Khwaja Ahmad Abbas (1914-87): Communicator of repute

Anwar Abbas

The author of 73 books, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas began his professional life as the wielder of the pen in 1935 as a journalist. His last column “Last Page” arrived at the Blitz office a few hours after his death on June 1, 1987. The chronicler of the press in Pakistan, Zamir Niazi, describes Khwaja Ahmad Abbas as one of his two ‘gurus’. As a film-maker, the younger generation would recognize Abbas as the one who discovered superstar Amitabh Bachchan. But his real talent manifested itself in the thirteen outstanding, films he produced, which were praised worldwide for their thematic and artistic sophistication. He wrote the scripts of many more, including almost all the films directed by Raj Kapoor. Abbas described Raj Kapoor as the only director “I know who got inspired not by technically perfect screenplay, but by a ‘literary scenario’ which is written like a novel with all characters and situations described in depth.” If “Anhonee” was the first film in India to feature a double role, “Munna” was the first film without songs (and not B.R. Chopra’s “Qanoon” as is commonly believed). If “Pardesi” was the first Indian film to be co-produced with foreign collaboration then “Dharti ke lal” made in 1945 preceded Satyajit’s first epoch making film “Pather Panchali” by a decade or so. Whether his films made money at the box-office or not, he supported his crew at all times. When “Shehar aur sapna” won the President’s Gold Medal, Abbas shared the cash award with 12 other technicians and artists and the gold in the medal was given away in the marriage of the daughter of a long-time domestic servant. Born on June 7, 1914, at Panipat (India), Khwaja Ahmad Abbas often described himself as an ‘omnibus personality’. But that was something of a disadvantage, according to him. He once wrote, “The novelists look down upon me as a short-story writer, while the short-story writers condemn me as nothing more than a scribe, while all of them together would contemptuously say that I am nothing more than a film-wallah.” He had an infectious sense of humour. About his birth he wrote, “My great grandfather, Maulana Altaf Husain ‘Hali’ was so disgusted by the looks of his new-born descendant that he died shortly afterwards.” To fulfil his father’s wishes Abbas obtained a law degree, but had no desire to pursue a career in law. Instead, he landed in Bombay (now Mumbai) with Rs500 and a packet of sattoo in his pocket. The sattoo was designed to help him overcome the pangs of hunger when the money ran out. Abbas continued as an unpaid apprentice with Bombay Chronicle. “When both were finished, I ‘threatened’ my editor Abdullah Brelvi that I was returning to Panipat,” he used to recall. “For what?” Brelvi asked. “To practise law because I cannot write on an empty stomach,” pat came the reply. He was appointed reporter and sub-editor on a princely salary of Rs75 per month! In August 1942 Abbas started writing his monumental novel Inquilab in English but until 1949 he could only complete thirteen chapters. When he finally completed the novel there was a struggle to publish it. The publishers wanted it reduced in length. But in 1954 the novel was published in the (former) Soviet Union, the print-run of the first edition being 90,000. In 1955 it was translated and published in Germany. Only then a publisher in Bombay agreed to publish it in English after reducing its length by 150 pages for a royalty of Rs800. In 1976 a Hindi edition was published and finally a year later the author produced the Urdu edition himself. In 1982 Abbas wrote, The world is my village which, according to him, is the sequel to Inquilab. In the “Preface” of the book he wrote, “Is it an autobiographical novel? This question has been asked of me several times....But, as I have said before, I hope I will not be called a ba...rd though I did study at Aligarh like Anwar, the central character, and spent my youthful years at that university. But beyond that Anwar has his own life and loves, adventures and misadventures. He is in search of his identity, whereas I have an identity of my own.” Abbas’s short stories, like those of his contemporaries, were not without their fair share of controversies. Both “Ababeel” and “Ek insaan ki maut” caused a hue and cry not only the first time they were published, but every time they appeared in magazines. “Ek insaan ki maut”, also called “Sardarji”, had the Sikhs up in arms and they even dragged Abbas to the Allahabad High Court. Sarojini Naidu, the governor of United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh), summoned Abbas to her house and ordered him to read the story aloud. As he finished reading it he found Sarojini Naidu wiping her tears with the pallu of her sari. After regaining her composure, she told the writer, “The story is very touching. But you are a fool. Is this the time (1948) to write such stories?” These stories, like his newspaper columns, mirrored the lives and problems of the common man. The readers waited anxiously every Thursday at newspaper stalls throughout India for Abbas’s “Last Page” in the Blitz to learn how Abbas interpreted a certain event which had occurred the previous week. Some people tried to label Abbas as a communist or a socialist, but no label could apply to him because he nursed no hatred for fellow humans which is a precondition for an ‘ism’ to succeed. Unlike his other leftist contemporaries and friends Abbas had no lust for worldly possessions or honours. He was not ambitious either. His biographies of Indira Gandhi, Nikita Khrushchev, and Yuri Gagarin and his account of his own life, I am not an island and several of his novels have been translated into a large number of Indian and European languages and command a wide readership. His short-stories have been included in anthologies with those of Sadat Hasan Manto, Krishen Chander, Ismat Chughtai, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi and Rajender Singh Bedi, all of whom were his close and personal friends. When Rajiv Gandhi was elected prime minister in 1984 after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, Abbas went to interview him. I accompanied him. The interview was proceeding smoothly until Abbas fired the last salvo. “Is it true that your mother had autocratic tendencies? Do you think a super computer is more important for the people than clean drinking water?” Rajiv turned red in the face. He did not even see Abbas to the door. You have annoyed the Prime Minister, I told him when we stepped out. “I only wanted to test his patience. Moreover what can anyone give a 71-year-old man, except death!” Abbas retorted. He was a highly principled man. When Rajiv Gandhi commissioned him to write the history of the Congress party, his paper did not shower accolades on Indira and Rajiv. The government refused to publish the paper. Abbas promptly returned the sum of Rs25,000 which he had been given for this assignment. He had been cash-strapped and the money would have provided him some relief. “You know, Anwar, I have become a writing machine mainly because I don’t want my typist and the katib (who came to write the Urdu script when Abbas’s handwriting became illegible on account of age) to starve. Why should they and their families suffer on my account?” If Raj Kapoor never paid him for the scripts he wrote for him, Russy Karanjia paid Rs1200 per month for 12 “Last Pages” and “Azaad Qalam” in Urdu and Hindi. A measly Rs100 per page. But Abbas never asked for a raise and he did not get any. The man who was a great humanist, a dedicated friend and guide to thousands of youth aspiring for a career in journalism and films was a poor businessman. He allowed himself to be exploited by all and sundry. He provided assignments for friends and gave breaks to the sons of friends even at the cost of his commercial interests. When Abbas died his last film, “Ek aadmi” made with National Film Development Corporation was languishing in the laboratory but none of his so-called friends came forward to give a guarantee until NFDC funds could be received against the processed print! In 1962 when I was studying in a college in Delhi, I received his book, Till We Reach the Stars, the biography of Yuri Gagarin. I read the book and passed it on to my friend Nigam Prakash who has recently retired as an ambassador. “Do you know who this book is dedicated to?” Nigam asked me when he returned the book. “No,” I replied, because in the excitement of reading the book I had not seen the dedication on the first page. “It is dedicated to you, stupid,” Nigam said. There it was - “To my nephew Anwar who has the great good fortune to grow up into manhood in the space age inaugurated by Yuri Gagarin”. It was after three weeks that I wrote a letter of thanks to him. He never complained.