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Rakhshanda Jalil
Tuesday , January 08, 2013 at 12 : 19

The bad girl of Urdu literature: Dr Rashid Jahan


Rashid Jahan was a woman of many parts: a brilliant and hardworking doctor, a dedicated member of the Communist Party, a committed political organizer, a founder-member of the Progressive Writers' Association, an active member of Indian Peoples' Theatre Association (IPTA), a life-long campaigner for women's rights, and a free-spirited writer whose life was cut short by cancer at the age of 47. Given her many-splendoured personality, it is unfortunate that her legacy today - over a half-century after her death - is celebrated by only one set of people, those who see her as an icon of The Movement. While the Movement and the Communist Party shaped and moulded her, giving form and substance to her desire to bring about lasting social changes, it is important to revisit Rashid Jahan's legacy and examine it for both its humaneness and individuality. Her lifelong friend and sister-in-law, Dr Hamida Saiduzzafar wrote, 'Considering that Rashid Jahan was the first woman in Urdu who addressed herself squarely, consistently and forcefully to the myriad problems of the middle and lower-middle class woman in Indian society, she can rightly be called Urdu literature's first "angry young woman".'

Being a woman and a Muslim writer she was, in some ways, doubly disadvantaged. Yet, in other ways, she was privileged too and enjoyed the benefits of education and familial connections. Her life and career is instructive precisely because they illustrate how it is entirely possible for those, while not marginalized, to appropriate the voice of the 'other' and speak of concerns that are nevertheless theirs too. That privilege does not preclude exclusion from a large body of interests is evident from the work of a woman such as Dr Rashid Jahan has proved to be one of the most vital lessons I have learnt in the course of my recent research on her life.

Born on 25th August 1905, she was the eldest of five children born to Sheikh Abdullah and his wife Waheeda Begum. Rashid Jahan grew up in a home that was brimming with new ideas and lit by the Lamp of the New Light. Education, especially of the girl child, was a subject dear to the Abdullahs and both husband and wife devoted themselves to setting up the first girls' school in Aligarh in 1906 - a year after the birth of Rashid Jahan -- that was later to become the Aligarh Women's College. Hoping to encourage others by his own example, it was at this school that the young Rashid Jahan was sent every morning in a covered palanquin. And it was here that she received an all-rounded education that included both a study of the Quran and modern science. Early exposure to issues of national importance caused her to find common cause with a host of major struggles of her times - communism, feminism, nationalism, secularism. In the course of my new work on her I have looked at how each of these influenced and shaped her ouvre. Brief though her life was and slender her literary output, her contribution to women's writing and marginalised voices is immense and needs to be re-visited.

In December 1932, she co-authored a book called Angarey which was promptly banned by the colonial government for hurting the religious sentiments of the Muslim community. Lampooned as Rashid Jahan 'Angarewali' by the baser elements in the vernacular press, she became the public face of Angarey. Being a woman and having written so bravely and boldly about sexual matters in a largely puritanical, patriarchal milieu, naturally, she came in for the worst ire of those who most vehemently opposed a book such as Angarey and all that it stood for. Obviously, different people viewed her in different ways: 'In progressive families she became a symbol of the emancipated woman; in conservative homes an example of all the worst that can occur if a woman is educated, not kept in purdah, and allowed to pursue a career.'

The years after Angarey ushered in a period of mellow fruitfulness for Dr Rashid Jahan. In 1936, she was at the heart of the movement that laid the foundation for the establishment of the Progressive Writers' Association. She was instrumental in organizing the First Progressive Writers' Conference in Lucknow on 9 April 1936 where Premchand, invited to deliver the Presidential Address, outlined the aim of literature and chastised his audience thus: 'If you cannot see beauty in a poor woman whose perspiration flows as, laying down her sleeping child on a mound along the field, she works in the field, then, it is your vision that is to blame. For behind those wilted lips and withered cheeks lie sacrifice, devotion and endurance.'

Gradually this social realism began to overlay the overtly political message in Rashid Jahan's stories too. In stories like 'Chor' while there is anger against the system that produces those thieves who milk the system dry but do not get caught, there is also an earnest desire to bring about change. Always in a hurry, always on the go with so much to do and very little time to achieve everything, Rashid Jahan did not have the luxury to hone her craft or even polish and perfect her first drafts. Consequently, they sometimes have an incomplete-ness. However, what they lack in skill and craft, they more than make up in the freshness and innovativeness of their approach and the zesty, true-to-life language employed by her characters. Rashid Jahan wrote as she spoke - freely and fearlessly. She wrote about issues that no writer - male or female - had hitherto touched upon. Without the slightest trace of false modesty about veneral disease, the lack of family planning, the absence of taking a woman's consent for marriage and the false notion of "manliness" in traditional Muslim households. She wrote about these things not so much to shock but because she wanted to confront and expose issues that had always been conveniently concealed.

Stories such as 'Nayi Bahu ke Naye Aib', 'Gharibon ke Bhagwan', 'Pul', and 'Nayi Musibatein' even managed to garner some praise from the New Age critics. Some of her writings have appeared in collections like Aurat aur Dusre Afsane wa Drame (1937) and Woh aur Dusre Afsane wa Drame (Maktaba Jamia, published posthumously in 1977). She is believed to have written 25-30 short stories and 15-20 plays, many of them for the radio.

In a moving epitaph, noted Urdu critic, Ale Ahmad Suroor observed, 'Dr Rashid Jahan had a magic and that magic was her khuloos, her sincerity.' It was this magic that drew the most talented and gifted people of her generation: Firaq Gorakhpuri, Josh Malihabadi, Hiren Mukherjee, Mian Iftikharuddin among many others. A generation of women writers, notably Ismat Chughtai, Attia Hussain, Razia Sajjad Zaheer, and Sadiqa Begum Soharvi have acknowledged the influence Rashid Jahan had on their lives and style of writing. Rashid Jahan died in 1952 in Moscow where she had gone for treatment for uterine cancer and is buried in a cemetery there. The epitaph on her grave reads: 'Communist Doctor and Writer'. Her legacy lives in the lives of all those who raise their voice whenever they see oppression and injustice. Brief though her life was and slender her literary output, together they serve to illustrate the truth in the words of Majrooh Sultanpuri who said:

Main akela hi chala tha jaanib-e-manzil magar

Log saath aate gaye aur caravan banta gaya.

(Rakhshanda Jalil has just completed a book-length study of Dr Rashid Jahan)


More about Rakhshanda Jalil

Rakhshanda Jalil writes on culture, literature and society. She has published over 15 books, including the much-acclaimed book on Delhi's lesser-known monuments called 'Invisible Delhi' and a well-received collection of short stories, called 'Release & Other Stories' (Harper Collins, 2011). She blogs at www.hindustaniawaaz-rakhshanda.blogspot.com. Her Ph D is on the Progressive Writers' Movement.