We need to remind ourselves of the continuing relevance of this master storyteller and humanist par excellence whose presence in our midst is perhaps more needed than ever before.
In 2014, some level of benign neglect could be said to have attended the commemoration, in India, of the birth centenary of Krishan Chander (1914-1977), one of the great pillars of the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) and undoubtedly the leading short-story writers of the Indian subcontinent in the second-half of the 20th century along with his comrades Rajinder Singh Bedi, Ismat Chughtai, Saadat Hasan Manto and Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi. Ironically, at least two literary seminars were held in Lahore to pay homage to Chander, while in India, more attention was paid to the birth centenary celebrations of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, himself a prominent member of the PWA but more known as a social-realist filmmaker and Begum Akhtar, the legendary ghazal songbird of Lucknow, both born in 2014 like Krishan Chander. A sign of the times in Modi’s India?
Chander was born 103 years ago, earlier this week, in 1914 in a family originally hailing from Wazirabad, now in Pakistani Punjab, which later on settled in Lahore, enabling the young Chander to partake deeply of the cosmopolitan culture prevalent in the city, to which he would return repeatedly in his short-stories and nostalgically remember right till the end of his long life. He obtained an MA in English from the city’s famed Forman Christian College and continued to study there till Partition of 1947. Some of his lifelong affiliations with other fellow comrades of the PWA were initiated in Lahore. Because of his father’s peripatetic search for employment, many of his best stories also draw on his experiences of Kashmir and its people.
Chander not only produced an astonishing oeuvre of about 30 collections of short-stories and 20 novels in his long life, but was also a brilliant essayist and remained involved with the Indian film world. Moreover, unlike many other of his fellow comrades, he was actively involved in practical socialist politics, like his presidency of the bhangis Union and his membership of the Socialist Party. Also, Chander’s own socialist creed and prolific oeuvre ensured that he came the closest among all the stalwarts of the PWA to realising the progressive ideals in literature. He believed in the ascendancy of a socialist society and throughout his life dedicated his efforts to help the poor and marginalised, the peasant and the worker, as well as writers and artists who were not better-off; in fact the lower storey of his house was opened to provide a home to the latter.
Most of the heroes and heroines of Chander’s short-stories are from underprivileged, oppressed and marginalised sections of the society. He also comes out forcefully against communalism of every variety, not only as it came out in brutalised form in the rioting and communal carnage following the partition in 1947. Two of his best-known stories, Kachra Baba (Old Man Rubbish) and Kalu Bhangi (Kalu the Addict), starkly bring out the humanity and pathos of the lives of rubbish collectors in our society, and the scorn and marginalisation they have to face from the privileged classes in an unsentimental and unvarnished way.
Also read: ‘Ghaddaar’: A Betrayal Worth Recalling
However, there’s much, much more to Chander’s varied oeuvre than even his most stringent critics care to admit. He has been accused by his critics of devoting his literary talents exclusively to the pursuit of socialism, revolution and class struggle, at the cost of his art. However, on closer inspection, this claim is not only untrue but patently unfair, especially when held up against the claims of some of Chander’s own peers, who these so-called ‘critics’ have no problem patronising approvingly when put up against the former.
Chander’s creative life can be understood as having passed through three distinct phases. From 1939 onwards, he was in the grip of romantic ideas; from 1940 onwards, he made it a priority to encapsulate the bitter realities of life in his work (this was also the phase that his fictional work was losing its previous abstraction, perhaps due to the influence of James Joyce, Ezra Pound and D.H. Lawrence); and from 1945 onwards, he began to be influenced by the great wars of national liberation against colonialism in India and across the third world, and dreamt avidly of socialist revolution.
There is thus, a remarkable variety in Chander’s creative output, even when one takes into account his dedication to socialist realism. My own introduction to his work came as a teenager taking up Urdu as a compulsory subject in my ‘O’ Levels. One of the short stories we were required to read as part of the syllabus was Chander’s Mahalaxmi ka Pull (The Bridge of Mahalaxmi):
“But the Prime Minister’s car did not stop here and he cannot see those six saris, he proceeded to Chowpati for his speech. That’s why I now want to say to you: If your car ever crosses this side, please do see these six saris which are hanging on the left side of the Mahalaxmi Bridge; and then see those bright silk saris too which the dhobis have hung up to dry on the right side of the same bridge, and which belong to houses where the owners of factories with high chimneys and those with high salaries live. Do see to the right and left sides of the bridge and then ask yourselves which way is it you want to go? Note that I’m not asking you to become a socialist, neither am I advising you on the need for a class war, I just want to know if you are on the right or left side of the Mahalaxmi Bridge?”
Another remarkable story by Chander, and one of the first examples of stream-of-consciousness writing in Urdu literature is Do Farlaang Lambi Sarak (The Two-Furlong Long Road). It is a sharp comment on the injustices ordinary people have to face on a daily basis:
“No one pities anybody. The road is silent and desolate. It sees everything, hears everything, but remains unmoved, merciless, insensitive and savage like the human heart. In my angriest moments, I often think about what will happen if I have a chance to blow the road up with dynamite. Its pieces will be seen floating in the air with a high explosion. No one would be able to imagine my happiness. Sometimes I wish to dance naked on the road and shout at the top of my voice that I am not human, am mad, that I hate humans. Grant me the servitude of the asylum, I don’t desire the freedom of these roads. The road is silent and desolate.”
It has been reiterated above that Chander wrote perhaps more prolifically than any of his contemporaries, and that his creative evolution occurred in three distinct phases. This caveat will enable me to concentrate now on the remarkable topicality, currency and prescience of his varied works to such themes as the Partition of India, Lahore’s changing environment, political opportunism in the Indian subcontinent, the shenanigans of bureaucracy, Kashmir, and the continuing fixation and fascination of our middle-classes with the United States’ continuing imperial domination in the 20th and 21st centuries.
The Partition of India in 1947 marked almost every other Indian and Pakistani writer. The subcontinental writer’s stance on Partition also marked his allegiance to the ideas and ideals of progress and progressiveness. In Pakistan, Manto was especially marked out by the PWA for publication of a haunting series of sketches Siyah Hashiay (Black Margins) which created so much bad blood that he was eventually expelled from the PWA. Chander also produced a searing volume in the wake of the partition Hum Wahshi Hain (We are Savages), which though praised by his Indian comrades like Chughtai, was excoriated by some Pakistani critics like Muhammad Hasan Askari, Aziz Ahmed, Anwar Sadeed and Mumtaz Shirin. It contained masterpieces like Peshawar Express, though I have always thought that the much-underrated short story in this collection Aik Tawaif ka Khat Pandit Nehru aur Quaid-e-Azam Jinnah kay Naam (A Courtesan’s Letter to Pandit Jawaharal Nehru and Quaid-e-Azam Jinnah) is actually the most-powerful, not only from the point of view of the changing role of the courtesan in 20th century India but its powerful contemporary prescience, if one looks at the incidences of widespread rapes of women in Narendra Modi’s India and the kidnappings and forced conversions of young Hindu girls in Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan.
“Bela and Batool are two girls, two nations, two civilizations, two temples and mosques. Nowadays they live at a prostitute’s in Faris Road, She conducts her business in a corner off the Chinese barber. Bela and Batool dislike this business. I have bought them. If I want, I can make them work for me, but I am thinking, I will not do what Rawalpindi and Jalandhar did to them. So far I have kept them apart from the world of Faris Road. But still when my clients begin washing up in the back room, Bela and Batool’s looks tell me something, something which I cannot bear. I can’t even convey their message to you properly, why don’t you yourselves read it? Pandit Ji I want that you adopt Batool as your daughter. Jinnah sahib I want that you think of Bela as your daughter. Just for once keep them in your home away from the grasp of Faris Road and listen to the dirges of thousands of those souls which are booming from Noakhali to Rawalpindi and from Bharatpur to Bombay. Can’t it be heard in Government House alone, will you listen to this voice?”
Since Lahore played such a major part in Chander’s intellectual upbringing, one can glean a sense of Lahore’s changing environment and society in some of his stories from the period like Akhri Bus (The Last Bus) and Pehla aur Teesra (First and Third (Class)). These are as much a commentary on the complexities modern transportation has created in an already difficult life as they are observations on the rigid class system was intact in our modes of public transportation.
Manto is often credited with being the only Pakistani writer of his generation to foresee the patterns of the Pakistani state and the society, especially its ruling elite’s increasing political opportunism and its ties to US imperialism, and the increasing intolerance in our society. In India, it is Chander who acutely foresaw patterns of political corruption as well as increasing Americanization of its huge middle-class, symptoms of which had started appearing in the 1990s as the Indian economy gradually opened up to free-market neoliberalism, having well and truly consolidated themselves in the 21st century. My favourite in this regard is the satire Leader ki Kursi (The Leader’s Chair) which shows the slow evolution and elevation of a ne’er do well to the status of a ‘leader’ without principles or scruples.
“Within a few days, the election result came out. This time neither the MWE party, whose slogan was ‘Make War with Everyone’ was successful nor the MPE party whose slogan was ‘Make Peace with Everyone’. It was the WNPW party which won: its slogan was ‘Willy-Nilly Peace and War’. Gobind Ram again narrowly lost out becoming a Member, but this time he wasn’t too disappointed. He was on the right path; the leadership’s foundations should be strong otherwise it can’t go on for too long. Different contacts should be established with different people and whoever demands something, try to give him the same. Only that party is successful which can please the maximum people while they vote, the principles should be very high and beautiful but must contain a screw which can be immediately changed by turning it if needed. After a lot of thought, Gobind Ram found a new party whose slogan was ‘What is In Your Interest?’ He allied himself with a lot of the city’s rich by telling them about his scheme, and had consolidated his party’s foundations long before the municipal election. The speech which Gobind Ram made while presenting its manifesto, led the party completely. He said, “our party will only consider what’s in your interest. To increase or decrease the income tax? To broaden or narrow the city’s roads? To increase or decrease the electricity rates? To increase or decrease the employees’ salaries? Our party will work in your interest.”
The speech was sensible, people took to it. During the municipal election it became clear that the party with the slogan ‘What is In Your Interest?’ would win. As per the program, Gobind Ram approved increasing the dhobis’ rates and reducing the soap prices, rejected the insistence on increasing the quantity of water in the taps and reducing the water rates. He informed the Brahmins that the slaughterhouse will be closed and told the tanners that they would be supplied with cheap and plentiful leather; to the tenants that their rents would be reduced and to the landlords that they would be able to increase their rents using repairs as an excuse.
In a few days, when the municipal election results were announced, the ‘What is In Your Interest?’ had won the maximum votes and its members were also chosen in the largest numbers. Gobind Ram was chosen as the president of the Municipal Committee following a consensus.
When the question of how to follow the ‘What is In Your Interest?’ program was raised in the first Committee meeting, long discussions followed, some said this, others that, no one could understand how to follow this program whose every clause seemed to contradict each other. Eventually Gobind Ram said, “I think this manifesto is incorrect, ‘What is In Your Interest?’ should be changed and ‘What is In My Interest?’ should be followed.”
Today, such mercurial Gobind Rams can be found in every political party in south Asia, from the municipal level right up to the Prime Minister.
In the same vein, Chander’s story Lakh Pati ban-nay ka Nuskha (Prescription for Becoming a Millionaire) reminded me of Manto’s similarly-crafted tale of opportunism and chicanery Shaheed Saz (The Martyr Manufacturer):
“In my childhood, I loved to make snowballs in my village. When the snowfall decreased, I used to go out of my house over the ravine and after making a snowball, used to roll it over the ravine. The snowball rolled with great speed and increased in size by gathering all the snow around it. The same is the case with money. The ball which I made out of One Lac Sixty Thousand rupees and started rolling over the ‘ravine’ of Bombay, rupee joined with rupee and now the ball is so huge that despite my best efforts, I can’t control it. Nowadays I am regarded as one of Bombay’s big millionaires.
A few days ago, Bhagra University awarded me an honorary PhD degree. While awarding me the degree, the Vice Chancellor requested me to tell the boys about the secret of my success.
During my speech, I said to the students: ‘There is only one prescription for becoming a millionaire. Work hard…work hard and live honestly.’
I hope that university students and readers of this tale will indeed follow my advice and will prove to be very good clerks.”
An issue related to political opportunism is the inefficiency and insensitivity of bureaucracies in the subcontinent. Both India and Pakistan developed gigantic bureaucracies after independence, which became enormously influential in controlling the state affairs, more so in Pakistan. Chander’s famous novel Aik Gadhay ki Atm Katha (Autobiography of a Donkey) is devoted to this theme, especially the Chinese-inspired model of bureaucracy introduced by Nehru in India. In the short form, one of his powerful denunciations of bureaucracy, which in my opinion could proudly be mentioned in the same league as Gogol’s The Nose, is his Jamun ka Pair (The Jamun Tree), which does not require Gogol’s magic realism to depict the ruthless power and the wanton misuse it brings in its wake. I can do no better than attempt to recreate the story’s chilling conclusion here in my imperfect translation:
“On the second day when the Forest Department men arrived with saws and axes, they were barred from cutting the tree. They found out that the Foreign Affairs Department had prohibited the cutting of the tree. The reason was that the tree had been planted in the Secretariat lawn a decade ago by the Prime Minister of Petunia. If the tree was cut now, there was a great risk that our relations with the government of Petunia would be damaged forever. ‘But this is a question of a man’s life’, shouted the clerk with anger. ‘On the other side, a question of relations between two countries’, the Second Clerk admonished the First Clerk, ‘and do try to understand too how much aid the Petunian government gives to our government. Can’t we sacrifice even one man’s life for their friendship?’
‘The poet should die.’
The Undersecretary told the Superintendant, ‘The Prime Minister has returned from the foreign visit in the morning today. The Foreign Affairs Department will present this tree’s file before him at 4 pm today, and whatever he decides will be accepted by all.’
At 5 pm, the superintendant himself brought the poet’s file to the latter, ‘Do you hear?’ As soon as he arrived, he shouted, waving the file, ‘The Prime Minister has ordered to cut this tree and has taken full international responsibility for this incident upon himself. Tomorrow this tree will be cut and you’ll be rid of this trouble. ’
‘Do you hear? Today your file is complete’, the superintendant said, moving the poet’s arm.
But the poet’s arm was cold. His eyelids were lifeless and a long line of ants was going into his mouth. The file of his life had also been completed.”
Chander was not a Kashmiri like his contemporary Manto. Yet he has devoted a surprisingly large oeuvre to writing about Kashmir, more so than Manto, Ismat and Bedi, his illustrious peers in the fictional realm. In the preface to a collection of his stories on Kashmir, he dwelled on the reasons for the popularity of his Kashmir stories:
“Some people think that this popularity is due to the fact that the narrative and expression of Kashmir’s beauty is perfectly represented in these stories. Undoubtedly, I have been very impressed with the character of Kashmir and the beauty of its people, and in my early short stories I have tried my best that this beauty and its entire spirit be pulled into them. But alongwith this I have also found in these beautifully deceptive scenes that phonetic and cruel torture, which had I refrained from repeatedly expressing in my stories, perhaps would not have given them the life and vibrancy, which has affected the people so much. The secret of artistic beauty is not in the narration of beauty, but in the comparison of beauty and ugliness; in the struggle which is a component of the imperfections of the impurity produced by the feudal system and a beautiful environment.”
In the wake of the situation in Indian-occupied Kashmir and the early signs of independent opinion displayed by its last two chief ministers – the late Mufti Sayeed and his daughter the incumbent Mehbooba Mufti – this amazingly prescient paragraph from the same text quoted above helps to put things in perspective, more than fifty years on:
“Today Kashmir is involved in the same civil war, the poor Dogras and Muslims of Jammu, the poor farmers of Kashmir valley and the proud soldiers and farmers of the areas of Poonch, Mahinder Bagh and Palandi have been involved in this civil war. On one side is the Pakistani army, on the other side the Indian army, and above them the guardians of Anglo-American imperialism, who have come to decide the fate of Kashmir. The way in which they decided the fate of Western Korea and Greece, the same sort of decision they imposing in Kashmir today; because it is Kashmir’s misfortune that just as Greece borders socialist Europe, in the same way Kashmir borders socialist Russia. That’s why the cats have been encouraged to fight and the imperialists sitting comfortably, scale in hand, waiting to devour the bread.”
The influence and attraction of the US on the political, social and cultural life of the Indian subcontinent can no longer be taken for granted whether in terms of our rulers’ military ties with Washington, or the increasing numbers of middle-class scions emigrating or studying in the US, as well as the non-resident Indians and Pakistanis settled there. This dependence and its malcontents are unsparingly brought home in an entertaining manner in Chander’s short story Amreeka say Aanay Wala Hindustani (An Indian Returnee from America). Witness this interesting dialogue between the NRI and his Indian friend:
“He became lost in his memories:
‘Hotdogs, Hot women and empty mind’.
Suddenly I began to feel a bit nauseous.
I asked: ‘You didn’t see anything else in America?’
He replied: ‘What?’
‘See Howard Fast?’
‘See Paul Robeson?’
‘Heard or read Walt Whitman’s poetry? See kids going to school? ’
Jagmohan said: ‘I didn’t go to the States for these silly matters.’
My anger was increasing. I took Launchar’s (NRI’s nickname) tie and said: ‘You have brought this tie from America which depicts drunkenness on one side and nude dances on the other, playing cards on one side, prostitution on the other, Truman on one side, the atomic bomb on the other. But this is your America my friend, my America isn’t like this tie; my America is a tie which has Abraham Lincoln on one side, and a hardworking Negro on the other, Walt Whitman on one side and American sailors on the other, a loving father on one side and a faithful husband on the other, bravery on one side and the peace dove on the other. I always wear this tie round my neck and kiss it a hundred times. ’
Freeing his tie, he said: ‘You will always remain a political fool.’ Then he redirected his gaze from me to the bar roof and said in a reproachful voice: O, I can’t breathe in this barren land. How I wish I could return to America.’
‘How I wish you could!’ I said with heartfelt and hate.
‘But what type of training should I get this time?’ He inquired with a lot of impatience, unable to understand my hate. ‘I will succeed in getting the scholarship by hook or by crook.’
‘This time you should get trained in extracting oil from human skulls; you can get a scholarship from here for the purpose and even the American ruling elite has greatly facilitated opportunities for this.’
I left his table right after saying this and went outside.”
In other stories like Nayay Ghulam (New Slaves), Chander deals with American military domination more directly, especially as it appeared to him in the former’s involvement in the Korean War, with ramifications which have stayed on into the 21st century in the shape of a divided Korean peninsula, with a nuclear-armed Northern part and a Southern part with a massive American military presence.