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Abbas: An Island - 1
- Dr. R.G. Mathapati

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

"I know that LOVE and SERVICE of humanity is GOOD and BENEFICIAL to ALL, and causing INJURY and INJUSTICE to OTHER human beings is HELL. I have lived according to the RELIGION which is a part of ALL RELIGIONS - including ISLAM in which I was born and brought-up, and the ISLAMIC culture which I have imbibed. So, I take leave of ALL with a smile of understanding and LOVE. Love me if you can. That is the FATEHA that you may recite."

Khwaja Ahmed Abbas the great grandson of the epoch making poet Khwaja Altaf Husain (Hali) is an unexplored island in the partially visible world* of Indian writing in English. He is undoubtedly one of the most conspicuous Indian writers in English. 

Abbas is known as a producer, director, orator and journalist of international repute. But a large number of his significant novels, short stories, plays, biographies, travelogues, including books on politics, history and films, are dubbed as mere journalese. He has written more than seventy books in English, Hindi and Urdu, including twelve novels and six collections of short stories, which are buried along with the yellowing cuttings of his columns in files. 

Abbas traveled round the world more than once as a messenger of universal brotherhood and interviewed several renowned personalities in literary and non-literary fields, including the Russian Prime Minister Khrushchov, American President Roosevelt, Charlie Chaplin, Mao-Tse-Tung and Yuri Gagarin. His writings have been translated into many Indian languages and several foreign languages, like Russian, German, Italian, French and Arabic, known to the galaxy of international intellectuals. He is one of the leading progressive writers, who convey the message of love, peace and humanity. In so many ways he was a trendsetter. 

Yet, he is an alien in his own homeland. In this chapter, some important incidents of Abbas's early life, and the influence, which shaped his personality and progressive philosophy are explored.

*"I have been for sometime now strongly feeling that our teaching of Indian Writing in English has been rather partial and lopsided-consciously or otherwise - in the sense that several writers belonging to the non-Hindu fold have gone neglected if not totally ignored." (Balaram Gupta, THE JOURNAL OF INDIAN WRIITING IN ENGLISH. Jan-Jul 1995, Vol. 123, Nos. 1 and 2.)

A few years before the death of the celebrated Urdu poet Hali, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas was born about the hour of midnight on 14 June 1914 in the historic town of Panipat (Haryana). He took his early education in 'Hali Muslim Highschool', which was established by his great grand father Hali. Abbas's father Ghulam-Us-Sibtain graduated from Aligarh, was a tutor of the prince and a prosperous businessman, who modernised the preparation of Unani medicines. Abbas's mother Masroor Khatoon was the daughter of Sajjad Husain, an enlightened educationist. 

Abbas seems to have inherited the spirit of self-respect and loyalty to causes from his father, and an independent mind from his mother. Describing his mother as the most modern woman, Abbas writes, "According to my list, the most important modern woman was my mother. From the beginning I was impressed by her independent nature. My father abhorred paan-chewing but my mother couldn't do without at least 20 paans a day. She chewed them in front of her husband in spite of his prejudice against people who continued to spit out ‘blood’! She liked tea (so did we all) while my father would openly denounce tea-drinkers as no better than drug addicts.

She liked to visit the cinema (that's how I got the bad habits!). In our town there was a ramshackle cinema. Before that we had only touring talkies. The price per seat was eight annas for the best seats, so she would invite the neighbors and their children also. It would be a big occasion for all of us. The heroine was my mother, who flatly disobeyed my father's commandment - "Thou shalt not see cinema pictures".

Till 1947 - my father died in 1942 - my mother was the head of our family, and it was her independent decision to stay on in India and not let anyone from our family go to Pakistan. Still her hometown of Panipat was the scene of some terrible atrocities, from both sides. But my mother even during the long curfew period never lost her sense of humour and sense of justice and fairplay. She was a religious person - she recited the namaaz five times a day and kept the 30 fasts during the month of Ramazan. But she did not judge politics from a religious angle. She never became a communalist."

But it was from his father's maternal grandfather, Mir Ashraf Husain, who was a commander of the Holkar's army, and from Grandfather Khwaja Gulam Abbas, who was full of defiance and hatred of the British that Abbas inherited his progressive and humanistic ideals. Abbas jocularly says: "This rotten fruit called Khwaja Ahmed Abbas has dropped from a unique family tree of saints and sinners, murderers and marauders, timid recluses and adventurers, soldiers of fortune and defenders of faith, poets and farmers"

Abbas’s childhood ambition was to become a sportsman or a railway guard, but he was instructed to read the Arabic text of the Quran and his childhood dreams swung at the compulsive behest of his father. Abbas completed his matriculation at the age of fifteen. He did his B.A. with English literature in 1933 and LL.B. in 1935 from Aligarh Muslim University.

Abbas's total career was shaped by the influence of two major genes. One was the nationalistic genre of his paternal side and the other, the literary genre of his maternal side. He learnt the lessons of non-conformism, humility and equality from his father. His home was a great school of disciplines. One day when Abbas rebuked his servant boy, calling him ‘Ullo-Ka-Patta’, his father locked him up in a room and did not give any food until he apologized to the servant boy. This great lesson regarding all human beings the equality of later contributed to the development of Abbas’s personality.

He had his early education till 7th in Panipat. Then he got an opportunity of studying with Bhagat Singh, who was only a couple of years older than he. His grandfather Khwaja Gulam Abbas was one of the chief rebels of the 1857 movement. He was the first martyr of Panipat to be blown from the mouth of a cannon. These two persons sowed the seeds of Abbas’s nationalist spirit. Abbas too was straightforward and candid from the birth. Once the inspector of schools visited his school and asked what were the blessings of the British Raj? Suddenly the young boy Abbas shouted Quaid Khanay. When his father heard it he patted and encouraged the anti-British spirit of his son.

His grandmother Hakko too played a significant role in Abbas's childhood. She was the first woman to sacrifice her life for the national cause and was a staunch follower of Gandhi. She gave her entire life's savings and the hopes of her children's future to the liberation of her homeland. She had attended all meetings held by the Congress and 'Khilafat Committee'. She was the first to be buried in a Khaddar Ka Kafan. She remained a staunch patriot unto death. Indeed it was her personality that created an impression on his childhood as the great Gandhi himself. 

She was the first woman in whose image he saw the face of Mother India. Also in equal measure she influenced Abbas's literary career. "She was a grand story teller. Wide-eyed with wonder, we would listen to her tales of the three princes, the seven princesses, the giants that were bigger than mountains and the fairies that lived in the flowers, the horses that had wings and could talk! (Was it she and her stories that made me a story writer?)" wondered Abbas, recollecting the impact of his grandmother on him.

The deeper we delve into his family history, the more we are convinced that Abbas's total personality as a writer was the result of his personal experiences with the family elders and his observation of the life around him.

It is rather difficult to say when exactly Abbas was born as a writer. But in an interview with Krishen Chander, he himself said, "I was born as a writer before my birth. I mean I was born in Hali's poetry and brought up on books and magazines. You may call me a bookworm. Our family women were writing in TAHAQEEBI NISAWAN (a monthly magazine) in those days". Bhaijan Saiyidain (his first cousin) was an editor of the Aligarh University magazine, Director of Education in Kashmir and Secretary to the Central Minsitry of Education. 

After completing primary education Abbas came to Aligarh to stay with his cousin. His cousin was a man of progressive ideas. Like Gandhi, he always emphasised the universal religion of humanism. In fact, it was his cousin's influence that moulded Abbas's career as a nationalist, journalist and writer. Writing about his cousin, Bhaijan, Abbas says, "I often wonder what would have been the destiny of India - and Indian Muslims - if the communally-inclined Muslims had heeded the warning of the youthful idealist (Saiyadain) on the Aligarh University platform. Surely then there would have been no Partition, no Pakistan, no riots, no exchange of population - and no genocide in Bangladesh!

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

- Dr. R.G. Mathapati

Basavanagara, haliyala Road, Dharwad

About the Author: Dr. R.G. Mathapati (Ragam)
Born 12-9-1971, Dr. R.G. Mathapati had his primary and secondary education at Chadchan and college education (B.A.) at Bijapur. He is an M.A. in English from Shivaji University, Kollapur (Maharashtra) and got his Ph.D in English from Karnataka University, Dharwad.

He served as a lecturer in Lingaraj College, Belgam (1995), J.G. College of Commerce, Hubli (1999), Rathi and Bhandari College, Guledgudda (2000), S.G.S. College, Bhatkal (2001) and worked as a resource person in Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore (2002-03). 

He has, besides authoring several books in Kannada, brought out Songs of A Saint, a collection of poems. His articles, poems, stories and reviews have appeared in various journals. 

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