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THE long History of Urdu humour — beginning with Jafer Zatalli (1658-1713) in the seventeenth century — is replete with examples where humorists have recorded the colours of the times in their writings, reflecting the social, cultural and political milieu. Mirza Farhatullah Baig (1883-1947) was among the humorists of Urdu who did so, perhaps, consciously, for his writings have more signs of the times than many others.

Farhatullah Baig is known for his accurate and vivid accounts of things past. In fact, few can outdo him in this realm. Whether it is the time passed by or the people passed away, be it the atmosphere that was or the past events that he tends to relish recounting, his pen draws delectable but inimitable pictures. His keen eye for minute details makes these pictures come alive. Farhat’s another forte is language. His chaste Urdu, which comes with a natural tinge of Delhi’s idiom, is not pompous at all and serves as a lesson in itself for the writers of today on how to write simple yet beautiful Urdu prose. This lovely flowing prose peppered with a pinch of humour makes Farhatullah Baig a joy to read even today.

Farhat’s humour is not the one that would make you laugh out loudly, though it will often bring a smile. Sometimes you will even grin. And this comes in handy when he draws pen-sketches of some well-known figures such as Nazeer Ahmed (1830-1912), a scholar of Arabic and Islamic learning and a renowned novelist of Urdu. In fact, Farhat is one of the writers who helped establish the genre of pen-sketches in Urdu. His sketch of Nazeer Ahmed, titled Nazeer Ahmed ki kahani kuchh meri kuchh un ki zabani, is an unforgettable one. But it is not only a sketch: it captures the spirit of the times, too. Some of Farhat’s other writings valued for the same reason are 1261 hijri mein Dehli ka aik mushaera, Bahadur Shah aur phool walon ki sair and Nai Dehli. In these articles and some other writings, Farhat intentionally tried to preserve Delhi’s vanishing culture: its glorious past, its historical buildings, decadent yet persistently royal ways, values, mores, customs, dresses, mannerism, country fairs, poets, prostitutes, eccentric personalities and interesting figures. You can see and hear the old Delhi breathing in his writings.

His sketch of Nazeer Ahmed’s had much opportunity for Farhat to flavour it with humour with his witty comments and a few amusing anecdotes since Nazeer Ahmed himself was an interesting figure. But pieces like Phool walon ki sair and Dehli ka mushaera did not offer much of a chance to jest and despite being without Farhat’s usual whiff of humour these articles have been rendered truly memorable purely through Farhat’s style, idiomatic expressions and vivid images with minute details. They capture a peculiar culture at a peculiar moment in history.

Nai Dehli is an article that not only depicts Delhi, its sights and cultural values but also mourns Delhi’s fall from the grace. In this article, a character, aptly and suggestively named Mirza Chhakra (in Urdu chhakra means an old, creaky vehicle) describes the difference between the old Delhi and the new one, sarcastically commenting on the changing norms and the deteriorating values.

“Dilli to boht din hooe jannat ko sidhari. Ab ye Dilli thori hai, ye to Lahore ki amman hai” (It’s been so long since Delhi departed for its heavenly abode. It’s not Delhi, it is Lahore’s mom). In this article, he describes Chaaori (Delhi’s red-light district) as Delhi’s heart that has gone wrong. According to Mirza Chhakra, prostitutes were the picture-perfect samples of Delhi’s culture. They were the ones who made you know what the manners and etiquettes were and the clinics of ‘hakeems’ (the practitioners of traditional medicine) were the places where you learnt who was upholding the language.

Though in Farhatullah Baig’s times, the movement for independence from the British had got momentum and writers were generally advocating British ouster from the sub-continent, Farhat’s views are much different. His opinion about Congress and Non-Cooperation Movement may not be termed as nationalist. In fact, his views on freedom movements and the states with new-found national independence seem quite misplaced, especially in his two-part article Azad nigaristan aur dada jaan (the independent nigger-land and the grandpa). But then was he too wrong? In this piece, though written in a tongue-in cheek style, Farhat says that even if we were freed, our parliament would be filled with uneducated idiots and our ministers would be involved in graft. But nowhere has he said it in a direct way and it all is between the lines.

Oxford University Press has recently published the works of Farhatullah Baig in five volumes under the series ‘modern Urdu classic’. Titled Majmooa Farhatullah Baig, the work includes the entire text of Farhat’s essays published in several volumes and known as Mazameen-i-Farhat. The series editor Ajmal Kamal in his intro has rightly mentioned that Farhatullah Baig had had the exposure to both the traditional education system and the modern one. He was born in Delhi at a time when about a quarter of a century had elapsed since the 1857 freedom war took place and died just before the independence. His generation was the one that acquired its social, political and cultural norms from the older generation deeply seeded in the sub-continental values. But his generation’s mental outlook and lifestyle had been altered a lot by the fast changing environment. As Ajmal Kamal has put it: “Just like the other persons of his generation and class, Farhatullah Baig is seen standing at a point where the old world and the new world confluence. He sees the fading marks of the old world disappear right before his eyes and the phenomenon of the new world is part of his own life experiences”. This unique experience enabled Farhat to capture the things past with all their glory, though with a saddening tone that he tries to disguise under the garb of humour.