By Ishtiaq Ahmed
My article ‘Street theatre in Delhi’ dated Saturday, March 31, 2007, evoked strong emotions in India and Pakistan because the veteran writer Krishan Chander’s name had been mentioned in connection with the play I saw performed. Many of us are hugely in debt to him for inspiring in us a humanism, which has survived all the traumas of the late twentieth century. At the beginning of the twenty-first century we are still convinced with quixotic zeal that the pen is superior to the sword, and therefore it should be wielded in behalf of those who have no means to defend themselves against armed bullies and their patrons.
Krishan Chander died working at his desk in Mumbai on March 8, 1977. He had just started to write a satirical essay entitled Adab baray-e-Batakh (Literature for a duck), and wrote just one line ‘Noorani ko bachpan hi sey paltoo janwaron ka shock tha. Kabootar, bandar, rang barangi chiriyaan…’ (Since childhood Noorani was fond of pet animals such as pigeons, monkeys, multi-coloured birds…’) but before he could complete the sentence he succumbed to a massive heart attack.
I remember the news of his death was received in Stockholm by us with great anguish. Only a few weeks earlier, on an impulse entirely, I had written to him after reading one of his latest stories in which he had mentioned Mohni Road Lahore, where he once lived in the late 1930s and until he left Lahore sometime in the early 1940s for Delhi to take up a job with All-India Radio. I urged him to visit Lahore where some of his best friends were still to be found. He was needed to preach his message of peace again in Lahore. He wrote back a very moving reply dated February 21, 1977. In it he wrote, among other things:
‘Lahore is a place where I was born, where I was educated, where I started my literary career, where I achieved fame. For people of my generation it is difficult to forget Lahore. It shines in our heart like a jewel — like the fragrance of our soul’.
I sent the letter to Mazhar Ali Khan, editor of the Viewpoint, Lahore along with an obituary. Both were published in the April 8, 1977 issue on page 26 under the title ‘His last letter?’
Krishan Chander’s date of birth given in some publications is November 23, 1914 and the place of birth usually mentioned is Wazirabad, a small town in Gujranwala district of West Punjab. In some places Bharatpur is given as his place of birth, which must be a complete mistake. 1912 and 1913 are also mentioned as his year of birth. In a short-story entitled ‘Ataa hey yaad mujh ko’ (I remember it) he says that in 1920 he had entered the seventh year of his life. In that case 1914 must be the year of his birth.
According to his own account, which I have quoted above, he was born in Lahore. His father, Dr Gori Shanker Chopra, was from Wazirabad but it is possible that Krishan Chander was born in Lahore because in those days it was a common practice that wives would go to their parents’ house to give birth to children. His mother could have been from Lahore.
Krishan Chander studied at F C College, Lahore, where many years later I studied as well. There is no doubt that it was in Lahore that he attained recognition and fame. Lahore was the cultural and educational capital of north-western India. It was also a paragon of communal harmony and peace.
The publishers of Krishan Chander’s novels and short-stories were the Chaudhry brothers of Lahore. Muhammad Khalid Chaudhry published Krishan Chander key Sou Afsanay (100 Short-Stories of Krishan Chander) some years ago as a tribute to the late writer. An English translation is given of what he wrote in the introduction:
‘When my father, Chaudhry Barkat Ali, was alive there was always a large gathering in the office of Maktab-e-Urdu and Adab-e-Lateef. Educationists, writers and political leaders were always there. From morning to evening the atmosphere was gregarious. Now, it feels like a sweet dream. Among writers who without fail visited the office of Adab-e-Lateef everyday was Krishan Chander. I was a young lad at that time, but the company of writers made me curious about literature. I knew almost all of them. Krishan Chander became my friend. When the editor of Adab-e-Lateef, Mirza Adeeb, was not in the office he would start a conversation with me. He spoke very gently and I listened to him with great interest. I still recall what he said and will always do so. I can never forget Krishan Chander. By publishing 100 of his select short-stories I am acknowledging his affection for me’.
Krishan Chander always wrote to give voice to those who ordinarily would not be considered important enough to be heard. His literary masterpieces on the Bengal famine and the savagery and barbarism in 1947 are some of the finest specimens of modern Urdu literature, but at other times too he continued relentlessly to critique the abuse of power, poverty and the suffering of the wretched of the earth; but above all he never stopped protesting casteism, fanaticism, communal violence and terror. He was born a Hindu but lived his life as just a human being.
Some say his stories were predicable, because the heroes and villains in them were known as soon as one had an idea of the class background of his characters. Such a view is grossly misleading and unwarranted. I would rather argue that in this age of uncertainty and opportunism we need voices that can be relied upon. We need to hear loudly that humanism is morally superior to religious and national bigotry.
Krishan Chander’s friend, the veteran Pakistani journalist and literature critic, Hamid Akhtar, wrote an obituary in which he said:
“Krishan Chander died without coming to Lahore which was his city as it is yours or mine. He didn’t belong to India alone. He belonged, among many others, to us also. Bedi, Majrooh, Kaifi, Sardar, Razia — they are ours as much as they are India’s. Will the new generation give them a chance to sit together and talk together? I am sure that the day is not far off when progressive writers on both sides of the border will get together again and the dark clouds of hatred will break and there will be love and friendship between the peoples of India and Pakistan once again/” (Viewpoint, Lahore, March 18, 1977).
That was written in 1977. Now we are midway through 2007.
The writer is professor of political science at the University of Stockholm, Sweden. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org