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The whims of Josh Malihabadi

This is the 30th year of the death of Josh Malihabadi, but memories of this doyen of Urdu poetry seem to be fading from the public mind. Yet there was a time when Josh's qalam infused enthusiasm in the hearts of not only freedom fighters but also those espousing the cherished ideals of equality, religious liberty and fraternity. Shabbir Hussein Khan, who took the pseudonym of Josh, was a year younger than Firaq Gorakhpuri, though the latter considered him his senior and, on his own admission once went to him hesitantly to seek the correct word which had been eluding him in a ghazal. Josh barked out the word as though spitting out a gem — or so Firaq implied in a TV interview in 1981 on hearing of the death of his contemporary in Lahore.

Josh was an aristocrat from a zamindar family of U.P., who became a socialist early in life despite his upbringing as a Pathan landlord. One was his neighbour for three months in 1967, when he came from Pakistan and occupied the room next to this scribe's in Azad Hind Hotel. He lived in room number four and his wife in the adjacent room. The begum kept a stern eye on the poet, peeping from behind the curtain to see whom he was talking to. His younger brother, who looked after the family's dussehri mango orchards in Malihabad, near Lucknow, shared the room with him and prepared the hookah for both of them to smoke with long pauses of silence as they chewed the cud of nostalgia. Hussaini Chacha, as he was called by the hotel staff, was just as deeply ingrained in literary culture and etiquette as his brother.

Many visitors

Many poets used to come to meet Josh, among them Gulzar Dehlvi, Bekhud, Betaab and of course the hotel owner, who wrote erotic poetry. The last named, who was also Josh's host, was once asked by Hussaini Chacha for how many years he had been courting the Muse. “ Unnatees”, he replied. This shocked Chacha's ears, and he remarked “it is untees, which means one less than thirty.”

Josh a fair, balding big-built man with moustaches and dressed in kurta-pyjama, had become a bit senile, which some attributed to the death of his daughter at Thompson Hospital, Agra. Anglo-Indian Sister Queeny, who conveyed the sad news to him in Dec 1935 in English, found Josh not so ignorant of the language, though he was helped by two young men. Josh let vent to his grief in poetry but his wife just couldn't get over it and became a recluse.

At the hotel in Jama Masjid Josh held court every evening when people from walks all of life came to meet him, among them Saeed Naqvi and his maternal uncle, Mehdi. Some read out their poems. Sahba once came with a soapdish in hand, his face unwiped, asking for Betaab Sahib. Josh replied “Betaab Sahib yahan kahan, kahin betaab ghoom rahe honge. Lekin aap apna moonh tau ponhch lijye.” Betaab means restless and the poet's reply that he must be wandering restless somewhere amused everyone present.

Josh used to have an early dinner of chicken, naan, biryani and kababs, washed down with two pegs of Scotch whisky, sent every evening by the proprietor of Moti Mahal restaurant in Daryaganj. After that he would go to sleep and get up before 4 o'clock when after his ablutions, he sat down to write poetry till 6.30 a.m. Then he ate breakfast, which included naharifrom Karim's. After that he had a bath and went out to meet his friends in New Delhi, mostly high officials. Twice or thrice he went to see Indira Gandhi and each time returned praising her. Lunch he mostly had outside and on his return only the gurgling hookah and occasional conversation with Hussaini Chacha marked the afternoon's transformation into evening. When he left for Lahore one was aware that one had seen a literary colossus at close quarters and that one day his reminiscences should make good copy for newspaper readers.

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 8:59:22 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/The-whims-of-Josh-Malihabadi/article13738405.ece

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