It was because of Khushwant Singh that I made my first journey into the wonders of the Urdu language, says Syed Firdaus Ashraf. He promoted Urdu like no other English writer in India has ever done.
Rest in Peace, Dear Sir.
As a young Muslim, it was painful to grow up in the communally divided India of the early 1990s. The dark shadows of the Ram Janambhoomi-Babri Masjid tensions loomed large as I grappled with questions that did not seem to have any convincing answers.
From my point of view, as a teenager on the cusp of adulthood, I felt that Muslims had been left out from India's economic development and were looking towards Allah for solutions to their problems.
I always wondered how Allah would solve their problems.
The answer came to me in Khushwant Singh's beautifully translated English work, Shikwa Jawab-e-Shikwa (Complaint to Allah and his response) by Sir Muhammad Iqbal (Allama Iqbal).
Khushwant Singh had translated this book of Urdu poetry for lay readers like me who didn't know the language.
The Shikwa poem was written in 1909 by Iqbal, where he complains to Allah about how he had let Muslims down.
The poems are a litany to Allah about how Muslims travelled across continents to spread their faith, but by the 19th century they were reduced to poverty, illiteracy and ignorance -- whereas the 'infidels' (mainly the British and other Westerners) had gained supremacy.
In one sentence Iqbal wrote:
Barq girti hain toh becharey musalmano par
(Lightning only strikes the poor Muslims and spares other communities)
Iqbal further writes how the 'infidels' gained wealth and enjoyed life's pleasures whereas Muslims were only promised houris in paradise.
The book created a furore in the Muslim world because it was the first time any poet had written something like that in the Indian subcontinent. Nobody had published a book complaining to Allah.
Four years later, in 1913, Iqbal wrote Jawab-e-Shikwa in which Allah replied to all the questions the poet had raised in Shikwa.
In Jawab-e-Shikwa, Allah tells Muslims why they had gone astray and what wrong they had done.
It is thanks to Khushwant Singh and his translation of Iqbal's book that I understood the Muslim psyche. I believe this translation by Khushwant Singh is a must read for every individual in the subcontinent who wants to understand Muslim politics during Partition and until now.
My association with Khushwant Singh did not end there. It continued with various Urdu couplets which he translated beautifully in his columns.
Often he quoted lesser known Urdu poets in his columns and translated their poetry.
One of them is from Balmukand Arsh Malsiyani (1908-1979)'s poem Haqiqat.
Firdaus key chashmon kee ravaanee pey na ja
Ai Shaikh too jannat kee kahaanee pey na ja
Is vahm ko chhor, apney burhapey hee ko dekh
Hooraan-e-bahishtee kee javaanee pey na ja
(Do not get taken in by tales of streams that flow in paradise;
Old Sheikh, do not be fooled by stories of heavenly delights;
Forget this make-believe, be your age, see your grey hair forsooth
Don't dream of houris in the bloom of their youth).
If memory serves me right, I recall Khushwant Singh writing somewhere that if you never want to hate any community, you must fall in love with a woman from that community.
How right he was!
When that girl departs from your life, he wrote you will never end up hating that community, but start appreciating them without seeing their negative side.
In his memoir he relates how he fell in love with a Muslim girl in his youth.
Khushwant Singh was a great Indian. He always stressed India's secularism in his writing and always highlighted that secularism was essential to India's ethos. Little wonder that right-wing Hindu parties never liked him.
He promoted Urdu like no other English journalist has ever done.
In his final years, he lamented that Urdu would die a natural death because the government had lost interest in preserving it.
He also felt that the Urdu Nastaliq script should be written in Devnagri or Roman English if it had to survive because he did not see any future for Urdu in India.
He felt that was the only way to save Urdu.
The book that brought me even closer to Khushwant Singh and changed my life was Delhi.
In the book, there is a chapter on Mir Taqi Mir, the Urdu poet about whom the great Mirza Ghalib said:
Rekhta Ke Tum Hi Ustad Nahi Ho Ghalib,
Kehte Hai Agley Zamaney Mien Koi Mir Bhi Tha
(You are not the only master of Urdu, Ghalib.
People say there was Mir in the past).
Delhi tells the story of how Mir falls in love with a married woman and loses his mind after she spurns him, making Mir realise that love is all illusion and not reality.
It captures what Mir felt during the invasion of Delhi by Nadir Shah in 1739 and twenty-two years later, after the Third Battle of Panipat.
What Khushwant Singh wrote about Mir Taqi Mir made me realise that until you learn the Urdu language, you will never be able to understand Urdu poetry -- because the essence of Urdu is lost in translation.
Moreover, if you want to know what Muslims felt during that period, it can only be understood firsthand if you read Urdu.
At the age of 40, after a discussion with a colleague who was learning Spanish then, I realised I should also learn a new language. He asked me when he could learn Spanish at his age, why could I not learn a new language?
I then zeroed in on Urdu.
It has been more than a year now and I am able to read the language decently enough, though writing Urdu is not possible.
I have to thank Khushwant Singh for it. It was because of him that I made my first journey into the wonders of Urdu with Shikwa Jawab-e-Shikwa.
Khushwant Singh always said he was an atheist and challenged the existence of God. Mir too challenges the existence of Allah with this beautiful Urdu couplet:
Mir ke deen-o-mazhab ka poonchte kya ho
un nay to kashka khaincha, der mein baitha kab ka tark Islam kiya
(What can I tell you about Mir's faith or belief?
A tilak on his forehead, he resides in a temple, having abandoned Islam long ago).