"Literature cannot be divided by geography"

January 7, 2018

Interview with Shamim Hanfi

Professor Shamim Hanfi is widely known as a critic but not many know that he is also a poet, fiction writer, radio screenwriter, translator, potter and a painter. Hanfi believes the novel has dominated all other forms of literature. He has a number of books to his credit which have carved a space for him alongside veteran Urdu writers of the subcontinent.

He has written khakas (pen sketches) of his teachers, friends and writers of both India and Pakistan, along with children’s books. Many of his books have also been printed in Pakistan. The Readings, Lahore is publishing a new edition of his book Humsafaron Ke Darmayan.

Born in Sultanpur in 1938, Professor Hanfi first completed an MA in History, and then Urdu, followed by a D.Phil from the Allahabad University. While he was at this university, his professors were so impressed that he was offered membership of ‘Thursday Club’, a literary society that met once a week.

Hanfi was very close to Firaq Gorakhpuri, a great English teacher and an even greater poet. He edited two books on Firaq sahib which generated a lot of controversy. But when asked about it, he says that "there is no use criticising dead people. Firaq wrote both good and bad poetry". He also wrote a book on Meeraji which was also published by Dunyazad. His favourite poets are Faiz, Rashid and Meeraji but he has a special interest in Faiz.

Urdu writers in India have a superiority complex. They would include ‘dakkhani’ into Urdu but would not consider Kabir, who is one of my favourite poets, an Urdu poet.

After completing his MA, for a while he taught at a college affiliated to Indore University. While there, Ameeq Hanfee, a friend who later retired as the Director Archives of All India Radio, asked him to write plays for the radio, to earn some extra money. His first play was called Aakhri Kush which was produced by Hanfee himself in 1965. The play instantly became popular.

Hanfi prefers the medium of radio over television. He also wrote a play titled Apni Apni Zanjeer, which was based on a character that resembled General Ziaul Haq and qualifies as political satire.

Since then, the professor has taught at Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University. Currently, he serves as Professor Emeritus Jamia Millia Islamia and resides in Delhi.

The professor, who is widely travelled, and says that he "must have walked even more than he has travelled", is also a connoisseur of classical music. In his opinion, "classical singers are more devoted and humble than writers". Among the modern singers, his favourites include Mallikarjun Mansur and Bhimsen Joshi, along with Kishori Amonkar and Kumar Gandharva.

When The News on Sunday met him in Lahore, he was both happy and sad about his visit to the cultural capital of Pakistan -- happy because he was visiting Lahore but sad because Intizar Husain is no more.

The professor still has sharp memory and recites the poetry of ‘Asateza’ and modern poets with ease. Although he has achieved a lot already, one looks forward to his future plans which involve writing books on Intizar Husain and Qurratulain Hyder.

The News on Sunday (TNS): How did you start writing?

Shamim Hanfi (SH): I was an average student in school. One day, my teacher gave the students an essay to write. The topic I was assigned was: Main jab ghussa hota hoon. I submitted my essay and the next day, the teacher called me and said "You should start writing".

TNS: Tell us about your family. Is reading and writing a habit you picked up in your childhood?

SH: My forefathers had their roots in India. We are sons of the soil. My father was a lawyer, an old graduate of Aligarh, when Sir Ross Masood was the Vice Chancellor who also had his roots in Sultanpur. My mother was a literate housewife. Our house was always filled with reading material: apart from the many magazines available at home, every month, my father would prepare a list of English books for me, which I would bring from the district library.

One incident I vividly remember from my childhood involved a wooden box that was kept at my house. With a child’s curiosity and a lion’s courage, one day I finally opened the box. Inside, to my utter surprise, there were books upon books. Right at the top lay Masnavi Zehr-e-Ishq. I immediately began reading it, and enjoyed it thoroughly. The book left an indelible mark on the innocent boy that I once was.


TNS: Much is known about your writing. Let’s first talk about your poetry?

SH: My first ghazal was printed in Funoon when I was a student. Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi sahib asked me to contribute 10 ghazals to be included in Funoon’s Ghazal Number, so I wrote 10 ghazals in just two days. Other than that, Rekhta has published a book of my poetry.

TNS: How do you look at your oeuvre?

SH: I think all my works should be destroyed -- darya burd (drowned in a river).

TNS: You have been a critic of progressive writers’ movement. Why?

SH: I believe the debate of ideology in literature is no more relevant. I was never against progressive literature but against their politics. I was against Progressive Writers Association’s narrowness. I think the progressive literary movement was the first international movement and it played a huge part in raising Indian consciousness. Muhammad Hasan Askari differed with the progressives on some issues but he had deep respect for Marxism. He even opposed Syed Sibte Hasan’s arrest. He also praised the humanism in the progressive movement.

And much like him, I believe in its humanism ‘Insan Dosti’. My criticism against the progressives is regarding their style and not their ideology.

According to Tagore, a writer should have no identity. Tagore was against patriotism, nationalism and the like. Likewise, Amartya Sen said writers may have many identities simultaneously. Literature is an expression of experience and it cannot be divided by geography or ethnicity. Creation should be embedded in civilization.

TNS: What is the current situation of Urdu in India?

SH: Urdu writers in India have a superiority complex. They would include ‘dakkhani’ into Urdu but would not consider Kabir, who is one of my favourite poets, an Urdu poet.

It is unfortunate that while Hindi writers like to read Urdu shair-o-adab, Urdu writers do not read Hindi literature with the same passion. Similarly, in India there are many writers whose mother tongue is Urdu but they choose to write in Hindi.

As for the younger generation, Muslim children are not even aware of the Urdu script since so much Urdu literature is translated into Hindi and Devanagari script. On the other hand, many non-Muslims are writing in Urdu. You have to realise, there is not much difference between Hindi and Urdu because their grammar is the same and 80 per cent of the vocabulary is common.

Having said that, the facts remain that Intizar Husain is the most popular writer among Hindi readers; at Manto’s centenary, a lot of books were produced on him; and Faiz is still the most popular poet in India.

TNS: What kind of literature is currently being produced in India?

SH: India has 22 languages and a lot of literature is being produced in these various languages. The literature at the forefront is in Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Bengali, Marathi, Hindi, and Gujarati.

Take the example of Rajathi Salma, a Muslim woman who is a significant Tamil writer and does not know any language except Tamil. Her novel The Hour Past Midnight has been longlisted for the Man Asia Literary Prize. Her Tamil poem, "New Bride New Night" was translated into English.

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s novel Kai Chand They Sar-e-Aasman is also a noticeable and important.

TNS: Don’t you think literature has been commercialised?

SH: Literature has become a commodity. Commercialism is a cancer for literature and writers. Literary festivals are an expression of this cancer.

TNS: Has Sufism become very popular among writers?

SH: The Bhakti movement was an ‘Insan Dost’ movement. Previously, Sufis made much contribution to humanity but now Sufism has become commercialised.

TNS: Of late, religious extremism and intolerance has increased. Do you think literature can help curb this phenomenon?

SH: I do believe that literature can help people come out of the present chaos. Our elders were mostly liberals. The 20th century has produced intolerance, terrorism and extremism.

Great literature is not produced by great movements. Literature’s impact on society is indirect.

TNS: These days, every poet is getting their kulliyat published. What are your views on this?

SH: I am against printing kullyiat. I think Ghalib was a very wise man who personally selected which of his poems should be published; through this process, he discarded many good ash’aar.

TNS: Who are your favourite Pakistani writers?

SH: Besides many others, I like Sarmad Sehbai, Nasreen Anjum Bhatti, Afzal Ahmed Syed and Zeeshan Sahil among poets. Sarmad Sehbai is a genius. Among contemporary fiction writers, I like Mirza Athar Baig. Ikramullah is one of the best Pakistani fiction writers; he is very popular in India.

TNS: There is lot of feminist and Dalit literature being produced in India. Tell us about it?

SH: I support feminist writers and believe that women have been oppressed throughout history. I also admire Dalit literature.

TNS: What do you think of Indian and Pakistani novels in English?

SH: On both side of borders, very high-class English fiction has been produced and acknowledged at the international level. Earlier, in Pakistan, there was only Hanif Kureishi, but now you have Nadeem Aslam, Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif and many others. My comment is that too many novels are being written in English.

Among India writers I like Amitav Ghosh, Arundhati Roy and Vikram Seth. I would add, however, that Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is better than her first novel The God of Small Things. Roy is a great activist.

TNS: Vikram Seth’s mother who was a judge of the Delhi High Court said "Vikram Seth is not a criminal"?

SH: He is a great writer. I share his poem:

All you who sleep tonight,

Far from the ones you love,

No hand to left or right,

And emptiness above

Know that you aren’t alone.

The whole world shares

your tears,

Some for two nights or one,

And some for all their years.

"Literature cannot be divided by geography"