Dr Rakhshanda Jalil is a well-known Indian writer, critic and literary historian. She is best known for the much-acclaimed book on Delhi’s lesser-known monuments called Invisible City: The hidden Monuments of India and a well-received collection of short stories, called Release & Other Stories (Harper Collins, 2011). Her PhD on the Progressive Writers’ Movement as Reflected in Urdu Literature has been published by Oxford University Press as Liking Progress, Loving Change (2014). Rakhshanda Jalil runs an organization called Hindustani Awaaz, devoted to the popularization of Hindi-Urdu literature and culture.
Kulpreet Yadav (KY): You have been a teacher, an editor, a writer, a translator, a researcher, a columnist, and a speaker in the past two decades or so. Were these changes dictated by choice or by circumstances, and out of all these roles, which one have you enjoyed the most and why?
Rakhshanda Jalil (RJ): These ‘roles’ were dictated by serendipity! I have not planned my career, or perhaps trajectory is a better word. Things have happened – and in many cases not happened – due to a happy chance. I do wish, now with the benefit of hand sight, that I had been more ‘aware’ or had planned things better and thought ahead. Regrettably, I didn’t. But, taken in the balance, I have no complaints. Today, I am a full-time writer. The philosopher Descartes had said, ‘I think; therefore, I am.’ I can tweak it and say, ‘I write; therefore I am.’ All my other roles have helped and nourished my being a writer. As an editor, I produce a clean copy and have learnt over the years to do a self-edit of everything I write. As a translator, I trained myself to do a close reading of texts and also learnt to value words and tease out their exact meanings. As a columnist, I learnt to write quickly and meet deadlines and be considered a reliable and swift writer. As a researcher, I learnt there are no short cuts to producing good writing. So, I can’t say I enjoy any one over the others. In any case, being a writer and being all these other things doesn’t seem mutually exclusive.
KY: Culture is carried forward by people through various art forms, but, and obviously, the state also has a role to play. Has, according to you, the preservation of culture and language been the focus of any of the Indian governments in the past? If not, what is the easiest way to preserve our heritage and culture without diluting our contemporary and evolving sensibilities?
RJ: Yes, governments have a role in preserving culture in its many manifestations. In a pluralistic, multicultural society it is imperative that culture in all its diversity is given importance; not one type of culture or a culture that has the blessings of a certain ideology. Once governments begin to do that, more harm than good follows. But the onus for preserving culture must not rest with the government or governmental agencies alone. Individuals can and should do their bit. Preserving culture can start at the individual and family level. In the Indian context, the family has always been the gehwara (cradle) for values and sensibilities which, in turn, form the bedrock of culture. Take mother tongue, for instance. In a linguistically diverse country such as ours, what is to stop us from teaching at least one vernacular language – both spoken and script – to our children? Why should we expect the government to do it? Why can’t we do it ourselves? And why must we expect an end-result from knowing our own mother tongue?
KY: Where does this passion for keeping Urdu literature, and its unique relationship with Hindi alive, as a culture, come from? How did this passion consolidate in you? Did you realize the need when you were in the school—please share about your schooling days—or during your college / work?
RJ: I grew up in a staunchly secular family. My parents were Nehruvian idealists who instilled a great love for pluralism and multiculturalism in my siblings and me. As kids, we celebrated ALL festivals with equal gusto – Holi, Diwali, Christmas and our own two Eids. I studied at Delhi Public School (Mathura Road) and then went to Miranda House (Delhi University for my B.A and M.A. in English). Much later in life I did a Ph D in comparative literature (my thesis was on the progressive writers’ movement in Urdu).
Urdu is my mother tongue but for a long time it was simply a gharelu language for me, i.e. a language for everyday conversation within the family but not a language for intellectual discourse or enquiry; for that it was always English. But I was taught the Urdu alphabets when I was small, and I could just about read and write Urdu while I was still in school. In my grandparents’ home, however, Urdu was everywhere; the very air was redolent with it. My grandfather (nana) was a well-known teacher, critic, writer and poet. The earliest sounds I imbibed were Urdu poetry. I learnt chunks of Urdu sher-o-shairi – Faiz, Ghalib, Iqbal — while I was still young and didn’t fully understand the import of the words I knew by heart. With time, I began to understand the meanings. I think knowing Urdu added another layer of understanding to my study of English literature. It was joy a when I could read Milton’s Paradise Lost alongside Iqbal’s Gibreel aur Iblees. Believe me, it is a privilege when you can occupy two parallel literary worlds and feel at ease in both. With time, my bilingualism grew and after I translated my very first Urdu short story (Premchand’s ‘Mandir Masjid’ in 1991), I had tasted blood. I was ravenous to read more and translate more.
KY: Your maiden collection of short stories was published recently. As someone who has translated many short stories written by writers from the older generation—stories set in the times gone by, their conflicts no longer relevant in the modern times—how did these factors impact your own writing?
RJ: Some of the stories in my collection are about the present, its dilemmas and doubts and despairs; and some are about the past. I am very interested in the past. Does that make me a melancholy or nostalgic person? I don’t know. But I do feel that people of my generation (I was born in 1963 and independent India is only 16 years older than me!), are witnesses to history in the making. I grew up in a country that still had vestiges of Nehruvian idealism and traces of the self-sufficient self-assurance that helped win its freedom. Universities and colleges were deemed ‘temples of modern India’. Thrift and industry were laudable qualities as was self-reliance and economy. Parents believed education, not religion, was the great leveler. Black and white television, watching Krishi Darshan and Chitrahar, Fiats and Ambassador cars, Binaca Geet Mala on AIR – all this and more was still around when I was growing up. In revisiting the past through my fictional writings I want to invoke a time that was kinder and gentler, more humane, and certainly more inclusive. The divisiveness and polarisation of the present worries me.
KY: Have you thought of writing a full-length novel by yourself? As your readers, we feel it’s about time.
RJ: I would love to write a novel some day. And you can bet it will be about the past.