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Sunday, November 28, 1999
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Remembering the doyen of Urdu satire

He was the tallest of Delhi writers who brought out the soul of Delhi in a manner no one has done before or after him. He died unsung without any literary award. Two decades after him, his Piaz ke Chilke (The Onion’s Skin) is still remembered,
K.K. Khullar

‘I HAVE been living in the city of Delhi for the last two decades, one of which has passed in waiting for the DTC bus, the other for socialism. Both are running late’. By far the greatest name in satire in any language, Fikr Taunsvi, who wrote in Urdu, died about two decades ago. He died, without a Sahitya Akademi Award, in poverty while his critics are wallowing in riches. Urdu seems to be the only modern Indian language where awards are given to critics more liberally than they are to creative writers. Even Krishan Chander, the greatest novelist in the post-Independence India, did not get the Sahitya Akademi Award. Nor did Ismat Chugtai.

In an autobiographical foreword to a collection of his satires, Fikr wrote: "Fikr Taunsvi is author’s ficticious name. His real name is quite absurd. His parents are poor. As such he is favourably inclined towards the poor i.e. his parents, in his writing. He hopes that the poor shall prevail so that someone shall have something to write about." To start with, he wrote poems which he himself did not understand. With great difficulty, he understood that he was an inferior poet and a superior prose writer. Initially, he did not believe that he was a first- rate satirist but his admirers grew so much in number that the conviction also came. "The day this belief is broken he shall commit suicide. His face is grotesque but his writing is handsome. People want to see him after reading him. After seeing him they stop reading him. As such he is hiding his face from the public. Man has to do so many things to save his izzat." This is a rough draft of a note written in self-praise by the author.

By far the greatest satirist in modern Urdu prose, he challenges comparison with Swift and Shaw. If his words are barbed, his humour is vivacious, drawn as it is from real life. He wrote a daily column in Urdu Milap and made the sorrowful nation laugh everyday. He never wished anyone a happy new year on the plea that happiness is only an occasional episode in the general drama of pain; that happiness is unreal, it is the unhappiness which is real. He, therefore, wished his friends and foes a "Less Unhappy New Year".

As a censor of the age, he had no equal. As a satirist, he had no peer. His heroes were the injured and the insulted, his villains are the VIPs in whom he perceives a concealed crookedness, a hidden hypocricy and deep-rooted cunning. He is one writer who did not compromise with the men in authority who trembled at his very name. He brought every VIP in his column Piaz ke Chilke (The Onion’s Skin) but since Urdu is a dying swan in its land of birth, very few read him. Those who read him were powerless. Fikr hated power, he hated pelf. In any other country he would have been a zillionaire. But he was as Indian as rogan josh, as desi ghee or desi chappal. Fikr was extraordinary, an Indian to the core.

It is something unique that the lack of awards never made him angry or bitter. Fikr was an incorrigible optimist, an all-time hopeful. He hoped for better order, a better deal for the poor during his lifetime. But that was not to be. He died with the regret that his gods had failed him. Fikr was a communist but he was happily married. Fikr thought writing to be an agent of change. How mistaken he was. The more it changes the more it remains the same.

During dictatorships, writing can change society. It is unfortunate that in democracy it cannot. Fikr was socialist by temperament, a democrat by birth. He recalls with nostalgia the days when the village bania cheated the hill shepherds who exchanged silk with salt. The shepherds had no salt for their bread while the bania’s thirst for the silk was insatiable. And yet the village bania weighed less and cheated the shepherds. Fikr always took the side of the shepherds. In fact, he himself was a sort of literary shepherd.

Fikr’s laughter is genuine even though his teeth were artificial and yet Fikr was not a political pamphleteer. What saved him from being so was his humanity and his art. He made Urdu satire warm and worthy. He derived his material from the common people —the hewers of wood and the drawers of water, the men and women with and without culture. Fikr is not a "culturewallah" sitting in art galleries and saloons and writing from the glass house. According to him, the pimp and the prostitute are more honest than the poet and the politician.

Fikr stood for a society where the strong are just and the weak secure, where the head is held high and the mind is free, where the society is tolerant and contributes towards the onward march of humanity; a society where no child is out of school, no adult is illiterate and nobody is unemployed. Although Fikr himself never went beyond high school, he stood for a society that prized learning. He says "In my village there was zero per cent literacy but hundred per cent wisdom". Education, he said, was not literacy. Education is an attitude of mind.

Thus, Fikr talks of his village where life was simple and easy, of his early childhood when he fell in love with a shepherdess. He remembers vividly in his writings the stories of Sasi-Punnu, Heer-Ranjha, Sohini-Mahiwal. He recalls in its details the caravans of camels singing the songs of love and separation, of marriage and union, of indifference and villainy.

He refers to the heard melodies which are sweet and those unheard which are sweeter. Fikr was no Keats, but he left Keats far behind.

Fikr’s collections, include Chaupat Raja, Warrant Girafavi Badnam Kitab, Chatta Darya and Fikrnama. He is at his best in the last named. He wonders why there is illiteracy in front of centres of excellence, why children are naked in front of textile mills, why people are hungry in front of hotels. "In my village, there was no Hindu pani or Muslim pani. Water and wells belonged to all. There was the common school, the common ghat, the common shrine." Fikr’s childhood was spent in a village called Taunsa Sharif which was revered both by the Hindus and the Muslims.

Fikr’s satire is humane. He has rescued it from vapidity and violence, the artificiality of daastan and quissa and above all from the hollowness and hypocricy of the essay. One of his books, Chaupat Raja, is dedicated to the fool, who always makes wise remarks about the foolish deeds of wisemen. An intellectual who never went to a university, his satire is sharp and incisive. Although he is dead, his Piaz ke Chilke is still alive. The more you peel it, the more bitter it becomes till tears come to your eyes.

Fikr wrote extensively on the galli-kutchas of Dilli, its beggars and buses. "The Delhi bus is the heartbeat of the city. When it stops, Delhi becomes lifeless. Half the population is always in movement till midnight. It connects the lover with his beloved, the exploiter with the exploited." Delhi’s buildings, even historical buildings, according to Fikr, look beautiful during the daytime but disappear like ghosts at night.

More than a satirist, Fikr is our social historian who has peeped into every home and brought out life’s little ironies so delicately that everyone, including the one who is the target of his attack, enjoys reading about it. He has also written volumes on middle class morality, the babudom of Delhi, the corruption in the government offices, the pious frauds of religion and the barbarity of cultural institutions which contribute nothing or next to nothing to the culture of the city-- the Akademis where there is hardly anything academic.

A question that has often been asked during the last two decades is : "After Fikr Taunsvi who?" The answer which he gave during his lifetime stands: "After Fikr, his satires, his Piaz ke Chilke." The book still provides joy to his readers.

What Fikr needs today is a translator.Back

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