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.

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.

Fading Facts: Sir Mian Muhammad Shafi Contributions towards the Aligarh Movement

Text by Rehan Asad| A review for the educational services of Sir Mian Mohammad Shafi, a shared piece of the 20th century South Asian Colonial History

On 27 December 1894, at the Mohammedan educational conference, a twenty-five lawyer who returned recently from England wrote and recited eulogy for the Sir Syed Ahmad Khan in English. Few lines of the poem are presented here.

The sacred Brick of this grand Hall,
The boarding house, the College Rooms,
And this great conference, each and all
Forever the national heirlooms
Priceless and Loved, Shall Waft, your name
Sir Syed through the coming days,
What our nation might befall
Immortal lo, shall be your frame
Never waning, but in numerous ways,
Be ever more, the joy of all!

Sir Mian Muhammad Shafi, born on 10 March 1869 and passed away on 07th January 1932. The portrait is taken from the family collection by courtesy of Mian Hassan Farrukh who also runs a webpage http://mianfamily.tripod.com/ collecting a valuable history and background of Mian Family, Baghbanpura, Lahore.

Introduction to Mian Muhammad Shafi

The twenty-five-year young lawyer cited above was born on 10 March 1869 in historic “Mian family” of Arain tribe at Baghbanpura near Lahore. Many of his illustrious ancestors were conferred with titles and acknowledgments from the time of the Aurangzeb up to the rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in Punjab. Started his education from the vernacular middle school, he completed his education at Lahore University. On August 1889 AD, Shafi was sent to England to pursue studies at Bar. Fortunate enough to secure the admission at the honorable society of the Middle temple where his cousin Mian Shah Din was already studying for the Bar from last two years. In 1890 AD, elected as president of Anjuman-I- Islamia, London and in the same year, he competes for a scholarship in international and constitutional law and constitutional history at prestigious Middle Temple. At England, he actively participated at every forum that addressed the welfare of Indian students such as Indian section of the Royal Society of Arts, National Indian Association, and the society of encouragement and protection of Indian Arts. He holds the membership of Paddington parliament, an esteemed political society that constituted Member of Parliament, Barristers, Solicitors, and merchants. In 1892, he left England and started his legal career at Hoshiarpur although enrolled himself at both Allahabad and Lahore high courts.

Engagement with Aligarh Movement from the time of Sir Syed up to the approval of University Bill in 1920 during his tenure as the educational member of Viceroy Executive council

The participation of the Mian Muhammad Shafi in Aligarh movement traced from the time of the formation Anglo-Muhammadan Defence Association of Upper India in 1892. He represented Punjab province as a member of the association with Mr. Syed Mahmood and Mr. Theodore Beck (the then Principal of Aligarh College) as the joint secretaries. After his return from England in 1892, he participated in all annual meetings of All India Muhammadan Educational Conference. Several times, he presided female education and other sections of the conference. In the year 1898, the same year when the Great leader, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan departed from this world, he took a bigger responsibility of Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental College. This was the appointment of Mian Muhammad Shafi as the as the trustee of Aligarh College. By the time of the sad demise of the great leader, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the College has marked as one of the best residential institutions in India. In the coming years, he was engaged in his political and legal career along with active participation in Aligarh movement. The coming years was the tough time for the Aligarh College as its regulatory body got afflicted with factional politics due to the rift between Aftab Ahmad Khan and Ali brothers? During these years, Mian Muhammad Shafi distanced himself from controversies. By 1910, the efforts for the University campaign were revived. All India Muslim University association was formed under the leadership of His Highness, the Agha Khan and Nawab Viqarul-Mulk to centralize the efforts required for the elevation of the College to University in 1910. Mian Muhammad Shafi was elected as vice-president of All India Muslim University Association, and Honorary general secretary of the Punjab Province. For the next two years, Mian Muhammad Shafi put all his efforts for the cause and raised a fund of more three hundred thousand Rupees for the upliftment of the College to University. He himself donated five thousand Rupees in 1912 for the noble mission. In May 1911, a delegation went to meet Sir Harcourt Butler, the then education member of Viceroy executive council for discussing and finalizing the draft of University constitution. Mian Muhammad Shafi was one of the three representatives responsible for the negotiations with education members on the behalf of delegation. On September 25, 1911, Mian Muhammad Shafi represented as a spokesperson for carrying negotiations between the government and University promoters association. On 9 August 1912, Butler gave an official answer from the authorities at London regarding the rejection of University Bill.  In the background of factional politics, Justice Shah Din, the cousin of Mian Muhammad Shafi presided Agra session of Muhammadan educational conference of 1913. This was the second occasion, the Muhammadan education conference was presided by Justice Shah Din. The first time, he presided ninth session of All India Muhammadan educational conference in 1894 during the lifetime of Great Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. Lady Shafi and Lady Shah Din represented Punjab on the opening ceremony of the girl’s section new building by Begum of Bhopal in 1915 at MAO College. Mian Muhammad Shafi presided the thirtieth session of Mohammadan educational conference, held at Aligarh, December 27-29, 1916. On this occasion, Mian Muhammad Shafi played an important role in bringing both factions on the table to accept the University approval on the terms and conditions of government. He sensed the risk of losing University funds and demand of the University seems to be jeopardized. The delegation of University committee meets Sir Nair, the successor of Butler as an education member in August 1917. The demand of the University committee was again rejected on the grounds of old boy’s association representation in the University court and control of trustees. The resignation of Sir Sankaran Nair from the seat of education member in June 1919 changed the direction of Aligarh University movement in the coming year. Imperial government as a successor of Sir Nair selected Mian Muhammad Shafi, a man with the long association with educational movement in India. He took the charge of the office at Shimla on 28 July 1919. Sir Butler now the lieutenant governor of United Province favored for reframing University constitution as a provincial University. Sir Mian Muhammad Shafi as an education member disagreed with Sir Butler suggestion of its provincial status. As an old associate of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, he was the firm believer of All India status of Aligarh University. On March 20, 1920, Mian Muhammad Shafi met the delegation of Muslim University committee as an education member. Muslim University bill was submitted to him. As an education member, Sir Muhammad Shafi introduced the bill on 9 September 1920 to Viceroy Executive council and got it approved. Sir Mian Muhammad Shafi efforts fulfilled the dreams of Late Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and all those members who were struggling for the cause from 1898. On 1 December 1920, the  Muslim University act was passed and Mr. Mohammad Ali Khan, Raja Saheb of Mahmudabad was appointed as the first vice-chancellor of the University.

Aligarh Movement Leaders at Vice Regal Lodge Shimla to demand the establishment of Aligarh Muslim University, 1911 AD. Standing on number thirteen from left to right in the portrait. The picture retrieved from http://aligarhmovement.com/Aligarh_Movement

Who could have imagined that one of the spokespersons from the delegate that went to meet the education member, Sir Butler in 1911 would himself passed and approved the University bill after nine years as the education member of Viceroy executive council?

Educational services and contributions as education member  

The British Government rewarded Mian Muhammad Shafi with C.I.E in 1916  and was Knighted in 1925. During his tenure as the education member of Viceroy Executive Council, the Decca, Nagpur, Rangoon, Lucknow, Aligarh and Delhi Universities were established. The bill of Aligarh Muslim University that was lingered in backwater from last one decade was finalized by his efforts. Government sanctioned the reforms for Allahabad and Madras Universities in his tenure. For his remarkable efforts, the Aligarh Muslim University conferred a D.Lit. (Honoris Causa) on 28 December 1922 on the eve of its first convocation. Delhi University conferred him Doctor of Law and Viceroy gave him the honorary nomination as Pro-Chancellor of the University in the same year. He was also responsible for Indianization of education department. From the time of his joining the office in 1919,  the number Indian officers twenty-nine and that rose to one hundred twenty during his tenure.The man took a farewell banquet from Viceroy executive council on 24 September 1925 and passed away in Lahore on 07 January 1932. An old associate of Sir Syed and member of its first syndicate, the Aligarh movement was always his priority even after reaching the zenith of his career as Vice-President of Viceroy executive council in November 1922. Why Aligarh forgot a man whose soul and the body was embedded in the noble mission for more than forty years. From the time Sir Syed up to difficult days of factional politics, he never turned away his services from Aligarh. As an acknowledgment, the Aligarh University remembered members of the first syndicate by naming departments, hostels, and Halls after their name. Unfortunately, there is not a single building in University named after a man whose efforts led to the creation of the University in 1920 after a struggle of twenty-two years. His larger contributions in the creation of my alma mater were lost somewhere in research articles and journals. The write-up is with an intent to pay the tribute to one of the core members of its first syndicate whose name is difficult to trace outside the sphere of academic articles.

References: 

  1. Eminent Muslamans, Madras, GA, Natesan & Co., 1922, 1st ed.  
  2. In Memorium: Mian Sir Muhammad Shafi (1932). The Islamic Review, XX(2-3), 41-46.
  3. Lelyveld, D. (1975). Three Aligarh Students: Aftab Ahmad Khan, Ziauddin Ahmad, and Muhammad Ali. Modern Asian Studies9(2), 227-240.
  4. Reddy, S. (Ed.). (2013). Mapping the Nation: An Anthology of Indian Poetry in English, 1870–1920. Anthem Press.
  5. Mehra, P. (1985). A dictionary of modern Indian history, 1707-1947. Oxford University Press.
  6. Minault, G., & Lelyveld, D. (1974). The campaign for a Muslim University, 1898–1920. Modern Asian Studies8(2), 145-189.
  7. Rizvi, S. A. A. (1993). Mian Muhammad Shafi: An Analytical Study of his Activities and Achievements (1869-1932). South Asian Studies10(1), 87.
  8. http://aligarhmovement.com/events/Aligarh_Movement
  9. http://mianfamily.tripod.com/