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Rajah Sahib

Who awakened the love for Ghalib

Rajah Sahib
Quaid-e-Azam with Raja Sahib of Mahmudabad.

My first recital of classical and modern Urdu prose was held in the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in 1984. It was received enthusiastically even though I botched up two or three words.

The late Mansoor Bokhari, who was then the head of EMI in Pakistan, was in the audience. He approached me afterwards and said that EMI would like to record Faiz’s verse in my voice. I said I was willing provided EMI also let me record Ghalib’s letters. He readily agreed.

I then plunged into Ghalib’s inimitable, delectable prose. I had the good fortune of having the guidance of the great scholar-cum-writer-cum-poet, Dr Daud Rahbar who had spent six years on translating (and annotating) most of Ghalib’s letters into English. I selected two of Ghalib’s best known letters, recorded them on my modest tape recorder and posted the tape to Dr Rahbar in Boston. His reply took the wind out of my sails. In the most affectionately admonitory manner, he wrote:

“…If ever a poet had lived up to Lessing’s advice ‘write as if you are speaking’, it is Ghalib. In his letters we have exquisite specimens of Urdu conversationism. In my childhood I had the privilege of being in the company of many elders of classic personalities whose style of conversation echoed Ghalib’s culture. Please bear in mind that the letters were written by a man to whom the social graces of a life of  leisure came naturally. A crisp and racy dramatic style will not do. You speak like a habitué of Hazrat Gunj “Bussab maafikeejiyay” is not Ghalib. You must not roll two words into one. Be more alert about articulation, say, ‘Bus Sahib, moaaf keejiyay.’ You cannot afford to throw away a single syllable of a word that Ghalib speaks. Your diction has to be precise and faithful to Ghalib’s culture.”

Ashamed and abashed, I began to work again and after four weeks sent him a second tape. His reply was prompt: “You have now become too conscious of words. They seem to be dominating you. The words should stand like footmen in the presence of a Duke and move at his command. The words should be commanded by you, not with hauteur, but with perfect ease.”

It took me the best part of a year before I thought I was ready to record “Ghalib ke Khahtoot” in three volumes. I do not mind saying that of all the creative works I have undertaken in my life, this was the one that has left me the least dissatisfied.

Could I have done this if I was not in England? I doubt it. I say this because it was in London that I had been made aware of Ghalib’s greatness. The man responsible for awakening in me a love for Ghalib was the late Raja Sahib of Mahmudabad.

I once asked Raja Sahib why, when he had been so close to Jinnah, he had chosen to remain in India and not migrated to Pakistan. He took his time before saying “I had some differences with Mr. Jinnah.”

I met Raja Sahib Mahmudabad through Attia Habibullah, the real name of the writer, Attia Hosain, the author of Sunlight on Broken Column. He was a frequent visitor at Attia’s flat in Chelsea, they had been family friends.

In those days – in the mid-fifties – Attia and I were the two leading actors in the BBC Urdu Service’s weekly plays. She had one of those nightingale voices which stays in your memory forever. She lived not far from my digs and I used to drop in at her Chelsea flat on weekends around midday to have cup of coffee, which I had to make myself. Not only that, I had to wash my mug, dry it, and put it back in its precise place. Attia was very particular about keeping her kitchen spick and span.


When I was first introduced to Raja Sahib Mahmudabad, in Attia’s flat, I said Adab with my head bowed and my hand, thumb pressed by three fingers, raised to my chin. He responded courteously and then turned to Attia to say, “In say bhee tum gitpit, gitpit, main baat karti ho” (Do you speak to him in English as well?) It was a dig at Attiya for she always spoke to her children in English which made him wince. “Nahin nahin,” she said “in say dono zabanon main bolti hoon” (I speak to him in both Urdu and English). “To aao mian baitho,” he said with a warm smile.

He was a short man with balding hair, a noble brow, alert eyes and a laid-back sense of humour, and exceedingly courteous. His speech was precise and extremely well-modulated. It was as though his mind had weighed every thought before uttering it. It was not just his intonation but the lilt that accompanied it which left a deep impression on me. We call it lehjay kee loch. I can’t translate it. Mellifluous is the only word that comes to mind.

I learned from him that Ghalib had written a masnavi in Urdu when he was nine-years-old. Ghalib had forgotten its existence but much later in life when it was shown to him (by a man called, Kannahya Lal, who had preserved it) he read it with great delight. Obliviously, Raja Sahib told me, whatever Ghalib had written at such a young age must have been of sufficient merit because Nawab Hussain-ud-Dawlah took some of young Ghalib’s couplets and showed them to the great poet, Mir Taqi Mir. Mir was known not only for his poetic genius but also for his acerbic temper and his contemptuous dismissal of anything but the best poetry. On reading the couplets Mir’s comment was that under the guidance of a good Ustad the boy could become a great poet; otherwise he would write rubbish.

Raja Sahib was also an excellent cook. Knowing that Attia didn’t like a mess in her kitchen, he would cook something simple like Maash kee Daal to be accompanied by a chutney made with aubergines. It is now more than sixty years since I ate that chutney but I still remember its divine taste. Even thinking of it makes my mouth water.

I once asked him why, when he had been so close to Jinnah, he had chosen to remain in India and not migrated to Pakistan. He took his time before saying “I had some differences with Mr. Jinnah.” He said it in English (the only time he ever spoke to me in English) and then became silent. I realised that he didn’t wish to talk about the subject and so I never found out what the differences were.

I am deeply indebted to him. If it wasn’t for Raja Sahib and his company, I wouldn’t have had the conversational ability in Urdu which has stood me in good stead for many years.

Zia Mohyeddin

The author is the president and CEO of National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA)


  • Abdul Majid Sheikh

    Last week I had the fortune of meeting the present Raja Sahib at a Cambridge University talk by Saeed Naqvi. It was a pleasure meeting him and his son who is in the process of completing his PhD on the influence of Urdu poetry in Indian politics. They are a class act.

    • This Raja Sahib you refer to is not the one Zia Mohiuddin sahib is talking about. The person referred to here in the article was my nana (maternal grandfather) and he died in 1973! You are unlikely to have met him last week!
      My nana’s name was Amir (ameer) Ahmed Khan. The person you met is his son. It always helps to know the name of the person, since a title is just that – a mere title that can cause enormous confusion.

      A.M.A. Imam

  • I am an ardent fan of zia mohiuddin sahib; good to share his mazmoon on raja sahib of Mahmoodabad, whose sacrifice and benovolence has been forgotten by the present generation of common man, culture vultures and the politicians. he was a gentleman and steeped in the throes of what was the best in our society .i just request zia sahib to start writing a book on the qualities of head and heart of the great raja sahib. how the posterity will know and remember him?
    zia sahib must be knowing that the teaching of Urdu language has been discontinued at school of oriental and African studies at London. I just wanted zia sahib to comment on this. just keeping ghalib alive will not suffice;
    let the study of Urdu be restarted there as before. I wish my entreaties not go unheard. ARMAN NAJMI

    • Good Arman Najmai Saheb, you raised the issue that the teaching of Urdu language has been discontinued at SOAS. i did know – rather strange.

      • Correction: Najmi; I did not know.

  • Interesting article! There is one factual error, though of course the way it is put it certainly is not intended to be so. However, it needs clarification. Part1:
    It is simply wrong to say that my nana (the late Raja Sahib Mahmudabad, Mohammad Amir Ahmed Khan) chose to remain in India and did not migrate to Pakistan! I am not sure how Zia Mohiuddin sahib got this impression! This is indeed a factual error as he did leave India at the time of partition. In fact, he chose not to be in either India or Pakistan when the partition officially took place on 14th August 1947. On the eve of this date he and some members of his family, together with a small entourage, crossed the border into Iran, where many Iranian dignitaries welcomed the group, all the way from the border right up to the capital city, Tehran. The last Shah of Iran also welcomed him and offered him and the group accompanying him permanent residence. My nana refused as he had decided to settle for the time being in Iraq.

  • Part2
    The family stayed in Iraq till the summer of 1957, when they moved to and settled in Bath Island area, Karachi, Pakistan. He, his two daughters (my mother and khala) and their respective husbands (my father and khalo / chacha) all became Pakistani nationals before moving to Pakistan.
    It dismays me that this well-known fact, i.e. that Raja Sahib, Mohammad Amir Ahmed Khan, of Mahmudabad, had become a Pakistani national in and around 1957 (I don’t recall the month!) is still a cause of confusion! Moreover, his two daughters (my mother and khalaa) and their respective families settled in Karachi that same year. Although we don’t live there now, I and my siblings and cousins, all grew up in that city!
    Our nana was disillusioned with the post-partition politics of Pakistan, particularly the way some wanted power and influence and others were awarded political power despite not having lifted a finger for the Pakistan Movement!

  • Part3 Reminds one of Mohsin Bhopali’s verse:
    نیرنگئی سیاستِ دوراں تو دیکھیے
    منزل انہیں ملی جو شریکِ سفر نہ تھے
    محسن بھوپالی
    nairangiy-e-siyaasat-e-dauraaN to dekhiye
    manzil onheN mili jo shareek-e-safar nah thhe
    Mohsin Bhopali
    Post-partition politics left a very bitter taste in his mouth.
    I hope this little contribution of mine sets the record straight on the erroneous assumption that our nana remained in India after partition. He did not! He left and moved to the area that later became WEST Pakistan on the eve of partition and independence. While he chose to live in Iraq till 1957, he and his immediate family mentioned above moved to Bath island, Clifton, Karachi.
    Prior to this he had visited Pakistan earlier after independence, when he met Qaide-Azam, M.A. Jinnah, in 1948 a few months before his death, in his official residence, Flagstaff House, Karachi.

  • Part4 This was a reconciliation after the differences that arose between the two following my nana’s speech in Hugli in 1942, from the Muslim League platform. Qaid-e-Azam differed sharply from the purport of the message that my nana gave on this occasion where he was called to stand in for the Qaid. This difference was witnessed by the late Maulana Jamal Mian Firangimahal sb.(also of Lucknow) the next day when the two went to meet him. This writer talked to Maulana Jamal Mian sb. about the entire 1942 Hugli incidence when we met in Dec. 1992 or Jan. 1993 in Karachi. I have personal confirmation of what actually took place and on what grounds there was a difference of opinion between the two.
    In 1967 he was given the directorship of Islamic Cultural Centre, London. He did this till his death in October 1973. He supervised the plans and secured funds for the building of the Regent’s Park Mosque. He was also behind the World of Islam Festival which was held in 1976 in the UK.

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