A Lonely Wanderer: Majâz

(Remembering Urdu poet Majâz on his birth centenary)

Arjumand Ara

Asrâr-ul Haq ‘Majâz’ (1911-55), a significant progressive poet of Urdu, was born in the old town of Rudauli near Lucknow in a zamindâr family on 19 October 1911. His father, Sirâj-ul Haq, who was the first in his family to join a government service, worked in the Department of Education at Jhânsi and later became the head clerk at Registration Department in Lucknow. Majâz was younger of his two sons, the other being Ansâri Hirwâni. Two of his three sisters, Safia Akhtar and Hameeda Sâlim are also known as Urdu writers. In her memoirs of Majâz Hum Sâth The (We Were Together), Hameeda gives a moving account of her Jaggan Bhaiya’s life.

Majâz belonged to a generation that could not remain unaffected by the political developments taking place both nationally and internationally. The freedom struggle was entering its decisive phase, intensified under the leadership of Gândhi but many an educated youth was dreaming of the Soviet model of Communism for the country. Even leaders like Nehru, had their own vision about a socialist India and considered socialism necessary for its poverty-ridden people. On the other hand, with the growth of Nazism, European countries had begun aligning themselves against Germany, and war seemed imminent.

It was during these days that some young students from India studying in England envisaged that writers had to intervene and play a vital role in bringing about change in contemporary socio-politico sphere of life. They took it upon themselves to organise writers across the country under the banner of the Progressive Writers Association. They came back to India, organised a conference of writers in Lucknow in 1936 and these writers declared a charter of responsibilities for themselves. This initiative marked the beginning of the most powerful movement in the history of Urdu literature, known as the Progressive Writers’ Movement. Most of the significant writers joined it. Majâz, too, was not an exception. He became famous as poet when he was studying at Aligarh Muslim University but had started writing poetry much earlier, when he was a student of St. John’s College, Agra during 1929-30. Moin Ahsan Jazbi and Âl-e Ahmad Surûr (well-known poet and critic respectively), were his friends in the College; and a stalwart like Fâni Badauni his neighbour. All the poets used to hold literary meets at Maikash Akbarabâdi’s house. Asrâr-ul Haq started writing initially under the takhallus (a poet’s pen-name) of Shaheed(Martyr), a rather unusual takhallus for so young a poet, but very well indicating his ideological commitment in the times to come. Later on, his pseudonym Majâz (unreal and mundane, as opposed to Haq, i.e., the Real, the God) was also to reflect his insistence on the earthliness (Majâz) being the answer to the mysteries of the God (Asrârul Haq).  And thus, being earthly was the ultimate reality of him.

When Majâz came to AMU in 1931 for higher studies, most of the significant young writers of Urdu were staying or studying at Aligarh. They included Sâdat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtâi, Hayatullâh Ansâri, Jân Nisâr Akhtar, Sibt-e Hasan, Akhtar Husain Râipuri, Jazbi and Ali Sardâr Jâfri.  Aligarh of those years provided Majâz an opportunity to explore his intellectual and creative potential. He had already lost interest in mathematics and sciences which his father had chosen for him to become an engineer. Instead, he decided to study Economics, Philosophy and Urdu literature for his degree course. But that too could not sustain his interest in formal education, and with great difficulty he could complete his BA in 1935. He got admission for MA in Urdu but left the University to join All India Radio in Delhi and became a sub-editor of All India Radio’s Urdu magazine, Awâz.

While writing about the literary activities of young writers staying at Aligarh, Shârib Rudaulvi (who saw Majâz closely during his later years in Lucknow, and wrote a biography of Majâz for Sâhitya Academy), captures the image of the youth of that generation in the following words:

Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence was quite a disappointment for the youth. They thought that they could get freedom from British slavery only through people’s movement that would lead to revolution, and not by non-violence.  Russian socialist revolution was a model and main source of their radical ideas. Socialism and Communism were having great impact on young minds. Tagore and Nehru too were impressed and influenced by Russian Revolution. And more significant was the fact that Maulâna Hasrat Mohâni had become an open supporter of socialism and communism. He was an old-boy (alumni) of AMU, and used to come to Aligarh and influence young Muslims by his conversation and speeches.

(Majâz,  Sâhitiya Academy, New Delhi, 2009, pp. 35- 36).

Aligarh had become the hub of radical students and young teachers. Several of the teachers had had their education in England and returned to India as communists. In those times, publication of Angâre (Embers), a collection of short stories and dramas by four writers (Rasheed Jahân, Syed Sajjâd Zaheer, Ahmad Ali and Mehmud-uz Zafar) in 1932, was in fact like a spark setting the heap of straw (of a conservative society) afire. Narrow-minded influential people from the community including religious bigots immediately reacted and the book was banned in no time. However, this incident only strengthened their commitment to and faith in the power of their pen. It was about these times that Majâz produced some of his best poems like Inqalâb (Revolution), Rât aur Rail (Nightfall and the Train) and Nazr-e Khâlida (on the occasion of Turkish writer, Halide Edib’s visit to Aligarh Muslim University, who had by then become a symbol of an enlightened Muslim womanhood). Majâz was more popular among girls not only for his romantic poetry but also for treating beloved in his poetry as participating in real life, a partner in realizing the dreams of a radical poet to change the society:

                 Tere mâthe pe ye ânchal bahut hi khûb hai lekin
                Tu is ânchal se ek parcham bana leti to accha tha.
                (The scarf covering your forehead looks very pretty;
                However, had you made a flag of it, it would look prettier.)

                Sinânen khench li hain sar phire bâghi jawanon ne.
                Tu sâmân-e-jarâhat ab utha leti to accha tha.
                (The rebellious young fighters have drawn up their daggers.
                Better for you, if you now be ready to tender the wounded.)

Traditionally, the identity of the beloved in Urdu poetry remains mystified and concealed. Majâz completely discarded this tradition. He became the hearthrob of the girls for writing poems like Naujawân Khâtûn se (To the Young Lady, two couplets of which are cited above) and Numâish Men (In the Exhibition), in which he portrays the beauty of the girls visiting the famous Aligarh exhibition which was an occasion when girls enjoyed freedom of coming out of their hostels. It provided an opportunity to the boys to feast their eyes on these heavenly beauties. Ismat Chughtâi gives an interesting account of those days in Aligarh. She tells that ‘girls used to hide photos of Majâz beneath their pillows. Their favourite book was the collection of Majâz’s poetry Âhang (Melody). They used to buy it and gift to each other.’ (Ishq-e Majâzi, ref. Rudaulvi, p. 39).

By the time Majâz left for Delhi in 1935/36, he was already an acclaimed poet, but at the same time, an unassumingly simple man. He had an emotional, soft and loving heart. He would mix up easily, enjoyed people’s company and readily help them in their need. Writing about his loving and caring nature, his younger sister Hameeda Sâlim recalls that as a five-year old child when she got chicken-pox and her father had forbidden all children from coming to her room fearing infection, Jaggan Bhaiya would sneak into the room to sit with her. He would comfort her itching pox with neem-leaves and tell her stories and jokes for hours. She writes, ‘Today, when I think of him, I found what a soft heart had he, what love and care for me, giving preference to my ugly existence over his own interests and pleasures. He knew very well how to tend a sick person. If one gets ill in the household, Jaggan Bhaiya would take it upon himself to giving him/her medicine in time.’ (Majâz: Mera Bhâi, Âhang, New Delhi, p19).

Majâz took special interest in the education of his sisters. He used to teach English to Safia, and Urdu along with other subjects, to Hameeda. He would make her write short essays and read aloud in front of the whole household. He would get immense pleasure in doing all this for his sisters. This simplicity and selflessness did not wither during his stay in Agra and Aligarh. When he reached Delhi, he remained that simple and uncanny.

However, Dilli (Delhi) did not prove a city of dil-wallahs (having hearts, generous) for him. He got many a setbacks both at the workplace and in his private life. Within a year after joining All India Radio, he became a victim of internal bickering of AIR director Patras Bukhâri, his assistant-director-brother Zulfiqar Bukhâri on one side, and Majâz’s friend Agha Ashraf on the other, who was the grandson of the legendary Urdu chronicler Mohammed Husain Azâd, of Âb-e Hayât fame. Ashraf aspired to become second assistant director, but it was like a challenge to the authority of the Punjabi lobby represented by Bukhâri brothers who saw to it that it didn’t happen. Frustrated Ashraf started writing against the duo in newspapers. Consequentially, Majâz was dismissed (for being a friend of Ashraf) and Ashraf was made to resign from AIR. One of Majâz’s verses indicates towards this incident: kushta-i-khanjar-e Lahore hun men! I am cut-dead by the dagger of Lahore! (See Jazbi, Sardâr Jâfri and Manzar Saleem, ref. Rudaulvi, p42-43). 

The other setback came from his love for a married beauty of an influential family of Delhi. Whether it was one-sided or not, it is a fact that Majâz used to visit that household. But its doors were shut for him forever, as soon as his love was discovered. A devastated Majâz gave himself completely to drinking and wandering about in the dead of nights:

                Shehr ki rât aur men nâshâd-o-nâkâra phirun
                Jagmagâti jâgti sadakon pe avâra phirun
                Ghair ki basti hai kab tak dar-badar mara phirun
                Ai gham-e dil kya karun, ai vehshat-e dil kya karun!

                (There, this city-night, I roam about grief-stricken and failed—
                On the streets dazzling awake with light, I wander like a tramp.
                This is an unfamiliar city, till when should I roam about—door to door.
                O my heartache what should I do! O my heart’s solitude what should I do!)

Failed on both fronts – no job, no love – Majâz returned to Lucknow where his father had bought a house in muhalla New Hyderabad situated near Nishat Ganj and the family had now settled there. In Lucknow he found a good friend circle of litterateurs like Sibt-e Hasan, Sajjâd Zaheer, Abdul Aleem, Rasheed Jahân, Moin Ahsan Jazbi, Ahmad Ali, Hayâtullah Ansâri, Ehteshâm Husain and many more. Sibt-e Hasan, Majâz and Sardâr Jâfri, published poems of freedom and nationalism in their magazine Parcham. These poems became so popular that they were later on published by the government as a separate book under the title Azâdi ki Nazmen (Poems of Freedom). However, they had soon to shut down Parcham and instead started Naya Adab (New Literature), which later on became the organ of PWA.

While these young writers engaged themselves wholeheartedly in their literary pursuit, Majâz spending a careless and happy life in their company, he at the same time resorted to drinking heavily. Sardâr Jâfri writes that during those days we had four tasks to do: studying, writing, doing political work and wandering around the city. Because of their political activities, anti-war and pro-freedom stand which they did not try to hide, they were monitored by the police and the CID. Despite all these odds, Majâz’s life was going on smoothly until he suffered his first nervous breakdown in 1940. Apparently his failed love was the reason, according to Hameeda Sâlim. She tells:

‘He used to talk about her tirelessly. “She also loves me but my rival wants to poison me” was his refrain. He seemed so scared that he would not step out of Dârus- Sirâj, (their home). He used to send letters to her – one after another – that were full of details about his insatiate desire for her in words that civility forbids utter.’
(We were Together, p.72)

But one of his friends, Farhatullâh Ansâri attributes its reason to his friends associated with Naya Adab, and a radio artist Gauhar Sultan. However, while analysing many versions of contemporary writers and friends, Shârib Rulaulvi concludes that by nature he was a shy and reticent man, therefore could not share his emotions about his unfulfilled love, his humiliation and failures in life with anybody. With so much stress on his mind, he started drinking heavily. As he had a fragile body that could not bear all those pressures, a nervous breakdown does not seem surprising. He was treated at Lucknow and then his eldest sister, Arifa Khatoon took him to her house at Almora where he recovered slowly. He came back to Lucknow after three months.

Between 1942 and 1945, Majâz worked at the Hardinge Library in Delhi as assistant librarian. He had resumed his political and literary activities. A conference of PWA was held in Delhi in 1942 and its sessions were held at Hardinge Library. Then the Third All India conference of PWA was held in Bombay in May 1943 and Majâz too went there to participate. Meanwhile, seeing that Majâz had settled to some extent, his family members tried to find a suitable bride for him. Majâz reluctantly agreed to marry just for the sake of his family. But they failed to find a girl for him because ‘either the news about his drinking habits would reach there or he would be rejected for his small job in a library. All this was very disgusting for a poet of Majâz’s stature and fame. He could no longer bear all this nonsense and suffered a second nervous breakdown in 1945. This time his obsession was about self-importance and greatness as a poet. He began to count himself with Ghâlib and Iqbâl. He complained in general that people were unable to recognise a great poet, but did not accuse anybody. He was called back to Lucknow. After some time a family friend, Chaudhary Mohammed Ali Rudaulvi, himself a well-known writer, took him to Rudauli to stay with him. This change proved good for Majâz’s health and he soon recovered. After a month’s stay he returned and then went to Bombay in search of a better career there. He stayed with Sajjâd Zahir and his wife Razia. But he felt very lonely and devastated. He went to Bombay dreaming of a successful life but the Destiny had something else in its store —the riots that entailed Independence and the Partition of India. He spent the whole night of 14-15 August 1947 wandering on the roads of Bombay with Ali Sardâr Jâfri. He could not bear even the news of murderous rioting and bloodbath. So he came back to Lucknow.

No job. No love. No dreams. He had no other engagement except writing poetry and recite it in mushâiras(public meets organised for poetry-recital). Whatever he earned from mushâiras, he would spend all on drinking. When he went to Karâchi for a mushâira in 1951, he was a huge disappointment to an expecting audience. Moreover, Josh Malihâbâdi, himself an acclaimed Urdu poet and the editor of monthly Urdu magazine, Âjkal, wrote a long poem, Pund-nâmâ barâ-e Islâh-e Majâz (A Didactic Poem for Improving Majâz) which greatly disturbed Majâz. Majâz knew very well without anybody telling him that literary circles were not happy about the ways he lived. But this was too much to get negative publicity through a popular magazine like Âjkal. He wrote two small poems in response, in which he asked:

                Why should emerge the dawn from behind the curtain of darkness?
                Why do you now complain of a narrowing vista?
                O Josh! Why these flames and sparks, in this manner?
                As I have lost, why should I have an eye on a lost paradise?

But his heart was heavy, for a failed life. He suffered a third nervous breakdown in 1952 while he was in Delhi. This was severest of all. He was immediately taken back to his home in Lucknow, where he would frequently indulge in inconsistent and incoherent talk, suddenly becoming normal. Meanwhile he went to Calcutta to participate in a peace conference. There his illness aggravated. Writing about her brother’s plight in Calcutta, Safia wrote to her husband Jân Nisâr Akhtar that he (Majâz) had lost his mind to an extent that he would even beg on the streets of Calcutta. (Moiza Usmâni, ref. Rudaulvi, p64). His brother, Ansâri Hirwâni and his friend Yusuf Imâm went to Calcutta and convinced him, with great difficulty, to come with them. They took him to the Ranchi mental hospital for treatment. It was the same period when the great Bengali poet Qâzi Nazrul Islâm was also being treated there. In Ranchi, Suhail Azimâbâdi, a well-known fiction writer of Urdu, helped them in every manner. After treatment for more than three months, he returned home. However, much time did not pass that Safia Akhtar died after which Majâz felt great responsibility for her children, Jâved Akhtar and Salmân Akhtar. He used to take care of them and play with them. However, this could not continue for long and Majâz soon returned to his old ways of life. 

His life was falling to pieces but he lived with dignity. Many of his contemporaries have written about incidents that throw some light about his jovial and helping nature. He was witty and intelligent. He would make fun of himself, poke jokes on friends and spent hours and hours with friends at coffee house discussing literature and contemporary issues. It seems strange that how a person facing so many failures in his life, and who is considered a tragic hero, could remain so jovial and lively as a whole book would be compiled about his jokes and anecdotes in Urdu (Majâz ke Lateefe). His friends have countless things to tell about his hilarious witty remarks and his handling situations humorously. His remark that ‘revolution is about to come but communists are holding it back’ became instantly popular as a critique of the communists’ style of working. On another occasion, while trying to tell him that he should maintain some discipline and limit while drinking, Josh pointed out, See Majâz! I place a ghari (watch) before me when I sit to drink.’ ‘Oh yes!’ Majâz retorted, ‘I would place a ghara (pitcher) instead of a ghari, if I could.’ He would not spare even a towering personality like Iqbal from poking jokes. When he had a meeting with Iqbâl, his friends were curious to know the details of meeting with this great poet of the East. On their asking, Majâz had a brief reply: ‘There is not much difference between me and Iqbâl.’ ‘How come?’ the friends were amazed at this most contrasting association. ‘During the whole meeting, he would say “hân ji, hân ji” and I “Ji hân, ji hân”’ (way of saying ‘yes’ by people of Punjab and Lucknow respectively). This subtle comment on the cultural differences of the Urduwallâhs of Punjab and Lucknow, would be enjoyed more by those who know that Lucknow represented all nuances and sophistications associated with Urdu culture, and people from Lucknow would look down on the language and culture even of Delhi (the place where Urdu was born and flourished), let alone Punjab which stood nowhere in  front of the sophistication and refinement of Lucknow.

Majâz died on the 5th of December 1955. Rudaulvi describes in detail the preceding day’s activities of Majâz who had participated in Students’ Urdu Convention. In the convention held in Lucknow, luminaries like Ismat Chughtâi, Sâhir Ludhiânvi, Sardâr Jâfri, Niyâz Haider, Dr. Abdul Aleem, Bâqar Mehdi and Dr. Mohammed Hasan reached Lucknow to participate. It seemed as if the whole city was celebrating their coming. Lucknow University’s Chancellor and Governor of UP, K. M. Munshi inaugurated the convention on the 3rd of December, after which a mushaira was held in the evening. Majâz seemed extremely happy. About the middle of night, his name was called inviting him to read his poetry. He recited two or three ghazalsincluding the one with this famous couplet:

                Bari mushkil hai duniya ka sanvarna
                Teri zulfon ka paich-o kham nahin hai
                (It is very difficult to tidy-up the world.
                After all, this is the world, not the curls of your tresses).

Sharib Rudaulvi, who wrote a detailed account of that evening, tells that he repeated the following couplet several times:

                Ba-in sail-e gham-o sail-e havâdis
                Mira sar hai ki ab bhi kham nahin hai.
                (Despite facing this ocean of sorrow and this sea of mishaps,
                It is my head held high up, that refuses to stoop down.)

On the 4th of December he was present in the deliberations till evening, after which he left with his friends. Shârib Rudaulvi was having his evening meal in Nûri Hotel with his friends Arif Naqvi and Sheerâzi when somebody came to tell him at half past nine that Majâz sahib was waiting for him near Sangam restaurant. He immediately set out to meet him. He saw that Majâz was standing with his friends. As soon as Majâz saw Shârib Rudaulvi coming, he himself stepped forward to meet him. Putting his hand on his shoulder he told, ‘these friends think that I belong to Lucknow.’ Then he recited a couplet of Fâni Badâuni which translates as following:

                O Fâni! Even in my living I am a corpse deprived of coffin and grave.
                I am the one, who could not settle in a foreign land,
                while my own land is left far behind.

Before Shârib sahib could ask him as to why he had sent for him, a friend of Majâz, Jalâl Malihâbâdi, reached there with a friend sitting on a rickshaw, hailed Majâz, and went away taking him along. This was the last time when any friend of Majâz saw him walking on his own feet.

They went to a pub of Lâlbâgh where they used to have their drinks on the open roof. This evening also they went to the terrace, to enjoy their drinks. Nobody knows what happened then. Jalâl and his friend might have left sometime in the late night, without realising that they were leaving Majâz there alone. It was a cold December night. Majâz was wearing kurta-pyjama and just a waistcoat. The next morning, on the 5th of December, a servant of the pub discovered him lying unconscious on the open roof. Somebody got him admitted in the Balrâmpur Hospital. The open session of the convention was going on when the news reached in the evening that Majâz was critically ill. Writers like Ismat Chughtâi and Ehteshâm Husain immediately left for the hospital. Majâz breathed his last at 10:22 p.m. on 5 December. He was buried on the 6th in the graveyard of Nishat Ganj. On the 7th a memorial meeting was held in which Ismat Chughtâi made everybody weep by her merciless but affecting words:

Sometimes I used to scold Majâz over some of his habits and once told him angrily, ‘better, if you’d have died, Majâz’. As if Majâz has slapped me back and retorted: “See! I am dead. Did you think it was a big deal?”

Majâz saw 44 springs of his life. And autumns? Countless, perhaps!

Department of Urdu
Faculty of Arts
University of Delhi

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