr Hanafi believes, are a good way of transporting writings to foreign lands, which is why more translations should be carried out. “More and more people have started showing an interest in Urdu after having read translations. Many orgainzations in India have been set up. The Translations Studies is an organization that has been set up in many universities for this purpose. Many publishing companies in Urdu like Katha are concentrating on translations. The poetry of Faiz, Iqbal and Ghalib is being translated along with the works of contemporary poets. The OUP has done tremendous work in Pakistan in this area.”
Besides Khayal ki Musaafat, a collection of essays and critiques, his other books include Qari say Mukalma — Mazameen ka Majmua, Jadeediat aur Falsafi Ehsaas and writings on Sir Syed, Firaq, the creative role of Ghalib, etc. Dr Hanafi has not restricted himself to this genre of writing. He has also written many stories for children. “I like to write for children as I enjoy the flight of imagination that entails, though I am not irrational.” He has also been interested in painting, theatre and films. He has too many feathers in his cap, as he confesses that he suffers from Kisi fun mein kamal haasil hone ki talab (passion to acquire excellence in any skill).
The polarization of regional languages and Urdu in Pakistan worries him. “I don’t understand why Urdu is directly compared with other languages in the country. All other languages deserve respect in their own right but Urdu is a link language. The Urdu-wallahs should not construct their cause at the expense of the regional languages either. We find very solid Sufi traditions in regional languages which is a treasure for us,” he says.
Dr Shamim Hanafi is not only concerned about the future of Urdu but about all languages all over the world. “We are endangered by the information litter that has overloaded us with the advent of information technology. I think there will come a time when we all would not need a language at all. Human and social sciences are being distorted, let alone languages. This marginalization of knowledge and language is quite worrisome. But then I am reminded of Marquez who said that no matter how far the computer makes progress, it can never replace the value of a book. The book will always remain indispensable, so we have hope that Urdu will also survive.”