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Friday, June 18, 2021

Remembering poet and critic, Shamim Hanfi

As brilliant and exacting as he was with poetry, Hanfi was a gentle, kind soul in his personal life

Written by Khalid Alvi |
May 16, 2021 7:42:22 pm
Shamim Hanfi. (Photo Source:

It seems that Covid has decided not to leave even a single amiable, genial and erudite soul in the Urdu world.

After Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, this pandemic has snatched critic, poet, playwright and a senior friend of mine for about 40 years, Shamim Hanfi. I don’t think that we can find another intellectual of his calibre again. People used to affectionately call him a professor of history, culture, paintings and fine arts in the department of Urdu.

Tennessee Williams had said, “Death commences too early — almost before you are half acquainted with life — you meet the other.” But it was not true in Shamim Hanfi‘s case. He was well acquainted with life and even death. He had discovered that it was life, not death, that had no limits. He used every split moment of life to read, write and think. He himself said:

Tamam umr naye lafz ki talaash rahi,
kitab-e-dard ka mazmoon tha paimal aisa

(I looked for new words all my life, because timeworn and hackneyed words of the book of life had no use for me)

He was recognised as a well-established poet and critic during his student days. At that time, Allahabad University was called the Oxford of the East and academicians of high calibre like Firaq Gorakhpuri, Prof S C Deb, Dr Tarachand and Harivansh Rai Bachchan were faculty members. University teachers had a literary club named Thursday Club, which used to call senior poets and writers every Thursday. Hanfi was the only student in the history of Allahabad University who was granted membership to the Thursday Club.

Hanfi wrote more than two dozen books on criticism and creative writing. But the book which first drew attention to him was Jadeediyat ki Falsafiyana Asaas (The Philosophical Foundation of Modernism). It was the progressive writers’ era and was not easy for a new writer to differ with them. But he did and was recognised as proponent of the Modernist movement in Urdu Literature. He was not only a student of Gorakhpuri but also a great follower and fan, and wrote two books on the poet. In a seminar, I read a paper on Gorakhpuri with different angle — while appreciating some of his couplets, I harshly criticised the changing shades of his poetry with every movement.

Everybody thought this paper would annoy Hanfi, but they were astounded that Hanfi liked it very much. He said that he didn’t agree with me, but agreement and liking are two different things. His two books Kahaani Kay Paanch Rang (Five Shades of the Short Story) and Ghazal ka Nayaa Manzarnam (New Trends in Urdu Ghazal) changed the way of thinking of Urdu critics. Many critics believe that these two books influenced poets and story writers, too, and created a notable change in poetry and fiction of Urdu.

Shamim Hanfi started his writing career at the Hindi newspaper Nai Dunia in Indore. Incidentally, his first published book was also in Hindi. Hanfi always tried to bridge the gap between Hindi and Urdu. He was of the opinion that Hindi and Urdu are the only two languages in the world which are not only close but have the same grammar and same vocabulary with different scripts. Those who want to do creative writing in Urdu should learn good Hindi and vice versa. He was thrilled to know that Meerut University has named the building where its Urdu and Hindi departments are located Khusro Bhawan.

I used to meet him regularly and I don’t remember a single occasion when he used harsh words when talking about anybody. His book Humnafason kay Darmiyan (Amid Friends) had pen sketches of those he had met in his life, but no harsh word can be found in the three hundred pages of the book. I told him that his extreme gentleness had harmed the book, and that it could be more interesting if he would portray some shortcomings of his friends. But he was not convinced and insisted that all of his acquaintances were like that.

On the other hand, he was very strict about the correct recitation of shers and dohas. During a TV discussion a well-known person recited a couplet out of metre . There were many participants who noticed but didn’t like to point out because that person was in control of many institutions and awards but Shamim Hanfi preferred to correct the couplet. The result was that the entire discussion was recorded again.

Last year, Jashn-e-Hind a literary organisation honoured Hanfi with the Living Legend Award. When I informed him, he listened with graceful silence and said, ‘’Khalid, Ghuroor-e-mehroomi nay in tamaam cheezon ko peechhey chhod diya hai (The pride of deprivation has left all these things behind).”

In his personal life, he was very warm and hospitable. Once, when I visited him with a friend, he was very happy to see me and made me to eat sweets, dates and halwa, along with tea. When tea was served a second time, my friend asked me if I was visiting him after a very long time. No, I replied , just after three days.

He had been fighting cancer for many years, but I never found him frightened or fearful. Once he told me that he is staying in the most suitable place, because his residence is very close to a hospital and the Jamia graveyard and that at his age, he needed only these two things. And in the last week of his life he used only these two locations. He said in one of his couplet:

Girni hi thhi ik roz ye deewar badan ki
Ye raah ka paththar bhi hataney kay liye thha

(The wall of existence had to be demolished, this obstacle on the path was to be removed)

The writer is a critic, poet and literary historian

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