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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 46 New Delhi November 5, 2016

A Literary Genius talks of his Mentor

Monday 7 November 2016, by Anees Chishti



This piece has been written in the backdrop of Prem Chand’s 80th death anniversary on October 8, 2016.

The late Prof Raghupati Sahai ’Firaq’ Gorakhpuri, one of the greatest Urdu poets of the last century, winner of the first Jnanpith Award, and an interpreter of the agonies, yearnings and struggles of the people latent in his romantic couplets, had a very strong ego. Except for some masters of a distant era like the English poet Wardsworth or Urdu poets like Meer Taqui Meer, he rarely praised any of his contemporaries in superlative terms. It is, thus, very exciting to note that he held in great esteem a writer of prose whose mosaic of reper-toire seemed to be different from the canvas of romanticism that ‘Firaq’ used for much of his poetry. Consider what ‘Firaq’ writes about his chance meeting, around 1912, with someone who became his mentor:

“I had reached BA class clearing all exami-nations. I had come to my home town, Gorakhpur, from Allahabad during summer vacations. One evening I had gone on a walk to the premises of a huge building of a bank at Gorakhpur. There I met a friend, Mahabir Prasad Poddar (later, one of the proprietors of the famous Gita Press), who had another gentleman with him. Apparently, he looked a very ordinary person, wearing a dhoti reaching down to a little below his knees, a kurta that was much shorter than common kurtas, ordinary shoes on his feet. I started talking to Poddar about new books. His companion also joined the discussion and the subject turned to Prem Chand. Poddar asked me, ‘Do you want to meet Prem Chand?’ It seemed to me as if he was asking if I wanted to acquire the entire wealth of the world. I could not think of my good fortune to be able to see Prem Chand with my own eyes. Showing utter disbelief for his words I asked him, ‘Meeting Prem Chand? How, where and when?’ Both of them started laughing and Poddar told me that the gentleman with him was none other than Prem Chand. I felt as if my breath was going to stop. In fact, along with extreme happiness, I felt a little bit heart-broken. Because Prem Chand appeared to be a person with very ordinary looks whereas I had assumed that such a great litterateur could not be that ordinary-looking, Yet, I was very happy to see Prem Chand.”

Before his chance meeting with Prem Chand, ‘Firaq’ had been introduced to Prem Chand’s stories starting with BarreGhar ki Beti (Daughter of a Respectable Family) that appeared in a very reputed Urdu periodical, Zamaana, published from Kanpur, which received contributions from some of the best-known writers as also social reformers of the beginning of the last century. “No story had, thus far, had an influence on me as this story did... Publication of a new story by Prem Chand in Zamaana was considered an important event in the world of literature,” he writes.

As Prem Chand later came to teach at a school in Gorakhpur, ‘Firaq’ became a daily visitor to his house where Prem Chand talked to him about his life’s struggles against all odds. He told him how at a very young age, he had the privilege of attending daily sittings of some very intelligent elders at his friend’s house where there was a reading of the classic Tilism-e-Hosh Ruba (The Magical Ravishing of Senses), a great work written collectively by a group of writers with their own experiences of enchant-ments. “Listening regularly to Tilism-e-Hosh Ruba, Prem Chand’s world of sub-conscious thoughts was awakened like how after reading Alif Leila the dormant artistic consciousness of the famous novelist Charles Dickens had got awakened. Then, the flow of Urdu prose too created a thunder within Prem Chand,” ‘Firaq’ writes.

‘Firaq’ has written, in this obituary piece following Prem Chand’s death in 1936, about his great art of story-telling. But what is of great interest here is to know about Prem Chand’s contribution to the evolution of ‘Firaq’ as a great litterateur, that is not well known.

‘Firaq’ has traced Prem Chand’s rise as the greatest writer of his time in Urdu as well as in Hindi. Around 1919 ‘Firaq’ rejected his selection for the ICS and Prem Chand too, “whose salary would have gone upto Rs 1000, gave up his job along with me taking part in the Non-Cooperation Movement,” ‘Firaq’ recollects.

‘Firaq’ reminisces: “In a way I was also made a litterateur by Prem Chand. My first writing was got published in Zamaana by Prem Chand. When I was a political prisoner in jail it was Prem Chand who got some of my stories published in well-known perio-dicals. I had written a critique of his novel, Gosha-e-Aafiyat (Prem Ashram in Hindi) in jail itself after which he wrote to me: “I felt a spiritual upheaval after reading your critique. You understood my novel better than me.”

‘Firaq’ concludes what is probably one of the most moving obituaries of the great writer of Godaan and various other novels and innume-rable short stories thus:

“While reading a book by Prem Chand one feels as if mother India has lifted us in her arms. We hear murmurs of our hearts in Prem Chand’s voice. We get in the magical writings of Prem Chand the life of India, the temper of India, its agonies and ecstasies, its fate, its pious dignity (suhag) in a manner that is difficult to find elsewhere. This is the reason why among the contemporary writers of Hindi and Urdu Prem Chand has achieved popularity not only in India but international popularity as well.”

This obituary of Prem Chand by ‘Firaq’ Gorapkhpuri is included in a volume of his selected writings (Firaq Gorakhpuri: MuntakhibTehreerein, compiled by Professor Ali Ahmad Fatmi), published sometime ago by the National Book Trust. Prof Fatmi has to be congratulated for including some of the brilliant prose writings of the great poet, in this volume, along with a selection of his great poetry. His prose is as absorbing as is his poetry. It is an excellent introduction to his prose for those who have known him only as a great poet. It should be read by all lovers of Firaq’s immortal poetry.

The author is a veteran writer and journalist who was associated with Mainstream as its Assistant Editor in its early years.

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