Contraries lead to progression, so goes the old Blakean adage. Alongside the growth of science, technology and phenomenal strides made over centuries in intellectual thought process, revolutions, political coups, military wars and communal strife have played their part in reorienting notions of ‘progress’ and ‘welfare’. In a similar vein, dissent and questioning have long occupied a rightful place in any civil society, albeit in varying degrees and effect. In these times, while the world seems to be polarized into camps with extremist ideologies and myopic vested interests on one side, and long term sustainable development of the people and the entire ecosystem on the other, it has become an increasingly convenient position to sit on the fence and adopt a cynical, non-committal, told-you-so attitude. Everywhere, critical thinking and informed opinion-formation is facing an unprecedented onslaught of diffused herd mentality, which is being systematically programmed and fed into the masses by the few and exceptionally close-knit power centres across the world, functioning with eerily similar agenda. This is achieved primarily through the proliferation of communication technology thrown at the largely unsuspecting populace, who are also constantly engaging with deeper questions of survival in the face of unabashed capitalist overtures supported by those in power. Liberal arts and education centres are struggling to stay afloat across the world and the intelligentsia of every civil society seem to be forced on a back foot while fascist ideologies continue to reinvent themselves in newer, seemingly softer, more ‘acceptable’ avatars. In such a situation, it is the humble litterateur who carries the torch aloft, seeks to pass on the baton in any which way, representing those pushed to the margins, giving voice to the voiceless, revealing the dark underbelly, exposing hidden agendas, upholding the cause of reason, sanity and indeed, humanity, for the sake of the greater good. Syed Asghar Wajahat, just Asghar Wajahat to the literary world, is one such underrated, but extremely potent voice of fearless exploration of contested but enormously vital social territories.
A stalwart of Hindi literature, Asghar Wajahat (b-1946) dons several distinguished hats: he is a celebrated playwright, novelist, short story and travelogue writer with a number of critical pieces to his credit, an independent documentary filmmaker and a television scriptwriter, all rolled into one. Wajahat was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and the Kendriya Hindi Sansthan Award by the President of India, both in 2014 among other prestigious recognition garnered over the years. Wajahat is known for his iconic play based on Partition titled Jis Lahore Nai Vekhya O Jamyai Nai (One who has not seen Lahore has not lived), which like Manto’s legendary ‘Toba Tek Singh’, explores the impact of Partition on the inhabitants of both the countries who have spent virtually lifetimes in their location when they are brutally awakened to the materiality of the Partition. Apart from this widely performed play, Inna ki Awaz (Inna’s voice), written under the shadow of the Emergency and based on the destruction of art and culture through politics of power; and Saat Aasmaan (Seven Skies), providing a rare glimpse into an undivided past are his two other works to have received critical acclaim. His works have been translated into several Indian and foreign languages, apart from being included as essential course readings in universities. Wajahat continues to write for several mainstream newspapers, magazines and academic journals.
Having acquired his MA (Hindi) and PhD degrees from the iconic Aligarh Muslim University and armed with a Post-Doctoral Research on ‘The Comparative Study of the Trends of Hindi and Urdu Literature During the Late 19th-Early 20th Century’ from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Asghar Wajahat superannuated recently as a Professor from the Department of Hindi, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, where he also served as the Head of Department. Unlike the current trend of aggressive (self) promotion and marketing, extravagant book launches/discussions and ‘high profile’ lit-fest appearances, Wajahat practices the art of letting his work speak eloquently for itself. His literary oeuvre is expansive, crisscrossing genres and themes: it includes nine novels, seven full-length plays, six collections of short stories, three travelogues, two collections of essays, one memoir and a book of literary criticism. Curated and introduced by Pallav, an academic and critic based out of Hindu College, University of Delhi, three volumes of Wajahat’s selected works were published as Sanchayan: Asghar Wajahat in 2018. In the same year, Wajahat’s latest collection of singular short stories Bheedtantra was published. The first volume of Sanchayan contains novels and narrative pieces (Saat Aasmaan, Bakhar Ganj Ke Saiyyed ), the second volume brings together a sampling of Wajahat’s plays and short fiction (Inna ki Awaz, Jis Lahore…, Godse@Gandhi.com and 46 short stories) while the third volume dishes out his travelogues, memoirs and essays (2, 5 and 21 in number, respectively). Together, the three volumes provide a generous overview of the remarkable genius of Wajahat’s craft.
In the introduction to Bheedtantra, Wajahat confesses to having lost all interest in the classical style of storytelling. He explains that he does not feel the need to develop an ambience/situation in a story, or for that matter, the development of characters, dialogues, or following the traditional structure of a well-made story with a beginning, middle and end etc. Instead, says Wajahat, his stories seek fulfilment in the oral traditions and tales drawn from the ancient world of the East. Considering himself an activist who strives to strike a balance between creative expression and activism through the limited purview of his writings, Wajahat talks about creative persons as being activists who express their definition of activism through their creative output, for instance those by the painter, musician or actor through their art. In marking out for himself a paradigm shift, Wajahat finds all definitions of a ‘story’ inadequate in keeping with the more demanding times. In this process of redefinition, Wajahat is ready to accept any creative expression as a story, even if it has just one or two sentences; finding plot extraneous to a story, he says that if a story is able to present sustained development of thought and feeling, it compensates for the lack of plot and is sufficient to keep a reader hooked! Wajahat laments that in a world devoid of sanity, the people whose sanity is intact are actually the ones who are having to pay the price for the world having thus gone mad: lakhs of people lose their lives, crores are rendered homeless, famines and starvation engulf lakhs of people, and the simpletons and the innocents bear immense trials and tribulations, notes Wajahat. He wishes his stories to merely indicate the issues, and not provide solutions, because he feels that the job of the writer is not to sing songs of happiness and jubilation, but to share the pain of those in sorrow, and that in this process, the society, the writer and the reader together create a triangle where they energize each other.
The first of the thirty short stories included in Bheedtantra is titled ‘Baghdad Mein Maut’, and in 10 brief sections, vividly brings out the ugly face of an extremely deprived as well as depraved society, where a son chides his father for not joining in a procession for ‘darshan’ where after a deadly stampede, the state provides fifty lakh rupees as compensation to the families of the dead, as against visiting an actual holy shrine which is all expenditure and no income. The tracts that Wajahat picks up and clinically examines are acutely contemporary: for instance, the one-page story titled ‘Aawaaz Ka Jaadu’ talks about how as a result of a ‘strange competition’ between a temple and a mosque, people’s eardrums got shattered when once the Bhajans and the Azaan were played simultaneously through powerful loudspeakers, however, the practice of playing them continued long after all the people had turned deaf. Another powerful story titled ‘Dushman-Dost’ is a series of conversations between two unnamed individuals with an obvious power hierarchy in place between them: the conversation begins as an interrogation where the subject is asked, ‘Are you our enemy?’which the subject vehemently denies, ‘Absolutely not’ and so on up to a point where the conversation turns confusing as the subject is not allowed to clarify his position, and instead, is told that he should simply agree that he is their enemy, from the past, to the present and into the future, ‘Because, if you will not remain our enemy, then we will cease to exist…’ By the end of the fifth section of this story, it has been systematically proved to the subject that ‘…you do not know the truth about yourself…therefore whatever you say about yourself is not the truth…(truth is) what we tell you.’
Wajahat’s travel writings are fascinating for another reason: he calls them ‘social tourism’. His candid account of travelling to Iran is titled Chalte Toh Achcha Tha and is included in the third volume of Sanchayan: it is particularly illuminating in its intensely human portrayal of the people of Iran, their lifestyle and socio-political history, effortlessly interweaving his own family narrative in explaining his ostensible purpose behind visiting Iran, and for instance, description of the womenfolk of Iran who negotiate the Hijab with tight-fitting jeans in innovative ways; in other words, a travel narrative going way beyond mere historical-geographical descriptions of the place. Pallav mentions in his critical introduction how the publication of this travelogue heralded a flurry of travel narratives in Hindi, where writers had been searching for a new idiom, different from the traditional style of writing prose.
A humanist to the core above all other ideological positions, instead of adopting the now popular stance of fence sitting or wishy-washy liberalism, through his varied writings, Wajahat posits himself firmly as a staunch critic of divisive, communal, elitist and casteist tendencies of contemporary society. His writings succeed in transcending facile ‘national’, political, and religious barriers, seeking to excavate and interrogate the elements of the real from the ‘obvious’, and doing so in a deceptively simple manner which will look somewhat familiar to those acquainted with Samuel Beckett’s epochal Waiting for Godot. One of his major projects in his narrative pieces is the recovery of the famous ‘ganga-jamuni tehzeeb’ of India, as it was, much before the British and Partition. His forays into the form and content of short fiction are not only refreshing but realistic to the degree where he is able to invoke biting sarcasm, distortion bordering on the savage, and heartrending compassion, all at the same time reined in by an acute economy of words and plot. His writings emerge as invigorating exemplars of social conditions unbound by space and time, liberally peppered with humour, satire and intelligent indications meant to be understood the best by the seeker who dares to dive deeper for the pearls. Despite laying bare in bold strokes an increasingly bleak world, Wajahat does not disappoint the reader, he succeeds every single time, with every piece, in shaking the reader out of a complacent acceptance of the world around them, provoking thought and prompting action. Wajahat’s eminently readable oeuvre urgently needs to be translated into English in full and reach wider audiences beyond Hindi.
Kalyanee Rajan teaches English Language and Literature at Shaheed Bhagat Singh (E) College, Delhi University of Delhi,Delhi. firstname.lastname@example.org