Was it because that after the tumultuous years in which wars had been fought and the country was partitioned that people were finally getting settled in their lives and beginning to realise that a new era had dawned ? How can one explain the huge popularity which an Urdu magazine called BiswinSadi – “Twentieth Century”, used to enjoy in those days in the 1960s? This was a magazine which was brought out by none other than our neighbour in Nizamuddin, an unforgettable person called Ram Rakha Mal Chadda aka Khushtar Girami, whose handsome, three-storied mansion lay just across the road.
In pre-partition Lahore, Khushtar Sahib had been a well-to-do person whose family had a variety of business interests, including those in the printing and publishing trade. He had already been involved with the Urdu publication called Biswin Sadi. In post-partition India, he had initially tried his hand at several trades before he discovered that a fortune could be made from Urdu and decided to continue with Biswin Sadi and develop it into a full-fledged magazine.
And the magazine sold extremely well, because it had all the right ingredients – light political humour, political bantering, cartoons, pulp fiction, romance, poetry, and an assortment of ragbags, including household and cookery tips for women readers.
In those days, there used to be a substantial readership of Urdu periodicals in Delhi, particularly among the Punjabi refugee community. Most of the scooter rickshaw wallas, and taxi drivers were Sikhs and they mostly read Urdu newspapers. (Indeed, for many “Displaced Persons” from undivided Punjab, Urdu was the only language in which they could read or write as both English and Hindi were unknown to them.) Biswin Sadi’s readership was a more settled Punjabi refugee and even some of the North Indian, Urdu-knowing gentry, though people with slightly refined tastes, the UPwallas particularly, sniffed at it and may have found some of its contents a bit crass. At one point of time Biswin Sadi became one of the most widely read Urdu magazines, selling 40,000 copies of every issue. Almost all the major Urdu writers like Balwant Singh, Raja Mehndi Ali Khan, Amrita Pritam, Krishan Chander, Khushwant Singh and Sahir Ludhianvi had published in it.
Biswin Sadi’s cover page always had a photo of a beautiful woman, perhaps a somewhat typical Muslim looking model, wearing colourful satin or silk clothes, plenty of makeup and jewellery and with a dupatta draped over her head. In some cases the model was shown raising her hand in the form of an aadab – a salutation. Interestingly, the magazine’s back cover always bore the advertisement for “Radium Tonic Pills” – Mardangi ki dawa (Tonic for Manliness), which it seems was some kind of an aphrodisiac or a sex tonic. The advertisement, always with the same graphics – a strong muscular man, a Hercules sans the beard, wearing no more than an underwear, flexing his muscles and showing off. Never in any issue I remember was there anything else on the back cover but the same advert, so one can conclude with certainty that the makers of Radium Tonic Pills were the regular sponsors of the magazine. Perhaps they had made a onetime big donation to the magazine owner.
At book stalls on railway stations (the ubiquitous AH Wheeler book stalls) and bus stands, there would inevitably be Urdu magazines on display. Alongside, there would also be Biswin Sadi. But gradually, over the years, Urdu periodicals disappeared as Urdu readership dwindled in numbers.
In my family and in the circle of friends and acquaintances, most people that I came across took enormous pride in the “Urdu culture”, referring to it as not just as a product of the cosmopolitan Persianate culture of the Mughal’s but as a vibrant, soulful language. (For instance, the gentle reminder which Urduwallas make that in “Inqilab Zindabad”, coined by Maulana Hasrat Mohani, the freedom movement got its first major slogan.) I remember that family elders tried their best to encourage us to read as much as possible in Urdu, conscious of the fact that there was an overbearing pressure of English. For instance, on one of my visits to Pilibhit, my uncle seeing the English book that I was poring over, vainly tried to encourage me to read something in Urdu also. He proceeded to enlighten me about the huge diversity of reading material which existed in Urdu – informative articles on science, plenty of interesting things for children, puzzles and magic tricks, and of course detective fiction, Jasoosi Duniya, occupying a place of prominence among them.
I found scores of Jasoosi Duniya stacked in his room in Pilibhit. Forty years down the line, there seems to have been a renewed interest in Jasoosi Duniya, as some of them have been translated into English and reprinted in the Devanagari script. The older generation feels very nostalgic about Ibne Safi’s works, which are now even discussed in serious meetings and seminars. People who grew up reading these detective novels recall the unique artwork adorning the covers, the characters such as the suave, upper crust Faridi and his sidekick, the bumbling Hameed. A few times I also made an effort to read these novels but since my Urdu reading was quite slow, I must admit that it took it’s time. Overall, it was an interesting read and all in all I must have read three and a half Jasoosi Duniya novels – two on train journeys, one at home when I was sick and lying in bed, and another one which I started but gave up mid-way.
In his autobiography Khwab Baqi Hain, Abba has given a good account of the literary environment which existed in the houses of shaurfa in the early decades of Biswin Sadi. There was a glut of Urdu periodicals which people with literary ambitions relished, since they carried reviews and critical articles on what was being written. For a budding literary critic, perhaps a small contribution or a column in one of those periodicals was a great achievement. That is how, as Abba writes, his literary career started, by contributing small pieces to the plethora of journals which existed then.
Urdu continued to be in regular use throughout the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s and I remember that at railway station book shops, at least four or five Urdu periodicals used to be on display. They included Rumani Duniya, Aaaj kal, Jassosi Duniya, Filmi Duniya, Shama, Beeswin Sadi, etc. Hindi films had the name of the film in three scripts – Roman (English), Devanagari (Hindi), and Persian/Arabic (Urdu). Gradually, the trend of having the title of the film in Urdu during the credits disappeared; now films rarely, if ever, feature the titles and credits in Urdu.
In post-independence India, attitudes towards Urdu have vacillated widely, with one noticeable trend in some quarters being to portray it as an ornamental, effeminate language – the flowery vernacular of courtesans and prostitutes, the language of sher-o-shaiyri embedded in the matrix of shama-parwana type symbols etched in classical Persian poetry. Urdu has also been largely looked upon as a vestige of the decaying world of the north Indian Muslim feudal elite. While one can debate whether such tendencies to stereotype both Urdu and its users in independent India are deliberate or incidental but such dichotomies have been explored very sensitively in the Merchant-Ivory film Mohafiz, which is based on Anita Desai’s novel In Custody. In it, Urdu and Hindi have been pitched against one another – one being the delicate language of poetry and the other, the sister language Hindi, being that of earning bread and butter and finding employment.
In a way, it seems logical that as the 20th century gave way to the 21st century Biswin Sadi, the magazine started by Khushter Girami too had to die – due to the fact that the 20th century also came to an end.
His grand daughter, Suparna Chadha, whom I remember as a child, is now grown up and has made a name for herself in the world of writing and publishing. She helped her father Krishan Kumar Chadha, Khushter Girami’s elder son, to publish a collection of some articles published in Biswin Sadi, in the Devanagari script (Hindi) entitled, Nai Sadi ki Kahaniyan (Stories of the new century). The book was published by Harper Collins and has articles by well known Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu writers of those times along with period photographs and advertisements of soaps, toothpaste, and other products which used to be published in those days. (A high octane dose of nostalgia) While going through the preface I came across an interesting passage in which Krishan Kumar Chadha recalls the early days of the periodical which his father had started in Lahore (in undivided India):
In Lahore the office of Biswein Sadi was located close to Shalmi Darwaza. On a large board outside the office was written Biswein Sadi in large letters in Urdu. I remember whenever I used to accompany pitaji to the office he used to always stop outside to look carefully at the board. There was a mandir on one side of the office and a masjid on the other side. During the time of the partition riots both the mandir and the masjid were burnt down but the Biswein Sadi office remained intact.
Excerpted with permission from Biswim Sadi Memoirs: Growing Up In Delhi During The 1960s and 1970s, Jamil Urfi, Cinnamonteal Publishing.
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