June 2007 
Year 13    No.123

Hindu Taliban

Shadows and silences

By Ayesha Khan

It was a deluge of reactions from the Gujarati writers who felt it necessary to defend the Gujarati cultural and social space as tolerant and inclusive, contrary to Devy’s assertion. Both do not surprise, they are rather predictable, for there are two world views at play here. And as in rest of Gujarat, even in her literature, there is no meeting ground for them. And these raise some questions about Gujarati literature and her mainstream litterateurs.

While working on a research project, I had to read history of Gujarati literature. Like any non-Gujarati speaking, Gujarat domicile student, I opted for the standard books, and it was a Sahitya Akademi publication that Mansukhlal Jhaveri authored, History of Gujarati Literature, that was one such. I also checked on similar books, quite a few in Gujarati, for the history of Gujarati journalism. Though the purpose at the time was to deal with my ignorance, two things struck me after a preliminary read on the subject.

First is the singular absence of any Muslim writer in the list of history of Gujarati literature. Similarly, barring a couple of names like that of Haji Mohammed Allarakha Shivji, or now, Amin Qureshi, Yasin Dalal or previously, the Matari brothers, there are very few Muslim names to be found even among prominent Gujarati journalists.

Second, with the exception of more recent times and that too for those with some activist sensibilities, there is a singular absence of tribals, Dalits or Christians making it to the ranks of mainstream Gujarati columnists, senior journalists, writers or poets, This is in no way suggests that there are no significant Dalit, Christian, Muslims or other writers, poets, or even journalists in the state. Neither is this to emphasise their religious or ethnic identity, as a senior writer and poet once pointed out, it being contrary, and perhaps insulting to their creative sensibilities.

But literature does draw inspiration, as well as reflection, from a writer or poet’s background, environment and social realities. This then makes it stranger still because Muslims in the state have Gujarati, not Urdu, as their mother tongue, as do Dalits, tribals and others though dialects might differ. While the absence of literacy amongst tribals and Dalits in the early period of Gujarati journalism and even its literature can explain the lack of their ‘mainstream contribution’, it does not stand as a valid reason for the Muslims in the state, for they have not been "poor" or "backward" traditionally as in other parts of India.

As a lay reader I could interpret my findings in only two ways. Either that Muslims and the rest actually did not participate or make any significant contribution to Gujarati literature. Or their contribution does not fit the parameters or literary/journalistic standards of the time or that of the elite. If the former is true, the present scenario is easier to understand as it only highlights the historic isolation or rather lack of social exchange between the two major communities in the state.

The second scenario is more interesting. While not adept at commenting on literary nuances of Gujarati or for that matter any language, I am basing my comments on the basis of popular contributions made by writers in different languages. And then, this is how I understand the absence or lack of a Kazi Nazrul Islam maybe or even a Vaikom Mohammed Bashir in Gujarat. Even as I write this, I admit that I take no cognisance of the folk literature or forms, the oral traditions, the Persian/Arabic influence, the most notable being that of the constantly evolving Gujarati ghazal form.

The questions therefore: Is it that there has been a conscious/unconscious non-acknowledgement of those who did not come from the social elite – that is the Vaishya/Brahmin/ Bania-Jain or now the Patels – by the dominant Gujarati literary clique? Or why is it that other sections of society have not been able to evolve in terms of popularly accepted literature? How is it that the ghazal format in Gujarati poetry found popularity? Who forms the standards of "acceptable" merit in Gujarati literature and what are they? How inclusive or exclusive are the formal bodies of literature, poetry, and who patronises them in Gujarat?

Why does Gujarati literature, barring few exceptions, not reflect the social realities of the time? Barring very few exceptions, where are the woes of partition, where is the literature that might have been inspired by Chhapaniyo Dukal (the drought of 1956), or even the riotous decades of the seventies and eighties in Ahmedabad and Vadodara? Where is the fiction or poetry that has gripped a common Gujarati as does a Manto, Premchand or even, say, a PL Deshpande? True, as Gujaratis we have our KM Munshi, whose blend and interpretation of history and folk interpretation has never faced the rigour of academic criticism. We have our Saraswati Chandra, we have our Sat Pagla Akash Ma (Seven Steps to the Universe).

But where can one read about undivided Gujarat, and of Karachi, more specifically, Kutch, as you can in Punjabi and Bengali literature? Why are the Gujarati mainstream literary elite so cagey of talking about contemporary times and social realities? Why does the rhyme-metre, the classical tradition drawn from religion and history, matter more than the evolved experimental format? In this context, writer Rajendra Shah’s disdainful reply to questions about his lack of response to the 2002 violence and even the razing of Wali Gujarati’s tomb (who, incidentally, is considered the father of modern Urdu poetry), is understandable. It did shake Mahasweta Devi to a response, but not Gujarati writers.

(Excerpts from Ayesha Khan’s research. The writer is a former journalist with The Indian Express, Vadodara.)

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