People had forgotten, he muses, that it is also possible to read through one’s ears. After all, that is how most of us begin to receive stories—listening to our grandparents. Jameel Gulrays was counting on people’s ears rather than their eyes when he started to read aloud Urdu stories on a dedicated Youtube channel. Just about a year and a half later, his channel has over 1,300 subscribers and his work has grown into a movement called Katha Kathan, which includes several other readers and stories from many other Indian languages. The no-frills homemade video series has grown into live performances at venues such as the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai; a Delhi chapter has been launched in recent weeks.
Despite its rapid growth, Katha Kathan was rooted in quiet grief and regret. Born to a Kashmiri father and a mother from Gorakhpur, Gulrays has spent his whole life in Mumbai. He studied Urdu and Persian literature in college and loved it. But he had spent nearly four decades in advertising where he also witnessed the decline of other Indian language writers. After he retired, he had time to sit back and take stock of his old love. “I had accumulated a large collection of books at home,” he says. “I was thinking, what will become of them after I’m gone? This treasure would be lost. Nobody in my family reads Urdu. After me, the books would become raddi (waste). These pages would be used to wrap up paan or someone’s purchases at a grocery shop.”
He decided to do something to rescue the contents of the books by shooting a home video of himself reading the stories out loud. Whether or not younger people read the Urdu script, they could still listen and watch. And indeed, they listened.
Not long after Gulrays started his read-aloud sessions, he found a band of fellow enthusiasts reaching out to him. Although he is the prime mover, there are other founder-members of Katha Kathan. Listing their names—Rekha Rao, Madhavi Ganpule, Rajesh Jha, Sumanto Bhattacharya, Priyanka Sharma—he quotes the popular poet-lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri: “ Main akela hi chala tha jaanib-e-manzil magar/ Log saath aate gaye aur kaarvaan banta gaya .” (I had set out alone towards my destination/ but people started walking alongside and thus a caravan was made).
Now this caravan of literary enthusiasts has read out over a thousand stories drawn from several Indian languages, including Bengali, Marathi, Hindi, Konkani, and is expanding into more languages as it attracts more volunteer readers. Listeners can find the works of Rabindranath Tagore, Banaphool, Ashapurna Devi, Urmila Prabhu, and several other writers they may not have heard of. There are a few folktales too, whose authorship is uncertain. Most of the stories on the channel, however, come from the pool of Urdu or Hindustani literature.
Famous names like Premchand, Sahir Ludhianvi and Krishen Chander crop up quite often, but the greatest number of stories, nearly 300, are the works of Manto. In fact, Gulrays started with the celebrated, and in his own lifetime quite controversial, writer; he believes that Manto continues to be misunderstood despite finding new admirers decades after his death. “Most people haven’t really read his work. They read six or eight of his stories and decide that he is either obscene or that he is ‘dark’. He is neither.”
At 68, Gulrays doesn’t know how much time he has left but he is doing his best to foster a stronger, more diverse storytelling movement. The reason he is especially concerned about salvaging Urdu and other Indian languages, he says, is that a people lose themselves if they lose their literature. He has no squabble with English, but he worries that future generations may lose the ability to think or communicate complexity in their mother tongue. Once that happens, the language finds itself reduced to a boli or dialect. “Most Hindustani languages are sort of on the threshold at this point. Parents are training their children to communicate only in English,” he says. “We often hear mothers telling infants: ‘Don’t say paani , say ‘water.’”
He holds himself partly responsible that things have come to such a pass. “It was my generation, the one born just after India’s independence, that neglected our literature. Whatever I am doing is an attempt to rectify this situation.”
The author writes fiction, non-fiction, drama and films.