How A Poetess And Scholar Works To Keep Urdu Alive - In India And Elsewhere

Murad Yusufzai in conversation with Meh Jabeen Nejm Ghazaal on the significance of the Urdu language, poetry, creative writing in the modern world

How A Poetess And Scholar Works To Keep Urdu Alive - In India And Elsewhere

Dr Meh Jabeen Nejm Ghazaal is an Urdu poetess and writer hailing from Mysore, India, the historic land associated with Tipu Sultan. She has so far published five books on themes spanning from collections of her short stories to innovative language games for new Urdu learners. Her doctoral thesis has been highly praised by examiners who strongly advocated that it be published as a book. After publication, the book won a national level award from the Uttar Pradesh government.

She has also been the recipient of numerous prestigious awards for her literary services, the most notable of which are the state-level Baba-e-Urdu Moulvi Abdul Haq Award and the national-level Fiction Research Work And Criticism Award. Furthermore, her poetic achievements have been honoured twice at the Royal Mysore Palace by the state government.

She has travelled widely across India and various international destinations including China, Hong Kong, Turkey, Egypt, Maldives, Uzbekistan, the UK and the UAE – participating in conferences, mushairas and workshops dedicated to Urdu language promotion. She has also herself organised many Urdu events of cultural significance such as “An evening with Intezar Hussein” sponsored by the Central Sahitya Academy, New Delhi (Mr Hussein was a renowned Pakistani fiction writer and columnist) and “Shaam-e-Ghazal” featuring ghazals of Pakistani poet Nasir Kazmi, sponsored by the Karnataka state government.

Dr Ghazaal has also actively been part of various advisory boards of reputable magazines such as Versa (New York) and Bazm-e-Adab (Aligarh), in addition to serving on government textbook committees. One of her ghazals has been recently included in the high school textbooks of the state government. She has also served as a member of the state government Urdu Academy twice and as an honorary member of the Literary panel of the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language (NCPUL), under the central government, New Delhi. Besides her literary pursuits, she has also been active in works related to social causes such as her stint as National Social Service officer, as well as conduction of AIDS awareness programmes. Dr Ghazaal continues to work on several manuscripts of her books she intends to publish soon and also driven by her relentless passion for Urdu literature, she wants to establish an organisation “Bazm-e-Zameer” to honour the legacy of her grandfather Late Hazrat Zameer Aqil Shahi, a greatly revered poet of his times, who molded many young poets and had published two of his own poetry collections. The organisation shall strive to organise Urdu events at different levels and keep the language alive across the globe.


Murad Yusufzai: What themes and ideas do you explore in your poetry?

Meh Jabeen Nejm: Human psychology and emotions, and especially those related to women. For example, I recently wrote a poem titled “Mein Gudiya Hun” (I am a doll) addressing the mental anguish experienced by girl children (especially of India and Pakistan) as a result of sexual abuse, which tragically can lead to their untimely death. The poem garnered lots of accolades. The other themes I have explored in my poetry are love, hypocrisy, beauty, loneliness, courage, hope, helplessness, human nature and the art of writing poetry itself.

MY: How do you approach the craft of poetry? Do you follow a specific process or structure when writing a ghazal or poem?

MJN: Yes. I first get a flash of insight inspired either by life experiences or based on something I would have read. Then I follow through by picking the pen up and writing the thoughts down. My ghazals usually have a flexible structure—for example I may skip writing Matla (the first two lines of the first couplet of the Ghazal containing rhyming words and also containing refrains in both lines) or Maqta (the last couplet of the ghazal in which the poet’s pen name “Takhallus” is mentioned). This is against tradition, which requires both Matla and Maqta to be always included. Besides the usual ghazals which contains couplets that are usually not interrelated, I also write Ghazal-e-Musalsal which contains couplets that are in a continuous flow, on a common theme. Regarding poetry, I predominantly craft modern poems characterised by their flexible structure, departing from the rigidity of traditional forms.

MY: Can you discuss the significance of language and word choice in your work?

MJN: In my works in fiction, I’m recognised for employing fluent standard language, conveying my thoughts concisely while ensuring completeness with minimal words. My choice of words in both prose and poetry are always relevant to the context of the writing and are used to convey the meaning in the most precise and concise manner. I also sometimes use metaphors and similes in my writings that have been praised by the critics.

MY: How does your poetry fit into the larger context of contemporary literature? What inspiration do you draw from other poets and writers?

MJN: Many contemporary literary works often explore themes associated with radical feminism. While women-related themes have been prevalent in my short stories, I've begun incorporating them into my poetry as well, reflecting a recent shift in my writing focus. In terms of inspiration, Mirza Ghalib’s writing with its astute observations of human psychology has profoundly influenced my expression as a writer. Parvin Shakir’s bold ghazals, articulated the emotions of women, have also served as a source of inspiration for me.

MY: How do you handle the writer’s block or creative blocks? Do you have any tips or techniques to overcome them?

MJN: While many writers struggle with writer's block, I personally haven't encountered it. On the contrary, I often find myself inundated with creative ideas, sometimes to the extent that I'm unable to capture them all due to time constraints.

MY: Can you discuss any challenge or obstacles you have faced as a poetry author? How do you overcome them?

MJN: In my early days as a writer, although my work received acclaim from readers and critics, some relatives strongly objected to my portrayal of sorrow in my poems. Initially, I published anonymously and occasionally changed my pen names without announcement. However, with time, I conquered those fears and became more audacious in my expression, learning to disregard the criticisms of naysayers. I strongly believe that a supportive and nurturing environment is crucial for aspiring writers to develop their skills. However, I'm disappointed by the declining standards of many Mushairas nowadays. It seems that poets are prioritising the commercial aspect, offering poems that lack depth and wisdom, merely aiming to entertain the audience.

MY: How is your poetry received by readers? Do you have any specific message or themes you wish to convey through your work?

MJN: My readers have always expressed admiration for my writing. Some have even taken on the task of translating my works into other languages such as my poem “Ae Saale nau” (Oh New Year!), and a poem on communal harmony, along with several of my short stories. I also share my couplets on social media platforms like Face book, where they have garnered numerous accolades. Admirers have even taken the initiative to create beautifully designed templates featuring my published couplets, again sharing them across various social media platforms. ETV News Urdu featured on their channel a story on this phenomenon of sharing my poetry by my followers. As for the messages conveyed in my work, I priorities three themes:

  1. The significance of human values, particularly respecting elders;
  2. Promoting communal harmony; and,
  3. Advocating for women’s rights

All of these, I believe, are equally important.

MY: How has your writing evolved over time? Can you discuss specific poems and collections that makes a significant point in your development as a poetess?

MJN: My writing has certainly grown bolder with time. For example, my poem “Saare Jahan ka dard” (The pain of the entire world) which is based on a character who is a woman with no sympathisers. At one point she expresses, “I live in a town of the deaf and so I have learnt to pretend to be mute.” I have also touched upon some taboo ideas related to women’s sufferings in my stories such as “Apsara” (The Nymph) and “Rakhel” (The Mistress).

MY: What advice do you have for aspiring poets or writers? What have you learned from your experience as a poetess?

MJN: My advice to aspiring poets and writers would be to immerse themselves in classical works and also keenly observe the events happening around them. I also encourage new writers to maintain an open-minded perspective and avoid narrow views on religion, society, and human values. Personally, I’ve discovered the power of communicating thoughts and feelings effectively in succinct language—a realisation I owe to my journey as a poet and writer.

MY: Which Urdu books have you written?

MJN: My Published books are:

  1. Aao Gaayen Khushi Manayen – nursery rhymes, edited (distributed free of cost to Nursery Schools by the state government)
  2. Pyass (Thirst) – short stories published by the financial aid of Karnataka government Urdu Academy.
  3. Urdu zaban ka Jaadoo volume 1 – language games, written as well as edited after participation in a language workshop near Shimla (Himachal Pradesh), 3rd edition
  4. Urdu zaban ka Jaadoo volume 2 – language games, written as well as edited after participation in a language workshop near Shimla (Himachal Pradesh), 3rd edition
  5. Krishan Chandar ki Novel Nigari aur Nisayi Kirdaar – research work, received a national-level award
  6. a poetry collection – in press.

I am working on six more manuscripts nowadays.

MY: How you see the future of the Urdu language in India?

MJN: Urdu stands as a unique language, witnessing a decline in the number of students studying it in schools and colleges each year, but at the same time there are organisations dedicated to preserving the language’s vitality in the country. One such example is the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language (NCPUL), where I served as an honorary member of its literary panel. Through initiatives like funding for book publications from the government, authors in the language are encouraged and supported.

MY: What role have Urdu poets and poetry played for the Muslims of India and other citizens in the Indian society?

MJN: Poets such as Allama Iqbal have strongly expressed the importance of understanding the philosophy of Islam. Additionally, Maulana Haali’s poem “Munajat-e-Bewa” resonates with its outcry against the mistreatment of widows in society. Akbar Allahabadi is another poet who addressed the issues of a decadent Muslim society in his works. Countless poets and poetesses have contributed to shaping the perspectives of Indian Muslims by addressing prevalent issues in Indian society over the years.

MY: Who are your favourite poetesses and poets in India, especially women?

MJN: Mirza Ghalib remains my all-time favourite among Urdu poets. Among female poets, Parvin Shakir, while not an Indian citizen but of Indian origin, is the most inspiring to me.

MY: You also write fiction. Tell us about your fiction stories.

MJN: Most of my fiction work revolves around women's issues, reflecting the current societal landscape while also delving into individual human psychology. Additionally, I address communal conflicts and condemn them within my narratives. For instance, in the short story "Adam ke Aansu" (Tears of Adam), the protagonists are a pair of male and female dogs navigating the streets to protect their puppies from human harm, serving as a symbolic commentary on the detrimental impact of communal clashes. My fiction writings aim to instil higher moral values in readers, encouraging introspection. Furthermore, I've explored the suffering of COVID patients during the pandemic in my writing.

MY: Please tell us about your work for Urdu language promotion in India.

MJN: I have extensively travelled across India and abroad to promote Urdu language and literature. I have participated in numerous seminars, conferences, and language workshops, where I have compiled dictionaries and set question papers for competitive exams in Urdu. Additionally, I have contributed to the preservation of Lucknow's culture and, following a one-month workshop in Himachal Pradesh, developed language games for the books Urdu Zaban ka Jaadoo volumes 1 and 2, aimed at making language learning enjoyable. These books have gained immense popularity, with three editions already published and a fourth edition in the works. Furthermore, I have served on government textbook committees, editing school textbooks, and have been involved in various projects of the Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL). I have also served on the editorial boards of Urdu magazines such as Versa (New York) and Bazm-e-Adab (Aligarh). Furthermore, I have previously delivered Urdu lessons aired on All India Radio and participate in numerous Urdu literary programs. Additionally, I have conducted interviews with medical doctors for television programs. I have organised "Sham-e-Ghazal" programs featuring ghazals, one of which was dedicated to the poems of the Pakistani poet Nasir Kazmi, sponsored by the state government Academy. Additionally, I coordinated a literary event in honour of the distinguished fiction writer from Pakistan, Mr. Intezar Hussein, sponsored by the Central Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi. The event drew a large audience.

MY: Which awards have you received for your work?

MJN: These are some of the awards and honours that I have received:

  1. Yashaswi Saadhaka Award (Mysore)
  2. State level Baba-e-Urdu Moulvi Abdul Haq Award (Bangalore)
  3. Mujahida-e-Urdu & Safeer-e-Urdu Award, South India (Hyderabad)
  4. Uttar Pradesh Government. Urdu Academy Award (Lucknow)
  5. Literary Achievement Award (China)
  6. Woman of the East Award (Egypt)
  7. Honoured twice in the Royal Palace (Mysore)
  8. An evening event “Aek Shaam Fankaar k Naam” was held in my honour by the literary organisations of the state.
  9. Selected thrice as a member for State government. Urdu Academy, Bangalore
  10. Selected as Honorary Member for Literary Panel of National Council for Promotion of Urdu language.
  11. Selected for All India Urdu Delegation to meet the Honourable President of India at Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi.
  12. Selected for the Literary Calendar (Mumbai)
  13. Selected for “Jashn-e-Shaairat” Hyderabad, where my ghazals were performed by musicians and ghazal singers
  14. Selected for national interview as a poetess for the television program Karwan-e-Shaoor, New Delhi.

MY: Please say something about your PhD research: how did it contribute towards Urdu literature?

MJN: My PhD thesis focused on the women characters in the novels of Krishan Chander, analysing various aspects of their portrayal. The depth of my analysis led some examiners to liken it to the work of two theses, covering both Krishan Chander as a novelist and the women characters in his novels extensively. The thesis was later published as a book at the insistence of the examiners and was selected for publication by the Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed memorial committee in Lucknow. Following its publication, the book received a National level award from the Uttar Pradesh Urdu Academy and has garnered significant demand among students and research scholars.

MY: You were offered the post of Principal of Maharaja’s College Mysore. The Maharaja was known to be a humanist. Have you also written for the rights of the innocent people of Kashmir?

MJN: Indeed, highlighting various aspects of humanity has always been the central theme in all my writings.

MY: Is there a gap between the Indian and Pakistani people? Can it be bridged?

MJN: The only gap exists in geography and political borders. I do not believe in discriminating against or idealising people based on their country of origin. I believe that artists from every country should have greater freedom to express their art forms across borders.

MY: In which countries have you attended mushairas, or programs to promote Urdu language and poetry? How was the response of audiences and hosts?

MJN: I have attended mushairas and Urdu programs in the Maldives, UAE, China including Hong Kong, Egypt, Uzbekistan and Britain. I was surprised to see the enthusiastic audiences' response to Urdu even outside the Indian subcontinent. Additionally, I have received invitations from the USA, Canada and Pakistan, where programs have been postponed.

MY: How do Muslim poetry writers view Iqbal and his poetry?

MJN: Muslim poets regard Iqbal a great poet and philosopher. A vast number of books have been written on Allama Iqbal, rivalled by perhaps only those on Mirza Ghalib.

MY: How do you think young Indians view Mirza Asad Ullah Khan Ghalib’s poetry?

MJN: Both young and old Indians consider Ghalib's works as classical. Despite being challenging for readers, his writings are widely recognised for their deeper meanings and wisdom.

MY: Which Pakistani poets are most read in India?

MJN: Many Pakistani poets have a wide readership in India. Among them, some of the most popular ones I can recall off the top of my head include Nasir Kazmi, Ahmed Faraz, Iftekhar Aarif, Ahmed Mushtaq, Parvin Shakir and others.

MY: How do you see Pakistan, in the context of the past, present and future of Urdu literature?

MJN: I view Pakistan as a hub for emerging Urdu writers and poets. As a nation with Urdu as its national language, Pakistan has produced many exceptional writers of the language, and I am confident that it will continue to do so in the future.