Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, The Aligarh Magazine, and all that!

During my student days in Aligarh, I was smitten by the writing bug. I used to write for a Times of India publication called Youth Times but my dispatches were few and far between. I also tried my hand at writing feature articles but continued to receive only rejections initially, which was a dampener. In those unsettled times, a major source of inspiration for me was the writer and filmmaker Khwaja Ahmad Abbas who, as a student of Aligarh way back in the 1930’s, had tried his luck with campus journalism.

As director and writer of some of the most iconic Hindi films (besides giving a break to Amitabh Bachchan in Bollywood cinema), Khwaja Ahmad Abbas needs no introduction. His association with Raj Kapoor is well known. Some of the most well-known films from that partnership are Jagte Raho, Shree 420, Mera Naam Joker, Bobby, etc. However, from my point of view what was relevant was that in an interview which Abbas had given to a magazine he had spoken about his attempts at journalism while a student at Aligarh. He too had been besieged by rejection slips initially but soon devised an ingenious method to deal with them—by pasting them on a wall like decorations and medals.

He had said that by looking at those rejection slips he felt encouraged to battle ahead and try harder. I decided to imitate Abbas and stuck all my rejection slips on a wall. They were all of different shapes and sizes, each bearing the magazine’s logo and name, viz. imprint Magazine, Mirror, Hindustan Times, Caravan, The Illustrated Weekly of India and so on. All impersonal slips with the single line, ‘The editor regrets that he is unable to use your contribution’, printed on them.

As time passed the decorations swelled in numbers and actually the wall itself started looking quite nice. I had also begun to see the thought behind it all. The slips reminded me, not so much of the rejection of what I had labored over, as much of the fact that at least I had tried and then failed.

As someone interested in all manner of literary, cultural and political activities on the campus  I was already a member of the editorial board of ‘The Aligarh Magazine (English)’. One day I saw a notice on the English Department’s board, inviting applications for the post of editor for the next year and it set my pulse racing.

The Aligarh Magazine is an official publication of the university. Most of its editors are MA English final year students, though there was no rule which said that its editors must be students of the English department. The notice also did not explicitly say anything to that effect, so I applied.

The original Aligarh Magazine had been a publication in Urdu with articles on critical aspects of Urdu and world literature. Its editors, mostly students of MA Urdu, in both pre and post-independence India, included many names who were to create ripples in the world of Urdu literature, journalism, criticism and creative writing in both India and Pakistan. I gather that the magazine is extant and continues to be published from the Urdu department even now.

The ‘Aligarh Magazine-English’ was a throwback to the 1950’s and 60’s which was perhaps a golden period for many Indian universities, including Aligarh. After partition with many of its faculty having left for Pakistan, the Vice-Chancellor Dr. Zakir Hussain (from 1948 to1956) recruited the best people for Aligarh, cutting across sectarian and religious lines. The result was the accumulation of diverse types of people, many with a liberal bent of mind, on a vibrant campus full of activity.

Cultural activities, particularly theatre were at an all-time high. Prof Zahida Zaidi (, the poetess and drama expert from the English department wrote a book describing the creative campus life, mentioning names of several people who were doing interesting things. Mrs. Qudsia Zaidi was translating plays from English into Urdu. Habib Tanveer, the famous theatre artist, was also at Aligarh then. Prof Munibur Rahman led a whole host of creative activities on the campus which are remembered even today by ex-students, such as the famous actor Naseeruddin Shah (see his autobiography ‘And then one day’).

Col B H Zaidi who succeeded Zakir Husain as Vice-Chancellor was regarded as the ‘Shah Jahan of Aligarh’ having commissioned several buildings on the campus with their new trademark modernistic style architecture. The iconic Kennedy House building on the Aligarh campus designed by the famous American architect Stein during the 60’s is a reminder of those times,  as is the Arts faculty building.

Meanwhile, in the halls of the academy, a new thing which was being done was to launch ‘The Aligarh Magazine’ in English. Prof A. Bose, who had then joined Aligarh’s English department as a faculty was to be it’s in charge for some time.


* * *

I had an inkling that someone in MA English final,  who was said to be a favorite of the teachers,  was likely to be appointed editor, but surprisingly the committee decided to select me.  As someone who was not a student of the English department, I was an outsider so, was it likely that somebody had turned it around.

Was it Prof Zaidi, whom I knew well due to our common interests in Indian English poetry? I am not sure but soon enough I was summoned to the heads office where I was to be handed over the letter of appointment.

I had imagined that I would be given a warm welcome but far from it, the atmosphere in the head of the department’s office was somber….almost funereal. The head informed me somewhat gravely that the committee had decided to appoint me as editor, keeping in view my publications in the national press, particularly those in Youth Times, besides the several feature articles on literary topics that I had published under my byline. They suggested that I submit the plan for my issue and discuss it with the manager.

Students and teachers of literature deal with the noblest of emotions, thoughts, and experiences which can be expressed in such an eloquent manner in human language. And English departments are usually among the best ones on most university campuses including many IIT’s. (for instance, at the University of Delhi where I teach,  its English department is rated very high in global ranking; Aligarh’s own English department was rated quite high and was rather good in our times). So a sense of superiority which can come to them can be overlooked. (I recall my sister who did MA English Literature from Delhi University, once chiding me, ‘we are studying John Donne and the metaphysical poets these days…..but you won’t know since you haven’t done MA English literature’). But as an outsider, being appointed editor of the Aligarh Magazine, I sometimes felt barbs thrown at me. Or maybe it was just a question of turf.

A quick search in the archives revealed some old issues lying in a cupboard. One of them was the 1961 issue ‘The Aligarh Magazine Humour Number’ edited by an MA English student, Siddiq Ahmad. The contents were a collection of jokes about Aligarh campus life, cartoons, caricatures, etc. At the time when the issue had appeared, I am told, it created a stir and was nearly banned. There were satires on the then VC Col. B H Zaidi and his team of administrators. (Col Zaidi, responding to the criticisms is reported to have said, ‘It is me who has been caricatured and lampooned and I don’t mind it. The issue will not be banned’). But some of the conservative elements were incensed by some other contents. The Women’s College had been called the ‘school of scandal’. In a section of that issue called ‘A visitors guide to the university’, the description of the ‘university cricket ground’ was simply the pithy one-liner: ‘University cricket lies buried here’.

‘The Humor Number’ issue could only have been possible with broad-minded people at the helm of affairs in those somewhat liberal times of the 60’s. Most of the later issues it seems had a tendency to cater to a set format—a few articles about the greatness of Sir Syed (the founder of MAO college), the Aligarh Movement, followed by essays on obscure academic and technical topics in Philosophy, English, Political Science, Linguistics, etc. These could have been tutorial essays dressed up as articles. Finally,  and inevitably, a few articles on Islam and related topics. In fact, some of the editors preceding me had given their issues an entirely ‘conservative’ tilt, leaving little scope for anything else.

In one of my initial meetings with the manager Prof Salamatullah Khan, after I had enthusiastically enumerated my plan for the issue, the response I got was lukewarm. He seemed to say ‘We will go along with the usual’. Before I could meet him again and try to bring him over to my side, we heard the shocking news about his untimely demise. Prof Khan had died of a cardiac arrest in the department premises itself. A new manager was appointed in his place.

For my own issue, I had plans in plenty. I hoped to bring into focus current issues, in fact, attempt an analysis of the problem of student indiscipline which was assuming alarming proportions not just in Aligarh but all across. For this, I interviewed veteran journalists Khushwant Singh and Kuldeep Nayar, who had views on this subject and also an association with Aligarh. There were other things too, a whole section devoted to Indian poetry in English with contributions by some campus poets, in which I was assisted by Prof Zaidi and Baldev Mirza. I invited knowledgeable people to write articles on a range of other topics too, including the sciences and sports, which I did not want to ignore.

But it was Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, my hero,  who was to be my trump card. I wrote to him, requesting him to write about his Aligarh days for the magazine. It was a shot in the dark and I wasn’t sure if he would reply. But a reply did come.

Dear Jamil Urfi

Thank you very much for the letter of 11th March which reached me only the day before yesterday. I have hastily jotted down some of my memories. The process could have gone on and on and the result would have been a whole book. So I have cut it short at a dramatic and, I think, at an appropriate moment. If the reminiscences  “Down Memory Lane”, are of some use to your readers, you may let me know if you would like me to continue in the next issue. I was never lucky enough to be the editor of the Aligarh Magazine. But that is another story which I might continue in the next installment!

With many thanks for the kind things you have to write about my contribution to the Aligarh Magazine,

Yours sincerely,

Khwaja Ahmad Abbas

The letter ended with a postscript which simply said, ‘Here is an editorial tip. In the future, please give your contributors a little more time to scratch their memories’.

The reference to ‘never lucky enough to be the editor of the Aligarh Magazine’ intrigued me. There was a suggestion of a story there. Of course, he must be referring to the original Aligarh Magazine (in Urdu) because in his days the English magazine had not come into existence.

* * *

Abbas had been a firebrand revolutionary during his Aligarh days but we will restrict ourselves to his journalistic experiences at Aligarh. One day he simply wrote to the editor of the Hindustan Times, offering to send university news ‘gratis and free’. Mr.Pothan Joseph, then the editor, wrote back, welcoming the idea, adding that he would be paid a small honorarium for his contributions.  Abbas continued to send ‘the usual university news’ about union debates, sports matches, and other tidbits, which became a bit boring after some time. He wanted to do something more exciting and what could be more exciting than a scoop. How Abbas got it is an interesting story, which forms a part of his lengthy Aligarh memoirs which I published in my issue. (Though, I discovered subsequently, his piece was largely adapted from his book ‘I am not an island, an experiment in autobiography)’.

 An opportunity presented itself when a favorite of the British Indian Government, Sir Mohamed Yaqoob was due to come to Aligarh to deliver a lecture on the White Paper of the Government. Abbas planned to speak after him and literally tear the White Paper. In those days news sent by post from Aligarh reached Delhi the next day and even if it was published in the same day’s Dak edition, it took an extra day to reach Aligarh.

Abbas solved the problem in a daring way. Since much of what Sir Yaqoob had to say could be anticipated in advance, Abbas also wrote the report in advance:

‘After Sir Yaqoob had spoken, one of the students, representing the Nationalist majority in the House, rose up and after condemning the White Paper as reactionary and anti-national, keeping all the vested interests (including the communal vested interests) intact, tore the White Paper and flung the pieces at the face of the Muslim League Knight !’

Having taken the news editor into confidence and assuring him that if for some reason things did not happen as expected, he would inform him by telephone or urgent telegram, Abbas proceeded to do as he had planned. This is what happened, in his own words,

Sir Yaqoob duly arrived….was duly welcomed and garlanded…made his long speech, brandishing the rolled-up White-Paper; Then I prepared to say my piece. But meanwhile, the President [of the Student’s Union] was whispering something to Sir Mohamed Yaqoob by his side. I, sitting on the carpeted floor of the dias, was on the point of getting up when I saw Sir Yaqoob shaking his head vigorously and pointing to the lateness of the hour on his wristwatch. So the President got up, looking sheepishly at me, and declared that any other speeches would not be possible, as Sir Yaqoob was feeling tired and needed rest. I got up on my feet in a jiffy. “My point of order Sir…At least Sir Mohamed Yaqoob’s speech needs some clarifications. Perhaps he would care to answer some of our questions ?” Sir Mohamed Yaqoob raised one finger, “Only one if that is relevant”.

“All right Sir, if that is the worthy Knight’s gallant reply then I shall ask him only one question”. Then I started, “Will Sir Mohamed Yaqoob inform his British master that, in the opinion of the Aligarh Student’s Union the White paper is an ugly piece of black writing which does not satisfy the National demand for freedom and independence of India, and that in the opinion of the house, the true worth of the White-Paper is that it should be torn into pieces (and I tore the White Paper) and flung on the face of the supporters of the British Government like Sir Mohamed Yaqoob” (and I did just that).

I did not know whether I sat down first or whether Sir Mohamed Yaqoob made his exit from the hall, first. But there were loud cheers from my supporters in the hall and pandemonium broke out – a shouting match between the Nationalists and progressives and Communalist and reactionary supporters of Sir Mohamed Yaqoob. We…I and my group of friends managed to get out of the hall, got on our cycles and reached the station. Only there we warmly shook hands with each other, ordered tea and biscuits while waiting for the Delhi train which would bring a copy of next day’s Hindustan Times. At last the train arrived, the packages of the paper were delivered to the manager of the book-stall and (according to the previous arrangement made by us) we bought four copies of the paper. We did not have to open it. There it was on the front page. “Aligarh Student tears White Paper…Retort to Sir Mohamed Yaqoob”.

At last, I had got a ‘scoop’ on the front page.

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