Through Arab literary eyes

Remembering the ideological impressions of 1920s India from Arabic literary trove by an Iraqi traveller
Through Arab literary eyes
Representational Pic

Mohammad Imran

Jalāl Khālid, a pioneering Arabic novel written by an Iraqi traveller and published in 1928 from Baghdad, allowed me the opportunity to look back into the colonial history of India of the 1920s. A hundred years have passed since Mahmud Ahmad as-Sayyid (1903–1937) documented his impressions of India. On the face of it, the decision to introduce this Arabic trove to the Indian readers is a matter of honour for me.

As-Sayyid embarked on a ship from the Basra harbour and headed to the coast of Mumbai in March 1919. After his one-year stay in Mumbai, he switched to Kolkata around April 1920; in the same year, he returned and arrived in Iraq on 25 July 1920. He started to write this novel in 1921 and completed it in 1923.

If we look back into the history of India, we observe the year 1920 to be a significant hallmark in the history of labour strikes in India which commenced in 1919 and swelled till 1920, including 110 strikes in cotton and jute mills only. In Mumbai, he observed that in the face of exploitation by imperialists/capitalists, the workers were doing the hard jobs wearing ordinary clothes, scorching in the sun, and grew tired of the toil and moil. In Kolkata, he witnessed the labour strikes demanding a rise in wages and protesting against the ill-treatment in the factories. The plot of the novel was set in Bombay and Kolkata; coincidently, both cities were the epicentre of labour crises. So the embodiment of labour crises in the novel was not out of the ordinary, but it was literary solidarity with them. The evident references to the poor, the working labour, and destitute women in this novel illustrate the saga of struggle and survival in the history of India. Since all efforts in this novel were directed toward building the anti-colonial narratives that could serve as a prelude to social awakening, the writing about the plight, prejudice, and resentments among the ordinary people was ought to be done, because it was an effective drive to mobilize the colonized people and to make them feel that something worse was in the offing.

The novel portrays two sides of the social stratification in Mumbai. It talks about the commercial values, beaches, resorts, and natural decoration of the city, where the rich, the elite, and the business classes enjoy a convivial life. It contextualizes the geospatial significance of the city. Paradoxically, it did not ignore the destitute women who left their infants after intoxicating them with opium in search of a despicable job for some scraps of food in return.

The crux of this novel is the ideological dialogues and migration of socialist and Marxist thoughts from India to Iraq. Thus the novel stands for someone who may argue that the emergence of progressive thoughts in Kolkata first became a foreground for the development of Marxism in Baghdad. In Kolkata, as-Sayyid encounters a group of revolutionary people who were likely to have an association with the Anushilan Samiti. In the backdrop of his curiosity to discuss political agendas with some Indian progressive and nationalist intellectuals, he encounters a Swami. The dialogues between Swami and the protagonist of the novel, along with the portrayal of Swami, help us to speculate his socio-political basis, ideological inclination, and educational background. It depicts that Swami was likely from an elite and educated class of people, and is correct in relation to the history of the Bhadralok society of West Bengal. Thus the novel informs the Arabic readers about the social stratification of West Bengal and the influence of colonial educational policy in the development of the Bhadralok class of Bengal society.

In Kolkata, The Modern Review, a monthly English periodical, introduced Marxist Socialism and Left ideas straightforwardly for the first time in 1912. So the routine encounters and meetings with Marxists in Kolkata, and their socialist ideas, fascinated this Iraqi youth. Swami discusses with this Arab youth that these temples, which are admired by European architectural historians, were of no benefit to the people. People did not have as many schools as they had temples. The priests preach the cult of the old centuries and it was opium that was used to kill the arteries that pulsate with the blood of life.

In the wave of Socialism and the emergence of Marxism, which initially started from Bengal in India in the early twentieth century, the progressive framework shared by the Socialists and Marxists in this period implicitly diminished the religious sphere in the modern history of India. New aspects of interpretation of religion came into practice, and religion was familiarized to the new generation as an obstruction to modernization and socialization. The artists, scholars, historians, and writers put religion in the spotlight where the hermeneutic understanding of religion was reviewed in the light of Marxism and Socialism.

The novel embeds these dialogues so that it can direct the reader towards the central theme and trends of the narratives. It directly speaks about the people, culture, and socio-political history of India, but it connotes all colonized nations that were suffering the tyranny of the colonial empire at that time.

The most relevant part of the novel to the growing communal extremism in today's India is the reference to the communal incidents that occurred due to cow vigilance during his stay in Kolkata. “We don’t welcome the unity of what some leaders are calling to. We prefer real unity, which is natural and unbreakable. Don’t you see the massacres that occurred between Muslims and Hindus because a Muslim man has slaughtered a cow or because a Hindu priest has blown the shankha in front of a mosque?” as-Sayyid says to Swami.

My concluding remark is to highlight the importance of this Arabic literary trove in the context of Indian colonial history. For the reader interested in knowing what Arab writers or travellers wrote about India, this novel may serve with its richness of overlapping with India. In this context, I feel proud to introduce this treasured piece of Arabic literature to my Indian nationals.

Mohammad Imran is a PhD student at Jawaharlal Nehru University and an awardee of the Erasmus Mobility fellowship for research in 2019. His research area is the contemporary Arabic novel and Arab thoughts.

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