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FICTION: The progressive from Panipat

June 16, 2012

THE city of Panipat in Haryana, India (50-odd miles north of Delhi) is synonymous with history. In fact, in a manner of speaking, it is history unto itself. Why? Well, for starters the three blood-drenched battles that were fought on its soil can never be erased from the annals of history. The first clash between Babur and Ibrahim Lodhi marked the beginning of the unforgettable or memorable (take your pick) Mughal rule in India. But that’s not all. Panipat is referred to in a local holy scripture and is also the land where Sufi saints Bu Ali Shah Qalandar and Makhdoom Jalaluddin Kabirul Auliya’s shrines are located. Add to this eclectic mix that eminent poet Khwaja Altaf Husain Hali, the veritable disciple of the genius by the name of Asadullah Khan Ghalib.

Hali’s contribution to Urdu literature, both in the realms of poetry and criticism, is invaluable. His grandson, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas’s literary accomplishments are no less important. Unfortunately, K. A. Abbas is one of the under-discussed 20th century men of letters. In fact, his multifaceted achievements can easily outshine many of his contemporaries’ over-trumpeted one-dimensional talents. He was a novelist, a bilingual (he wrote and spoke typical Hindustani Urdu and English) short story writer, a journalist, a screenplay writer, a filmmaker and an unwavering believer in the progressive cause. Whoever came up with the word ‘multitasking’ must have known the incomparable man.

It was such a delight going through An Evening in Lucknow, edited by Suresh Kohli. The book is a selection of Khwaja Ahmed Abbas’s short stories, interviews and a letter to him written by Mulk Raj Anand in January, 1947. The collection is helpful for those who are familiar with his work and useful for those who do not know a great deal about him. This means that it’s a must-read.

The emphasis on must-read is tenable as the collection starts with perhaps the most celebrated story penned by Abbas, “The Sparrows”.

There’s a reason why the publishers and the editor of the book have placed it as the curtain-raiser, as it were, to the writer’s storytelling gift.

It tells the tale of a peevish person, always cribbing about something or the other, who discovers affection for a little sparrow. As a result he starts viewing life from a different perspective.

My personal favourite, though, is “Flowers at Her Feet”. Given that Khwaja sahib worked in and for the Indian film industry (he is the one who introduced Amitabh Bachchan as an actor in the movie Saat Hindustani) he knew the business and those associated with it inside-out.

The tale moves like a film, in short but meaningful bursts. It pivots around a dancing girl who has many admirers and, as it often happens, suffers a heart-wrenching setback in life. The reader can sense what the writer feels for his protagonist. There’s an element of compassion (perhaps love too) that stands out in the way he narrates the story.

The piece “An Evening in Lucknow” is about the writer’s time spent in the city of Lucknow with an alcoholic son of a “compensated taluqdar of Oudh”. It is in this tale that his writing prowess truly come to the fore. Those who say that K. A. Abbas’s writings have an old-fashioned air about them are wrong. If his stories have the early 20th century feel to them, what is wrong with that? That was the era he was living in. He was portraying the realities of his time, using the narrative in vogue.

The most insightful part in the book, though, is an interview of the author conducted by Indian Literary Review. During the conversation, Abbas discusses many subjects pertaining to his professional and ideological growth, in particular, and to society, in general. In the beginning the interviewer asks him whether journalism should be dropped before it starts using up the juices needed for creative writing.

To this Khwaja sahib replies, “Good journalism is literature and bad literature is journalism.”

On the topic of the Communist Party’s domination over the Progressive Writers’ Movement and the movement’s position in the communal riots of 1947, Khwaja sahib says, “The progressive writers played a very significant role in the communal riots in reestablishing the values of humanity and sanity among the Indian people. I think Krishan Chander’s collection of stories — Hum Vahshi Hain — and to a certain extent my own stories, “Main Kaun Hoon” and “Saradarji” did have some sobering influence on people at that time. So the Progressive Writers’ stand on the communal riots was not wrong, but their subservience to the communists was wrong.”

It is extraordinary how a book’s essential themes remain the same, whether you are reading the stories, the writer’s interview or a letter written to him by Mulk Raj Anand. This goes to show that Khwaja Ahmed Abbas never shied away from the cause he believed in till he breathed his last in 1987.

The reviewer is a Dawn staffer

An Evening in Lucknow (ANTHOLOGY) By Khwaja Ahmad Abbas Edited by Suresh Kohli Harper Collins, India ISBN 978- 9350291029 296pp. $25.95