Parto Rohila is a remarkable man. I know him for about a quarter century and I always found him either thinking of writing a book, or talking about a book in preparation or with a book in hand. He was an income tax officer but literature was his hobby. What attracted me to his work — and I must confess that I never was much interested in contemporary Urdu literature — was that he wrote dohas like the ones he published in his book Naen Ujiara.
As a sociolinguistic historian, this intrigued me because the doha, and especially the language used in it, was associated with the idiom of poetry popularly called Hindi. It is not the highly Sanskritised Hindi of officialdom but, in Pakistan, it was certainly tainted with the associations of the ‘other’. And, to make matters worse, apart from the world of poetry the poet was called Mukhtar Ali Khan and he was a member of officialdom itself. This was so unusual that I read most of what came from the pen of this remarkable man.
I found out from my father that he was born in India and came from the same stock as my ancestors. Indeed, my father was all praise for his blue blood and traced his lineage back to Nawab Hafiz Rahmat Khan Rohila, once the ruler of Rohilkhand.
Obviously, Mukhtar Ali Khan expressed his pride in this genetic heritage, something which I saw in my own family, and called himself both ‘Khan’ and ‘Rohila’ the latter a name for the Pashtuns settled down in the Bareilly area of UP.
In UP the ashraf (gentlemen) expressed their exalted status by using titles like Khan, Baig, Syed and Shaikh etc. But whether his non de plume ‘Parto’ (shadow) expresses that he was aware that he was only a shadow of the might of his ancestor Hafiz Rahmat Khan , or whether it implied that he was achieving in the world of letters what his ancestors achieved in warfare and the exercise of power — this I did not ask. And it is fitting that the ambiguity remains. In an interview by Syed Sardar Ahmad Peerzada in Urdu Akhbar (October 2013), the author touches upon the significance of Parto but does not mention the link with his ancestors I have hypothesised above. Whatever the truth might be, the fact is that Parto Rohila has achieved much in the world of letters.
His major achievement is his translation of the Persian writings, especially the letters, of Urdu’s greatest poet Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib. The book under review has only twenty-three letters which does not seem to be a large number. But if the reader really wants to understand the significance of Rohila’s literary achievement he or she must read the book called the Kulliyat-e-Maktubat-e-Farsi-e-Ghalib published in 1998 by the National book Foundation.
This book has 813 pages and 341 letters in Urdu translation. These letters were taken from the existing five collections of Ghalib’s letters. Despite several attempts nobody had compiled all the letters in their Urdu translation in one book. This was a momentous achievement and the author described to me personally how he mastered the subtleties of Ghalib’s Persian prose. Those who have confined themselves to only the Urdu letters will be surprised that Ghalib is not always as easy and accessible as he is made out to be in text books for students. But perhaps when writing in Persian he was conscious of maintaining high literary standards since the ability to write embellished Persian prose was a mark of sophistication, erudition and elite cultural identity.
So, Ghalib was not a rebel though he was unique and original as too much deviation from the norms of ashraf values would have placed him outside the pale of that desiderated sharif identity which his lack of landed property already threatened.
But Ghalib was definitely original — a creative genius. Even his religious beliefs were not in consonance with his family’s Ahl-e-Sunnat convictions. In one letter to Ghamgeen (No. 10) he writes that he believes that Hazrat Ali was an Imam and not only a pious caliph. He further explains that an Imam is a spiritual leader and this position is from God so Hazrat Ali was an imam even when he was not a caliph. These beliefs are closer to the Shias but Ghalib was buried according to Sunni rituals on the orders of Nawab Ziauddin Ahmad Khan, younger brother of the Nawab of Loharu, who was an admirer of the poet.
In many letters to the same addressee Ghalib makes it clear that he inclined to the spiritual and ethical aspects of religion. He confesses to drinking wine as he does in his Urdu letters nor is he an adherent of the rituals associated with Islamic worship. However, Ghalib never claims to be an agnostic as some people argue on the basis of a few couplets from his Urdu ghazals.
The letters describe the social life of that period: how people addressed each other in letters; the literary relationships of impecunious poets with powerful patrons such as the ruler of Rampur or Tonk; Ghalib’s journey to Calcutta with long stays in different places. In short the importance of the letters for a social history of the period cannot be exaggerated. That, indeed, was my primary interest in the letters.
For instance, it is instructive to learn that the greatest poet of Urdu, takes pride in Persian not Urdu. He calls this language rekhta and sometime Hindi in the fashion of the day and declares that he prefers Persian to the language of which he is a past master. This he does by putting in so much Persian vocabulary in his early poetry that becomes nearly incomprehensible except for those with specialised knowledge of Persian. His best poetry is that which has less of this embellishment.
However, not only in verse does he claim that his Persian poetry is better but even in a letter to Sheikh Inam Ali Sarwar (No. 1) he claims that he has left composing ghazals in Urdu and has even discarded some of his old pieces (p. 76). This kind of attitude (or is it a pose?) tells us something about the poet but, more importantly, it tells us about the linguistic values and attitudes of the age. It was an age of transition and Persian, the marker of elite cultural identity, had not given way to Persianised Urdu though the process was going on. Such information is of crucial value for someone like me writing a social history of Urdu (From Hindi to Urdu, 2011).
Parto Rohila’s achievement has several aspects: that of a compiler; that of an editor; that of a historian; that of a lexicographer; that of a literary scholar and, in addition to all this, of a literary sleuth. The first, the compiling, is the easiest of all since one has already done so much work on the texts in question. The editing involves going with a fine comb through the entire work when it arrives from the printers riddled with errors which entirely change the meaning and make one want to tear one’s hair or give up in despair.
It is about such errors that P.G. Wodehouse, the great English humorist, once wrote that the author who bought a gun to shoot the printers because of the mistakes they had made in his work deserved to be praised as he had performed a public service. The historian’s part is not easy and proof that the author has done it well is in the brief life sketches of all those mentioned in the letters.
As for the work of the lexicographer, that is perhaps the most difficult of all. Ghalib’s Persian is not easy and the search for the meanings of his words and then to find their Urdu equivalents is something which nobody who has not done this kind of work can fully appreciate. Being a literary person himself, Parto Rohila must have enjoyed explaining the literary references, such as the couplets, in the letters.
However, the work of the literary sleuth involving running around searching for letters, reading obscure manuscripts, meeting people who promise goods but never deliver and so on is a back-breaking business. Yet, it is all these different skills which have created the two masterpieces of Ghalib Studies of which one is under review.
Parto Rohila’s real achievement is that he has finally found and translated all the letters of Ghalib and made them available to the public. The book under review completes the process of collecting and translating the Persian letters of Ghalib. He has put us all in his debt. It is an achievement for which he deserves to be congratulated and celebrated.