I dread going to the Jama Masjid area in old Delhi. It is so crowded, dirty and smelly that there has to be some special reason for me to venture to that part of town. However, one evening recently, I was trudging along the Urdu Bazaar. This time I was going to meet Maulana Naeem Ahmad Qasmi. He had called me to meet him in the Naaz Hotel, housed in a yellow colored eyesore of a building, right behind the sprawling Jama Masjid. Soon I was in front of the hotel, the stench of rotting fish and disemboweled chicken still fresh in my mind.
I climbed up the narrow and steep stairway to the lobby. A smiling durban guided me to his room. The door was ajar. I could clearly hear Maulana Qasmi's voice. He was addressing two young men. "It pains me to see children of the great Mughals beg. Who knows what those guides tell the foreign tourists about these monuments," he said. I just had seen a busload of tourists on the stairs of the Jama Masjid. A guide was conversing with the group, flailing his hands around as they stood besieged by a team of beggars. "Those who should be guiding the tourists are begging from them. That is the tragedy of Indian Muslims today," he added. The Maulana's words captioned my mental picture of the tourists and beggars.
The Maulana spotted me and asked me in with a smile. We shook hands.
I know Maulana Qasmi since my childhood. He taught me Urdu and Persian in school. I was meeting him after a gap of about ten years. The last time I had met him, he was reading Imam Ghazali. Now he is reading President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam's The Ignited Mind.
I could not help but ponder over the change in the Maulana's outlook. When he was my teacher, he had joined our school to help the cause of Muslims. That was an act of charity for him. He used to pore over religious texts, savour Urdu and Persian literature, and recite couplets of Ghalib and Iqbal. He is no longer merely a teacher. He also has his business now which has made him rich. He no longer quotes Iqbal and Ghalib. Instead he now keeps referring to A. P. J. Kalam and Shiv Khera.
What caught my attention were Maulana's thoughts. He comes from a small town in Bihar. Does he represent the zeitgeist of the Muslim community in small town India? If he does, and in my view he certainly does, then his views need to be shared with others, especially with those ensconced in the metro's intellectual echelons.
The other person there was a student at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). He studies Urdu Mass Media at JNU and has worked at Nai Duniya, an Urdu weekly.
"Urdu newspapers have played a critical role in vitiating the Muslim mind," The Maulana said, continuing his discussion. "They have always stoked the fear of Hindu militancy and kept the Muslims aloof . They have done nothing but instilled a feeling of insecurity among the Muslims. All the time they keep talking about Muslim heritage and past glory. And what is the reality? The Indian Muslims have become beggars."
The erstwhile Nai Duniya journalist did not even attempt to defend his newspaper. He meekly agreed.
"And that's why," he said, "I stopped reading Urdu newspapers. Now I read only Hindi newspapers. Hindi has given me a new sustenance, a new vocabulary to express my ideas. I also tell others to educate their children in Hindi and English. Urdu is a dead language and those who want to serve Urdu should be ready to lead a pauperized existence."
This was a little shocking. I have always loved the language. For a moment, I was reminded of Javed Akhtar, the poet and lyricist, who had once said that Urdu was the language of the elite. He seemed truer than ever. Since the partition of the country, most of the Urdu-speaking elite has either expired or migrated to Pakistan. Over the decades, in accordance with Pareto's law, the elite in India has changed. This elite speaks either English or Hindi. Urdu has no place in India except in 'Hindi films' and in the hearts of those who still love this quaint language.
And yet I confronted the Maulana. I asked him why he thought so about Urdu.
"The answer is very simple. Today, Urdu is spoken and read by those Muslims who are poor and without resources. And if someone thinks that he will get rich by serving such poor in the given circumstances, he should get his head examined."
"And what else ails the Muslim community, apart from Urdu?" I asked him.
"It is the Madarsa system," he said. He paused for a moment and seemed to remember something. "Some time ago, I read an article in an Urdu magazine about bringing about changes in the Madarsa syllabi. I read the article with great hope. But in the end I was greatly disappointed." He again paused, reading the question in my eyes.
"The author talked about introducing technical courses in the Madarasa syllabi. And what are the technical courses he suggests? I laughed at his suggestions. The author says that technical courses in book binding, handicrafts, and computing should be taught. What day and age does this author live in? The world has moved ahead. What to talk of bookbinding and handicrafts, people who have done computer courses are sitting jobless at home. Look at their lack of vision!"
He was right. The computer professionals are past their hey day. "What should be the vision then?" I probed him further.
"The vision should be to reach the skies!" he said.
"And who will give this vision?"
"President Kalam has already given this vision in his books," he said. He had read the scientist's book in Hindi. Kalam's ideas had impressed him. He started quoting him, "Give your child a dream. If he has a dream, strengthen it. If he has a small dream, make it bigger."
"What else did you find in Kalam's book?"
"Kalam is great. What the Mughals achieved in centuries, Kalam achieved in a lifetime. What the Mughals have bequeathed to us can be taken away, can be vandalized. But who can ever destroy the power of imagination, the power of dreaming big and achieving greatness?"
He looked at my face for a moment. Perhaps he was looking for signs that could tell him if I was impressed. I was.
He continued, "Kalam says, "give me a bunch of good economists and scientists, and I will make India a superpower in fifteen years'. He says that the time is not far when the well-off would begin to shift to villages."
I interrupted him. I had a disagreement. I warned him against this village vision (I don't know if Kalam meant what the Maulana interpreted). I told him that globalisation would lead to urbanization. The cities will grow bigger and bigger and the villages would vanish. Maybe our cities are civic disasters, but they are only because of bad administration and primacy. I told him about David Clark and the concept of primacy.
He seemed to see the point. But in his eyes, a shadow of disappointment lurked. How could Kalam be wrong?
The word globalisation seemed to catch the attention of the Maulana. He started to tell me a story. It was about globalisation and what some people in his town thought about it.
Once on the pulpit of a mosque, in one of his Juma's khutba (an Imam's lecture in a Friday prayer), Maulana Qasmi referred to the word globalisation. He talked about it in a positive way. Later, a fellow maulana caught hold of him and asked him to explain his stand. That maulana thought that all the modern ills owed their origin to this sinful thing called globalisation. He asked Maulana Qasmi if globalisation was some kind of an ogre or a machine. Can't we bomb it off in some way? he asked Maulana Qasmi.
We all had a good laugh at this joke. But deep inside, we felt the pain of ignorance that swept the majority of the Muslim minds in India.
The dusk was gathering and it was getting dark. Maulana Qasmi had to make a phone call downstairs and I had to take his leave. We came out of the room.
Climbing down the steep stairs of the hotel, the Maulana told me another story from his life. "Ten years ago, when my eldest daughter first saw a ceiling fan, she asked me what it was. I told her it was a fan. She did not believe me. All her life, she had seen only a hand held fan. Only a few days ago, my youngest daughter asked me, 'Abbu, when are we going to have our Santro car?' See how the times have changed."
He looked at me with a smile. I smiled too, thinking how times have really changed. In the face of all the ills that ail the Muslim community today, Maulana Qasmi gave me hope. The Muslim community needs more Qasmis with ignited minds who understand globalisation and believe in Kalam's wings of fire.
Zafar H. Anjum is a struggling writer who, despite Mr. Naipaul's advice, can't stop bringing news to the people
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