And the restless flows of the Yamuna

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Uttar Pradesh has been the epicenter of Hindi-speaking world art and literature. He produced several Hindi and Urdu writers including Premchand, Jaishankar Prasad and Firaq Gorakhpuri. Those who were born and lived here, and breathed its socio-political atmosphere, represented them in their poetry, short stories and novels. In recent decades, the most significant change in these regions is migration. This doesn’t just apply to UP, but to almost every state. Much of the youth born there moved to Delhi. This is not, however, a new phenomenon. Even before independence, most people from UP and Bihar traveled to Calcutta in search of employment. After a while, Bombay (Mumbai) has become the most attractive destination for people looking for a livelihood. Today it is Delhi that has earned the distinction of the city that attracts hundreds and thousands of people not only for their bread and butter but also for education and politics.

Even though UP itself has good old seats of learning like Allahabad University, Benares Hindu University and Aligarh Muslim University, they no longer have the charm that they once had. Those who want to get a better education or gain a foothold in politics head to Delhi. Hundreds of Hindi and Urdu poets and writers from UP have landed in the capital for better prospects. Living here, they have been removed from the daily realities of the land on which they write. How can they represent their social environment in the manner of writers like Rahi Masoom Raza, if they do not live there or observe the rhythm of life? For writing to take root in the soil, it is important that the writer immerse himself in the pulse of his culture. But in reality, the migration of writers from the UP to the metros—one might call it a brain drain—has ensured that there are few people left in the state capable of carrying on this tradition.

While there is a proliferation of Hindi publications, Urdu writers often complain about the lack of publishers for their books. Often they are forced to spend their own money to get their books out. There was a time when cities like Lucknow and Allahabad were hubs for Urdu publishers. Allahabad’s Nikhat publications were quite well known, largely because they published novels by Ibn-e-Safi. There is nothing left in Lucknow or Allahabad – most of their publishers have closed. Today, Urdu writers too must have their works published from Delhi. But even here, things are not going too well. Often, writers submit their manuscripts to government institutions in hopes of obtaining financial assistance, and in doing so, get published. Some Urdu writers also turn to Hindi publishers, as Urdu readers are few and far between. Hindi being a compulsory language, it continues to have a large readership.

Photography: Chinki Sinha

This is not to say that there are few Urdu writers left; quite the contrary. In Lucknow, for example, new writers are exploring all genres of writing. But they all struggle to be published. Even beyond editing, there was once a dynamic mushira and nashist (evening) scene which fueled a demand for skilled writers. While nashists are rarely organized these days, mushairas continue to be organised, although standards have fallen. To make matters worse, there are few Urdu magazines and newspapers that have managed to withstand the ravages of the changing times. newspapers like Siasat and Kaumi Awaz are still running, but their readership has drastically declined. Until the last quarter of the 20th century, there were so many Urdu magazines, like Shabkhoun (founded by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi in Allahabad), Shayar (published from Bombay), Biswin Sadi (originally published from Lahore, continued from Delhi after independence). Today they are all gone.

Our cultural indoctrination begins in our homes and neighborhoods, from where we learn behaviors, mannerisms and dialects. Today, even our homes are devoid of cultural meaning. As for literature, although it is linked to all aspects of our lives, including society and politics, its effect on us is not immediate, but is revealed indirectly, over time. long duration. Nor should we overlook the link between literature and journalism. During the freedom movement, writers invariably came from a journalistic background. Through their writing, they encouraged a consciousness of freedom.

And calm flows the Yamuna
Crop production (left) AMU; BHU Photography: Getty Images; Shutterstock

In the post-independence era, writers and journalists who participated in the movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan during the emergency also made waves, to the point that Baba Nagarjun even braved incarceration for several months. The political situation of recent years has given rise to much reflection and analysis on the part of writers and journalists. But these writings – essays, poetry and stories – lacked the tempo and tenor that these conditions warrant. The few disparate incidents of resistance cannot be called revolutionary. Maybe something remarkable is on the cards in the future. But for now, based on the prolific writing that has emerged over the past two years – mostly about the pandemic, proving once again that literature reflects life – one will be hard pressed to find a single poem. or a single story that stands out and is worth remembering. Perhaps because immediate reactions are rarely effective, writers need a critical distance from events to reflect on them. Today, anything happening in Uttar Pradesh or for that matter across the country, can find proper assessment in literary works a decade later. It is hoped that these works will have lasting value.

For my novel based on the lives of weavers in Varanasi, Jhini Jhini Bini Chadariya (1986), which is often cited as a revolutionary work, I spent about 10 years with them, observing them, soaking up their lives. Varanasi’s fertile ground produced several writers before me, including Premchand and Jaishankar Prasad. But perhaps they were unaware of the conditions of the weavers or did not know their lives intimately enough. But these caught my attention because I lived among them. I did not look at them with the eyes of a stranger, but as insiders. The poor condition of the weavers is one of the many intractable problems facing the people of this state, but if writers don’t live there, how are they going to portray them in their works? They can only draw from the environment. There are many shades of life in the state, each more complex than the next. What goes into a work of literature depends on what catches a writer’s imagination.

Anything happening in UP or across the country today, can find proper literary assessment a decade from now. It is hoped that these works will have lasting value.

Today, living in Delhi, if I try to write a novel set in Varanasi or Allahabad (Prayagraj), maybe I might not be able to describe their socio-political conditions so well, because things have changed a lot. Even the lives of the weavers, their problems and their priorities have changed. If I were to go and live among them, the novel I would end up writing would be very different from Jhini Jhini…because conditions have changed. Like me, there are too many UP writers who don’t live there anymore. Most of those still there are from the older generation, who weren’t able to leave the state for one reason or another. For example, Kashinath Singh still lives in Varanasi even after retiring from BHU. But he hasn’t written almost anything lately. After a certain age, our creative production loses its fervor or stops altogether.

In these circumstances, hope rests with the younger generation. But they too have been flocking to cities like Delhi from their birthplace, where they spent their impressionable years. Today, Delhi is home to many such young people. If they become writers, they will only write about the life around them and not about what they left behind. As for today’s political form, it may eventually find its way into literature, but it will take time. In these new circumstances, the consolation is that no one is seeking votes in the name of making Urdu the second language. Nor do they make false promises to appoint Urdu teachers in public schools.

When communalism came into UP, a lot of stories and novels were written. Even the demolition of Babri Masjid has sparked writers. by Shivmurti trishul (2018), for example, revolved around the atmosphere of hate, insecurity and fear. Similarly, the Godhra train fire and subsequent Gujarat riots in 2002 spawned literary works. But none of them were milestones that skillfully tackled these themes, bringing to life the world they depicted. Unless a work of literature shakes our sensibilities and goes deep into the psyche and consciousness of the people it portrays, it won’t strike a chord with us.

(This appeared in the print edition as “And Quiet Flows the Yamuna”)

(The opinions expressed are personal)


Abdul Bismillah is a Hindi writer known for his stories about life in rural Muslim communities


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