The narrative unfolding in India is that of fear, distrust, and polarisation. But does it represent the entire country? Since December of last year, India has witnessed the passing of a controversial Anti-Muslim Citizenship Bill in Parliament, followed by demonstrations against it in college campuses across the country and a poorly handled communal violence in India’s national capital during Donald Trump’s visit. But does this embody the fact that people belonging to diverse cultures and religions have coexisted mostly peacefully in India?
Puspit Mukherjee from Suri, West Bengal, also popularly known as Banglar Ghalib is a living example of cultural fusions in India. In January this year, he received the prestigious Lila Ray Memorial award from Paschim Banga Bangla Academy, for translating Mirza Ghalib’s Dastambu, a diary recording the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny and the massacre of the Delhi citizenry, from Urdu to Bengali.
In the last forty years, Mukherjee has translated more than two hundred and thirty Urdu poems and short stories by famous writers like Saadat Hasan Manto and Intizar Hussain. He has carried out in-depth research on Urdu literature and has rightfully earned the title of Banglar Ghalib or Ghalib of Bengal after translating Ghalib’s letters.
Having born in Brahmin Bengali family, Mukherjee was fond of art and literature. He was a great fan of Begum Akhtar and used to hear her Ghazals on the radio, but could not understand all the Urdu words used by her. And this what led him to take Urdu lessons from a local Maulvi at a madrasa in Bengal
Years later he is considered an expert on Ghalib and Manto in Bengal. Rajiv Sarkar roped him in a while making his documentary on the two famous Urdu luminaries. The film, “Ek Dastaan” will be using Mukherjee’s observations and research on Ghalib and Manto.
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One of his distinguished works has been the translation of Wajid Ali Shah’s Parikhana to Bengali. Another of his exciting works is his essay on how Ramayana has been discussed in detail by Urdu writers.
In an interview with Karvaan India, Puspit Mukherjee recalled his journey and engagements with Urdu literature.
*Sreya – What drew you to Urdu literature?
Puspit: From childhood, I had a passion for Hindi literature. I used to listen to ghazal singers—especially Begum Akhtar, Mehdi Hassan, Ghulam Ali, Jagjit Singh, and through them, my attraction towards Urdu developed. My interest in Urdu led me to learn the language from a Madrasa in Suri. I practised speaking it with friends who knew Urdu and by post regularly brought home Urdu books from Delhi and Aligarh. After which I started reading Mirza Ghalib, Saadat Hasan Manto and became big fans of them. Later on, I got introduced to many other Urdu writers’ work as well.
*Sreya: I understand your love for Urdu, but what was your motivation for starting your translation work to Bengali?
Puspit: I started translating the original nonfiction works in Urdu to Bengali and then side by side the extraordinary short stories in Urdu. Bengali readers are open to all kinds of literature, but because of the language barrier, they could not appreciate the diversity in Urdu literature. I wanted to open the window to the World of Urdu literature for them, to let in a fresh perspective. This initiative had brought me close to some renowned Bengali writers like Sunil Gangopadhyay and Samaresh Basu.
*Sreya: What books have you written on Urdu literature? Have they been well received?
Puspit: I have written three books on critical Urdu articles. Apart from that, I have translated many short stories from Urdu to Bengali of writers like Manto, Ismat Chugtai, Intizar Hussain. Urdu magazine ‘Ghalibnama’ has published my writings. I have also written many ghazals and rubais. Recently on January 11th, I received Lila Ray memorial award from Pashchim Banga Bangla Academy for my Bengali translation of Mirza Ghalib’s Dastambu.
*Sreya: What was your experience translating the famous Urdu writers? Do you have one or more writers who are your favourite?
Puspit: I have translated more than two hundred Urdu poems and short stories. Various challenges had peppered the experience of translating, especially when I was bringing conjugation and substantial Persian literature. But my love for them kept me going. My all-time favourite poets are Mirza Ghalib and Salahuddin Parvez.
*Sreya: What has been the reaction of people around you regarding your interest in the language?
Puspit: People have shown different kinds of reactions. Most have praised me but not all. The fact that I am a Bengali and from a Hindu Brahmin family and have such love for Urdu, has surprised many.
*Sreya: In today’s Indian society, what role do you think your work can play? Do you believe that it will bring about a different perspective on Hindu-Muslim unity?
Puspit: I strongly support communal diversity. All people living in India should have the identity of first being human and then Indian. That is all that matters. I think the Hindu-Muslim sectarianism will only ruin our charming country. What is sad is that a lot of educated people in India believe that Urdu as a language belongs to Muslims, and they are trying to spread confusion and chaos in the country. A language cannot belong to a community or race. Urdu was born and raised in India. Politics of hatred can harm one of the World’s most flourishing and sweet languages like Urdu.
*Sreya: Recently a controversy broke out in IIT-Kanpur when Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem “Hum Dekhenge” was chanted and got labelled as anti-Hindu. What is your comment on that?
Puspit: Gautam Chakrabarty has discussed this in Anandabazaar Patrika in detail, but let me add my comments here. The poem is not anti-Hindu in any way. Poems have their unique language, variation, and magic. Faiz was a classical poet who used artistic metaphors in modern poetry. They get their strength from tradition, so there is no need to read too much into the metaphors.