Thursday, April 29, 2010

The princess who was a spy

The arrest of Indian diplomat Madhuri Gupta on spying charges has once again brought the focus on the network of intelligence agencies. During the days of war, spies played a crucial role in relaying information about the enemy camp. Gupta's case made me think of Noor Inayat Khan, the British spy who was captured and killed by the German army.

Noor Khan was the great-great-great granddaughter of Tipu Sultan and was the first woman radio operator who was sent into the German-occupied France by the British. She was born in 1914 to Hazrat Inayat Khan and Ora Ray Baker, who was later known as Pirani Ameena Begum.

Inayat Khan (in pic below with an infant Noor) was a Sufi mystic and an expert in Indian classical music. The Nizam of Hyderabad had given him the titile of Tansen and he was sought after by several kings and princes. Inayat Khan had travelled the length and breadth of India and had come under the influence of Shaikh Mohammed Hashim Madani. His grandfather Maula Baksh was a legendary musician who had sent his younger son Alauddin (Inayat Khan's uncle) to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music.

Armed with his interest in music and to propagate Sufi thought, Inayat left India and travelled to several countries across the world. While he was in Russia, Noor his eldest child was born. The whole family moved to London from where they eventually settled in France. In 1927, Inayat Khan died while he was on a visit to India.

Noor went on to study music and took a degree in child psychology. She also started contributing to children's magazines and French radio. However, with the outbreak of World War II the family had to leave Paris and went back to London. Noor had undertaken a course in nursing from the Red Cross and nursed the ambition to fight against the rampaging Germans. It was not an easy decision for the daughter of a Sufi pacifist to literally enter the battlefield, but she was determined to fight the fascist forces.

She joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and was trained as a wireless operator. During the interview she told the panel that after the war she might fight the British occupation in India! In February 1943, she was posted to the Directorate of Air Intelligence and after training she was sent to France in June the same year.

She managed to constantly dodge the German intelligence and continued to transmit messages under trying circumstances to London. The London Gazette notes: "She refused to abandon what had become the most important and dangerous post in France and did excellent work." She was captured by the Germans on a tip-off.

Driven by her passion to fight and with indomitable courage, she tried to escape but was unsuccessful. She did not give out any details to the Germans. On 25 November 1943, she managed to escape along with two other prisoners. Before they could get away far, an air raid alert got the Germans in action who then undertook a count of prisoners.

The feisty lady was again captured and this time she was taken to Germany and was kept under solitary confinement. She was classified as highly dangerous and all efforts to make her speak did not yield much. However, the Germans had found her notebook that had a record of all the messages she had sent to London.

On September 13, 1944 Noor was asked to kneel down and was shot from behind. When she died she was just 30. Noor's bravery and her heroic contribution to fight the Germans has all the ingredients of an ideal spy. Her courage and determination is the stuff legends are made of.

In September 2006, when Pranab Mukherjee was in France he visited Noor's house 'Fazal Manzil' where she grew up in Surenes near Paris. The British government honoured her with the George Cross and every year on July 14 a military band plays in her honour outside 'Fazal Manzil'.

The book 'Spy princess: the story of Noor Inayat Khan' by journalist Shrabani Basu brought her back in public memory. While Madhuri Gupta cools her heels behind bars the book should perhaps be made a compulsory read for her!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Premchand: A true son of the soil

Last week I had gone to my native village and landed at Varanasi's Lal Bahadur Shastri airport which is in Babatpur. As the car went past the dusty road and small villages I was reminded of Premchand. I had read in a Hindi textbook in school that Premchand was born in Lamhi, a village near Varanasi. With every little village that my car passed by the thought that 'Premchand must have been born in one such village' went past me.

Premchand, born as Dhanpat Rai, is credited with turning kings, princess and religion based stories towards farmers and ordinary people. Like his personality, Premchand's stories too were simple and straightforward. While he pursued a day job to keep his house running, he continued to write with passion and pour his heart out.

Premchand's life was full of struggle and he faced financial difficulties throughout his lifetime. While continuing to teach he started contributing to Urdu magazine
Zamana and the weekly Awaz-e-Khalq. He also wrote on national and international issues and his fame as a writer grew.

However, it was his collection of short stories 'Soze Watan' in 1908 that caught the attention of the British authorities. The five stories in the collection were on patriotism and did not find favour with the government. The Britishers discovered that Nawab Rai (his pseudonym) was none other than Dhanpat Rai who was employed by them as a school inspector.

The British administration decided to destroy all the copies of Soze Watan as it was labelled seditious. More than 500 copies of the stories were destroyed. He had to also face an inquiry but somehow managed to come out of it. However, he was instructed to show his writings to the district collector before he got them published. Dhanpat Rai then decided to write under the pseudonym 'Premchand' to escape censorship.

Premchand used to regularly contribute to the magazine 'Kahkashan' that was published by Imtiaz Ali Taj. Taj was the son of renowned reformer Maulvi Mumtaz Ali and was based in Lahore. Premchand had written a novel titled Bazar-e-Husn in Urdu. He asked for Rs 250 from Taj for the story. While Taj was still to make a decision, he had got Rs 100 for the Gujarati edition of the novel and Rs 500 for Hindi.

The novel became popular in Hindi (in which it went on to be first published as Sewa Sadan) and made Premchand very famous. He took to writing in Hindi and never looked back. Some of his stories were on caste-based discrimination and the sufferings of farmers and common man. This ruffled many feathers and a section of wealthy landowners and upper caste people started a campaign to defame Premchand and bring him down. However, Premchand who had his ground to the ear had struck a chord with the comman man and his fame and popularity grew each day.

Premchand's greatest virtue was his simplicity and humbleness. Once he submitted a story to Imtiaz Ali Taj for publication in 'Kahkashan'. Incidentally, Taj himself was planning to write a story on the same theme. However, he dropped the idea when he saw Premchand's story. Later when Premchand came to know about the incident he wrote to Taj and asked him to complete his story and get it published. He also expressed his pleasure that they both had the same theme in mind as they were on the same wavelength.

My Hindi teacher once told me that many times people would ask about Premchand from the author himself. The reason was that people did not expect a writer of Premchand's calibre to be so simple and down to earth. It was perhaps this reason that Premchand could not be associated with Bollywood for long. He became a script writer for Hindi films but eventually came back to his village. He also chaired the first meet of the Progressive Writers' Conference in Lucknow in 1936.

When Premchand was posted in Gorakhpur, Firaq Gorakhpuri who hailed from the same district was a constant visitor to his house. While Premchand was in service he continued to study and managed to complete his BA. Premchand's last novel 'Godaan' is one of most popular and finest Hindi novels. His other stories Kafan and Shatranj ke Khiladi are considered as classics.

As my journey continued and I caught glimpses of poor farmers toiling in the scorching heat, I realised that it was Premchand's simplicity and his interest in the common man that made me think about him. A true son of the soil.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Siras: An 'outsider' at AMU?

“I have spent two decades here. I love my University. I have always loved it and will continue to do so no matter what. I wonder if they have stopped loving me because I am gay." Dr Ramachandra Siras (pic courtesy Outlook), chairman of the modern Indian languages department at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), uttered these words after he was suspended for being gay.

Siras was found dead in his residence on Wednesday. His death is a stark reminder of the rot that has set in at AMU. A professor suspended for being gay! And that too after he was secretly filmed in his own house. How many sting operations have taken place to expose corruption, inefficiency, nepotism and misadministration at the AMU? And how many professors, lecturers, office staff have been suspended as a result of that?

For a man who devoted 20 years of his life to the University his death is less than honourable for the institution. At AMU, Marathi would be a niche subject, unlike history, engineering or Urdu. Does the Siras episode highlight the fact that the man was looked upon as an outsider in the campus and thus an easy and natural prey? Siras, Marathi, and of course being gay do not go with AMU's perceived identity.

AMU will now increasingly be looked upon as inhospitable and intolerant especially for those with diverse backgrounds and orientation. If he was gay, that was his preference and should not have been AMU's problem. As I noted in my earlier post, unless it can be proved that Siras was sexually exploiting a student or staff member, AMU had no right to infringe on the privacy of an individual and humiliate him.

If it is the question of Siras being un-Islamic then we should remember that Siras was neither a Muslim nor, according to reports, was he championing the gay cause on campus. A thorough investigation should take place and all the facts right from the stage of Siras being filmed should be brought out.

AMU will always require specialists to fill posts in departments like Marathi for which the pool of candidates will be different than the usual applicants. So, is there an air of uneasiness in Muslim dominated campuses for subjects, and people associated with them, that do not assert an identity close to Muslims/Islam?

In 1925, Osmania University had a dynamic Marathi professor C L Joshi. Joshi was loaned from the Bombay Educational Services and his term was about to expire. Finding a replacement for Joshi was difficult and the University officials were in a fix.

Interestingly, Joshi was in demand with the Maratha politicians based in Hyderabad who were unhappy with the services offered by the local Marathi scholars. Though Joshi's importance was evident, he was not made a permanent staff. The Maratha bigwigs spoke to Sir Akbar Hydari and Sir Ross Masud (founders of Osmania University) and suggested that either Joshi be made a 'permanent incumbent or the services of a new Marathi scholar from Bombay be applied for'.

The then principal of Osmania University, Mohammed Abdur Rahman Khan noted that getting a new professor from Bombay was not an easy task in those times. Surprisingly, Osmania University still allowed Joshi to be repatriated to the Bombay Educational Service and decided to make a temporary arrangement.

I am drawing my own inferences, but it seems to suggest that in a campus associated with Muslim identity not much emphasis is given to subjects and staff that have less appeal to the Muslim mindset. The Siras episode should not be seen only in the prism of homosexuality, but is rather a stark statement of the appaling treatment meted out by an iconic institution like AMU to an 'outsider'.

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Thursday, April 1, 2010

Narang: Plagiarist or victim of vilification?

Gopi Chand Narang (pic with caption courtesy and his alleged plagiarism has shaken the world of Urdu literature. Several questions have been raised on Narang's award-winning book Sakhtiyat, Pas-i-Sakhtiyat Aur Mashriqi Shi’riyat (Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, and Eastern Poetics). The issue was taken up by C M Naim, Professor Emeritus of Urdu at the University of Chicago, after it was first vigorously brought up by Imran Shahid Bhinder.

I have carried an exhaustive three-part interview with Bhinder on the issue. C M Naim, well-known commentator, believes that Bhinder has 'most convincingly established that Dr Narang’s achievement in that award-winning book is not that of an author but only of a translator, and that too of a reprehensible kind'.

Most recently when Narang was awarded the fellowship by the Sahitya Akademi, C M Naim once again showed his displeasure in Outlook. Dr Maula Bakhsh, who has been a vocal supporter of Narang told urdufigures that there is a 'campaign of vilification against Narang'.

This is what Dr Bakhsh, Head, Department of Urdu, Dayal Singh College, Delhi has to say on C M Naim's views in Outlook:

C M Naim’s (pic courtesy Azra Raza) arguments are clumsy and faltered on factual counts and unwittingly he is caught on the wrong foot. Naim’s problem is that he has not read Narang’s book from cover to cover. Needless to say it is an integrated book of more than six hundred pages but poor Naim zeroes in on the first 200 odd pages and that too against the backdrop of exaggerated allegations made by a motivated academically naive third party. That is why he had to revise time again what he had written earlier.

Having been away from home for too long to teach elementary Urdu to US students, it now appears that Naim needs a complete honing up of his Urdu as will be shown later, but before I take that up, let me put first things first.

1. Basing his assertions on hearsay and distorted information passed on by others, Naim lately has raised the sensitive issue of censorship and black mailing the publisher of Jadeed Adab. Only an extremely irresponsible person would hurl such a wild allegation in the absence of any first hand information. Naim always has been on a slippery ground but this time he enters the realm of pure speculation bordering on blasphemy. To expose the absurdity of such an allegation and to nail down the lie, the statement issued by the publisher is being reproduced below:

      Educational Publishing House (3108, Gali Azizuddin Vakil, Kucha Pandit, Lal Kuan, Delhi-110006), publisher of Jadeed Adab has recently issued a statement clarifying that “The Journal is being regularly published by us, and to say that Prof. Gopi Chand Narang has black-mailed us and stopped its publication is not only baseless but absurd. We categorically contradict and condemn any such charge. The journal is appearing without any interruption.”

      (Sd/- Mustafa Kamal Pasha)

      5 September 2009.

Obviously this does not need any further comment. C M Naim’s other charges are also of the same nature.

2. Naim has once again quoted Narang’s response from Nand Kishore Vikram’s book, though based on a tertiary source as pointed out earlier. Needless to say he has yet not seen the original book which is easily available. It is naive to think that Narang has said this in self-defence. If one knows Urdu well and can appreciate the wider nuances of Narang’s words, it is a statement where in all humility he is saying that he was not born with all this information which he shares with his readers. He has gleaned up, culled, derived, adapted and abridged it and assimilated it to make it understandable in a language that lacks strict theoretical discipline and rigour. Naim with his ostensible prejudice turns it upside down to suit his purpose. Furthermore, akhz-o-qabool and ifham-o-tafheem in Urdu are phrases with wider semantic implications and mere literal translations of separate words cannot do justice to the full range of meanings. Much before Vikram’s book Narang has said all this very clearly in the Preface of his book (Pp. 11, 13, 14, 1993). He has even gone to the extent of issuing a disclaimer that all what he has presented belongs to the thinkers, philosophers, theorists and experts; the shortcomings if any are his but the credit for the discourse goes to the thinkers. The concepts and ideas are of the others only the interpretation and communication in Urdu is his. Narang also said that he was enlisting all the sources comprehensively so that the inquisitive reader should go to the authorities. (P.14, 1993). These statements read with the reply in the interview, the Dedication lines and the chapter-wise bibliographies are more than enough to prove that how ill- founded and ill- conceived the campaign against Narang has been.

3. Naim’s discussion on Saussure and Christopher Norris is also misleading. A couple of pages before coming to this point Narang has introduced Norris’ book to the reader as one of the best expositions of theory. Norris also finds mention in the bibliography with an asterisk underscoring the point that Narang has used this source. Then follows the discussion on the subtle point of how language constructs reality independent of others. To illustrate the point to his reader, Narang besides citing examples from French, German, and English etc. from the original and driving the point home to his oriental reader ropes in ample examples not only from Urdu, Persian and Arabic but also from Hindi, Punjabi, Marathi and Bengali. All this obviously is beyond the range of Naim. In his awful hurry to join issue with Narang, Naim cites two sets of examples and in a show of pedantry he again falters forgetting that by doing so he is contradicting his own charge of plagiarism as he unwittingly admits that all this interpretation is Narang’s. Further, he also fails to appreciate the crux of Saussure’s arguments that there is no essentiality between word and meaning, and every language constructs meaning arbitrarily and independently by a system of differentiation.

4. Naim’s assertion about Wittgenstein is also equally flawed. Since he has not read the whole book, he does not know that Wittgenstein also finds mention on page 37 in chapter 1. While on page 219, the reference is to Philosophical Investigations, the reference in chapter 1 is toTractatus LogicoPhilosophicus. Both the books are fully cited. Perhaps only a person of myopic vision can not see. Furthermore, in the same chapter elaborating the implications of ‘logos’ as discussed by Derrida, Narang alludes to both the Sanskrit and the Arabic traditions. Discussing the wider implications of Vak in the Indian tradition he has cited Bhartrihari’s giving three stages of Vani or Saraswati in Vakyapadya, i.e.,Vaikhri, Madhyma and Pashyanti (Para / Pratibha, P. 209). For Naim and his “academic greenhorns” all this must also be derived from the western sources.

5. One does not understand why Naim derides Norris, Culler, and Selden etc. by describing them as mere commentators. Even an ordinary student of literature knows that be it Kalidasa, Shakespeare, or Ghalib, their commentaries are as much part of the Kalidasa, Shakespearian or Ghalibian discourse. It is well known that in Sanskrit studies while reading Panini’s Ashtaadhyayi, or Anandavardhana’s Dhvanialoka, equal attention is given to Patanjali’s Mahabhashya and Abhinavagupta’s Dhvanialoka Lochanam. The same is true of the commentaries of Saussure, Derrida, Foucault, etc. They are as much part of the theoretical discourse as the basic texts. Narang dealing with both the oriental and the western traditions has freely and frankly used all sources, and introduced them to his reader. If this is a disservice, then Naim and associates are most welcome to undertake some true service and produce a better book. I know this is beyond their tether.

6. The pinnacle of Narang’s presentation and arguments lie in his constructing and suggesting a model of literary criticism for Urdu (Pp. 565-573). Before embarking on that he has given a candid appraisal of developments how the progressive writers’ movement in Urdu fell prey to its own regimentation and totalitarianism, and later how the project of modernism was hijacked by the neo-classicists and fundamentalists, and shorn of egalitarian agenda, it was reduced to an ennui and turned into a tool of sectarianism and revivalism. Narang believes that the true role of criticism is ‘oppositional’ and in this he derives his strength from Derrida, Foucault and Edward Said. It looks pertinent to reproduce a quote:

“In its suspicion of totalizing concepts, in its discontent with reified objects, in its impatience with guilds, special interests, imperialized fiefdoms, and orthodox habits of mind, criticism is most itself and, if the paradox can be tolerated, most unlike itself at the moment it starts turning into organised dogma.” (Edward Said, P. 496).

The model suggested by Narang has in fact been quite discomforting for the well -entrenched revivalist Urdu establishment. So if their sympathizers attack Narang, it should not come as a surprise.

7. But why Naim of all the people has written with such a vendetta? It might be interesting to note that this is not the first time that he has betrayed this sort of ‘kindness’. The fact is while Narang was at the University of Wisconsin, and his book Readings in Literary Urdu Prose was taken up for publication by the University of Wisconsin Press, incidentally Naim was one of the reviewers. He wrote a scathing review to thwart the publication of the book but that was not to be as the other two reviewers were extremely favourable. The book has gone into many editions and is still popular in foreign universities. It is on the recommended list of Urdu readings in the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University and is generally referred to as ‘Narang Reader’. A very recent reaction of a distinguished former student will not be out of place:

      Dear Gopi Chand Narangji,
      You will remember that we met again in 2005, …, after having first met so many years ago at the University of Wisconsin.

      Your book,
      Urdu: Readings in Literary Urdu Prose has been such a wonderful aid to me these last few months in learning the Urdu script better and in increasing my Urdu vocabulary. Thank you so much for creating such a useful and 'fun-full' book! I know it was many years ago that you produced it, but thought that you might like to hear from a former student of yours how useful it still is for him.

      Khuda Hafiz
      Christopher King

      (Copied to Dr Maula Bakhsh,

The second episode is related to the publication of Narang’s highly debated article “How Not to Read Faiz Ahmad Faiz” in the journalSoughat, Bangalore (1990). Naim again wrote a deriding review trying to tear apart the article which had discussed the clash between the ideological and the aesthetic project in Faiz, and how one cannot be prefaced over the other. Later the article caught on, appearing and reappearing in India and Pakistan, and then in Narang’s Hindi book Urdu par Khulta Dareecha (2005). Recently Dr. Baidar Bakht translated it into English for the journal Indian Literature (IL-249, Jan-Feb 2009). About the nature of this article a recent comment by an unknown discerning reader should suffice:

      From: Chander Verma <>
      Subject: How Not to Read Faiz Ahmad Faiz?
      Date: Wednesday, 6 May 2009, 12:42 PM

      Read your translated paper which appeared in ‘Indian Literature’ titled "How not to Read Faiz Ahmad Faiz?"

      I have no words to admire you for your intellectual work and unusual insight into Faiz Ahmad's poetry. Criticism of this quality is rare and unseen. We are proud to have scholars like you in India.

      God Bless you!!

      Chander Verma

This would amply show how uncharitable Naim all along has been to Narang. The reasons must be best known to him.

8. But one wonders the timing? Perhaps Naim himself has provided a clue towards the end of his latest note. Shifting his position from plagiarism to culture and education, he has cited the latest honours given to Narang by the Maulana Azad National Urdu University and the Aligarh Muslim University. Perhaps it is the honour by the Aligarh Muslim University that has irked him the most. A friend from Aligarh remarked that Narang received the accolades for his dedication and sustained life long contribution and for his unflinching faith in Urdu but what is the contribution of his adversaries. For that matter if Naim thinks that Aligarh has forgotten his shady deal in the past, he is mistaken. It is well known that way back in the seventies he had invited Prof. A. A. Suroor, Head of the Urdu Department at Aligarh Muslim University to Chicago on the pretext of Ghalib Centenary, and later in return Prof. Suroor invited him to Aligarh Muslim University as a guest lecturer. Since Naim had not completed his Ph.D., he was denied tenure appointment at Chicago. To bail him out, Suroor appointed him to the post of Reader overnight superseding many senior teachers. Using Aligarh’s Readership as a jumping board, within months Naim returned to Chicago assured of his greener pasture. It is quite clear that he not only abused Aligarh’s hospitality but also betrayed the trust of his teacher.

9. Lastly can C M Naim who is exuberating self-righteousness and has tried to assume high moral grounds deny that he has links with an Urdu caucus deeply rooted in fundamentalism? The nucleus is in Allahabad and its overreach in centres outside India. (See: “Adab mein Talibaniat ka Aghaaz aur Adabi Taliban”, in Aalmi Akhbar, dated 29 August 2009)

Can he deny that they are the people who wrecked the modernist movement in Urdu by discarding its radical social agenda and subsequently made it a tool of sectarianism? Why has he chosen to be silent about what has been happening around him all these years? The rot is under his very nose. The charity must begin at home. The comic situation is that the courtiers and clowns are clapping and raising blasphemous chatter about others. One wishes they could look at their feet of clay and gather the courage to laugh at themselves.

For Naim’s kind information, the name of the journal from Bombay, which he quoted is ‘Isbaat’ not ‘Asbat’. There is no name in Urdu as Asbat. Asbat is the plural of sabt while isbat stands for ‘confirmation, proof, and certain knowledge’. He might like to check with his mentors at Allahabad or Lucknow.