Matters of Head and Heart

There is more to Urdu than the pretty sounding ghazals and there is far more to the ghazal than the talk of shama-parvana and the bulbul, Dr Rakhshanda Jalil tells Devjani Bodepudi.

What is it about Urdu literature that appeals to you, how did your research begin and why do you think Urdu literature needs to come to the fore?

Urdu is my mother tongue; it is the language I used at home to speak with my parents and, to some extent, my siblings. English was always not merely the medium of education but also the medium of communication with the outside world. In a strange sort of way, English stopped short at the doorstep, a bit like an outsider who pauses at the gate and thinks twice before entering. It was odd because my parents were perfectly well educated and used English for their own professional lives (they were a librarian and doctor, respectively). I was taught a smattering of written Urdu as a child and fortunately went to a school which offered Urdu, apart from several other Indian and European languages, as a third language (in standards VI-VIII). So I could just about read and write in Urdu. I did an MA in English, taught English briefly at university level, worked in various publishing companies editing English texts. It was much, much later that my interest in Urdu began—through translations. From translating Urdu texts, I moved to interpreting and analysing them. Quite late in life I did a PhD; my subject was ‘The Progressive Writers’ Movement as Reflected in Urdu Literature’.

That is when I fully understood what drew me to Urdu. By then, Urdu was no longer a gharelu (domestic) language for me; it was by now a language of academic debate and enquiry. I could see the myriad of concerns it could reflect. I could appreciate its sophisticated vocabulary and syntax. By now, it appealed to my head and heart. I knew it was more than a pretty sounding language which could pull at one’s heartstrings with its evocations of romance and revolution. It think it is for this reason—for its vast and varied corpus, for its eclecticism and its huge reservoir of talented writers and poets—that it deserves to be studied. There is more to Urdu than the pretty sounding ghazals and there is far more to the ghazal than the talk of shamaparvana and the bulbul (the moth and candle and the nightingale, popular tropes in Urdu poetry).


How do you think the Progressive Writers’ Movement (PWM) gained such momentum? Although it seemed to have been happening all over the subcontinent, it seems the Urdu writers were at the forefront. Is this accurate to assume, and why do you think this is so?

Yes, Urdu writers were indeed at the forefront of the movement, followed by Hindi, Bangla, Telugu and so on. The movement went into many bhashas but it was most vigorous in Urdu and most of the leading lights as well as the core ideological group that governed its direction were Urdu writers. One reason was that the founding members were Urdu writers and they naturally directed the major ideological debates that were at the heart of the movement. Secondly, Urdu was the lingua franca in the 1930s when the PWM was born and remained important until the 1950s, when the PWM began to lose steam.

There are many reasons why the PWM gained such momentum so quickly. Some answers, explained in my book on the progressive movement, Liking Progress, Loving Change, (OUP, 2014) are:

  1. The movement introduced a new literary sensibility, one that was more attuned to the common man than ever before;
  2. It held up a more faithful, more ruthless, more accurate mirror to society than had hitherto been the practice;
  3. It brought together more people, especially the intelligentsia, than any other movement with the exception of the Aligarh movement;
  4. It drove its tentacles deep into different parts of the country and drawing a response from the common man;
  5. It had a lasting effect on literary values decades after its decline;
  6. It played a vital role in inculcating the values of liberty, equality and justice;
  7. It drew attention to crucial issues of hunger poverty, inequality, exploitation, gender justice, education, human rights; and
  8. Most importantly, it provided an impetus to the national freedom movement by focusing attention on nationalism, love for the country and freedom from foreign rule.


Writers like Manto, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and of course Ismat Chughtai—their writings seemed well ahead of their time. What is it that you think makes their writing so timeless?

Their writings are not topical; they rise above time and circumstance to speak of universal concerns. Even when they seem to be writing about something immediate and topical—such as the partition—they write it in a manner that it seems a human tragedy rather than a personal one. I think that is the true hallmark of a great writer; that is what distinguishes a great writer from a good one—the ability to remain relevant years/decades later. What you are calling timeless, I am referring to as relevant.


As a society, do you think we are in need of another movement? Do you feel we are regressing as a society as a whole, with religious intolerance becoming more of a norm within some political parties and caste is still such a real issue?

Yes, I think purely in literary terms as well as in the realm of ideas we are in sore need of a movement. The literary canon changes and evolves and a new one is always waiting to replace an existing set of beliefs and literary practices. I think we are at the cusp of a change. A few decades from now literary theorists will point to this as a time when ways of seeing the world changed. Politically, socially, economically, there is a great deal happening. All of this will translate into a new kind of literature.


In your opinion are there any writers today who you think may be playing a role in any kind of progressive movement today, who can challenge the stagnation we seem to be facing as a society?

I have recently edited a collection of Urdu short stories called New Urdu Writings (Westland, 2013) and another one is expected in a few days on the subject of communalism called Pigeons of the Dome (Niyogi Press, 2015). Both books contain new writers who are engaging with our present times in very significant ways. I don’t want to single out one or two but would recommend you look at both these books to see the kind of vigorous writing that is happening in our own times. In Urdu poetry I hold Shahryar’s poetry very highly. He died three years ago but till he was writing his was an important voice and a powerful. Javed Akhtar is another important poet who challenges his readers to look at things in new ways.


Your critically acclaimed book Invisible City: The Hidden Monuments of Delhi talks about Delhi’s architectural heritage. These monuments stand amidst shiny modern high-rises. Do you think there is a parallel between the country’s skyline and the way industry and mindsets in this country exist? Labourers are still using techniques that are unsafe and archaic; people are living in shanty towns and bastis, and yet, we have the technology to rival the US and the West. Do you think we have a hang-up with the past or is it a hang-up with social hierarchy, because we don’t seem to see the disparity right under our noses?

I will speak for Delhi because it is the city I know and love. It is a city of migrants. Even after living here for decades few have a sense of ownership. Ask people where they are from and they will name some obscure town in Tamil Nadu or some hamlet in Rajasthan. The original population of Delhi was decimated after 1947. Waves upon waves of migrants flooded in; ironically enough, few claimed it as their own. It is this sense of alienation from the city they live in that makes them blithe and blasé. Delhi’s past is not their past. They are resentful about streets, neighbourhoods, monuments named after “obscure” kings—obscure, that is, to them, because they are deedless and happy in their ignorance. I called my book “Invisible City” because much of Delhi’s built heritage is indeed invisible to its citizens. They live next door to many of these monuments, drive past them, take a walk or walk their dogs in their grounds yet often do not know the correct name of an ancient monument. It makes me sad and angry.

“Speak English!' said the Eaglet. 'I don't know the meaning of half those long words, and I don't believe you do either!” ― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.. Devjani believes in simplicity and just telling it how it is.


  • Reply November 4, 2015

    Naved Ahmad

    wonderful tips from writer on writing

  • Reply November 4, 2015

    Mohd anas sheikh

    Great article mam ! :-)
    Simply awesome !!
    Kudos to u !

  • Reply December 15, 2015


    I enjoyed reading this interview Devjani. I’m not a fan of Delhi and after reading Dr. Jalil’s response to your last question, I feel I sort of understand why. Another book gets added to the ever-growing list of Urdu writers.

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