Seasoned author Joginder Paul shares the crests and troughs of Urdu in Delhi, the city of immigrants
It is difficult not to like Joginder Paul, the silver-haired 85-year-old author, much hailed and translated. Measured words, generous smiles, one moment he comes across as a family patriarch on a relaxed late summer afternoon: a cotton kurta on his body, a cigarette placed between his fingers and a mop of hair that constantly demands attention. Next moment he is a scholar whose every sentence comes cloaked with words of wisdom. Sitting in his unpretentious study in South Delhi, Paul has a black-and-white painting of Ghalib on his right, and Saadat Hasan Manto peers from a calendar just behind him even as Krishna keeps a silent watch. There is Kabir too, another painting reminding us of the varied hues of the gentleman's tastes. This Sunday, he heads to Aurangabad, where 500 of his admirers and former students (Paul was college principal for over a decade there) gather to felicitate him on Gratitude Day.
Predictably enough he is on the ball from the first sentence. “I am a Punjabi who speaks Punjabi at home. I read and taught English in college for a living, and write in Urdu.” Paul, clearly, has the talent for making anomalies sound not just normal but also desirable. Pratibha India has just reproduced a story he wrote in the 1970s, but Paul is in no mood to wallow in nostalgia. “Nostalgia is natural at my age, but I don't bank upon the past. Nostalgia makes you feel old. Courage to play the fool makes me feel young.”
But probe him a little bit and you realise Paul is nobody's fool. His sharp ticking brain and powers of perception have not missed much. “We have no literature in English,” he says ever so succinctly before making his reservations about the writings of Mulk Raj Anand very clear. “He wrote for fame.” Paul is again brief, to the point. The author of “Parinday”, “Be-Irada” and “Dharti ka Lal” is understandably more elaborate when talking of the trends in literature.
He wears his preferences on his sleeve: “Manto was great. He was technically, for reason of form or style, perfect. Ismat Chughtai was good too, though not as good as Manto. But as a woman she had an advantage as she spoke out in an era when women were charmingly quiet. Manto went to Pakistan but he was never happy there. He was not as greatly appreciated there. He became angry. But beautiful things come out of anger. He has the talent of drawing you in. He could write more things about you than you yourself ever could. He was fearless, he had the courage to speak his mind. Then there was Rajinder Singh Bedi, a quiet man, the best writer of his times. There was a quality of art in his writing. Then Krishan Chander. He was loud like our society. He believed if you are silent you are either misunderstood or not understood at all. So he spoke.” His sleeve has to grow longer for Paul makes his love for Hali known too. “I respect Hali for his craft. Then these days I quite like Gulzar. He is good enough with his poetry but better with his short stories.”
But isn't there that criticism of Gulzar that he dilutes the purity of the language? “Language should not be static. There are too many people stuck with the correct pronunciation. Language has to have grace, and a ‘kahanikar' needs a language that is conversational. I find Gulzar good on that count but I do not pre-judge an author. I give the writer the perfect opportunity to make a fool of himself or to draw me in.”
Paul does not share the same enthusiasm when talking of the fortunes of the language. “Urdu is in a very sorry state today. A cultural language has become a communal language. People tend to associate it with Muslims, which is wrong. Urdu has nuances, niceties, it is all-absorbing. Purity of the language is not affected by bringing new words or using others for convenience. It is a great language facing grave times. Very few people can talk in Urdu these days, so when I come across somebody who understands its phrases and hues, it gladdens my heart.”
Just as Paul has gladdened the hearts of Urdu lovers with his works. Be it his works on Partition or his later additions, Paul has often painted with words. The veteran takes the compliment in his stride, merely adding, “Kabhi kabhi painting karna padhta hai because of the people I address. Otherwise, as a writer, it is very difficult to relate stories while maintaining a balance of involvement and distance, being a participant and a non-participant observer according to the situation.”
His “Sleepwalkers”, which talked of the sense of dislocation of people of Indian origin in Pakistan, is regarded as a landmark. “I addressed the ‘pehle aap' syndrome of people from Lucknow. They built a mini Lucknow in Karachi.” Then one wants to talk about “Thirst of Rivers”, “The Second Step” and “Beyond Black Waters”, all of them now accessible in English translations.
Paul, though, would rather talk of the merits of translations. “Translators at times lose the soul. A learned translator with his learned language can ruin a story. It is important to retain the atmosphere. I have been lucky with my translations.”
And we have been lucky to have Joginder Paul amidst us. “I came from Sialkot. Like most others, who all came from one part or the other.” Indeed, Delhi, the city of immigrants, has drawn them in. “Like a good storyteller,” as Paul would say.