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WHO was Urdu’s first essay writer? This may be a tricky question.

Dr Jameel Jalibi thinks it was Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. In his Tareekh-i-adab-i-Urdu, or history of Urdu literature, Dr Jalibi has mentioned Sir Syed as “pioneer of the genre essay writing in Urdu literature” (vol. 4, page 874).

But in the same book Dr Jalibi admits that “when Sir Syed began writing essays, he benefited from the works that had been published before”, which simply means essay writing did exist in Urdu before Sir Syed. Dr Jalibi then names a few magazines and newspapers which Sir Syed must have had before him while writing essays. And, according to Jalibi, such periodicals include Urdu’s first newspaper Jam-i-jahan numa (1822) published from Calcutta, Urdu Akhbar (1837) published from Delhi, Syed-ul-akhbar published by Sir Syed’s brother Syed Muhammad, Master Ram­chandr’s newspaper Fava­aid-un-nazireen (1835) and Master Ramchandr’s magazine Khair khwah-i-Hind (1827), which was later renamed Muhib-be-Hind (vol. 4 , page 877).

In the same vein Dr Jalibi writes that “Master Ramchandr was Sir Syed’s predecessor in many senses”. What is missing, however, from this great work of Jalibi Sahib’s is an account of Master Ramchandr and his efforts for introducing the genre of essay in Urdu. In fact, Dr Jalibi has written merely a few lines on Master Ramchandr and Delhi College. Though it does not affect much the importance and greatness of his work, it would have made his book even more worthy had he taken into account the role that Master Ramchandr and Delhi College played in the development of Urdu prose and Urdu essay writing.

Master Pyare Lal Ashob (1834-1917) was another teacher at Delhi College whose contribution towards Urdu literature and essay writing has largely been ignored. Jalibi Sahib has not written much about him either in his four-volume history of Urdu literature. It is a fact that Master Ramchandr was the pioneer of Urdu essay writing and no matter how rudimentary his early essays were and no matter how they lacked the literary touch — which Sir Syed later introduced in his Urdu essays — Master Ramchandr’s role as the pioneer of Urdu essay writing cannot be overlooked.

This issue of Urdu’s earliest essays has been promptly and skilfully tackled by Prof Dr Tanzeem-ul-Firdous in the intro to the book that she has edited. In the book titled Mazameen-i-Sir Syed Ahmed Khan: intikhaab, she says that “as for the beginning of essay writing in Urdu, it was Qiraan-us-sa’adain, an Urdu magazine issued from Delhi College in 1845, that first began publishing Urdu essays. Despite their rudimentary nature, the historical and academic status of these essays is recognised”.

Dr Tanzeem-ul-Firdous posits that it was this early stage of Urdu essays that determines the basic ingredients and characteristics of Urdu essays. She agrees that Urdu essays written before Sir Syed were mostly focussed on scientific and historic issues and they were basically pedagogic in nature. So it was Sir Syed who gave an impersonal and intellectual touch to Urdu essay writing and raised it to the level of literary art as well as using it to reform the nation, keeping in line with some of the great essayists of English, such as Richard Steele and Joseph Addison. But at the same time she takes into account the early efforts put in by Master Ramchandr, giving him the credit that he truly deserves, saying that it was Master Ramchandr’s magazine Favaaid-un-nazireen that first began publishing Urdu essays.

Published by Oxford University Press Pakistan, the book is a selection from Urdu essays by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. It consists of 35 articles on various topics. The book is divided into sections according to the topics of the essays. Some of these topics are: language and literature, etiquettes and manners, morals, culture and civilisation, education and pedagogy, philosophy and Tehzeeb-ul-akhlaaq, a magazine launched by Sir Syed which was so dear to him.

A succinct intro by Dr Firdous describing the outlines of Sir Syed’s biography and his literary works as well as the prominent features of his essay writing shows her vast reading as well as her ability to grasp ideas and see them in proper perspective. Dr Tanzeem-ul-Firdous teaches Urdu at Karachi University and has a number of creative, research and critical works to her credit.

Since Sir Syed Ahmed Khan is an integral part of curricula at our educational institutes, the book definitely caters to the need of certain students who look for the definitive version of Sir Syed’s selected articles with an authentic intro.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was born on Oct 17, 1817. He died on March 27, 1898.

drraufparekh@yahoo.com

Published in Dawn, October 16th, 2018