Monday, Mar 27, 2023

And Unquiet Flows The Yamuna

Uttar Pradesh

And Unquiet Flows The Yamuna

Caught between a rapidly changing socio-political environment and cultural atrophy, literature in Uttar Pradesh is in limbo

Spun in words A weaver in Varanasi
Spun in words A weaver in Varanasi Photograph: Tribhuvan Tiwari

Uttar Pradesh has been the epicentre of art and literature of the Hindi-­speaking world. It has produced several litterateurs in Hindi and Urdu, including the likes of Prem­ch­and, Jaishan­kar Prasad and Firaq Gorakhpuri. Those who were born and lived here, and bre­a­thed in its socio-political atmosphere, depicted these in their poetry, short stories and novels. Over the last decades, the most significant cha­nge in these parts is migration. This doesn’t just apply to UP, but alm­ost all states. A big section of youth who were born there has moved to Del­hi. It’s not a new phenomenon, though. Even before Independence, most peo­ple from UP and Bihar would go to Calcutta in search of employment. After some time, Bombay (Mumbai) eme­­rged as the most alluring destination to peo­ple looking for a livelihood. Today, it is Delhi that has acquired the distinction of the city that attracts hundreds and thousands of people—not just for their bread and butter, but also for edu­cation and politics.

Even though UP itself has some good old seats of learning, like Allahabad University, Banaras Hin­du University and Aligarh Muslim Univer­s­ity,  they no longer have the charm they once held. Those who want to get a better education or a foo­thold in politics make a beeline for Del­hi. Hun­dr­eds of Hindi and Urdu poets and writers from UP have landed up in the capital for better prospects. Living here, they have been removed from the eve­ryday realities of the land they write about. How can they portray its soc­ial milieu in the way writers like Rahi Masoom Raza did, if they are not experiencing or observing the rhy­thm of life the­re? For writing to be roo­ted in the soil, it is important that the writer gets himself immersed in the throb of its cult­ure. But in reality, the migration of writers from UP to the metros—one could call it a brain dra­in—has ensured that there are few left in the state who can carry on this tradition.

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While there is a proliferation of publications in Hindi, Urdu writers often compl­ain about the lack of publishers for their books. Often, they are forced to spend their own money to get their books out. There was a time when cities like Lucknow and Allahabad used to be the hubs of Urdu publishers. Allahabad’s Nikhat Public­ati­ons used to be quite well-known, largely beca­use it would publish novels of Ibn-e-Safi. There is nothing left in Lucknow or Allahabad—most of their publishers have fol­ded up. Today, Urdu writers too have to get their works published from Delhi. But even here, things are not too great. Often, writers submit their manuscripts to government institutions with the hope of getting some financial aid, and in the process, get published. Some Urdu writers also look to Hin­di publishers, as Urdu readers are few and far between. Since Hindi is a compulsory language, it continues to have a large readership.

And Quiet Flows the Yamuna
Photographs: Chinki Sinha

That doesn’t mean there are few Urdu writers left; quite the contrary. In Lucknow for insta­nce, new writers are exploring all genres of wri­ting. But they all struggle to get published. Even beyond publishing, there was once a vibrant mushaira and nashist (soiree) scene that nurtured a demand for skilful writers. While nashists are rarely organised these days, mushairas continue to be held, though standards have fal­len. To make things worse, there are few magazines and newspapers in Urdu that have managed to withstand the ravages of changing times. Newspapers like Siasat and Qaumi Awaz are still running, but their readership has shr­u­nk considerably. Till the last quarter of the 20th century, there were so many Urdu magazines, like Shabkhoon (founded by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi in Allahabad), Shayar (publis­h­ed from Bombay), Biswin Sadi (originally published from Lahore, continued from Delhi post-­Independence). Today, they are all gone.

ALSO READ: Paradox And Dilemma Of UP's Hindi Literati

Our cultural indoctrination begins in our hom­es and neighbourhoods, from where we pick up behaviour, mannerisms and dialects. Today, even our homes are devoid of a sense of culture. As for literature, though it is linked to every aspect of our lives, including society and politics, its effect on us is not immediate, but reveals itself indire­c­tly, over the longue dur­ée. One also mustn’t overlook literature’s connection with journalism. Dur­ing the freedom mov­ement, writers invariably came from a journ­a­lis­tic background. Through their writing, they encoura­g­ed a consciousness for freedom.

And Quiet Flows the Yamuna
Producing culture (left) AMU; BHU Photograph: Getty Images; Shutterstock

In the post-Independence era, writers and journalists who par­ticipated in the Jay­a­prakash Narayan-led movement during the Emergency, also made wav­es, to the extent that Baba Nag­a­­rjun even bra­ved inc­ar­ce­ration for several mon­ths. The political condition of the last few years has led to a lot of contemplation and analysis by writers and journalists. But these writings—essays, poetry and stories—have missed the tempo and tenor that these conditions warrant. The few dispar­ate incidents of resista­nce can’t be called revolutionary. Maybe something rem­a­rkable is on the cards in the future. But for now, based on the prolific writing that has emerged over the last two years—mostly on the pandemic, proving yet again that literature mirrors life—one will be hard-pr­e­ssed to find a single poem or story that stands out and is worthy of being remembered. Perh­aps that is because immediate reactions are rarely effective, that writers need a critical distance from events in order to reflect upon them. Today, whatever is happening in Uttar Pradesh or for that matter across the country, may find proper appraisal in literary works a decade later. One can hope that those works will be of lasting value.

ALSO READ: How Hindi Literature Stopped Being A Chronicler Of The Times

For my novel based on the lives of weavers in Varanasi, Jhini Jhini Bini Chadariya (1986), whi­ch is often cited as a groundbreaking work, I spent about 10 years with them—observing them, abso­r­bing their lives. The fertile ground of Varanasi has produced several writers before me, including Premchand and Jaishankar Pra­sad. But perhaps they overlooked the conditi­ons of weavers or didn’t know their lives int­i­mately enough. But these caught my attent­ion because I lived among them. I didn’t look at them through the eyes of an outsider, but as an insider. The poor condition of weavers is one of the many intractable issues the people of this state are grappling with, but if the writers are not living there, how will they portray them in their works? They can only draw from the surroundings. There are many shades of life in the state, each more complex than the other. What goes into a literary work depends on what cat­c­hes a writer’s fancy.

Whatever is happening in UP or across the country today, may find proper literary appraisal in a decade. One can hope that those works will be of lasting value.

Today, living in Delhi, if I attempt to write a nov­el set in Varanasi or Allahabad (Prayagraj), perh­aps I may not be able to depict their socio-­political conditions that well, as things have cha­nged a lot. Even the lives of weavers, their problems and priorities, have changed. If I were to go and live among them, the novel that I wou­ld end up writing would be very different from Jhini Jhini..., as the conditions have cha­n­ged. Like me, there are too many writers from UP who no longer live there. Most of those who are still there belong to the older generation—who could not leave the state for some reason or another. For instance, Kashi­nath Singh still liv­es in Varanasi even after retiring from BHU. But he has hardly written anything of late. After a particular age, our creative output either loses fervour or stops altogether.

ALSO READ: The Decline Of Urdu In UP's Literary World

Under these circumstances, hope hinges on the younger generation. But they too are flocking to cities like Delhi from their places of birth, where they spent their impressionable years. Today, Delhi is home to many such youngsters. If they become writers, they will only write abo­ut life around them and not what they have left behind. As for today’s brand of politics, it may eventually find its way to literature, but it will take some time. In these changed circumsta­n­ces, the consolation is that nobody seeks votes in the name of making Urdu the second langu­age. Neither do they make false promises of appointing Urdu teachers in government schools.

When communalism reared its head in UP, a lot of stories and novels were written. Even the demolition of Babri Masjid triggered writers. Shivmurti’s Trishul (2018), for instance, revol­ved around the atmosphere of hate, insecurity and fear. Similarly, the Godhra train burning and subsequent Gujarat riots in 2002 spawned literary works. But none of them were milestones that deftly tackled these themes, bringing to life the world they portrayed. Unless a literary work shakes our sensitivities and descends deep into the psyche and consciousness of the people it portrays, it will not touch a chord with us.

(This appeared in the print edition as "And Quiet Flows the Yamuna")

(Views expressed are personal)


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Abdul Bismillah is a Hindi writer known for his short stories of life in rural Muslim communities