Sarshar: Pioneer of Urdu-Hindi Novel

Sarshar: Pioneer of Urdu-Hindi Novel

By Ravi M. Bakaya

FIROZ MOOKERJEE, who lives in London, was born in undivided India. She graduated from Lucknow University and later got her Ph.D. from the University of London, where she worked on Ratan Nath Dar ‘Sarshar’ under the supervision of Ralph Russell, Emeritus Reader in Urdu. This book is a revised version of her thesis. All lovers of Urdu-Hindi literature in particular and Indian literature in general will welcome the publication of the first book on Sarshar in English. However, the importance of this book goes far beyond that. It is the first authoritative research work on the complete works of Sarshar.

The second half of the nineteenth century was a very important period in the history of Urdu, Hindi and Bengali prose. The ‘father of modern Hindi’, Bharatendu Harish Chandra (1850-1885), the great Bengali novelist, Bankim Chandra Chatterji (1838-1894), and Ratan NathSarshar (app. 1842-1902) -  lived and worked during this period. Though Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). also started writing in this period, his better known works belong to the twentieth century.

Bankim, Bharatendu and Sarshar were each distinct in his own way. What they had in common was their pioneering work in their own literature, their familiarity with English literature, which to some extent influenced their work, and the ‘didactic’ character of their literary work.

Ratan Nath Dar (‘Sarshar’ was his pen-name or takhallus) was born in 1842 in a Kashmiri Pandit family domiciled in Lucknow. His father, Baij Nath Dar, was a respected and influential citizen of Lucknow, but he died when Ratan Nath was barely four years old. The Dars lived in the neighbourhood of cultured Muslim families, and the young fatherless child learned his Urdu from the expressive and gracious speech spoken by Muslim ladies of his mohalla.

The Brahmins who had emigrated from Kashmir Valley in the eighteenth century ‘to seek fame and fortune in the rich plains below’ in Jawahar Lal Nehru’s words, had settled down mainly in Delhi and the United Provinces and had adopted Urdu as their language, producing a number of distinguished Urdu writers, scholars and poets, of whom Sarshar was undoubtedly one of the greatest. Unfortunately, not much is known about his personal life and even the year of his birth and the date of his death are matters of conjecture and dispute. (Contrast this with his Hindu contemporary, Bharatendu Harish Chandra. An obituary published after his death mourns that ‘his age was only 34 years, 3 months, 27 days, 17 hours, 7 minutes and 48 seconds’!)

Sarshar, after leaving school, went to Canning College, which had been established by the British in 1864, but he left without taking a degree. However, he came out of college with a  knowledge of English literature which stood him in good stead during his career as a writer. He started his working life in Kheri near Lucknow as a teacher. It was in this period that he started writing articles for various Urdu newspapers and magazines, the most notable of these being Avadh Punch. Some of his articles were on social themes. His articles in an Urdu periodical, Akhbar-I-Sarishta-i-Talim, published by the Department of Public Instruction, drew the attention of the Director of the Department, who noted in his annual report that Sarshar’s translations from English were the best he had seen.

In 1878 Sarshar was  invited by Munshi Naval Kishore, the biggest publisher of those days, to edit Avadh Akhbar, which became a rival and competitor ofAvadh Punch. Sarshar edited this paper with distinction from 1878 to 1893 and many of his writings were first printed in it. These included his voluminous novel, Fasana Azad, which was serialised by the paper. Naval Kishore published it later in four volumes, the first being brought out in 1880.Fasana Azad made Sarshar famous; while it was being serialised in Avadh Akhbar, it was read and enjoyed by all sections of society. This is a huge work, comprising four volumes totalling about 3000 pages. It relates the adventures of its central hero, Azad, and his inseparable companion, ‘Khoji’ (a humorous diminutive for Khwaja) who provides cause for endless mirth with his antics. Sarshar was undoubtedly influenced by Don Quioxote in writing this story. Above all, it was Sarshar’s mastery of ‘the vivid, racy colloquial’ language of Lucknow that made his work so popular.

This command of language is nowhere more evident than in the passages of dialogue which form so large a part of the whole work. Sarshar knew how well he could write dialogue, and he uses this talent to the full...He knew exactly the forms of speech, the special vocabulary and the characteristic style and tone appropriate to each of the wide range of characters of different classes and different areas whom he introduces in his pages. The number of characters who appear in Fasana Azad is enormous, yet all seem quite distinctive...

Some idea of the scope and volume of Sarshar’s literary output can be gained from the following lines in Firoze Mookerjee’s book:

During his editorship of Avadh Akhbar Sarshar wrote many articles on political, social and literary subjects. In 1887 he published a translation of Donald Mackenzie Wallace’s History of Russia, a re-written version of an earlier novel, now entitled ‘Jam-i-Sarshar’. Two years later he translated Lord Dufferin’s Letters from High Latitudes. In 1890 his novel, Sair-i-Kuhsar, appeared, followed some time before 1893 by Kamini. About 1893 (Saksena) he started a series of short novels under the general title of Khim-Kada-i-Sarashar. Included in this series were Kururn DhumBichhri DulhanTufan-I-Betamizi, Pi Kahan, Hushsho and Rangile Siyar. Sometime during this period he translated a political pamphlet written by Dr Hunter, a history of Egypt entitled Shakh-i-Nabat and a slightly abridged version of the Arabian Nights. In 1894 came Khudai Faujdar, an adaption and free translation of Don Quixote.

HOWEVER, in all his work, Sarshar aimed at reforming Indian society, cleansing it of obscurantist ideas. This didactic approach was usual in the literature of those times and, indeed, it characterizes all classical literature to some extent. As he said, introducing Fasana Azad when he began serialising it in Avadh Akhbar :

Our real aim in this series is to enable the readers of Avadh Akbhar in the guise of humour to become fully conversant with education and culture and good taste, with correct conversational usage and the idioms appropriate to various occasions, with the atmosphere of every kind of gathering and with the manners of society as a that (knowledge of) the various states of human communities and the effect of the company one keeps and the climate of the age may bring substantial benefit to our country, so that men’s minds may be illumined by the radiance of good thoughts and excellent morals, and their mentality cleansed of the darkness of corrupting ideas and the unworthy traits of the ill-bred, and upright minds may receive the frill benefits that accrue from a sane training...Our aim is that from reading these articles they may at one and the same time derive pleasure and enjoyment and amusement on the one hand, and linguistic accomplishment and lofty ideas, on the other.

Towards the end of his life, Sarshar went to live in Hyderabad, which was in those days a great centre of Urdu language and literature. According to his own account, published in Kashmir Prakash of March 1899:

About four years ago I went to Madras as a member of the Congress (the Madras session of the Indian National Congress was held in 1894) and from there my good fortune brought me to Hyderahad, Deccan. Prominent Hindus and Muslims welcomed me enthusiastically as did the public at large. Maharaja Kishan Parshad, the Nizam’s Minister for the Army and a former Prime Minister, appointed me at a salary of Rs 200 a month to correct his poems and prose.

Sarshar spent the last few years of his life in Hyderabad as the literary mentor of Maharaja Kishan Parshad. He brought out a literary journal calledDabdaba-i-Asafia at the same time. A novel, Chanchal Nar, began to be serialised in this magazine, but was never finished. The Nizam also patronised Sarshar.

Apart from being a foremost prose writer of his days, Sarshar was also a distinguished poet. His poetic theme is love, but he has written on other subject as well. His best known poem  is his masnavi ‘Tohfa-I-Sarshar’ which he wrote to quell the outcry of orthodox Kashmiri Brahmins against the visit to England of his friend Bishan Naryan Dar, a barrister. In this long poem Sarshar makes fun of the Pandits who wanted to boycott Bishan Narayan Dar because he had dared to cross the seven-seas.

Sarshar died at the age of 55 or 56-his end being hastened by his addiction to drink. He had himself confessed:

Peene pe jab ate hain phir bas nahin karte,

Maikhana me sunte nahin Sarshar kiseeki.

(Once he strats drinking, he won’t stop. In the drinking house Sarshar doesn’t listen to anyone).

Firoze Mookerjee appropriately devotes considerable space in her book to Lucknow of Sarshar’s days, which had inspired most of his work. There is an informative chapter on the prose narrative tradition inherited by Sarshar, which he developed further, giving it a modern trend. All of his main works have been discussed by the author of the book, as also his minor novels and his role as a translator. In conclusion, Feroze Mookerjee says:

When we review the course of Sarshar’s development as a writer, we see at once that the key period extends from  1878 to 1890. In the course of these twelve years as he progresses from the stage of Fasana Azad,  a stage in which, though closely tied to the old tradition, he is grafting on to it the new modes of writing which characterise the moden novel, to the stage where in Jam-I-Sarshar and Sair-I-Kohsar, he has all but severed his ties with the old and practically completed a transition to the new. After that the trend is reversed, and already in Kamini, he is in many respects back behind the starting point which Fasana Azad represented. Yet, taken as a whole, his writing represents a great step forward in the development of Urdu prose and fiction.

Firoze Mookerjee draws pointed attention to Sarshar’s striking attitude to women:

Above all, he is a champion of women’s rights. More than any other Urdu writer of his time he pleaded passionately for justice to women. To illustrate the gross injustice done to them both by Hindus and Muslims, he created numerous women characters from every section of society, women who are beautiful, intelligent and possess a strength of characters which his men characters lack. Yet they are treated badly and are exploited by society.

Firoze Mookerjee rightly calls Prem Chand the true heir to Sarshar. In fact it was Prem Chand who introduced Sarshar to Hindi readers by producing an abridged version of’ Fasana Azad which in Hindi he called Azad ki Katha. This HindI version has run since into numerous editions. It should be remembered that Prem Chand started as an Urdu writer and turned to Hindi later as it ensured greater circulation to his writings. Prem Chand acknowledges his debt

“In my writing there is more influence of Sarshar and Sarat Chandra and less of Tagore.”

There is a detailed and very useful bibliography appended to the book. It is interesting that such a detailed treatment of an Indian writer who died a century ago should have been facilitated by the excellent literary records-books, newspapers and periodicals-in the India House Library and the British Museum Library in London. One wonders if the author could have found all this priceless material in India. The paucity of available biographical material on Sarshar himself is shown by the fact that only six such titles are listed-two books each by Prem Pal Ashk and Tabassum Kashmiri and one each by Sayyad Latif Adil and Qamar Rais. Three of these six titles were published in Pakistan. It is a sad commentary on Urdu in India today that though-like Sarshar-Firoze Mookerjee had her cultural roots in Lucknow, she had to find a publisher in Pakistan for her book on this distinguished Kashmiri Pandit writer.

One fervently hopes that this excellent study will find a place in most university and college libraries in India and on the shelves of many lovers of Urdu and Hindi literature and, indeed, Indian literature in other languages. An Indian edition of Firoze Mookerjee’s book is greatly to be desired, for books published in Pakistan are unfortunately not easily available in this country.

Lucknow and the world of Sarashar

Author: Firoze Mukerjee

Publishers: Saad Publications Karachi, 1992

pp. xv+242

Price: Rs 150

*The reviewer was formerly a Professor of Russian Studies at JNU. (Courtesy: Mainstream, June 19, 1993)

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