Popular Indian satirist Mujtaba Hussain passed away on May 27. A Padma Shri recipient, Hussain was a popular name in Urdu literature. In protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act, he had returned the honour last year. Over his decades-spanning career, he had written several books and many were translated in Hindi and other languages. His notable works include Apne Yaad Mein – an autobiographical satire, Behar Hal, Mera Column, Urdu ke Sheher Urdu ke Log, Safar Lakht and many others. Hussain was 83 years.
His demise also marks the end of an era of sorts. Historian Rana Safvi agrees. “With people like him passing away, it is almost like an era passes away with them. Urdu is not just a language, it is a culture and one that has not been disseminated widely. We needed these people to guide us for some more years.”
Journalist Mahtab Alam has grown up reading Hussain’s books. “I grew up reading him. I read other Urdu humorist and satirist as well. He is often compared to Mushtaq Ahmad Yusufi who passed away in June 2018. But Yusufi’s language was a bit difficult to access. In comparison, Mujtaba sahab’s writing was simpler and his pieces were smaller. He used to also do a lot of pen sketches of his contemporaries and people who inspired him.”
Even though Alam struggles to remember the first time he read a book by Hussain, he remembers the first book of his that left a lasting impact. “I remember reading Ghazal Supplying and Manufacturing Company, a satire on how people are becoming poets by taking help from others. Basically they project themselves as poets even though they know nothing about it. He wrote how there is a market available where you can go and buy poems.”
Hussain was political in his inclination as well as his writings and did not shy away from being vocal on either of the fronts. Alam recollects the how he and his friend had met the author in Hyderabad two years ago. “My friend’s father and Mujataba sahab were friends. When he was talking to us, he suddenly said, ‘Maine bola usko, tumhara beta toh government of India ho gaya’. He was basically referring to my friend’s difficulty to hear and implying, like only he can, that both my friend and the government do not listen to people.”
“It is rightly said that with his death, we have lost the last pillar of satire and humour writing in Urdu literature. There are other people but not of his stature,” Alam adds.
Dr Md Zahidul Haque, Associate Professor in Urdu, University of Hyderabad, was in Jawaharlal Nehru University when he had first seen Hussain. “It was like seeing Dilip Kumar. His aura was unparalleled.” But he had encountered Hussain’s books when was a student in Aligarh Muslim University a few years back. “He used to frequent JNU and take part in debates with us and, in spite of the reputation we had, everyone in JNU loved him.”
Haque believes Hussain was a legend, a rare stalwart of Urdu literature who will be remembered for his biting satire but not his bitterness. “His language was so beautiful that even if he spoke against someone, that person could never take offence.” Reading Hussain’s works later in his life reaffirmed what Haque believed all along: “There was no one like him. His language was so vivid that he could paint a picture before you just with words. In his travelogue, Japan Chalo he had put forth every little detail–the way things used to be in Japan, the people and their way of life.”
Over the years, Haque and Hussain’s paths crossed many times. Even though the the author was visibly happy when the former moved to Hyderabad, he grew critical later. “He used to always tell me, ‘Hyderabad has lost the charm of literature it had during the 60s and 70s. For a person like you, Delhi is a better place.'”
He remembers Hussain being Left leaning in his political affiliation but secular in his criticism. “He would always speak against any loophole, any injustice meted out by power.”
Nasheet Shadani, founder of ‘Ishq Urdu’ in New Delhi, echoes a similar thought. “Mujtaba Hussain kept this fading genre of satire alive. In times when the lowest form of writing like slapstick has become the most widely accepted form of humour, he remained the harbinger of witticism. He spoke like a true artist, always speaking for the people who can’t speak for themselves. He became the voice of the oppressed.”
There is a quote by the author that Shadani swears by. “Ab adeeb (writer) ka qalam kaan par nahin rakha jata. Ise adeeb ya to apni jaib mein rakhta hai ya qalam samait adeeb ko hukumat (government) apni jaib mein rakh leti hai. Pehli soorat mein qalam mehfooz (safe) rehta hai aur dusri soorat mein adeeb”.
The enduring relevance of these lines needs no emphasis.
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