Urdu literature's vagabond genius
Posted online: Saturday, December 17, 2005 at 0000 hours IST
A house full sign some days ago outside the main auditorium of New Delhi's India International Centre was a surprise because it was an evening dedicated to an Urdu poet, Majaz. An Urdu poet drawing a full house at the IIC?
Well, a look at the poet might give some clue to the attendance. Israrul Haq Majaz left behind a very slim body of work and to that extent remains one of literature's less realised geniuses. The occasion for the evening at the IIC was his 50th death anniversary.
He was in years senior to Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Sardar Jafri, Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri. All his contemporaries lived well past their 70s and 80s. Majaz died when he was only 46. If you deduct from these years periods of unproductive silence during extended spells of penury, there remain very few years within which some of his finest poetry was written. Even these limited spells of poetic coherence were interrupted by nervous breakdowns, leading to periods in mental hospitals.
His excruciatingly painful life did not result in literary pessimism. His ghazals have lilt, verve, colour and wit. The anguish of the educated unemployed—the standard condition for the best and the brightest in that era— finds expression in his long poem, `Awara'(Vagabond), one of the great poems written in any literature. While Majaz's seniors lived in the afterglow of feudalism, his junior colleagues made money writing lyrics in Bollywood. Majaz was comfortable with neither category. He spent his years in Lucknow, stone broke, depending for his quota of liquor on a handful of
ruthless literary name droppers: "I was drinking with Majaz last evening".
Ultimately, it was liquor which killed him. After attending a mushaira at Lucknow's Baradari, Majaz left with the usual hangers on for a popular country liquor tavern in a lane off Lucknow's Lal Bagh. What happened that night at the tavern remains a mystery—a theme Javed Akhtar should consider for a film script. The next morning, when the tavern was opened, sprawled on the freezing terrace floor was Majaz—in a coma. Next morning he died in Balrampur hospital.
An Aligarh alumnus, the song he wrote for his beloved university was adopted as the tarana, or anthem, of Aligarh Muslim University. This fact itself demolishes stereotypes. In popular imagination the author of the official song of AMU would be an earnest, religious type, possibly even a straightforward mullah. It is a startling paradox that the writer of the AMU tarana, was a poet renowned for his irreverence and, above all, an impoverished wanderer who died in a country liquor shop!
Why should a full house dedicated to this spectacular genius surprise me? Partly because many of us reared in the Urdu culture have internalised a false grievance that Urdu was somehow deliberately marginalised after independence. The drive for Hindu, Hindi, Hindustani, the aggressive assertion for Hindi by Bharatendu or
Purushottam Das Tandon did play a role in creating an atmosphere not hospitable to Urdu. But actually the recession of Urdu culture was inevitable after Partition.
One of the greatest Urdu poets of the 20th century, Josh Malihabadi made the mistake he lived to rue till his end. He was persuaded by some ICS officers from UP who had crossed over to Pakistan that the future of Urdu would be more secure in that country. Despite the fact that Josh had earned the respect of leaders like Pandit Nehru and Maulana Azad for the forceful poetry he wrote during the freedom movement, he decided to make his home in Karachi.
The poetry he wrote in Karachi is a continuous wail at his mistake: Ilahi Kaun hoon, kyon hoon, kahan hoon? (Dear God! where am I and who are these people). In the Punjab, Baluchistan, Sind, and the North West Frontier, the mother tongue was the regional language. In other words, Punjabi was the mother tongue of Iqbal or Faiz. Urdu was the chosen literary vehicle. But for Josh or Majaz the language from cradle to grave was the same—Urdu. And this Urdu had dollops of Avadhi and Brajbhasha in
its conversational mode.
In independent India, while Malayalam, Bengali, Tamil, Kannada had well defined geographical regions in which to thrive, Urdu became the language of people scattered in small pockets across several states, rather like the gypsies in Europe. Josh himself once said that a language which does not give bread will die. To that extent, yes, Urdu is not the language of the future. But the remarkable body of poetry, diction, the culture it spawned in a short span of 150 years, is inextricably bound with the flow of that culture in the Hindi belt which has a touch of sophistication.
Urdu is Hindi's cousin and it is in this avatar that it thrives in Bollywood, made more intelligible by the craft of Javed Akhtar, who, incidentally, happens to be Majaz's nephew. One lives and one learns. The impressive attendance at the IIC should not have been a matter of surprise.