Categories
Editorial

Making a Grecian Urn

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”  
  
John Keats (1795-1821), Ode to a Grecian Urn
‘Beauty is Truth’ : The Potato Eaters(1885) by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). Courtesy: Creative Commons

What makes for great literature? To me, great literature states the truth — the truth that touches your heart with its poignancy, preciseness, sadness, gentleness, vibrancy, or humour.  If Khayyam, Rumi, Keats, Tagore, Frost or Whitman had no truths to state, their poetry would have failed to mesmerise time and woo readers across ages. Their truths – which can be seen as eternal ones — touch all human hearts with empathetic beauty. Lalon Fakir rose from an uneducated illiterate mendicant to a poet because he had the courage to sing the truth about mankind — to put social norms and barriers aside and versify his truth, which was ours and still is. This can be applied to all genres. Short stories by Saki, O’ Henry or plays and essays by Bernard Shaw — what typifies them? The truth they speak with perhaps a sprinkle of humour. Alan Paton spoke the truth about violence and its arbitrariness while writing of South Africa — made the characters so empathetic that Cry, My Beloved Country (1948) is to me one of the best fictions describing divides in the world, and the same divides persist today. The truth is eternal as in George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) or Suskind’s Perfume (1985). We love laughter from Gerald Durrell or PG Wodehouse too because they reflect larger truths that touch mankind as does the sentimentality of Dickens or the poignancy of Hardy or the societal questioning of the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, and Jane Austen. The list of greats in this tradition would be a very long one.

 Our focus this time is on a fearless essayist in a similar tradition, one who unveiled truths rising above the mundane, lacing them with humour to make them easily digestible for laymen – a writer and a polyglot who knew fourteen languages by the name of Syed Mujtaba Ali (1904-1974). He was Tagore’s student, a Humboldt scholar who lived across six countries, including Afghanistan and spoke of the things he saw around him. Cherished as a celebrated writer among Bengali readers, he wrote for journals and published more than two dozen books that remained untranslated because his witticisms were so entrenched by cultural traditions that no translator dared pick up their pen. Many decades down the line, while in Afghanistan, a BBC editor for South and Central Asia, Nazes Afroz, translated bits of Mujtaba Ali’s non-fiction for his curious friends till he had completed the whole of the travelogue.

The translation named In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan was published and nominated for the Crossword Awards. This month, we not only run an excerpt from the translated essays but also have an interview with the former BBC journalist, Afroz, who tells us not only about the book but also of the current situation in ravaged Afghanistan based on his own first-hand experiences. Nazes himself has travelled to forty countries, much like our other interviewee, Sybil Pretious, who has travelled to forty and lived in six. She had been writing for us till she left to complete her memoirs — which would cover much of history from currently non-existent country Rhodesia to apartheid and the first democratic election in South Africa. These would be valuable records shared with the world from a personal account of a pacifist who loves humanity.

We have more on travel — an essay by Tagore describing with wry humour vacations in company of his niece and nephew and letters written by the maestro during his trips, some laced with hilarity and the more serious ones excerpted from Kobi and Rani, all translated by Somdatta Mandal. We have also indulged our taste for Tagore’s poetry by translating a song heralding the start of the Durga Puja season. Durga Puja is an autumnal festival celebrated in India. An essay by Meenakshi Malhotra explains the songs of homecoming during this festival. It is interesting that the songs express the mother’s views as highlighted by Malhotra, but one notices, never that of the Goddess, who, mythology has it, gave up her life when the husband of her own choosing, Shiva, was perceived by her family as ‘uncouth’ and was insulted in her parent’s home.

In spirit of this festival highlighting women power and on the other hand her role in society, we have a review by Somdatta of T. Janakiraman’s Wooden Cow, translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Kannan, where the protagonist upends all traditional values ascribed to women. Another book which is flavourful with food and would be a real fit on every festive occasion is Mohana Kanjilal’s A Taste of Time: A Food History of Calcutta. Bhaskar Parichha tells us in his review, “In the thriving universe of Indian food books, this clearly stands out.”

Aruna Chakravarti’s review of Shazia Omar’s Golden Bangladesh at Fifty also stands out embracing the colours of Bengal. It traces the title back to history and their national anthem — a Tagore song called ‘Amaar Sonar Bangla – My Golden Bengal’. Gracy Samjetsabam’s review of Suzanne Kamata’s The Baseball Widow, a cross cultural novel with an unusual ending that shuttles between America and Japan, winds up our review section this time.

As Kamata’s book travels across two continents in a pre-covid world, Sunil Sharma in reality moved home from one continent to another crossing multiple national borders during the pandemic. He has written an eye-opening account of his move along with his amazing short story on Gandhi. Another unusual story creating a new legend with wonderful photographs and the narrative woven around them can be relished in Nature’s Musings by Penny Wilkes. This time we have fiction from India, Malaysia, Bangladesh and America. Steve Davidson has given a story based partly on Tibetan lore and has said much in a light-hearted fashion, especially as the Llama resumes his travels at the end of the story. Keeping in step with light humour and travel is Devraj Singh Kalsi’s account of a pony ride up a hill, except it made me laugh more.

The tone of Rhys Hughes cogitations about the identity of two poets across borders in ‘Pessoa and Cavafy: What’s in a Name?’ reminds me of Puck  or Narada! Of course, he has given humour in verses with a funny story poem which again — I am not quite sure — has a Welsh king who resisted Roman invasion or is it someone else? Michael Burch has limericks on animals, along with his moving poem on Martin Luther King Junior. We have much poetry crossing borders, including a translation of Akbar Barakzai’s fabulous Balochi poetry by Fazal Baloch and Sahitya Akademi winning Manipuri poet, Thangjam Ibopishak, translated by Robin S Ngangom. A Nazrul song which quests for a spiritual home has been translated from Bengali by no less than Professor Fakrul Alam, a winner of both the SAARC award and Bangla Academy Literary Award.

Former Arts Editor of Times of India, Ratnottama Sengupta, has shared an essay on how kantha (hand embroidered rug) became a tool to pass on information during the struggle against colonial occupation. The piece reminded me of the narrative of passing messages through mooncakes among Chinese. During the fourteenth century, the filling was of messages to organise a rebellion which replaced the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) with the Ming (1368-1644). Now the filling is delicious lotus paste, chocolates or other edible delicacies. Women were heavily involved in all these movements. Sameer Arshad Khatlani has highlighted how women writers of the early twentieth century writing in Urdu, like Ismat Chughtai, created revolutionary literature and inspired even legendary writers, like Simone de Beauvoir. There is much more in our content — not all of which has been discussed here for again this time we have spilled over to near fifty pieces.

We have another delightful surprise for our readers – a cover photo of a painting by Sohana Manzoor depicting the season titled ‘Ode to Autumn’. Do pause by and take a look at this month’s issue. We thank our writers and readers for their continued support. And I would personally like to give a huge thanks to the team which makes it possible for me to put these delectable offerings before the world. Thank you all.

Wish you a wonderful month full of festivities!

Mitali Chakravarty,

Borderless Journal

Categories
Essay

How Women’s Education Flourished in Aligarh Muslim University

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

When iconic Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai (August 21, 1915-October 24, 1991) wrote ‘Lihaaf’ (quilt) and made waves by portraying alternative sex in 1941, second-wave feminism was still around two decades away. Her feminist subversion of patriarchy with the portrayal of a woman’s conditioning vis-à-vis her body had no parallels in the West then. ‘Lihaaf’ predated Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex by five years. Chughtai’s journey to becoming South Asia’s top feminist writers began in Aligarh where she had her literary grounding at a school affiliated with the prestigious Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). The school was upgraded to a college in 1937, nineteen years before Delhi’s premier Lady Shri Ram College was founded and when the literacy rate among women was just three per cent in India.

The AMU Women’s College was the labour of love and realisation of the dream of its founders, Sheikh Abdullah and his wife, Wahid Jahan, of educating and empowering women in a dusty inland town while western education had just begun to flourish in far off coastal centers. It was not an easy task for them. Both Hindus and Muslims opposed Abdullah’s movement to educate women, fearing it would lead to ‘immorality’. Many years later, he told the students of the college with a sense of triumph and pride: “When, after innumerable odds, we came out of the darkness, it was found that education had the same bright effect on them as silver polish has on pots and pans. Educated girls have illuminated our society.”

The movement for educating women in Aligarh started during the lifetime of AMU founder Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, who, in celebrated historian Ramachandra Guha’s words, ‘propagated liberal values and rational outlook to oppose blind adherence to traditional values’. As a result, the Muslim Educational Conference formed a separate department for women’s education in 1898. It promoted the idea through Aligarh Institute Gazette. Abdullah, who was close to Khan, was appointed to look into the women’s educational project in December 1902. A special ‘Aligarh Monthly’ issue was published in November 1903 for the purpose. Abdullah, who was educated at AMU after migrating from Poonch in Jammu and Kashmir, later started a dedicated journal Khatoon (woman) for the promotion of women’s education in 1904. He simultaneously founded Female Education Association in 1904 to promote his cause and provide support to institutions working for it. Abdullah got a shot in the arm when Bhopal’s ruler, Begum Sultan Jahan, offered him a grant. Thus Aligarh Girls School took off with five students and a teacher on October 19, 1906. Science and social science were part of the initial syllabus.

The school was the first for Muslim girls in north India, where Abdullah’s daughter Rashid Jahan honed her rebellious streak. Rashid was trained as a doctor, who chose a radical path of a communist and a rebel. She went on to study at Lucknow’s Isabella Thoburn College after her schooling in Aligarh. Rashid was among the first Muslim women to be trained as a doctor at Delhi’s Lady Hardinge Medical College.  She was a woman ahead of her times — both in personal life and the literature she produced.  Rashid was unusual in the choice of her profession of a gynaecologist, her dress — a khaddar sari with sleeveless blouse — and style — short hair. She travelled to far-off places to treat the needy and the poor. All this was rare for any woman of her generation particularly in Uttar Pradesh in the first half of the 20th century before independence.

Rashid was one of the four authors of a polemical collection of stories, Angaarey (embers), which provoked outrage in 1932 with its attack on religious conservatism and British colonialism. The collection was banned in March 1933. But it led to the formation of the Progressive Writers’ Association, which attracted the likes of Kaifi Azmi, Ali Sardar Jafri, and Chughtai and revolutionised Urdu literature. Rashid wrote about female bodies with the exactness that only a doctor with intricate knowledge of human anatomy would.  She attacked purdah, patriarchy, and misogyny. Rashid influenced Faiz Ahmed Faiz with Marxist ideas along with her husband Mahmuduzzafar, while the latter was Amritsar’s Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College principal while the poet taught English there.

Besides Faiz, Rashid influenced successive generations of Indian and Pakistan feminist Urdu writers and inspired them to explore forbidden subjects such as love and sex. This included her junior at school, Ismat Chughtai.  Like ‘Angaarey’, ‘Lihaaf’ triggered a storm as it humorously dealt with lesbianism and sexual desires of women. The British colonialists charged Chughtai with pornography and she was summoned before a court over it. Yet years after her death her legacy lives on. According to Chughtai’s translator Tahira Naqvi, in nearly every department where South Asian Studies, Women’s Studies, Feminist/Gender Studies, and South Asian literature are taught, her work draws as much attention as her Western peers. Chughtai is often described as one of Urdu fiction’s pillars. She has deeply influenced the likes of Khadija Mastur, Hajira Masroor, Bano Qudsia, etc. Naqvi believes Pakistani poets like Kishwar Naheed and Fehmida Riaz have ‘derived inspiration from her bold, uninhibited style of writing’. Other notable alumni of AMU Women’s College included artist Zarina Hashmi, Pakistani film actor Nayyar Sultana, and writer Kusum Ansal, etc.

Many AMU Women’s College alumni may not have realised their full potential had not it taken its present shape in 1937 when India’s female literacy rate was less than three per cent. This is up to 65% now. Much credit for this goes to the pioneers of female education in India. Among them, Abdullah would be in the same league as the founders of India’s first women’s college, Calcutta’s Bethune College, in 1879 and Lucknow’s Isabella Thoburn College (1886). Abdullah’s efforts were recognised in 1964 when he was awarded the country’s third-highest civilian award — Padma Bhushan.

This is a slightly edited version of a piece published in The Times of India, the author’s former employer, in 2014. And then republished in his blog. Republished with permission of the author.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is an author-journalist based in New Delhi. He has been a Senior Assistant Editor with Hindustan Times, India’s second-biggest English newspaper. Khatlani worked in a similar capacity with The Indian Express. Penguin published Khatlani’s first book The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan in February 2020.

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