By Rashid Askari

The rusty old bus skidded to a halt with a screech of brakes. The engine stopped with an ear-splitting sound. Exhaust fumes were winding into dark clouds. It was a routine picture. There was, however, plenty of room for controversy as to whether it could be called a bus. It was little bigger than a minibus and much smaller than an ordinary one. It looked like a tin-can with a turtle neck. People would call it murir tin. This grotesque shape was made by a local carpenter-cum- bus mechanic who went by the name of Dilu Mistry. Rumour had it that he was capable of making a jet engine only out of the motor accessories. However, the proof of the pudding was never in the eating in Dilu Mistry’s case. If ever asked, clever Dilu would wear a mysterious smile on his face that left a cryptic message that his hidden worth was one of the unsolved mysteries of the locality.  Dilu Mistry’s name was so strikingly inscribed on the turtle-neck’s body that it would tickle your fancy on sight. But the optical attraction would fly out of the windows after you had squeezed into it through the narrow door. Jam-packed with passengers the motor turtle used to move so sluggishly that it would take the whole day to cover the distance of about fifty miles between Rangpur and Gaibandha suffering at least a couple of engine failures. It might have amused people to call it a buffalo-cart, but they were left with no second choice.

Haripada would travel between his home in Mithapukur and workplace in Rangpur once a week. Every Thursday he would come home in the evening, stay one day and two nights and the next Saturday go back to his workplace. He was a lecturer in English at a non-government college on the outskirts of Rangpur town. He joined the college immediately after he had completed his Master’s from Dhaka University. He could have got a much better job in Dhaka, but he missed it for no fault of his own. Dhaka on and after 25thMarch (1971) was blazing. The horrific Operation Searchlight was stalking through the city. Mujib had declared independence of Bangladesh and been taken prisoner. The marauding Pakistani armed forces had overrun the capital and unleashed a reign of terror upon the defenceless people. A mighty eagle swooped on the innocent chicks.

When the buffalo cart driver with a stubbly beard braked hard, the passengers dozing fitfully woke up with a start. But Haripada was not one of them. Nor was he wide awake. Seated by a window he was brooding over his life. How things had been out of joint over a few days! The son of Kalipada Master and the grandson of Bishnupada Master had to be Haripada Master. People would call him Professor. Lecturers of non-government colleges were professors in the eye of the common people. But Haripada was not happy with his position. He was not willing to take up his ancestral profession. He had rather a mind to serve in the civil service and had the ability too. But a violent storm from the western sky had dashed all his dreams.

“Get off the bus. You, the bloody Bengali. Get cracking.” A throaty voice boomed like a rumble of thunder.

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Uma Trilok in conversation with Mitali Chakravarty

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Dr Uma Trilok

Dr Uma Trilok is a small vivacious woman, well-dressed and polite… almost more like a retired college professor. She could be a heroine of one of the novels she writes. But as one reads her poetry in both Hindi, Hindustani, Punjabi and English, one is left wondering what goes on behind that serene, calm exterior.

With her writing, Uma draws word pictures which vividly converse with herself as well as the world outside. Through them she asks questions which enquire and eventually appear on her canvas as expressions of love, anguish, loss, hope, smiles and unions. Acclaimed and awarded, she has the rare art of  balancing joy with pain which subtly leaves the reader with a profound sense of hope, courage and enterprise. “Her moving and touchy narrative brings out the deeply spiritual aspect of her writing,” writes India Today.

Besides being an acclaimed bilingual poet, her short stories and novels have been staged as plays. “She presents her lines with a  unique facility of phrase and depth of feeling. In the play of her words, myriad moods of anguish and  ecstasy come to the fore vividly,” writes the Journal of Poetry Society of India.

Uma Trilok has written award winning books including her much acclaimed debut novel, Amrita  Imroz: A Love Story. In all, she has penned 16 books. Here, in this exclusive, she talks of how she started writing and what she sees as her future.

 

Mitali: When did you start writing? Can you tell us what put you on the path of writing? What was your inspiration? Do you have any book, music or art that inspires you?

Uma: At the age of 32,  I was the heading a college for women in Mahashri Dayanand University. While sitting in a quiet environment, when students were taking their exams, a poem arrived, and I put it on a paper…That was the beginning.

Prior to that, I taught at Delhi University. Trained in Indian classical Music and Kathak dance, I sang at the All India Radio and gave dance performances at places like Triveni Kala Sangam, New Delhi. I had to conceal this part of myself from the conservative management of the women’s college. My journey as a poet started as a result of this trammel, way back in the 1970s. My creativity needed to flow somehow in some direction. I picked up the pen, a safe medium.

Writing was not a choice, it was a compulsion.

Rare studio photograph of Mahatma Gandhi taken in London England UK at the request of Lord Irwin 1931
Mahatma Gandhi

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi opposed the Partition that came as an edging of  India’s Independence movement. In 1947, he told Rajendra Prasad,”, “I can see only evil in the plan.” Rajendra Prasad went on to become the first President of India and the pacifist father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi, was shot by Nathuram Godse, the fanatic Hindu nationalist. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, gave in to the Partition as he saw it as a necessary step to accommodate the growing divisions with Jinnah, the first Prime Minister of Pakistan, and the Muslim League.

Urdu with the Nastaliq script was adopted as the national language of Pakistan and Hindi written the Devanagari script became the national language of India.

Hindi and Urdu both started as dialects of Hindustani. Both the dialects continued to diverge both linguistically, politically and culturally. Hindi drew words from Sanskrit, and Urdu from Arabic, Persian and Chagatai, an extinct Turkic language. Culturally, Urdu was associated with Muslims and Hindi with Hindus.

Languages of India

About 6,500  spoken languages  are in use in the world today. However, about 2,000 of those languages have fewer than 1,000 users.

Mandarin and English are the most spoken language on Earth followed by Urdu used as Hindustani and then, comes Hindi, the language that has been adopted as part of the Indian identity by some. A battle rages on in India among people who want to use Hindi as the lingua franca of the country and those who speak other languages, including English. What does homogenisation of languages to create a national identity do to a people?

The Cultural Tool , a book by linguist Daniel Everett shows that languages develop out of cultural needs. As nations try to create homogenous identities with a single language, they wipe out cultures. Everett explains that this linguistic diversity “is one of the greatest survival tools that human beings have … each language is a cognitive tool for its speakers and comes to encode their solutions to the environmental and other problems they face as a culture”.

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There are twenty two ‘scheduled’ languages in India and dialects run into many more. The 2001 census put the count of all spoken languages and dialects at 780, second only to Papua and New Guinea which leads with 839 languages. 

With such a huge babel of words at it’s disposal, some languages languish from neglect. Some profess Urdu is one such victim. Recently, much is being written about how Urdu is dying in the bylanes of Old Delhi .

Urdu, a language of the court and poetry, graceful and elegant in its usage, came to be recognised fully around the eighteenth century in India. Before that, Persian was used in the Mughal courts. Urdu evolved as a language that was used by both Hindus and Muslims, perhaps a language of harmony. It used the elegant Nastaliq script. 

 

Munshi Premchand(1880-1936), born as Dhanpat Rai Shrivastav, was one of the foremost Hindi writers of the early twentieth century. He has to his credit more than three hundred short stories, fourteen novels, many more essays, letters translations and plays and even a film script.

His short story Shatranj ke Khiladi was made into an award winning film by Satyajit Ray as were a number of his other works by noted directors, like Hrishikesh Mukherjee.

With his reformatory zeal and an ability to create empathetic overtones, Premchand was a prominent writer in Hindi who was appreciated more after his death than before. Writes David Rubin, late translator and scholar, in The World of Premchand (Oxford, 2001): “To Premchand belongs the distinction of creating the genre of the serious short story—and the serious novel as well—in both Hindi and Urdu. Virtually single-handed he lifted fiction in these languages from a quagmire of aimless romantic chronicles to a high level of realistic narrative comparable to European fiction of the time; and in both languages, he has, in addition, remained an unsurpassed master.” Interestingly, Rubin taught for a number of years in Allahabad and Rajasthan Universities in India and is also known to have translated not only Premchand but also another very well-known Hindi poet, Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’.