The book written in Rakhshanda Jalil’s inimitable style is about the Progressive Urdu poet Shahryar and is generously scattered with his poetry and personal memoirs which makes an interesting read. The book reveals much that is interesting and unknown about Shahryar the poet and the person, whose personality defied any kind of labelling. It is also an eye opener about the modern context of Urdu poetry. However, it skimps on his wife Najma Mahmood’s contribution towards his development as a poet in objective terms and also that she was a Professor of English in Abdullah Women’s College at Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh and was a fine poet in her own right. A reference to their work together or in collaboration would have been very enriching despite their parting of ways after a long period of togetherness as has been the case of studies on Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.
The book is divided into two major sections, the first about his life and his poetic style, the second of selections from his poetic works.
Early in the book Jalil indirectly refers to one of the objectives in writing this book, namely to place Urdu language and literature as a sign of India’s syncretic culture through a portrayal of the life and work of a celebrated Urdu poet.
In the chapter titled From ‘Kunwar Sahab’ to ‘Shahryar’ she says: ‘If ever there is a writer who can most effectively debunk the absurd misconception that Urdu is the language of Muslims or the cultural repository of Muslims alone, it is indeed Shahryar.’
Shahryar spent most of his life in Aligarh and as a Professor in the Department of Urdu at Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh and Jalil gives us a peek into the life and work at the University through Shahryar. In fact the contemporaries of Shahryar the poet and Shahryar the academic get a fair share of mention in this book. However, she has used Aligarh instead of Aligarh Muslim University, which provides such a rich and varied literary and cultural background for Shahryar’s life and work and one wonders how calling it just Aligarh can actually represent the true spirit and character of so distinguished a place where his genius took birth and was nurtured.
Shahryar’s colleagues and fellow poets held him in high regard. Very vehemently Jalil puts forth the endearing qualities of Shahryar who though he was an academic, was poet first and she does not mince words in mentioning how he shied away from academic conferences and speeches. He lacked the qualities or aspirations of an academic such as outspoken convictions or presentations at conferences or even vociferous claims to an ideology even though he happened to be a Communist in outlook.
In the chapter titled ‘The Call of An Unknown Destination’ she has traced the development of Shahryar’s poetic oeuvre. She touches upon the fact that the camaraderie between litterateurs at Aligarh Muslim University has looked beyond the politically created rifts between Hindi and Urdu language and highlights the open relationship between the departments of Hindi and Urdu. In this context she makes mention of Shahryar’s close relationship to Hindi and the Hindi Department and its distinguished people like Kunwar Pal Singh and the famous professor and lyricist Gopaldas Neeraj of Dharma Samaj College, Aligarh.
Jalil appropriately makes mention of the similarities between the Urdu and the Hindi literary landscape specially in the 1960s when Shahryar found his poetic voice. Bringing out the common concerns between the two which inspired Shahryar to a new poetic style she mentions: The waning of the progressive movement coincided with several other factors that plagued the body politic all through the 1950s and1960s: disillusionment with the fruits of Independence, simmering communal tensions, rampant corruption and unemployment, increasing scepticism about the very idea of freedom, in fact, a fast-eroding faith in any form of organized belief system be it religious, political or intellectual.The nayi kavita in Hindi and the jadeed shairi in Urdu were the result of this churning in the post-1947 India.
Jalil quotes Shahryar on his unique poetic style and the importance of communication in poetry thus: ‘Communication is all. A poet must reach the greatest number of people. Some of his words may be clothed in myth and metaphor, but they must eventually be realized by the readers. If his images are too oblique, if his symbols are too dense, then no matter how exquisitely beautiful his words or how well-crafted his syntax, he is failing as a poet.’
Shaharyar was not only a poet but a prose writer too as we learn from references to his columns and editorials written for different journals at different points of his career. Jalil comments on one of his columns titled ‘Yeh Nakhoon Kya Kaam Denge Jahan Dil Ki Girah Uljhi Hui Hai?’ published in Khair-o-Khabar, Aligarh,1979 thus:
‘And he goes on to make an eloquent case of the inaction that grips even otherwise well-meaning people and political parties, an inaction that is crippling and in the long run as proactive as acts of violence themselves and which, perpetuating a vicious cycle, further deepens the sense of guilt and alienation.He also bemoans the negligence towards the educational system and how short term goals are ruinous for its future progress.’
The last section of the book deals with an important feature of Shahryar’s poetry that is the blending of tradition and modernity. Perhaps this very feature could be viewed in his famous lyrics in popular and unseen Bollywood films such as Umrao Jaan, Anjuman, Daman and Zooni. Interestingly enough she mentions how his visit to the homes of courtesans in Bahedi during his childhood helped him to create the pathos and poignancy in songs he wrote for Umrao Jaan.
The book is an invaluable contribution to the studies of South Asian literatures and cultures.
Sami Rafiq is Professor in the Department of English, Faculty of Arts, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh.