Khwaja Ahmad Abbas is one of the most venerable names in the Progressive Writers Movement which was born in colonial India about eighty years ago. June is his month, and the current year marks thirty years since his passing away, while the 7th of June marks his 103rd birthday. Abbas was truly one of India’s renaissance men, having an astonishingly active working life of over fifty years, contributing to such diverse genres as the short story, journalism, column-writing, film direction and script-writing. His oeuvre runs to a total of about 74 books. In 2014, his birth centenary was celebrated with fanfare in India. His family and the memorial trust set up by them under the guidance of Abbas’s paternal great-niece Syeda Hameed produced a wonderful commemorative volume of his writings in English, which this reviewer wrote of in these pages last year.
Unfortunately, despite his enormous productivity and the humanist message of his work, his work remains little known in Pakistan. A laudable, though belated attempt was made to redress this last year when the Progressive Writers Association celebrated the 102nd birthday of Abbas in a day-long seminar in Lahore featuring literary papers on the man, dramatic readings from his work and film and music clips from his iconic films. It was the first time Khwaja Ahmad Abbas had been remembered since 1947 in Pakistan.Given the increasingly right-wing turn of late in the two largest countries of the Indian subcontinent a discussion of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas and his work is critical to sustain a politics of hope and humanism in our depressing times.
The volume – actually a long short story – under review offers an interesting way to understand India at a time when both womanhood and motherhood are definitely under assault in Modi’s India. It offers five different odes to help understand the face of secular India through the eyes of five remarkable, ordinary women and the progressive vision of Abbas, the writer. Syeda Hameed, Abbas’s great-niece, supplies a valuable preface to the book: by not only helpfully contextualising Abbas’s work and legacy but also shedding light on why he wrote the book in the first place.
In his own preface to the story, written as Syeda tells us with his heart’s blood, Abbas inquires: “Who is Mother India? Is it a goddess residing in the sky sent by Bhagwan for our protection? Is she some maharani bedecked with silk sari and gold jewelry who is seen in films or dramas?”
He continues: “When I hear the slogan of ‘Praise to Mother India’, the pictures of a few ordinary women emerge in my mind. None of them is famous. What to talk of their pictures, none of their names has even been published to date in newspapers. But every one of them deserves to be called Mother India. All of these stories are from the time of India’s struggle for independence and the partition. ”
The first story ‘A Shroud of Khaddar’ tells us about the first mother who is an old julahan living in Panipat, who everyone calls by the name of Hakko. Once she had heard some speeches by Gandhi and the Ali brothers on non-cooperation and swaraj (self-rule). After the meeting, when the time for donation arrived, Hakko took off all her silver jewelry for the cause. From that day on, she became a ‘khilafati’ and spent all her time in spinning the charkha. She was weaving a shroud of khaddar for herself.
The mother of the second story ‘The Defeat of Manu Maharaj’ is a Brahmin from Pune. She only understands Marathi language. She spends the whole day serving her family and supplicating. Abbas writes:
‘Nani never read a newspaper, listened to the radio, nor heard the speeches of any political leader at any political gathering. She never raised the slogan of ‘Inquilab Zindabad’. The revolution, looking for her automatically reached Nani through the narrow lanes of Pune.’
How did it happen? You will know by reading the story. Abbas has also commented upon a society based on caste at the beginning of the story.
In the third story ‘Our India’ is a Brahmin woman living in Tamil Nadu whose family represents the whole of India. Many languages are spoken in her home like Tamil, Bengali, Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati and English. She is interested in every aspect of life. She reads books, watches films, does the household chores and even argues over politics. Abbas writes: ‘This is a new wonderful face of Mother India, in one of whose hands is a book, and a fan in the other, a rose in her hair, the magic of Bengal in her eyes and the determination and mischief of youth in her heart.’
Given the increasingly right-wing turn of late in India and Pakistan, discussing Khwaja Ahmad Abbas and his work is critical to sustain a politics of hope and humanism in depressing times
The fourth story ‘Sharnarthi’ (Refugee) is about a sardarni living in Rawalpindi. In August-September 1947 when a storm swept aside one billion humans like dried leaves from one place to another, this mother who was known as Maan Ji was made homeless and became a refugee in Mumbai. She could never even think that she would have to leave her city. But she had no rancour or anger in her heart. She used to mention her Peshawari Muslim neighbours with a lot of love. Abbas writes, ‘It seemed as if the heart of this refugee Mother India had no place for hatred and anger. Just memories of the past from her abandoned homeland. Memories which are soft and delicate like pears and sweet-smelling like apricots.’
The fifth story, ‘The Death of Hatred’ is easily the most moving and personal of all the stories. It is the story of Abbas’s own mother who was uprooted from her home in Panipat. India was partitioned and the residents of Panipat were forcibly sent across the border. Abbas’s mother refused to leave India and the son called his mother to Mumbai, where she would remain permanently. When she heard the cruelties perpetrated by some Muslims on Hindus, she used to cry a lot. She prayed daily, ‘O Allah! All homeless Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs return to their homes and through their offering we should also return to Panipat. Amen. ’
If we make these five mothers stand in a row, what is the value common to them? If we say it in just a word, these five mothers carry feelings of immense love for humanity. Except one mother, the other four are only nominally educated but their philosophy of life leaves all the wise ones behind. All of them possess the passion of patriotism. But this love rises even above the nation, becoming the love of all humanity. Their language is the language of humanity. All five mothers have suffered many sorrows in their lives but neither their heart has hate nor their attitude has rancor. This is the real face of Mother India. So why did Khwaja Ahmad Abbas write about these five Mother Indias? His novels, essays and films are the harbingers of progressive thought. He always understood the importance of humanity, equality and brotherhood.
The volume seeks to understand secular India through the eyes of five remarkable, ordinary women and the progressive vision of Abbas, the writer
Though this story is beautifully illustrated by Niloufer Wadia, and issued and marketed as a children’s edition, but it serves as a beautiful reminder to adults of the equal importance of every human being and the meaninglessness of differences of caste, gender and class. It serves as a great introduction to the vitality of Abbas’s breadth of work. I wish publishers in Pakistan also re-introduce the work of such comrades of Abbas in the Progressive movement for our children like Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Krishan Chander and Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi who have also created wonderful characters complementing Abbas’s mothers in the book under review. I will end this review with the final, redeeming paragraph of the last story in the volume:
‘She is buried in a graveyard of Karachi but her soul….her memory…the example of her life is here in India. All her property was looted in Panipat but the inheritance she has left for us is much more valuable than houses, jewelry, ornaments and that six feet earth of Pakistan will forever be India because a Mother India lies buried within.’
Raza Naeem is a writer and translator based in Lahore. He is also the President of the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) in Lahore.
The PWA will be commemorating the 103rd birthday of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas at its weekly seminar on Saturday, the 10th of June 2017, at the Pak Tea House in Lahore, 7 pm.
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He is currently working on a book, Sahir Ludhianvi’s Lahore, Lahore’s Sahir Ludhianvi, forthcoming in 2022. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org