A Courtyard without Birds
Where have all the Hindi writers gone, buried in which page of Page 3?
Panini Anand Delhi
A friend called from Varanasi. We spoke of all kinds of things, all the gossip of the world. Quietly, I slipped in: "Shaharyar is dead."
He said, "Dead yaar, who?" I repeated, quietly: "Shaharyar. Remember that song from Gaman – Sinein mein jalan, aankhon mein toofan sa kyon hain..."
"Oh yes," he said, "but what's the big deal yaar? Now I know that this song was written by him. Who cares..."
We live in a kind of cold-blooded society of abject ignorance which refuses to recognize its own greatness, its own great literature or original writers. It's not simply the cocky illiteracy about Shaharyar or Adam Gondvi, the great poet of the common man who died recently in stunning quietness and invisibility, like so many other progressive writers and poets. The sad truth is that great poets like Majaaz, Dhumil and Muktibodh have been so decisively buried; their history seems to be completely absent from the dominant history in our libraries, classrooms or textbooks. Indeed, our own stories, poems and litterateurs are rapidly vanishing from 'our' social and cultural consciousness. This we, our, or us, is basically the numerical majority. They call the shots in this universal legitimacy of the tyranny of mediocrity.
Look at this scenario: modest, humble homes of people gradually turn into gigantic, garish structures. Courtyards become concrete. More fancy rooms have been added to these 'homes', but the birds, trees and flowers have disappeared from the open-to-sky courtyard. The crows have fled away from the electric wires of towns and cities. The vultures too have vanished, as if forcibly exiled from the country. Quite similar is the fate of regional literature in India.
It is fast disappearing from homes, public and private spaces. It is nowhere to be seen in public functions. They don't recite poems in schools anymore; children rather dance a ditto copy cat rendition of Sheila ki jawani or Munni badnaam hui and parents are so proud of them! The literary instinct has been purged inside the mind and the soul of humanity. We live in a
society where aesthetics is rotting and dying, there is no respect for
sensibility or sensitivity. It's becoming a robotic society with limited intelligence or feelings – manipulated by controlled programming.
So should we blame this death and dying of sensibility to the 'innocent reader', bury the ashes, and dismantle the pen on paper as last funeral rituals? The murder of literatures in our mother tongues, dialects, or regional languages has been meticulous and systemic. Even in the capital of India which boasts of Hindi akademis, libraries, university departments and a galaxy of writers who have made themselves big by self-praise and self-promotion, if you decide to look for legendary literary creations in Hindi or Urdu, you might face a tragic blank. If you stand in the middle of Connaught Place (CP) and decide to look for a book on Moscow by Rahul Sankrityayan, or what Nirala wrote while travelling from Allahabad to Kalakankar (that heart-rending, epical poem, Woh todti paththar...), or the writings of Rangey Raghav, Baba Nagarjun, Agya or Mahadevi Verma, you will find another predictable blank. If you want to dig out the fierce rhyme of resistance in Gorakh Pandey's songs, or the poems of Trilochan; or if you want to murmur the songs of Girish Tewadi, or rediscover what rebel geniuses Faiz or Habib Jalib were writing in Pakistan; if you want to locate selected writings on Adam Gondvi, the volumes of Muktibodh and Shamsher... it will definitely turn out to be a blind search. In this city of the rich, successful and upwardly mobile you will not find the immortal writings of even one great regional writer; you are condemned. Instead, on every next turn in the CP inner circle or inside book stores you will find only Chetan Bhagat, Shiv Khera or Shobha De etc.
The sad truth is that great poets like Majaaz, Dhumil and Muktibodh have been buried; their history seems to be absent from the dominant history in our libraries, classrooms or textbooks
There used to be one little shop in the theatre hub of Sriram Centre in Mandi House in Delhi which defied this crass logic and celebrated the finest in Hindi, Urdu and world literature. This was like a beautiful refuge, a shelter to cherish, a liberating hole in the wall, a little space of radical imagination, where writers, poets, filmmakers, theatrepersons and students would gather and uplift their senses. But then, this shop too was one day shut by the marauding forces of the neoliberal market which hates such spaces of revelations and creative thinking.
Now you will only get good books in the 'temples' of Hindi publishers in Ansari Road in Old Delhi. You can get to see some rare books among rare Hindi literature students in JNU or Delhi University, in the homes of their professors, or in the dust-laden ancient almirahs of an akademi library. These 'intellectual' spots are much too distant from the ordinary reader. Hindi books and literary journals are rarely seen in book stalls or news-stands. This city suddenly remembers 'people's writers' only when they are dead, or if it is their birth centenary; the obit or condolence meeting becomes a collective release from guilt.
Poets have literally vanished from the annual 'kavi sammelans' (poets' conference), instead, you have influential chief guests or politicians as patrons. Similar is the fate of mushairas (Urdu poetry meets). Poetry lovers are not invited with the names of Wasim Barelvi or Munnavar Rana; instead, Bollywood celebrities like Gulzar and Javed Akhtar are showcased – their biggest contribution to literature being that they have written every song or ghazal only for big money. Besides, their words or feelings have never touched the hard struggles on the margins.
So, what happened? Why did language literature and the litterateurs, swept by the addictive storm of money and market, get so terribly estranged from his reader? He should have stood firm against these addictions, narrating the angst and anger of the people. He
should have given resilience and courage to the people.
Indeed, the state of contemporary Hindi and Urdu, when compared to other languages in India, is pathetic. Look at the scenario two decades back. Colleges would invite books by writers. Small or big, libraries were treated as precious spaces. Those which still exist are only visited by lazy, indifferent, bored to hell staffers. Here, you can find many ornamental hard bound volumes of 'sarkari writers' which no one reads. Earlier, the 'home library' campaign saw publishers reaching out to readers. All these imaginative policies were dumped, while most Hindi institutions celebrate moronic rituals, dumping all standards of excellence or brilliance.
There was a time when the thinking publisher was intrinsically and emotionally linked with readers. He used to labour hard to creatively reach the readers. Now publishers don't work. They just want to earn easy money. That is why their gaze has shifted from the reader to easy hard bound bulk deals. The focus has shifted from paperback to hardback. Instead of people's struggles, difficult social and political questions, original flights of imagination, and the complexities of life journeys, the focus has shifted to food and lifestyle, fashion, vastushastra, astrology, how to become successful, how to improve your personality, ten ways to be rich, the simple guide to lose weight etc. Check out the sales figures in the book fairs. Most of the garbage which is sold falls in the above category. Clearly, the publisher who refuses a brilliant, unknown poet's work, will quickly jump on to the bandwagon of vastushastra, food and lifestyle.
Poetry lovers are not invited with the names of Wasim Barelvi or Munnavar Rana; instead, Bollywood celebrities like Gulzar and Javed Akhtar are showcased – their biggest contribution to literature being that they have written every song only for big money
More so, writers and poets have stopped the discourse with their audience. There was a time, be it Rahul Sankrityayan, Nagarjun, Nirala or Hazari Babu, when writers would know at least three Indian languages (Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu, Persian, Bangla etc). They would also be deeply curious and aware about world literature. It is impossible to conceive a similar context or content among most Hindi litterateurs these days.
Most progressive writers try to run away from the ground realities of people's struggles, except the rare few. Factionalism has uncannily impacted their creative realms, dulled their instincts of rebellion and resilience. Great translators of world or regional literature have become a rare species. Those who are around, the publishers refuse to give them a legitimate amount for their hard labour and talent. That is why the typical translator is doing all kind of trashy work.
In these turbulent and pessimistic times, the writer has the responsibility to show a mirror to the world. The cracked mirror. Poetry should give voices to choked people, create waves of romantic and radical optimism, break the barricades, erect new scaffoldings. Where is the novel which can tell us the epical truth of the times, without fear, compromise or restraint?
This is a deliberate, organized conspiracy. Great literature has been snatched away from the earnest, sensitive reader. The reader has been decisively alienated from his language, village, grassroots, labour, symbols, culture and aesthetics. Isn't it ironical that in a contemporary world where we read, look and hear so much more, our content and rootedness have been so brutally uprooted? They won't agree with Arundhati Roy, or read her essays, but Chetan Bhagat becomes the greatest writer of this generation of urban youth and the Jaipur lit fest becomes the biggest literary show in South Asia!
Outside the Booker and the Nobel, this generation cares two hoots about any other literary award. Ask them about IPTA or Progressive Writers' Association – the finest Indian writers, musicians and filmmakers who brought their epical genius inside our homes, in public spaces – they would draw a blank. But ask them about Suhel Seth, Barkha Dutt, Shashi Tharoor: their eyes shine.
We are in that crossroad of history where literature has become a Page 3 phenomenon, a circus run by fat cats with sundry celebrities thrown in for vicarious entertainment: "It was great fun there, you know. Kabir singing, Yana's slim-shim new book, artists for peace, gorgeous Paki sufi singers, yumm Thai food and booze next to the swimming pool, sexy discussions, and, oh yes, sooooooo many books. Jaipur was rocking. Antique city, antique venue, antique furniture, antique handicraft. Delicious!"
Carnivals and festivals are integral to our culture. We love them. But these carnivals are different from these artificial, manufactured junkets backed by dubious multinationals and big business, celebrated by a corporate media, sponsored by the likes of Bank of America and notorious mining outfits like Rio Tinto. These seductions are what they are: diabolical, dirty, dubious. It's time progressive writers of Indian languages should decide whether they are dead or alive. Is it all over when it comes to the creative impulse? Will they please stand up?
Writers will now have to redefine their relationships with their sensitive readers, forge new fronts of imaginative resistance, redefine a creative paradigm shift. They should reject farces like Jaipur, reject big money, pomp and show, and create radical, meaningful, luminescent carnivals of ideas, nuances, stories and novels, literary criticism, poetry, folk, oral traditions, dialects, dialectics, struggles, everyday life, beauty, resistance and optimism, outside the crass logic of fame and success.
So why not start with Delhi? The city has so many progressive luminaries and institutions. I ask them, why not begin anew, make another Naya Daur? A new cinema of great literature. Why not?
Panini Anand is an independent writer, radio journalist and editor at www.pratirodh.com