The skies in the year 1912 were full of stars that would shine in Urdu’s literary world for many years. Urdu’s greatest short fiction writer Manto, and the exceptionally talented poet-editor-translator, Miraji, were born in 1912; so was Akhtar Husain Raipuri, the firebrand leftist intellectual whose essay “Adab aur Zindagi” became the cornerstone of the Progressive Writers’ Movement. Raipuri was a polyglot: a scholar, journalist, lexicographer, literary critic and creative writer. His trenchant essays examined searing questions about the objectives of art and literature, and offered new ways of thinking on the purpose and aesthetics of literature:
In the controversial essay, “Adab aur Zindagi”, he wrote, “The primary duty of literature is to initiate the removal of discrimination based on nation, country, colour, ethnicity, class or religion and to represent the group that takes practical steps with this aim in mind... The only thing our literature has accomplished so far is to lament the impermanence of life and helplessness of man... The paths of humanity and literature are not different and their salvation also lies along the same path.”
What is surprising about Husain’s career is that despite his leftist theoretical stance he did not get deeply involved with the Progressive Writers’ Movement as an activist. As we shall see in this brief essay, his contribution to Urdu was unique because of his diverse, sweeping, humanistic interests.
Akhtar Husain was born on June 12, 1912 in Raipur, a town in the modern state of Bihar, India. His father, Saiyyed Akbar Husain, was an engineer stationed at Raipur to supervise the construction of a major canal. His mother, Mumtazunnisa, was well educated and published in women’s journals. Unfortunately, she died at the age of 26 when Akhtar Husain was three years old. At age four, Husain was enrolled in the local maktab that also offered lessons in reading the Quran. The child insisted on knowing the meaning of the Arabic texts he was reading. When his instructor demurred, the precocious Husain refused to go to the maktab. His father, a liberal man, put Husain in a primary school where the medium of instruction was Hindi. An avid reader, Akhtar devoured all the books he could lay his hands on and spent all his pocket money on buying Hindi books.
When he was 12, Akhtar Husain was asked by his teacher to help in organising the school library. Akhtar was too embarrassed to admit that he could not read Urdu fluently. He took up the challenge and carrying home a bundle of books sat down to read them. He was soon reading as much in Urdu as in Hindi. His Hindi was so strong that he began to write and publish articles in Hindi. His first story “Parajit” (Defeated) was published in Madhuri, a reputed literary journal, when he was only 16 years old.
Akhtar Husain moved to Calcutta after matriculation to pursue higher studies. Calcutta was the political and cultural centre of India in those days. As the capital of the East India Company, it attracted a lot of traders and merchants, indigenous as well as from all over the world. Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Awadh, who was a notable poet, playwright, dancer and patron of arts, had set up residence in Matiya Burj, a Calcutta suburb, after his kingdom was annexed. The Nawab maintained his passion for the arts by nurturing poets and musicians and recreating a Lucknow style environment at Calcutta. The progeny of the brave Mysore ruler, Tipu Sultan, were exiled to Calcutta by the British. Their presence added to the cultural mosaic and ambience of the city. It presented a unique convergence of Eastern and Western cultures. Calcutta also became the largest centre of publication in Bengali and an important hub for English, Urdu and Hindi publications.
Muslims had been disassociated with “modern Hindi” due to the highly politicised nature of the language divide. There were two very important, prominent Hindi publications from Calcutta: the daily Vishwamitra and the magazine Vishal Bharat. Akhtar Husain, with his Hindi-Sanskrit background, was an unusual young man. There was a vacancy for a junior subeditor in the Vishwamitra and Husain applied for the position. The newspaper’s proprietor was Babu Moolchand Agarwala. It was unheard of for a Muslim to be associated with the editorial section of any Hindu newspaper, let alone a Hindi one. Nevertheless, Babu Moolchand hired Husain after testing his spontaneous translation skills from English to Hindi. At 17, he became the newspaper’s youngest journalist.
Husain acknowledges Babu Moolchand and Maulvi Abdul Huq as the two most constructive influences on his life’s trajectory. It was the heyday of the freedom movement, and both the Congress Party and Muslim League held pivotal meetings in Calcutta. Akhtar Husain found wonderful mentors in Pandit Benarsi Das Chaturvedi, and Pandit Sunderlal. These liberal scholar-journalists introduced him to the teachings of Bakunin and Kropotkin.
In 1932, circumstances compelled Akhtar Husain to leave Calcutta and join AligarhUniversity in the middle of his studies for a bachelor’s degree. Aligarh’s environment was quite different from Calcutta’s. Husain was drawn closer to Urdu when he began to translate the popular Bengali poet Qazi Nazrul Islam. His translations were published in Nigar, Saqi and Urdu. They were later collectively published as Payam-i-Shabab. At Aligarh, he met and befriended the poets Majaz and Saghar Nizami. He was mentored by Professors Muhammad Habib and Rashid Ahmad Siddiqui. In this period, he also went to Benares and passed the prestigious Sahitya Alankar examination for Sanskrit. In Benares, he stayed with Munshi Premchand.