Kalam Haidri: Phoopajaan, by Tabish Khair


Kalam Haidri, married to my oldest aunt, was unusual in my family, which was basically a family of doctors and engineers. Sometime in the 1870s, my great-grandfather had obtained a degree from a British-run Medical School (which became the Prince of Wales Medical College and is now Patna Medical College) in Patna – after walking there from our village, Dhoda, about 60 kilometers away, and studying under the lamplight to save money, it was said – and since then most members of the family had gone for the applied sciences. That is, when they went for western education, because at least until my father’s generation, some branches of the family stayed in the village and cultivated their lands. These were people we hardly got to know, as they visited only when they needed help, usually of a medical nature.

The family members we got to know were all doctors and engineers, with a small number of people with other kinds of technical education. The women studied the Humanities, before getting safely married (this changed only with my youngest aunt, who went on to teach History at the local university); the men went for the Sciences and hectic careers. In the midst of all these, Phoopajaan (as I called Kalam Haidri) was an anomaly: a lecturer of Urdu, he had quit his job to start a number of businesses in Gaya, and monthly and weekly Urdu publications. He was a writer. My father’s family had a lot of respect for writers and was fairly well-read, but – as I discovered when I finally put my foot down and abandoned Science for the Humanities in college – they could not imagine anyone earning a livelihood as a writer. I suspect the businesses that Phoopajaan ran, with various degrees of success, must have re-assured them. But I often wonder what Phoopajaan thought of the bargain.

Because Phoopajaan was not just a writer, he was also the only communist in my family. Now, my father and other close family-members were very much part of the decent bourgeoisie: they meant well and tried to do good, whenever possible, but they could not imagine a world without private property and classes. The fact that Phoopajaan’s communism was balanced by his business skills must have reassured them!

However, because of his literary and political interests, Phoopajaan’s house – Reena House, as it had been named, after his only child – was a place of interest for me when I was growing up. Luckily, it lay exactly halfway between my parents’ house and the school I went to, Nazareth Academy. Cycling back, I would often stop there, spend some time with Phoopajaan in his office downstairs, go up for a refreshing lemonade prepared by my aunt and then, usually with my younger brother, cycle on. I sometimes met other writers there, of whom I still recall the late Mr Joginder Paul, a major Delhi-based Urdu author, whose daughter I got to know as a writer many years later, and Dr Abdus Samad, who went on to win the prestigious Sahitya Akademi award. But, mostly, I heard of authors and scholars I had never met or, in those days, read: Ismat Chughtai, Krishen Chander, Bhisham Sahni, Qurratulain Hyder, Professor Gopichand Narang. Some of these Phoopajaan had met, and was occasionally in touch with, as he was active in the Progressive Writer’s Movement. In small and seemingly provincial Gaya, Phoopajaan had established a version of such a network, The Cultural Academy, which encouraged a number of young writers and students in the 1970s and 80s and published extensively in Urdu. When I was studying in the local college, I helped him and The Cultural Academy edit 5-6 issues of an English-language six-monthly journal, Rachna, which was his only foray outside Urdu. He was deeply involved in local educational and cultural activities. He and my father also ran a primary and secondary school – established by my grandfather (and still running) – in my ancestral village, Dhoda.

As the years went on, and the socialist certainties that Phoopajaan and (in non-Communist and at times anti-Communist forms) my father had grown up with gave way to news of the atrocities committed by Communist regimes in the USSR, East Europe and China, I would sometimes have discussions with my uncle. By then, having read some of Karl Marx with much agreement, I had been nevertheless born too late to believe in Communism. It was seen as a dying ideology by my generation, at least in the literate middle classes. Naxalism, in its utopian form that had promising young men and women from the best universities of India joining up with peasants in the hinterland, had already happened by the time we became teenagers, and was now mostly seen in taluk towns like Gaya as a version of caste-vendetta ‘somewhere out there.’ The revelation of the harsher realities and many failures of USSR and China had not upset people like my father: they had not expected anything better from leaders who did not respect private property, despite their otherwise socialist sentiments in terms of democracy, education and health care. But Phoopajaan found the news difficult to accept, and either refused to accept it (in the beginning) or later referred only to places where a degree of Communist success had been achieved, chiefly West Bengal, Kerala and Cuba.

This was also an education to me: as it brought home to me a counter-discourse, which made me examine my own convictions. It gave me a degree of respect for the complexity of what we often dismiss as the ‘Communist experiment’: while I could not deny that it had mostly gone wrong (and today I have my own understanding of why), I was also made aware of all the good that it had hoped to create, and sometimes had created, if only indirectly or fleetingly. Later, many years later, when I moved to Copenhagen and met the Danish writer, Erik Stinus, incidentally married to an Indian woman, I discovered a similar mix in a man of the same generation: Erik, like Phoopajaan, was a literary communist, who continued to hope for a better and fairer future for all. Both of them made me realize that such hope should never be scoffed.

Many of the stories written by Kalam Haidri have to be read in the light of that complex hope. While he seldom wrote poetry and definitely did not publish any poetry, he published a number of short stories, and of course innumerable articles and essays. Fluent in English and literate in Hindi (like my father and others in my family), he only wrote in Urdu. In that sense, he marked the end of two traditions: a national tradition, for short stories (not novels) had been the dominant genre in much of Indian literature until the 1960s; and a family one, for my generation seldom writes in Urdu, even though I and my cousins speak Urdu.

Phoopajaan’s stories are varied and sadly underrated outside Urdu circles. This is partly because translations from Urdu are rather uneven and rare. However, I continue to be surprised by their range, which include the use of traditional myths to comment on society, existentialist-style meditations, and graphic realism. Currently, along with Mr Sarwar Hussain, I am involved in preparing a collection of his stories (translated by Mr Hussain) for publication in English: the first of these appeared in the prestigious US journal, The Massachussetts Review, some months ago. Mr Hussain notes that Mr Haidri moved from an early phase of love stories and romance to a mature phase of stories written in the spirit of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, which are nuanced critiques of capitalist exploitation and portraits of marginal spaces, and then a final phase when he partly abandoned political concerns for existentialist ones. For me, in stories like Benaam Galiyan (Nameless Lanes), Phoopajaan manages to write not just about people I can recognize from my upbringing but also about a town like Gaya, the sort of ‘provincial’ town that usually disappears or is reduced to caricature and stolid stasis in English. The story is set in Patna, but it gravitates towards “nameless lanes” that could belong to any taluk town in North India.

Like many intellectuals and writers of his generation, Phoopajaan had been a chain-smoker. He switched over to a hookah (hubble-bubble) in his old age, after a cardiac attack. It was better than inhaling nicotine, he had been told. But I suppose his heart had suffered too much damage, and he died at the early age of 64 from heart-related complications.

One of my last recollections of Phoopajaan is of him saying his namaaz. Like my father, Phoopajaan had been an occasional namaazi: he would go to the annual Eid prayers, but seldom said the namaaz at home (except during Ramazan, which was also the case with my father, when fasting and praying were rigorously practiced as long as health permitted it), and seldom went to the mosque on Fridays. This was a remarkable similarity between my father and Phoopajaan, who, by education and temperament, were very different people otherwise: their youth was full of simmering conflicts, which, to their credit, they never passed on to their children, and it was only at an older age that they became good friends, mostly by generously accepting each other’s difference. But my father’s distance from organized religion (despite a deep personal faith in a formless, omniscient Allah) was due to his personality: he was basically an introvert, who avoided social events and gatherings, and strongly believed that his religion was a matter between him and his God (and no one else, least of all Mullahs). Phoopajaan was not an introvert: he liked meeting people, travelling, stopping his car at a roadside stall and talking to the lungi-clad owner over a cup of chai. Hence, I had always attributed Phoopajan’s laxity in saying regular namaaz to his communist beliefs.

When, in his last years, I found him saying his namaaz regularly – despite sharing my (and my father’s) skepticism of the rising wave of religious fanaticism among Muslims and Hindus – I remember teasing him during one of my last visits. As he picked up his prayer mat and headed for a quiet corner, I said to him, ‘But Phoopajaan, I thought communists did not believe in God.’

He turned to me, with a slight smile, and quipped, ‘When you reach my age, son, you will prefer not to take any risks.’

Looking back, I see a certain lack of such people in Gaya: people who lived easily with tradition and change, with provincialism and cosmopolitanism, with dejection and hope, with the illiterate and the literate. Phoopajaan, like my father, Dr Khalid Khair, was a feisty, independent-minded person, who belonged very much in Gaya, while not at all accepting its provincialism. While my father would never leave the town – he hated travelling and disliked big cities – Phoopajaan was at home in Delhi and Calcutta (that is what it was called then!) too. But his love for Gaya – and his dislike of aspects of it – formed a composite whole. You could not extricate the one from the other. It is this too that makes his stories worth reading – and retrieving.


Tabish Khair

Educated up to his Masters in the small town of Gaya in Bihar (India), Tabish Khair is the author of various books, including novels and poetry. After a stint as a journalist in India (Gaya, Patna and Delhi), he did his PhD from Copenhagen University and a DPhil from Aarhus, where he works as an Associate Professor. Currently, he is a Leverhulme-funded guest professor at Leeds University, UK. His studies include Babu Fictions: Alienation in Contemporary Indian English Novels, and The Gothic, Postcolonialism and Otherness and his novels include Filming: A Love Story and The Thing About Thugs. In 2016, he published a study, The New Xenophobia and a novel, Just Another Jihadi Jane, to critical acclaim. His new novel, Night of Happiness, comes out in 2018. Winner of the All India Poetry Prize, his fiction has been shortlisted for the Man Asian Prize, the DSC Prize, the Hindu Fiction Prize, Encore Award, etc. Homepage: http://www.tabishkhair.co.uk/






  1. Informative and. Very readable feels like. You should have been in the R KNarayan.era

  2. Mallick Kalamul Haque Haidri (MKH Haidri)

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