K.A. Abbas Interview with Indian Literary Review
Khwaja Ahmad Abbas (born 7 June 1913) is a well-known film -maker, creative writer in English and Urdu, and a journalist. In some ways a trend-setter, Abbas's significant works include Inquilah, The Walls of Glass, That Woman (a biography of Mrs Gandhi), I Am Not an Island (autobiography). An eminently approachable person and a discoverer of younger and new talent in films, Abbas’s important films include Anhonee, Rahi and Shehar Aur Sapna. Abbas combines several interests, but he is essentially a communicator of impulses, ideas, and ideologies. In this and in simultaneously operating in two mediums, films and writing, he represents a Geminian sensibility. ‘When I am making a film I am fascinated by writing and when I am writing I am fascinated by films. I think this division gives one relaxation.' Currently, he is making The Naxalites which he describes as 'a very dangerous film'. That perhaps reflects the character of the man always living actively and dangerously.
The interview took place under the open sky of a pleasant, cool mid-September evening, when, notwithstanding his numerous engagements all huddled into a single day's visit, he readily responded to our request for an interview. Despite his recent illness, from which he seemed to have fully recovered, he looked neither tired nor depressed. Occasionally, however, his eyes gleamed with concern and his voice rose to the assertive pitch of a soprano, when he talked of his commitments. The final impression was that of a man committed to humanism but too firmly humane to be either lost in, or bent by, the age of ideologies.
Indian Literary Review: Mr Abbas, you have been a prolific writer since you published your first book in 1937, besides producing more than a dozen films during this period. But you have described yourself somewhere as 'a journalist by profession'. How have you managed to combine such varied interests?
K.A. Abbas: First of all, I must say that I was a writer even before 1937. In the beginning, I used to write handwritten papers and later as an undergraduate student at Aligarh I published a weekly paper Aligarh Opinion. I describe myself not as a journalist but as a communicator. I want to communicate my ideas, my impulses, my ideologies to other people. That is my basic interest in writing, in films and in drama. So, for me there is no difference between writing for Blitz or writing for films or between writing a story or writing a novel or writing a political book. It is all part of communication.
Indian Literary Review: In that case, we wonder whether you would agree with the view held by writers such as Dickens, Steinbeck, and Mark Twain that, while journalism is a valuable apprenticeship for an author, it should be stopped before it starts using up the juice needed for creative writing.
K.A. Abbas: I don't agree with that view because I think good journalism is literature and bad literature is journalism. I feel that many of the writers whom I have admired were journalists. They got their inspiration for their creative writing from journalism and continued to write very well indeed.
Indian Literary Review: Writing is bound up with reading. Which writers in India and abroad do you find congenial?
K.A. Abbas: The first writer I read was Ratan Nath Sarshar. I used to keep a lantern inside my lihaf (blanket) and read his Fasana-e-Azad so that my mother and father did not know that I was reading that novel. The first Urdu books I read were of Premchand. It is significant that I read the Urdu books of non-Muslim writers first and then those of the Muslim writers. By the time I did my BA I had read all the books of both Dickens and Hardy, all the plays of Shakespeare, and all the plays of Galsworthy. I read all the novels of Gorky, Tolstoy's War and Peace, Anna Karenina as well as his stories.
Among the American writers, the one who influenced me greatly was Upton Sinclair. He was the writer after whom I consciously modelled myself. He was writing for a cause and his inspiration also came from journalism. I met him in Los Angeles in 1938 and my main aim in going to California was not to see Hollywood but to see him.
Sinclair was his own publisher, was interested in politics, and stood for the governorship of California. He was in the Peace Movement as well as in the Left movement. He wrote a series of novels called Lanny Budd which was immensely popular. They had real characters such as Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, etc., and they combined fact and fiction in a subtle and interesting manner. That became a model for my own Inquilab in which I combined fictitious characters of Aligarh students and the real ones of Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi, Mohamed Ali and Shaukat Ali.
Indian Literary Review: Did the Progressive Writers' Movement, which started in India in 1936, significantly influence, and contribute to, your development as a writer?
K.A. Abbas: Yes, it did. I came into contact with the Left movement, with communism and with Marxism through the Progressive Writers' Movement, though I can say that I was never a dogmatic communist, never became a member of the Communist Party or the Socialist Party or for that matter the Congress party. From the beginning, I had differences with them all and never allowed any party to dominate me. But the influence of the PWM was certainly there because what I wrote I read out at the PW meetings.
Indian Literary Review: You were the secretary of the Association too?
K.A. Abbas: Yes, I was the secretary also.
Indian Literary Review: Looking back, it seems that the increasing domination of the PWM by the Communist Party during the 1940s led to a certain self-righteousness and dogmatism in the progressive writer. This was especially evident in their stand on national issues such as the communal riots of 1947. Don't you think that this sort of a rigid politicalization of the role of a writer may defeat the values he stands for?
K.A. Abbas: Yes, I agree with you but I don't think their stand on the communal riots of 1947 was wrong. The progressive writers played a very significant role in the communal riots in re-establishing the values of humanity and sanity among the Indian people. I think Krishan Chander's collection of stories — Hum Vashi Ham — and to a certain extent my own stories, 'Mein Kaun Hun' and 'Sardarji' did have some sobering influence on people at that time.
So the Progressive Writers' stand on the communal riots was not wrong, but their subservience to the communists was wrong. When matters came to a head, I had to resign from the Naya Adab, the Progressive Writers' magazine, which Krishan Chander, Sardar Jafri, and I were editing. My differences arose over my preface to Ramanand Sagar's Aur Insaan Mar Gaya. When the preface was published, there was a hue and cry that I was anti-Marxist and anti-people because I wrote that Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs must look within themselves and see where the devil lies: the devil lies within their hearts.
Indian Literary Review: Was it that the PWA or the Communist Party was not prepared to accept criticism or self-introspection or any blame?
K.A. Abbas: No, I hadn't blamed any party, you see, but I had blamed all the people and that is why they said I was against the people.
Indian Literary Review: Weren't you expelled from the PWA also?
K.A. Abbas: Well, there are various theories. Some people say I was expelled and some say that I was not expelled. Probably I was not formally expelled.
Indian Literary Review: Perhaps the activity itself came to a grinding halt?
K.A. Abbas: Well, it had to come to a halt because I was the printer, publisher and editor of the magazine. And when I withdrew my name from the magazine, it stopped. Sardar Jafri went to jail and therefore was out of this controversy, while Krishan Chander was sitting on the fence. I did not attend the Bhiwani conference, but there were a lot of things that were said about me and about my preface to the novel. People like Ismat Chughtai said that I had become a reactionary and a bourgeois. But the funny thing is that ten years later the PWA was revived by Sajjad Zaheer after he returned from Pakistan at my instance. You see, I had gone to Panditji and said, 'Please call him back.'
Indian Literary Review: Is it true that Guftagoo, the new periodical started by Sardar Jafri, published the very article which was rejected by Naya Adab just before the latter ceased publication?
K.A. Abbas: Yes, I insisted that they must publish what they did not publish earlier, if they wanted anything written by me. And Sardar Jafri had the good sense to publish it. But there was another interesting thing I was going to tell you about. When the movement to restart the PWA began, Sajjad Zaheer called a meeting to which I was specially invited. I was made the president of that meeting and there they apologized for having said anything against me earlier.
Indian Literary Review: Perhaps at that time you had a love-hate relationship with the Communist Party of India, possibly more of love than of hate?
K.A. Abbas: Yes, that's true.
Indian Literary Review: Despite our independence from the British rule thirty years ago and despite the activities of the Communist Party of India and the PWA over the last forty years, are we any nearer to being a socialist state?
K.A. Abbas: No, we are not. But the PWA is not to blame for that. Our whole social and political atmosphere - in fact our milieu — is responsible for that.
Indian Literary Review: This reminds us of your controversial story just mentioned, 'Sardarji', for which you were attached both by the Hindus and by the Muslims and called 'murderable' and even dragged to the court of law. Would you, in retrospect, agree with Mrs Sarojini Naidu who said that you had been naive in writing such a subtle story for the Indian reader?
K.A. Abbas: No, I didn't agree with her then and I don't agree with her now. That was her way of showing affection for the writer because at that time she was worried that I might be murdered, though there was no such danger. You see, the Sikhs were blamed for saying that I should be murdered and some did say such things in the Gurudwaras and so on. Their minds were inflamed by the first line of the story.
Indian Literary Review: Some people mistook it for an article perhaps?
K.A. Abbas: Yes. And a case was filed against me. It was said that I had written an article in which I had begun by saying: 'Mein Sikhon se nafrat karta tha' ('I used to hate the Sikhs').
Indian Literary Review: Did you also have any personal encounters with the Sikhs:
K.A. Abbas: First, I had a very interesting experience in the court where an old Sardarji with a long beard came to give evidence. He had filed the case from Jhansi. (Here Mr Abbas switched to Hindustani in which he continued to narrate his experiences for some time. The following is the English translation of what he said.)
When I met him, he said:
'Why did you write such a story against us?' I said: 'Sardarji, your opinion about me is perhaps wrong. I wish that you hear the whole story from me, only if you can spare an hour and if you don't get angry with me until you have heard the entire story.' So, he came home with me and stayed with me for an hour. I read out the whole story to him.
At the end, his eyes were filled with tears. He got up and embraced me and said: 'The writer of such a story should be awarded a medal.' And he went to court and said: 'I want to withdraw charges, and I'm going back to Jhansi. I think Abbas Saheb has written a good story.'
Another incident I had at the Kashmir border where fighting was going on at that time. I had gone to the border party of correspondents. We were sent to different outposts. I went to one outpost alone which was being manned by three Sardars only. They were sitting in the dugout with a candle stuck in a bottle. At that time, I used to carry the story with me in my pocket so that if there was any danger I could read out the story.
Indian Literary Review: That was very ingenious of you ...
K.A. Abbas: Maybe, yes. So the Sikh officer said: 'Aap ka naam kya hai?
Indian Literary Review: Did he sense something?
K.A. Abbas: No, he asked me what my name was, that's all. (Again switching to Hindustani the English translation of which follows.)
I said: 'My name is Khwaja Ahmad Abbas.' They whispered something to each other. One of them said: 'Do you write stories?' I said: 'Yes, I do write stories, and I've written "Sardarji" if you're referring to that story.' They said: "Why did you write that story against us?' I said: ‘Would you like to hear that story? I shall narrate it to you right now.’ They said: 'We'll hear it.' I said: 'You won't kill me, will you, until you have heard the end of the story?' They laughed and said: 'No, no, we won't kill you.'
So I narrated the story. And they too, like the Sardarji in the court, were overwhelmed by the story.
They shook my hand and said that I would have to drink rum with them which I had previously refused because I was a teetotaller.
Indian Literary Review: Well, anyone who has read the story will confirm that it is written with great compassion for and understanding of a Sardarji who risked his own life to protect his Muslim neighbours.
K.A. Abbas: Actually this is a true story because a Sardarji did save the life of my nieces and a cousin, though the death of the Sardarji did not take place. That is the only fictitious part of the story. The property of my relatives had been looted by a gang of the RSS who were rampaging the whole city at that time. The Sardarji told his children to go and participate in the loot and bring whatever they could. And it is only due to that some property was saved. Whatever was brought to the Sardarji's house was given to my relatives. They were put inside the kitchen and the Sardarji took out his kirpan and said: 'Jab tak hum zinda hain tum ko koi hath nahin laga sakta.’ So that gave me the inspiration to write that end — that he could have been killed.
Indian Literary Review: Would it be correct to say that your short stories are generally better constructed and aesthetically more satisfying than your novels?
K.A. Abbas: I wouldn't say that because I think that my novel Inquilab is better constructed, though I wouldn't say this of all my novels. Some of the novels have obviously been written to make some money, frankly speaking, to pay for my films, and therefore I have transformed some of my screenplays into novels and they have been written in a hurry and there is no doubt about it, but I wouldn't say that all the novels are badly constructed. One of my stories that has been praised for its construction was written at one sitting in Aurangabad. I started this story 'Ajanta' at the Aurangabad station and wrote it throughout the journey to Bombay; I finished it as I reached Bombay.
I have personally tried to eliminate the difference between a short story and a novel by writing long short stories or shorter novels. For example, the short novel The Walls of Glass is, I think, quite well constructed. I will share a secret with you about it. This was written in Urdu ten years ago and after I discovered the manuscript in a heap of old papers, I took it out and completed it when I was in Canada for treatment last year. Later I translated it and sent it for publication.
Indian Literary Review: It has been argued that Hemingway's technique is sometimes in search of a subject. Some of your critics feel that while your subjects are refreshingly insightful and varied, your techniques are not. Please comment.
K.A. Abbas: I think I have tried to vary techniques from story to story and from novel to novel. I think the technique depends on the subject matter of the novel or the story. For example, the technique I employed in the latest story, 'Equilibrium of an Emperor' is certainly not old.
Indian Literary Review: Didn't you publish a story in Naqush nearly twenty years ago? It was 'Ek Bachche Ka Khat Mahatma Gandhi Ke Naam' and written ...
K.A. Abbas: Yes, I did ...
Indian Literary Review: ... in incomplete words that gave the impression of nearly coming from a child's mind.
K.A. Abbas: I'll give you another example. I wrote a story called 'Rupia, Aana, Pai'. The story was supposed to be the fragments which I had found in someone's account book and the whole story was about the daily account of a man, and the last thing he had written was a bottle of poison. I sent it in English to Free Press and it promptly came back the third day with a letter from the editor saying that by mistake I had sent some fragments of an account book. When I explained this to him, he published the story with a note that it had been mistaken for an account book earlier.
Indian Literary Review: Perhaps once you used report items from an imaginary newspaper and wove them into a story?
K.A. Abbas: That was a column Krishan Chander and I were writing for Nai Kahaniyan. These stories were not based on newspaper cuttings but on real incidents and were called Bolti Katrane. We continued this for two years, I think.
Indian Literary Review: You are obviously concerned in your writings with the Indian social reality. How far is this aspect of your work, which is quite prominent, related to your development as a writer? Or would you still say, as you said in your autobiography, I Am Not an Island, that you are 'like Peter Pan, The Boy Who Refused To Grow Up'?
K.A. Abbas: That was said in a different context. I wouldn't say that I haven't developed as a writer, hut that is for critics like you to judge whether I have developed or not.
Indian Literary Review: Isn't there a humanistic concern with and compassion for life underlying the political and social theme of your work?
K.A. Abbas: I think there should be a humanistic concern with and compassion for ordinary people in all writings, not only in my writings but in all writings. I think this concern for the realities of life and for the problems of humanity, underlies all great literature.
Indian Literary Review: Generally, your themes develop naturally and reach their conclusions logically as, for example, in stories such as 'Sparrows', 'The Dumb Cow', 'Aasman Mahal', 'Anhonee'. But don't you think that now and then your themes seem to run away with you, throwing the artistic treatment overboard?
K.A. Abbas: You’re taking the examples of short stories which are creative works and of films which are to be set according to a formula, not the commercial formula but the formula of the screenplay.
Indian Literary Review: Our quarrel is not with the conclusion of films like Aasman Mahal. We had in mind films such as Bombai Raat Ki Bahon Mein and Do Boond Paani. For example, the former seems to move convincingly until the conclusion in which three cars collide. Even though it deals out poetic justice, it is after all an accident.
K.A. Abbas: But the accident was implicit in that mad race. If this girl had not come in front of his car, his car would in any case have dashed because he was driving like mad. Instead of sacrificing another innocent character, I brought this girl who was already there. I do agree, however, that sometimes the conclusions have to be slightly forced to bring out the moral of the story or to bring about the climax of the film. But 1 don't think these are artificially forced.
Indian Literary Review: Do you have any favourites among your own novels and short stories?
K.A. Abbas: Well, frankly speaking, I have none. For me the last story I have written is the best, but according to critics it could be different. According to some internationally renowned critics my first story 'Sparrows' is the best story. It is included in a West German anthology of the world's best stories and only three of them are Indian: one of Tagore's, one of Mulk Raj Anand's and the third is mine.
Indian Literary Review: You write in Hindi, Urdu, and English with equal ease. To what extent do you share, while writing in English, the problem which Raja Rao speaks of, namely, 'to convey in a language that is not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own?
K.A. Abbas: I have not experienced that sort of a thing. For me, I think, some of the things come easily in English and some in Urdu and Hindi. I consider Urdu the same language as Hindi. I write in Urdu and someone puts it in the Devanagari script. I can write the Devanagari script, but I write it very slowly. I find writing political books in English easier because the terminology is in English. Also I find it easier to write stories with Western flavour in English and then translate them into Hindi or Urdu. On the other hand, I find it better to write certain emotional stories in Urdu or Hindi and then translate them into English. For example, The Walls of Glass was first written in Urdu and Hindi and then translated into English, but 'Equilibrium of an Emperor' and 'The Fan' were first written in English. I think I have written only six or seven stories originally in English.
Indian Literary Review: Some of your critics say that your books are written in a hurry and that they are journalism masquerading as literature. Your admirers, however, knowing your varied interests, remind them not to judge you in a hurry or merely on the basis of your less impressive books. May we have your comments on this?
K.A. Abbas: I think you have replied it yourself. I think hurry or leisure does not make any difference to writing. If the inspiration is there, I think, a masterpiece can be written in a hurry. Or you might take ten years and write a bad book. And I am used to writing in a hurry because I was trained as a journalist and in journalism you have to meet a deadline.
Indian Literary Review: Do you ever revise? It is possible for a writer to write a good piece of literature in a hurry if he feels inspired. But sometimes there is a need for revisions. There are several writers who revise frequently and who have drafts after drafts of their works.
K.A. Abbas: No, I don’t revise at all in that sense. I improve while writing. I cut one word and write another and that goes on all the time.
Indian Literary Review: You revise as you go along?
K.A. Abbas: That's right.
Indian Literary Review: If one were to talk in terms of a statistical figure, would you say that there would be two drafts of every work?
K.A. Abbas: No, just one draft. The verbal changes are there. Even in the typed draft I make changes here and there, but not basically.
Indian Literary Review: Perhaps you could tell us what in your view constitutes an abiding work of literature?
K.A. Abbas: Well, an abiding work of literature is made by the readers and the critics. Nobody can write an abiding work of literature consciously. He should write and forget about it.
Indian Literary Review: But don't you think there is something like the test of time? A particular work of literature may have been written 300 years ago, but it may still be relevant.
K.A. Abbas: Yes, there is that thing but don't think you would find that in my work.
Indian Literary Review: Mr Abbas, you have successfully channelled your creative energies into both films and writing. Which of these mediums fascinates you more?
K.A. Abbas: Both the mediums. When I am making a film I am fascinated by writing and when I am writing I am fascinated by films. I think this division gives me relaxation.
Indian Literary Review: We know that it was your dissatisfaction with the way your first film script Naya Sansar was produced that led you into making your own films. How far are you satisfied with Gulzar's production of your story 'Achanak' a few years ago?
K.A. Abbas: Well, there are two questions in this. Naya Sansar was well made according to the time, you see. But after that there was a series of such nai or naya films.
Indian Literary Review: It sort of set a blaze ...
K.A. Abbas: I did not give any such names as Naya Tarana or Nai Kahani to my film scripts which I wrote in the wake of Naya Sansar. These names were given by the producers because they said that since Naya Sansar ran, so Naya Tarana would also run. And so they changed the stories so much that it was difficult f or me to fin d that it was the same story.
Indian Literary Review: So it was not so much Naya Sansar as the film versions of your other stories.
K.A. Abbas: These stories were mauled badly. When I questioned the director, he in a way challenged me by saying that if I did not want to change my stories I should become a director. So, that's how I became a director.
Indian Literary Review: Can we go back to Gulzar's production of Achanak?
K.A. Abbas: Achanak was I think fairly well made except that the end was riot according to my story.
Indian Literary Review: Wasn't the hero hanged in your story?
K.A. Abbas: No, he was hanged, but I had concluded the story on a symbolic note. I did not particularly write about an Indian. He could be any person in any country. And his press interview, which is very important, is not there in the film. He was the first heart transplant patient in the world and the press interviews him in this connection. They say: 'How do you feel?' He says: 'I feel very good. Another man's heart has been put into me and it is working.' But they had put the heart into him to help him to live only to be hanged. The bite of satire was much more in the original story than in the film. In the end, as I had conceived it, the flying cranes form a question mark in the air. I wanted the film to end on that question mark. As he is being hanged, we go above the hangman's noose and we see the sky which has that question mark. That is the last thing this man sees.
Indian Literary Review: Would you say that Raj Kapoor's rendering of your stories to Bobby and Mera Naam Joker is as good as that of Awara and Shri 420? Or do you feel that there has been a falling-off?
K.A. Abbas: There has been a continuous falling-off. Of all my stories, Awara receive d the best treatment from Raj Kapoor. And Bobby received the worst. I did not write the dialogues of the latter, and the dialogue writer made some changes. Raj Kapoor too made some changes and kept on putting in more songs and more dances.
Indian Literary Review: In Raj Kapoor's productions themselves don't you think that, even after Awara and Shri 420, Jagte Raho again seemed to vindicate his artistic integrity? His acting was superb even though the film was not directed by him.
K.A. Abbas: Not that I am going to take the credit for Jagte Raho, but it was written by my friends Shambu Mitra and Amit Mitra. When Shambu Mitra came to Bombay, he told me the story and said that since they were unable to raise finances in Bengal, would I hear it and see if someone in Bombay would be interested in it. I heard the story and took them straight to Raj Kapoor. Raj Kapoor bought the story immediately and asked them to direct the film.
Indian Literary Review: Shehar Aur Sapna, which is a competent work, was a moderate success at the box office and received the President's Gold Medal. But Aasman Mahal, which is an artistically superior film, flopped and received no such medal. How do you view it?
K.A. Abbas: First of all, I don't like your bracketing of commercial success with President's award. You think that Aasman Mahal was a flop and Shehar Aur Sapna a moderate success. Actually, my losses were the same in both pictures. Now Shehar Aur Sapna was made in a certain way. That is to say the major artists and technicians did not charge any money. And whatever money came from the distributors was equally divided among them. Therefore, as you say, it is a moderate success.
Indian Literary Review: Don't you think the award of the gold medal boosted the success of Shehar Aur Sapna?
K.A. Abbas: Well, certainly. But winning an award does not mean any qualification of the maker. As my father used to say, if you stand first in the class, it means the other hoys in the class are dullards. I am not criticizing the judgement of the committees which selected these films, but maybe in that year Shehar Aur Sapna was the best film and in the other year Aasman Mahal was not the best film.
Indian Literary Review: Coming to a very topical question. When, in your opinion, does the treatment of sex and violence in films and in literature become a licence?
K.A. Abbas: It becomes a licence when it panders to the commercial interests of the writers or the film-makers and when the intention is to titillate the audience and to be able to sell a few more books or a few more tickets.
Indian Literary Review: Finally, Mr Abbas, what film are you making now and how do you feel about it?
K.A. Abbas: I'm making The Naxalites — a very dangerous film. I feel scared of being shot at from both sides, though I think it is neither a glorification nor a denigration of the Naxalites. I only hope that the film is not misunderstood as my story 'Sardarji' was.
Indian Literary Review: How did you get this idea of making a film on the Naxalites?
K.A. Abbas: I was excited by these people who were willing to do or die, to kill or die. And I said to myself that here is a great drama ...
Indian Literary Review: A great human drama?
K.A. Abbas: A great human drama if the people can be so motivated and so dedicated to an ideal that they will kill or be killed. I thought it would be worth analysing and also because I had a theory of my own, which might he purely subjective, that this thing is rooted in the Bengal Famine of 1943, that the first Naxalites were babies at that time and that in their subconsciousness lurked the bitterness of the Calcutta pavements. That is what I have tried to show in this film.