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April 28, 2019

Jamil Jalibi, Haji Baghlol and Pakistani politics: Part - I


April 28, 2019

When Jamil Jalibi died last week on April 18, 2019, at the age of 92, Urdu lost an intellectual of high calibre whose books run into dozens – all of them of considerable merit.

Though some people have an issue with his having been appointed the vice-chancellor of the University of Karachi in 1983, at the height of General Ziaul Haq’s dictatorship, he remains an outstanding historian of the Urdu literature. He was a senior bureaucrat working for the income-tax department when he was picked to be the VC of the University of Karachi.

But here we are not concerned with him being considered a favourite of General Ziaul Haq, when the MRD movement was in full swing and the dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq was crushing liberal and progressive politics – both mainstream and that led by students – by unleashing ethnic and sectarian goons on campuses. Jalibi was ostensibly a non-political professional, though in the time of a raging democratic struggle, remaining neutral itself becomes a political statement. Irrespective of his four-year term as VC during some of the darkest years of Pakistan history from 1983 to 1987, Jalibi was an outstanding scholar whose writings have impressed at least two generations of Urdu readers.

Discussing all his books and evaluating his contributions to Urdu literature is beyond the pale of this column, so here we will simply discuss one of his lesser known and shorter pieces of writing that has a specific relevance to present-day Pakistan. ‘Haji Baghlol’ was one of the first novels written in Urdu by Munshi Sajjad Hussain in the late 19th century. That novel had gone into relative obscurity, when Jamil Jalibi resurrected it and wrote a ‘Muqaddama’ (foreword or preface) to it, coupled with a brief glossary of difficult Urdu words used in the novel.

In this two-part column, first we will discuss the erudite foreword penned by Jalibi, and in the last part we will discuss the novel itself and its resemblance to the Pakistan of the 21st century. In his introduction to ‘Haji Baghlol’, Jalibi informs us that Munshi Sajjad Hussain (1856–1915) was an Urdu humourist and satirist who launched ‘Awadh Punch’ in 1877, when he was only 21 years old. ‘Haji Baghlol’ was serialized and became one of the highly popular early Urdu novels. ‘Awadh Punch’ followed almost the same pattern borrowed from the original ‘Punch’ that was launched in 1841 by two English journalists.

Jamil Jalibi compiled – and corrected for mistakes and typographical errors – the various episodes of ‘Haji Baghlol’ and wrote the preface to it in 1959. The book that I have in my collection was published in 1961 in Karachi. The foreword written by Jalibi is hardly 30 pages but it contains a wealth of information about the Urdu literature of that period. Jalibi starts by informing us that Urdu novel writing is not that old. It appeared on the scene after the flickering torch of the Mughal Empire was finally extinguished.

Awadh or Oudh (present-day Uttar Pradesh or UP in India with its capital at Lucknow) had lost its glory and pomposity. Wajid Ali Shah had been arrested and sent to Calcutta (now Kolkata). The English had established their foothold strongly and with them a new culture and literature started emerging. On one side there were norms and values that belonged to the older civilization which had lost its energy and vitality. That civilization was unable to stem the onslaught of the new culture and literature. On the other side, there were Western concepts and ideas that had engulfed Indian society in a storm.

This new storm had brought with it new consciousness and knowledge that were opening new vistas. Up until then, Urdu literature had poetry or tales which tried to carry forward the same traditions despite the fact that Indian society was no more the same. That declining civilization of yore had witnessed people wasting their time narrating stories and tales inherited from their forefathers. Now the English civilization, Jalibi continues, had introduced novel-writing in India. Deputy Nazeer Ahmad became one of the first novelists in Urdu.

After the launch of ‘Awadh Punch’ in 1877 in Lucknow, Pundit Ratan Nath Sarshar launched his own ‘Awadh Akhbar’ in 1878 and ‘Fasana-e-Azaad’ was serialized in it for two years. Jalibi discusses briefly the impact of the novels from Charles Dickens and Sir Walter Scott, who themselves were inspired by earlier novels such as ‘Don Quixote’. In Urdu, ‘Baagh-o-Bahaar’ and ‘Fasan-e-Ajaeb’ attracted people’s attention almost immediately. ‘Awadh Punch’ was a humourous newspaper and Mushi Sajjad Hussain himself was a great humourist. Jalibi quotes Chakbast – Brij Narayan who died at an unripe age of just 44.

Chakbast says that ‘Awadh Punch’ was the first newspaper that was not run as a business; rather it followed the Western principles of high-class editorship, and carved its own niche. Munshi Sajjad Hussain himself had a bout of paralysis at the age of 45 in 1901 and could not fully recover till his death in 1915. ‘Awadh Punch’ was closed down in 1913. Jalibi describes how Munshi Sajjad was faced with acute financial problems during his last years and how he left at least six novels to his credit: ‘Pyari Dunya’, ‘Mithi Chhuri’, ‘Ahmaqulazi’, ‘Hayat-e-Shaikh Chilli’, ‘Tarahdar Laundi,’ and ‘Haji Baghlol’.

Jalibi thinks that the humour and satire we notice in Sajjad Hussain was essentially a reworking of ‘Don Quixote’ of Cervantes and ‘Pickwick Papers’ of Dickens. At that time, ‘Awadh Punch’ and ‘Awadh Akhbar’ were competing against each other for a wider readership and Sajjad Hussain wanted to create a character that could beat the characters of Azad and Khoji of Sarshar. Jalibi tells us that the new character was a combination of Don Quixote and Pickwick. The result was ‘Haji Baghlol’ that was serialized in ‘Awadh Punch’. Don Quixote and Sancho Penza were also used by Sarshar to create Azad and Khoji.

Sajjad Hussain used his own creativity and imagination that enabled him to craft ‘Haji Baghlol’ and ‘Harfa Revrhi’. The spear of Don Quixote is transformed by Sarshar into a dagger (‘qaroli’) and Sajjad Hussain modifies it into a staff (jareeb). But Jalibi points out that Haji Baghlol was more influenced or inspired by Dickens’ Pickwick. Dickens had placed his fictional character Pickwick in one comic disaster after another, and Sajjad Hussain does the same with Haji Baghlol in an Indian context. Both create comedy that often is a cause of tragic consequences.

Haji Baghlol and his assistant are from our society, with all their idiosyncrasies emanating from an eastern milieu. Interestingly, Jalibi points out, comic characters and their tragi-comic adventures are also shaped by the audience or readers who rejoiced at repeated disasters. Those who create such characters keep in mind the level of the audience and try to match the expectations. The likes and dislikes of the audience, readers, or spectators, shape a non-serious narrative that sparks laughter but also has a sad aspect to it. The script writers are guided by not only their own compulsions, but also by the morbid enjoyment sought by the people.

In the next and last part of this series tomorrow, we will discuss ‘Haji Baghlol’, and try to figure out how, after almost 140 years, the audience, the characters, and the script writers, carry on with their respective roles. How a post-Mughal scenario of a declining civilization and a decadent culture is still prevalent, and how some people – even after being surrounded by new advancements and changing socio-political structures – still persist with their old-fashioned designs and wishful thinking. The creators of characters and plots think that it is funny to be comic; sadly they don’t anticipate any unfortunate turn of events.

To be continued

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

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