Shamim Hanfi, Urdu poet, playwright and critic, passes away

Published : May 07, 2021 18:00 IST

Shamim Hanfi. Photo: M.A. SRIRAM

He was merely nine years old when India kept her tryst with destiny in 1947. Those nine years of shared neighbourhood in Aligarh with people of other faiths, however, proved crucial for little Shamim Hanfi. He would remember the sita ka phal (pumpkin) cooked by his Hindu neighbour every evening over a fire of cow dung cakes and how he longed to have it. He would remember, too, that men of stature, both Hindus and Muslims, wore a sherwani when they visited his father, who was a prominent lawyer in Aligarh. A man was not identified by his clothes, nor by the language he spoke.

He counted the likes of Majrooh Sultanpuri and Jigar Moradabadi, both formidable Urdu poets and the former a noted lyricist too in Hindi cinema, among the visitors to his house in Aligarh. His early lessons, though, were imparted by his mother Zebun Nisa, a burqa-clad woman who had learnt English following her husband’s encouragement. Shamim’s mother instilled in him a love for learning. She would often read Nigar and Khatoon-e-Mashriq, two popular magazines then. His parents would often show him a nazm or ghazal by Mohammed Iqbal or Akbar Allahabadi. Young Shamim would surprise them by remembering lines of poetry after reading them only once! This was an early sign that he was made for the world of literature. Further evidence came their way when he studied at Allahabad University where he counted the illustrious poet Firaq Gorakhpuri among his teachers.

The early poetry sessions at home, the time spent with Majrooh Sultanpuri and others bore fruit. As Shamim marched into adulthood, he kept the flame of poetry burning bright until he breathed his last in New Delhi on May 6. He rose to be a fine playwright, a noted poet and a critic in a league of his own. He penned stories for children too, something he immensely enjoyed. It was a testimony to his own happy childhood, a time of gentle poetry sessions interspersed with layered learning—Shamim learnt sitting in the lap of his ustad at a neighbourhood madrasa. As a child, he would write on a takhti, a wooden slab. In between all this, he would run after a rare car that passed through his neighbourhood; most visitors used a horse carriage then. The roads were not metaled and local municipal authorities would sprinkle them with water on summer evenings, he once recalled in an interview.

A prolific author, Shamim’s greatest credit lay in his relentless endeavour to save Urdu from becoming an instrument of hatred and exclusion. He fought spiritedly against divisive forces and sought to build bridges between Hindi and Urdu, the two languages often erroneously associated with people of particular faiths. Opposed to the idea of Urdu being considered a language of Muslims, he encouraged learning both the languages together. That way, the students would not only learn both Hindi and Urdu but also imbibe the best in both and boundaries of “we” and “they” would be demolished, he believed. Though he initially taught at Aligarh Muslim University, it was in New Delhi that he found his true calling. He taught Urdu at Jamia Millia Islamia University for quite a few years and edited its magazine, called Jamia. He was a regular at Jashn-e-Rekhta events in New Delhi besides many soirees across the country and had a razor-sharp memory.

Even as he groomed the next generation of students in the values of shared past, Shamim retained his love for writing. This love translated into many books of stories, criticism, plays and poetry, among them being Jadidiyat ki Falsafiyana Asaas, Manto: Haqeeqat se Afsaane Tak, Urdu Culture aur Taqseem ki Riwayat, Qari se Mukalma and Aakhri Pehar ki Dastak. He wrote four plays and maintained a keen interest in fine arts. He translated Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s India Wins Freedom into Urdu.

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