THE term ‘prison literature’ refers to the literature, fiction or otherwise, created during confinement. There is a long list of works that were conceived and written in prison and recognised as literary masterpieces. For instance, Boethius, a Roman philosopher, was imprisoned by Theodoric the Great on the charges of treachery. Before being executed, Boethius penned ‘The Consolations of Philosophy’, a great work consisting of five books that influenced the world for about nine centuries after his death.
Marco Polo narrated his incredible adventures to a fellow prisoner who noted them down and the word spread, so did the real interest towards China in Europe. When Cervantes, the famous Spanish novelist, was arrested after being accused of fraud as tax official, he began writing his famous work ‘Don Quixote’. It was an instant hit when its first part appeared in 1605. Sir Walter Scot Raleigh wrote his ‘History of the World’ while serving an 11-year imprisonment in the Tower of London.
John Bunyan, arrested in 1660 for “unlicensed preaching”, wrote his autobiography in the prison. When arrested again in 1675, Bunyan penned his famous work ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’. As a result of a law suit that went awry, Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years’ of imprisonment. He wrote ‘De profundis’ in prison, which is considered a remarkable work. These are a few of a large number of masterpieces written in prison.
Examples abound in the literatures of the other languages such as French, Russian, Arabic and Persian.
In Urdu literature, too, we come across many works which were created while the author was in confinement. We can begin with Ghalib, who was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment on the charges of running a gambling den in 1847, though was released after serving three months in prison. During the imprisonment, Ghalib composed a Persian poem consisting of 84 couplets, wrote Ghulam Rasool Mehr. Ghalib had omposed at least one Urdu couplet in prison, which has been quoted by the researchers.
The last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was arrested in 1857 and imprisoned in Rangoon for leading a “rebellion against British” (read: trying to save his country and people from foreign occupying forces). Zafar was a poet in his own right and it is believed that he wrote poetry in prison. Though we cannot say for sure which couplets were composed in confinement, his certain ghazals have a tinge of melancholy with allusions to prison and confinement. Allama Fazl-i-Haq Khairabadi was sent to Andaman Islands for writing a fatwa that favoured a jihad against the British. In prison he wrote in Arabic ‘Saurat-ul-Hindiya’, a history of the 1857 war of freedom. Later, Abdush Shahid Khan Shervani translated it into Urdu and published it titled ‘Baaghi Hindustan’.
The prisoners at Andaman Island included Jafer Thanesari who began writing ‘Nasaeh-i-Jafri’ but its manuscript was confiscated by the authorities. Later, while in prison, he wrote two books: first was an Urdu translation of the constitution of Port Blair (originally written in English by Port Blair’s British deputy commissioner) and the other was ‘Taareekh-i-Port Blair’ alias ‘Taareekh-i-Ajeeb’. His famous autobiography ‘Kaala Paani’ is in fact a sequel to ‘Taareekh-i-Ajeeb’.
Hasrat Mohani was sentenced to two years’ of hard labour in 1908 for his article criticising the Egypt policy of the British. During the imprisonment he composed many ghazals and poems which are part of his collected poetic works. In 1921, Maulan Muhammad Ali Jauher was arrested for making “a rebellious speech” at Karachi. A poet as well as a politician and journalist, in prison he not only composed poetry but wrote his autobiography ‘My life: a fragment’. In the wake of Jauher’s arrest, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was also arrested for supporting Jauher’s point of view and was sent to the Alipur jail (Culcutta). Abdur Razzaq Maleehababdi, editor of ‘Azad Hind’, Culcutta, was confined along with Maulana Azad. On his insistence, Azad dictated his autobiography, which was later published as ‘Abul Kalam ki kahani khud un ki zbanai’.
In 1942, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was again arrested for participating in ‘Quit India Movement’. This time round he was imprisoned in the Ahmed Nagar prison, where he wrote his famous letters addressed to Habib-ur-Rahman Khan Shervani. These letters were published as ‘Ghubaar-i-Khaatir’ and ‘Karavan-i-Khayal’. Some portions of Abul Kalam’s commentary on the Quran, ‘Tarjuman-ul-Quran’, too, are believed to be penned in prison.
Chaudhry Afzal Haq was a leader of Majlis-i-Ahraar. He wrote his well-received book ‘Zindagi’ in prison. His other well-known work ‘Mahboob-i-Khuda’, a life of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), too, was written in Multan and Rawalpindi jails. Many of Zafar Ali Khan’s poems were composed in prison since he was sent to jail by the British several times. His collection of poetry ‘Habsiyaat’, was composed entirely in jail.
A major portion of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s ‘Dast-i-Saba’ was written in jail. His third collection of poetry ‘Zindan Nama’ was entirely a product of confinement. Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, Habib Jalib, Ali Sardar Jafri and Naeem Siddiqi also composed many of their poems while in prison. A large number of letters written in imprisonment by writers and poets too have been reproduced.
It is a pity that very little research work has been done on Urdu’s prison literature. Our university teachers and research students are busy writing so-called research papers and useless, voluminous dissertations on third-rate poets and living personalities presumed to be “legends” while important issues are neglected or even laughed at. Abdul Majeed Qureshi in his book ‘Kitaben hain chaman apna’ (Hamdard, 1992) had included a very interesting article of his on Urdu’s prison literature (I have benefited greatly from the book in writing this piece). Faheem Ansari, a journalist and writer, had compiled and published a slim volume titled ‘Mouzooaati Shaeri: Qaid-o-Band’ some 20 years ago. Apart from these works, very little has been written on Urdu literature produced in prison.
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