Kaam hai mera taghayyur, naam mera shabaab
(My task is change, my name is youth)
mera na’ara: inqilaab-o-inqilaab-o-inqilaab
(My slogan: revolution and revolution and revolution)
— Josh Malihabadi
This couplet is often used to describe succinctly the work of Shabbir Hasan Khan, more popularly known by his pen name, Josh Malihabadi. His work earned him the name ‘Shair-e-Inquilaab’ or Poet of the Revolution, given he wrote extensively about the socio-political concerns the country was facing when under colonial rule.
Writing poetry was something that ran in Josh’s blood. His lineage can be traced to an affluent Afridi Pathan family from Malihabad, Lucknow, and his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all poets. With such a rich history, “he couldn’t have been anything but a verse-wielder”.
But this ‘verse-wielder’ is not celebrated or studied nearly enough. His relationship with his contemporaries (rivals, especially) has been one of deep animosity. He was believed to be a “straight-shooter, known for calling a spade a spade and seldom entertained mediocrity”. While some of his contemporaries were afraid of losing aristocracy, secured jobs or favours, his truth mattered too much to him.
His bluntness, among other traits, is further revealed in Josh: Mere Baba — shakhs aur shaaer, by Farrukh Jamal Malihabadi — Josh’s grandson — where many records are set straight. Josh was a stickler for pronunciation, and the book recounts an interesting anecdote.
“Once General Ayub Khan, while trying to flatter Josh Sahib, said to him that he was a great alam. To this the poet immediately replied that the right word is alim (scholar), not alam. This made Ayub cringe and he gave orders that the cement agency that Josh Sahib ran be shut down. And it happened.”
The life-long rebel
The rebel in Josh Malihabadi was definitive of many turning points in his life. “He loved Urdu and was keen on the chastity of the language,” professor (Dr) Hari Desai, former editor, Indian Express Group, Mumbai, tells ThePrint.
His devotion towards the language even prompted him to leave the country, because he feared Urdu would have no place in India. His decision, which came in 1956, was not received well by India’s first prime minister and an admirer of Josh’s work, Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru tried multiple times to stop Josh from making this decision, but he refused to listen.
In India, while towering personalities such as Sardar Patel and Maulana Aza were his fans — “the rightist Deputy Prime Minister Patel appointed the leftist Shayar as the Editor of Aaj-Kal, the Urdu magazine of his Information and Broadcasting Ministry” — Josh did not receive this love from the Pakistani high command. “The Pakistani fans lured him and he was deceived,” says Desai.
His blunt nature landed him in trouble there as well. “He felt cheated in Pakistan, was blacklisted for his interview where he condemned not only Jinnah but also his two-nation theory. Josh was branded as an Indian agent but could not return and had to live in Pakistan till his death in 1982,” Desai says.
However, the poet and his work were celebrated posthumously when the Pakistani government commemorated his centenary by issuing a postal stamp in his name. He was also bestowed with the Hilal-I-Pakistan, the country’s highest civilian award, in 2012.
Although it can be safely said that his fear of Urdu dying in India has been proven wrong, this is not something he could have known those many years ago, when Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus were all being slaughtered at the hands of Partition.
In an interview he once said, “Because I speak the truth and truth, as you know, is a dangerous thing. But I have never compromised my ideals and my ideology.” It was this resolve that set him apart from his contemporaries.
The life-long rebel’s choice — who was morally anti-establishment — to move to Pakistan has been a contentious topic. His candour led him to unemployment, his autobiography Yaadon ki Baarat being banned, and his work being underappreciated, and yet he stood by it. It was remarkable then, and is rare now, but we must give his work the appreciation and recognition it deserves, even if it’s belated.