Biswin Sadi: Vivid narratives of lost time

Cover page of book

A readers review by Rehan Asad

Biswin Sadi Memoirs, growing up in Delhi during the 1960s & 70s, authored by Jamil Urfi & published by Cinnamon teal. A must-read account for all those who want to recollect the lost time of Indian capital along with a few small cities of Uttarpradesh. The author, Abdul Jamil Urfi was born in 1960 at Aligarh as the eldest child of Dr. Abdul Jalil & Mrs. Mehajabeen Jalil. When he reached the age of seven, his family was relocated to Delhi (1967) in the upper-middle-class township of East Nizamuddin. In those days the locality was widely inhabited by the immigrant Punjabi community who came from Pakistan following the partition.

From the founder of the famous Urdu magazine “Biswin Sadi” Khustar Girami up to Andrews family, he provides a detailed description of the sociocultural dynamics of his diverse neighborhood. The narratives give insights on communal harmony , tolerance & cultural vibrancy of Nizamuddin East. A full chapter recollects authors nostalgia of the festivities celebrations, nikah ceremony of his sisters toy dolls, bhole bisre geet & ever popular BBC Urdu broadcasting.

The Urdu speakers are still sensitive with the Sheen Qaaf of language. The author has explained the feelings of Sheen Qaaf with hilarious real-life examples. While working in middle eastern country, I observed antipathy among Pakistani Punjabi colleagues against Urdu speaking community. One of the reasons might be linguistic chauvinism asserted by elite Urdu speaking bureaucrats during founding years.

The part of the book discussed the ancestral accounts of his family focusing on fine biographical details of late Prof. Ale Ahmad Suroor, a literary Urdu legend of modern ages & his late father Dr. Abdul Jalil. The chapter convented education reflects an upper-middle-class educational stratification that still echoes in our North Indian social fabric. In the early nineties, I would recall, the Minto- Circle (AMU) was filled by students from diverse North Indian schools in a race for availing internal quota of University. The big cities Anglo-Indian students tried to assert superiority over the public school while the poor chaps like me coming from small towns & cities convents filled the bottom of strata. While in the west, a major transformation happened in educational models in the last half-century. The educated middle-class mindset still affiliates success with certain so-called esteemed professions measuring it with yards of ranks & quantification of marks. The author gave a clear articulation of this mindset connecting it with his real-life accounts, precisely the notion of imposing career selection by father.

One of my ex Canadian colleague who was born as the son of Canadian minister had chosen physiotherapy as a profession in the early seventies. His British wife who was working as a nurse in Riyadh from the last twenty years was the daughter of Medical Professor & consultant of Pathology. Even forty years later, no one from a family of privilege medical fraternity in our stratified society would able to accept their children in these roles. Such discriminative mindset has evolved with our robust colonial education system & layered social orders. From the last two years, I saw twitter handle with name “90s kid” catching nostalgia by sharing of past ads, popular desi comics, Ghulam Ali Ghazals, & Jaspal Bhatti shows. Sometimes it catches lost days of Doordarshan.

Born at the end of the seventies, I could say that not much has changed then in eighties & nineties except the vanishing landscape of Urdu world. In the early 90s, two of my friends were disqualified in mintocircle entrance exam at AMU, Aligarh as they were not able to pass in elementary Urdu. The small cities convent school in those days don’t have Urdu as the third language. In early childhood, I saw old Madhoramji (The owner of city’s oldest Kirana shop at Pilibhit ) attired in Nehru topi, kurta & dhoti writing his customer’s orders in perfect Urdu. It was the biggest surprise for me at that tender age when in school, it was considered a Quranic language. Madhoram Ji passed in 2001 at the age of ninety-four & now his grandson sits on the same mat writing memos in Devanagari script.

Like other places, the author’s description of Pilibhit as one of the Mufassil towns has also been changed with time. The beautiful gateways of Drummond Ganj became ruins in the last forty years. The ornamental beauty of Bareilly Darwaza that existed much closer to his ancestors home has lost long ago. The naked lakhori bricks of Darwaza devoid of plaster are waiting for their sad demise. The much-revered Shahji Miyan was pir of my mother’s grandfather, Sheikh Haji Nisar Ahmad. A boorish middle-class village zamindar who paid a humble visit on every Thursday to his pir in the late 19th century when carts & horses covered countryside distances. Almost 125 yrs later many of his fourth & fifth generation descendants are in Karachi, Toronto, & other South Asian hubs of USA & Canada. During childhood Ammi proudly told us, it was a blessing of saint who once said, Nisar Ahamd “teri naslen puri duniya me phailengi”. Then I used to asked her : “what about those descendants who were struggling with poverty in village life after the abolition of zamindari”.

Bareilly Darwaza that stood close to authors grandfather home at Pilibhit. Pic by Rehan Asad


So Aligarh was Alma mater of mine & my father both. I stayed their for seventeen year & also listened stories from Abbu during childhood days. Just yesterday Abbu told me that in those days Shibli road was also residence of Prof. Mukhtar Uddin Arzu (Arabic), Rashid Ahmad Siddiqui & his provost Prof. Aulad Ahamd Siddiqui in addition to Prof. Ale Ahmad Suroor.
The authors eloquently written passages of by gone days connecting it with global political changes, usage of verbatim Urdu words, sandwiching of Bollywood accounts & poetic verses added a rigor to manuscript. A nicely written memoir touching multiple dimensions of a upper middle class Muslim boy who was privileged to be a grandson of literary parents & grandparents. In many ways, the account will fill you with nostalgia of by gone days that most of my generation had heard from our parents. As an educator himself he gave a critical & valuable insights that can be seen in many sections such as convented education & rites of passage.

So Aligarh was Alma mater of mine & my father both. I stayed there for seventeen-year & also listened stories from Abbu during childhood days. Abbu told me that in those days Shibli road was also residence of Prof. Mukhtar Uddin Arzu (Arabic), Rashid Ahmad Siddiqui & his provost Prof. Aulad Ahamd Siddiqui in addition to Prof. Ale Ahmad Suroor.

The passages of bygone days connected with global political changes, usage of verbatim Urdu words, sandwiching of Bollywood accounts & poetic verses added rigor to the memoir. A nicely written memoir of an upper-middle-class Muslim boy who was privileged to be a grandson of literary parents & grandparents. In many ways, the account will fill you with the nostalgia of bygone days that most of my generation had heard from our parents. As an educator himself, he gave a critical & valuable insight that can be seen in many sections such as convented education & rites of passage.