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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

‘I am still alive’

In Gujarat,a poet and his uneasy relationship with power.

Written by Amitava Kumar |
December 31, 2010 3:16:15 am

Till a few days ago,I hadn’t heard of Aqeel Shatir. A friend sent me a link to a report in The Indian Express on December 20 about a poet who had been asked to pay for an anti-Narendra Modi remark in his anthology,Abhi Zindaa Hoon Main (I Am Still Alive). I got in touch with the reporter,in Ahmedabad who had filed the story and soon after that,spoke on the phone with Shatir.Aqeel Shatir is his takhallus or literary alias. The name his parents gave him was Aqeel Ahmed. His ustad offered him a choice of two pen names. One was Aazar,which means a sculptor,someone who carves beautiful forms from marble. The other was Shatir,whose literal meaning is chess-player but denotes someone who possesses cunning.He was born in Pratapgarh in Uttar Pradesh in 1962. His father was a weaver and,when Aqeel was still a boy,the family migrated to Ahmedabad where the father found work in a textile mill. Shatir writes poetry in Urdu. He has five children. He owns an STD/PCO shop,but this is barely enough to make ends meet. This was the first time I was talking with Shatir. It must have been dinnertime in Ahmedabad. I was calling from a house in Washington,DC. We were talking on the day after Christmas,and outside my window,the first few snowflakes of the morning had begun to float down. Shatir told me he was sitting in his shop and I could hear the noise of the street,cars honking,shouts.The Gujarat Urdu Sahitya Akademi issued a notice to Shatir last month,asking him to explain why he shouldn’t have to return the award of Rs 10,000 that he had been given to assist in the publication of his 2008 collection. The reason for this notice,apparently,was the presence of a few lines in a critical essay about Shatir’s poetry included in the volume. The essay’s writer,Raunaq Afroz,had been critical of Modi in these lines which I offer in an approximate translation: “May good come the way of Narendra Modi who,as soon as he came to power,killed Urdu in Gujarat. Not only did he do that,but in 2002,under a well-thought-out plan for the whole of Gujarat,Modi played so nakedly with violence and barbaric riots that he shamed the whole of humanity.”At the book’s release function,an official from the Akademi advised that these words should perhaps be whitened out. Shatir deleted those lines and got the page reprinted. Only copies that had been inscribed and distributed at the release function retained the attack on Modi. The copies in the market,about 400 in all,came out in the new format. That,perhaps,would have been the end of the story. But earlier this year,Shatir began to file,under the Right to Information Act,a series of official inquiries into the accounting practices of the Gujarat Urdu Sahitya Akademi. He told me he had first submitted 16 questions and then,perhaps a bit eccentrically,135 questions. The recent notice against him was a way that the Akademi had found to tell him to desist. The debate over Modi was almost a diversion: the real struggle was about transparency and access to funds. I asked Shatir if he thought his work was compromised when he cut the passage from his book that the Akademi member had found troubling. “This gentleman was an elder,” Shatir said to me,“and I didn’t think anything would be lost if the words were cut.”And Narendra Modi? Were Raunaq Afroz’s words about his role in the riots incorrect? “No,” Shatir replied,“Raunaq Afroz’s views were no different from my own. And yet,if one were to remove that one page about the riots from the book of Modi’s history,it could be said that Gujarat had never found a better chief minister.” I asked Shatir if he was true to his pen-name? Does his poetry address power? It was a slightly impertinent question but Shatir was patient with me and recited these lines of his to explain where he stood: Abhi zindaa hoon main,dekho meri pehchaan baaqi hai / Badan zakhmi hai lekin abhi mujhmein jaan baaqi hai / Tum apni hasraton ko zaalimo marne nahin dena / Shahadat ka mere dil mein abhi armaan baaqi hai (I am still alive,the person I was is left in me / This body is wounded but there is still life left in me / You,my killers,don’t let your ambitions die / The desire for martyrdom is still left in me.)

Amitava Kumar is a writer and teaches English at Vassar College in upstate New York

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