Munshi Premchand, father of modern Urdu literature, too

 By Jooneed Jeeroburkhan 

It was with great delight that, in last Friday’s Mauritius Times, I read through Sarita Boodhoo’s tribute to Munshi Premchand on the occasion of the great writer’s 131st birth anniversary. Ms Boodhoo painted a compelling portrait of the hard life and challenging times of the Upanyas Samrat or Emperor of fiction, whose deep empathy for the all-suffering yet infinitely resilient rural poor of India, fine eye for detail and keen grasp of human psychology, and creative command over Hindustani have earned him due recognition as the founding father of modern Hindi AND Urdu prose, be it novels, novellas, short stories, dramas, essays, letters, and social commentary.

For Premchand was not just a writer of Hindi. To be fair, Ms Boodhoo does point out that “Premchand first started writing in Urdu, under the pseudonym of Nawab Rai” and “he had learnt Urdu and Persian from the local madrassa”. In his Urdu Adab Ki Tarikh (History of Urdu culture), Azeem-ul-Haq Junaidi in fact assigns pride of place to Premchand as the founder of modern Urdu literature.

Ms Boodhoo’s focus is on the place of Hindi language and literature in the regional UP-Bihar context of Bhojpuri, a concern I fully appreciate given the operational difficulties that have surfaced regarding the teaching of Hindi and Bhojpuri as separate languages in primary schools in Mauritius.

My focus is on the great ganga-jamni sangam of Hindi and Urdu, which other writers, in both prose and poetry, had been crafting before him, but which Premchand masterfully brought to fruition through the popular Hindustani language, flowing clear of the elitist hazards of both sanskritized Hindi and Persianized and Arabized Urdu.

In the Hindi-Urdu context, script does not necessarily make the language. Hindi works are regularly “transliterated” in the Persian-Arabic script and Urdu works written in the Devanagari alphabet, with the appropriate phonetic adjustments, to be read by the public at large.

Hindi is not for Hindus, nor Urdu for Muslims

This Hindustani language and culture blossomed in the Mumbai film industry in the 1950s and 1960s when all the best talents of India, Urdu and Hindi, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Jain, Buddhist and Parsi, who had fought for India’s independence in the Progressive writers’ movement, focused their creativity on scripts, dialogues and lyrics that penetrated the remotest villages of India and spread across Eurasia and Africa, where I have met people who still sing “Aawaara Hun”!

My concern is with the growing but erroneous tendency to identify the Hindi language with Hindus and the Urdu language with Muslims. This sterile distinction is promoted in India by the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, with the saffronisation of education, and in Mauritius by narrow and insecure communal elites. Tariq Rahman, Pakistani author of the recent book From Hindi to Urdu: A social and Political History (OUP, 2011), wrote last week in the Indian Express that the common “ancestor of Urdu and Hindi was called Hindi, Hindvi (13th-19th century); Dehlavi (13th-14th c.); Gujri (15th c.); Dakhani (15th-18th c.); Indostan (17th c.); Moors (18th c.); Rekhta (18th-19th c.); Hindustani (18th-20th c.).

Besides, our Bhojpuri-speaking ancestors were both Hindu and Muslim. The confrontation of Hindi-Urdu linguistic identities as a Hindu-Muslim conflict first developed as a potent wedge in the British colonial strategy of divide and rule. In spite of saffron politics and the latter-day assault on Urdu, language remains the great unifier in India: natives of all religions use Tamil as their mother tongue in Tamil Nadu, Marathi in Maharashtra, Gujarati in Gujarat, Malayalam in Kerala, Bengali in Bengal, and so forth.

This is why India never accepted religion as a basis for State creation and always insisted on language instead. Sunil Khilnani (The Idea of India), Ramachandra Guha (India After Gandhi), Mukul Kesavan (long essay in The Ugliness of the Indian Male), among others, expound brilliantly on this specific trait of Indianness.

Raghupati Sahai and Rahi Masoom Raza

As an absurd aside, the Sangh Parivar is not particularly fond of Munshi Premchand, who denounced casteism, communalism, patriarchy, zamindari (lanlordism), debt and poverty with the same passion that fed his fight against colonialism. His famous novella Nirmala, which pits a 15-year-old girl of very poor circumstance against the dictates of patriarchal society, was removed from school syllabi when the BJP-led government was in power in 2003 – and replaced by a novel written by BJP Mahila Samiti (Women’s Wing) leader Mridula Sinha!

Yet, these divisive shenanigans did not prevent such geniuses as Premchand (Dhanpat Rai Srivastava by his real name), Firaq Gorukhpuri (Raghupati Sahai), Krishan Chander, Mohinder Pratap Chand, Rajinder Singh Bedi, and many others, from shining as masters of Urdu writing. Jagannath Azad is even said to have written Pakistan’s first national anthem, only to be replaced by Hafiz Jullundhuri’s poem six months after Jinnah’s death.

Nor did they prevent Rahi Masoom Raza from triumphing with his sanskritized Hindi dialogue for the hugely successful TV series based on the Mahabharata, or Asad Zaidi, who runs the Three essays publishing house in Delhi, from becoming one of the highly regarded Hindi poets of contemporary India.

Urdu blogs and websites where Premchand is discussed and celebrated are legion. One blogger writes: “Presiding over the Progressive Writers’ Conference in Lucknow in 1936, (Premchand) said that attaching the word progressive to writers was redundant because a writer or an artist is progressive by nature; if this were not his/her nature, he/she would not be a writer at all.”

That’s why Munshi Prenchand remains extremely topical and relevant to this day, a 20th Century genius for all times.

* Published in print edition on 5 August 2011

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