Saturday, September 26, 2015

Golconda's 17th century Mullah Vajhi, the first Urdu essayist is far superior to Montaigne and Francis Bacon

A major misconception about Urdu among Urdu speakers and admirers of the language. The first misconception is that Urdu is poetry and nothing but poetry. They do not mean that the language is poetic. They mean that the soul of the language is poetry.It is not so. There is an impressive tradition of prose writing in the language, and it has been able to make itself the vehicle of science, history, philosophy.But the prose that emerged in the 19th century has been a combined effort of the East India Company officials administering India. They chose to operate in Urdu instead of Persian. As a result the moulvis at Fort William in Kolkata who began to write Urdu prose primers for the administrators in training. At the same time, Urdu journalism too took off. At the same time, Mirza, who is a wonderful prose writer, began to send off his letters to friends through the then postal service. Ghalib''s prose was indeed informal, chatty. It was urbane. But there was something missing in it. It lacked the spark, the energy and the passion.

To get some lively prose writing we have to go back to Golconda of the 17th century and to Mullah Vajhi's essays. Javed Vashisht has put out "Mullah Vajhi Ke Inshaaye" (Published by Book Service, Delhi; 1975; Price: Rs 8). He has written a 79-page introduction where he argues with passion and literary judgment the case for Vajhi as the first essayist in India.

As a matter of fact, Vajhi is superior to botb Montaigne and Francis Bacon, the other two pioneers in the genre. The Frenchman and the Englishman affect informality. They are much too mannered for an essayist. It is not until D.H.Lawrence in the 20th century that we get to read a lively essay. (Example: Lawrence's What is the Novel?).

We will prove through examples as to why Vajhi scores over Montaigne and Bacon.

First, Montaigne from his essay, Of Sorrow (Translated into English by Charles Cotton in the 17th century, Online Library of Liberty):

"NO MAN living is more free from this passion than I, who yet neither like it in myself nor admire it in others, and yet generally the world, as a settled thing, is pleased to grace it with a particular esteem, clothing therewith wisdom, virtue, and conscience. Foolish and sordid guise! The Italians have more fitly baptized by this name malignity; for ’tis a quality always hurtful, always idle and vain; and as being cowardly, mean, and base, it is by the Stoics expressly and particularly forbidden to their sages."

Now, Francis Bacon in his essay Of Truth:

WHAT is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer. Certainly there be, that delight in giddiness, and count it a bondage to fix a belief; affecting free-will in thinking, as well as in acting. And though the sects of philosophers of that kind be gone, yet there remain certain discoursing wits, which are of the same veins, though there be not so much blood in them, as was in those of the ancients. But it is not only the difficulty and labor, which men take in finding out of truth, nor again, that when it is found, it imposeth upon men's thoughts, that doth bring lies in favor; but a natural, though corrupt love, of the lie itself. One of the later school of the Grecians, examineth the matter, and is at a stand, to think what should be in it, that men should love lies; where neither they make for pleasure, as with poets, nor for advantage, as with the merchant; but for the lie's sake. But I cannot tell; this same truth, is a naked, and open day-light, that doth not show the masks, and mummeries, and triumphs, of the world, half so stately and daintily as candle-lights. Truth may perhaps come to the price of a pearl, that showeth best by day; but it will not rise to the price of a diamond, or carbuncle, that showeth best in varied lights. A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure. Doth any man doubt, that if there were taken out of men's minds, vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would, and the like, but it would leave the minds, of a number of men, poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves?"

There is a certain deliberate posturing in the tone and voice of these essays. There is an affectation of thoughtfulness though there is indeed a lot of thoughtfulness in these two excerpts. Some might argue that it would be wrong to accuse Montaigne of affectation when we do not know French and his tone in the original. The translation, unless it is deliberately off the mark, cannot be too much of a distortion of the original. Perhaps, Montaigne's French is sharper and lucid-er. It would be difficult for an only-English reader to say.

But turn now to Vajhi's shortest essay in Javed Vashisht's collection. It is called "Maidan-e-Jang" or Battlefield. And here it goes:

"yoon apna hur paraya janne ki jaagaa nahin hai. yoon aashnaa hur begaana pachanne ki jaagaa nahin hai. na dost jaanaa jaataa na dushman. maaraamaar hoti chaaron kadhan. koi kise hat kitaa naa pukaartaa. jo koi jis ke haath talein aaya woh use maarta. aqal is waqt aakar aqal nahin karti. deewaangi aakar ang mein bharti. tan sab hotaa, sun. haath chalta hur maar neecha ki rahti dhun. yoon apna apna najat hai.qayaamat ka wqat hai. yoon kaam kis ki aql mein ne aata. khuda jaane waqt kyaa ho jaata."

(In this way, it is not a place where you know friend from stranger. In this way it is not a place to know acquaintance from an unknown person. Neither can you make out friend or enemy. There is fighting on all four sides. No one calls out to say move or shouts. Whoever comes near your hand, he is killed. Intelligence does not come at this moment and play intelligence. Madness comes and fills the body. Body is all, listen, hand flails and knocks down. It is in such and such way that everyone finds exit. It is the time of end of time. In this way, no one's deed makes sense. God knowns what happens (at that moment)."

It is easy to see that Vajhi has a colloquial style and there is a sense of urgency in the tone. The sentences are short. The last sentence especially.


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