By Afzal Hussain Bokhari
If we cast a cursory look at the contemporary scene of literary criticism in Urdu literature, it may present a very dismal picture. The papers that are generally read on the occasion of book launchings by fellow writers are more often than not so adulatory that they paint as best seller the newly-published book - a collection of amateurish poetry with no rhyme or rhythm, haphazardly written short stories that leave the reader high, dry and cold or the incoherent novel that smothers the reader under the dead weight of sheer wordage. Similarly, the proud author, who throws sumptuous dinners in five-star hotels but year in and year out he does not read any new book except his own, is portrayed as the next Nobel hopeful.
The literate class even of the university-going brand tends to oversimplify the concept of criticism. Peshawar Radio was once having in one of its studios the recording of the weekly literary programme “Bazm-i-Adab.” Soft-spoken Mushtaq Shebab, who later retired as the director of PBC’s Abbottabad station, was the show’s producer. The programme carried a discussion on “Tanqeed kia hay?” (what is criticism?). After the opening remarks, the compere briefly made introductory remarks about the subject and then handed the microphone over to a late professor of Peshawar University’s Urdu Department who incidentally was the chairman of the department in those days. Replying to the question as to what precisely was criticism, the professor said what remains even today the most-quoted joke among the radio producers: “Once a week, a group of writers assembles in some city restaurant to hold a literary session. Someone from the assembled writers recites a piece of poetry or prose. The series of remarks passed by the rest of the crowd about the recited piece is known as criticism!”
In a virtual flood of mediocrity, however, one can find a few genuinely enlightened and abundantly informed critics. Dr Saadat Saeed, Fateh Mohammad Malik and a few others in Pakistan while Dr Qamar Raees, Gopi Chand Narang and some others in India, whenever they pick a pen and venture out into writing, give the readers a refreshing and illuminating analysis of a creative piece. Quite a few of the critics, both in Pakistan and India, have the added advantage of claiming some sort of association with the Progressive Writers’ Movement (PWM). Sibte Hassan, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Zaheer Kashmiri, Sajjad Zaheer, Abdullah Malik, Safdar Mir, Mohammad Ali Siddiqui, Ehtesham Hussain and a few others immediately before or after them were directly influenced by the PWM.
While other critics can wait for their turn, we shall restrict today’s column to the last named in the above list. Lovingly called Rajjan Bhai, Syed Ehtesham Hussain was born on April 21, 1912 (on his documents, however, the date is July 11, 1912) in village Anardaliya, district Jaunpur. He passed his vernacular final exam in 1926 from Middle School, Mahil. When he was in class IX in 1929, his father Syed Jafar Mahil died of smallpox. Ehtesham did his matriculation in 1930 from Wesley High School, Azamgarh.
With his father already dead, he left his native village Mahil and went over to Azamgarh where he regularly attended literary meetings at Shibli Manzil and read the famous literary magazines of his time “Nigar” and “Paimana.” Later, he moved to Allahbad where Syed Mohammad Qasim, the husband of his paternal aunt was a sub-inspector in police. He passed his intermediate exam from Government College, Allahbad. When he got admission to the B.A. class, he started living with Professor Ejaz Hussain of Allahbad University’s Urdu department. In B.A. his subjects were English literature, Urdu literature and History. He stayed with Professor Ejaz until he did his Master’s in Urdu. Apart from Professor Ejaz, who in his autobiographical book “Meri Dunya” wrote profusely about Ehtesham, the other university academics who impressed Ehtesham included Professor Raghupati Sehai more popularly known as Firaq Gorakhpuri and Professor S.C. Web.
Widely recognised as a Marxist writer, Ehtesham started his practical life in 1938 when Lucknow University took him as a lecturer. The following year, he married Hashmi Begum, the younger daughter of Syed Hassan Askari Raees. Ehtesham taught at Lucknow University up to 1961. Later, when he got an offer to teach at Allahbad University he accepted the offer. He visited the United States when the Rockefeller Foundation offered him a scholarship. In 1952 he also visited London.
After an eventful life, Professor Ehtesham died on December 1, 1972. He had four sons (Jafar Abbas, Jafar Askari, Jafar Iqbal, Arshad Hussain) and two daughters (Saeeda Bano, Surraya Jabeen).
A woman scholar from Lucknow, Shameema Begum, did her doctorate on Ehtesham under the title “Taraqi pasand tanqeed ka irteqa aur Ehtesham Hussain.” The Urdu Academy Sindh, Karachi, later published her thesis into a 646-page book. For material on Ehtesham, Shameema Begum largely depended the special Ehtesham issues of such literary magazines as “Aahang” (Gaya, Bihar, 1971), Niya Daur, Lucknow (1973), Shahkar”, Benares (Varanasi), 1973 and “Farogh-i-Urdu, Lucknow (1974).
Syed Mohammad Aqeel, an Ehtesham specialist, says that while in Allahbad, Professor (Ehtesham) Sahib could often be seen with a book in hand and tiny pearls worn on his earlobes (a way of wishing something from God).
The forefathers of Ehtesham fell victim to their anti-British sentiments. The British rulers confiscated vast agricultural lands of the family in Kasalgaon in the 1857 uprising. This was one reason why Marxist literature particularly fascinated him. When Sajjad Zaheer arrived from London into Allahbad with the manifesto of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, Professor Ehtesham Hussain was prominent among those who welcomed him.
Ehtesham wrote a brief history of Urdu literature in Hindi language, which was later translated into Urdu. About 150 of his articles (out of a total of 200) have been published into nine collections. The remaining 50 essays are also being put together into book form.
In 1932 when Ehtesham was doing his intermediate from Government College Allahbad, the college had a principal named Mehdi Hussain Nasiri who was a readable poet. We can end this column with memorable lines from the poet-principal: “Nasiri qabr pe ibrat ke liyay likhwa do; tool khaincha hey yahan tak shab-i-tanhai ne!”