Brij Premi – A Tireless Scholar

Urdu literature is indeed indebted  to writers like Mir, Ghalib, Iqbal, Prem Chand, Manto and Bedi for their creative and original writings but one cannot undermine the contributions of critics and research scholars like Altaf  Hussain Hali, Ehtesham Hussain, Aal-e- Ahmed Saroor, Qamar Rais and the like for exploring the worlds of these writers in depth and preparing the common mind to appreciate them. One such scholar is Dr. Brij Premi who despite meager resources at his disposal explored the intricate world of Manto, a doyen of Urdu fiction . In fact, it took Premi almost a decade to collect data about Saadat Hassan Manto from different  parts of the Sub-continent where Manto had either stayed  for a short time or lived for a longer duration, especially  from across the border i.e. Pakistan where Manto had ultimately migrated  at the time of partition never to return to the land he loved the most, viz Bombay, now rechristened  as Mumbai.  Brij Premi set out to explore the virgin world of Manto at a time when Urdu, Iqbal and Manto had become an anathema in India. The boldness, promiscuity and  notoriety attached to Manto, the D H Lawrence of Urdu Literature, had invited the ire of self-styled purists in both India and Pakistan.

Brij Krishen Aima was born in a lower middle class family in Kashmir Valley. He lost his father at an early age and had to support  his family when he was just fourteen. He joined the Boy-service in the Department of Education in J&K State after giving up his education. As a teacher, he  suffered as a result of transfers from one village to another. His first pay packet was a petty amount of thirty rupees. Under such circumstances it was but natural that he should join the bandwagon of Progressive writers who were very active at that time.

His first short story “Aqa” (The Master) was published in ‘the Amarjyoti’,Srinagar. Thereafter his stories appeared one after the other in a number of newspapers and magazines within and without the state of Jammu and Kashmir. He adopted the pen name of ‘Brij Premi’ and established himself as a short story writer in the valley. He writes about himself,  “My literary life as a short-story writer started in the middle of twentieth century. More often than not I used to pour out the pain and anguish  of my soul into my stories. Even now when my inner agony makes me restless , a story is born. In fact, short-story writing is my first love (Harfe Justajoo).”

Brij Premi’s inner world was no different from the outer world in which he was  constrained to live. The peasants, the labourers and the  artisans of Kashmir were continuously being exploited by landlords and the capitalists, and so rendered poor, starved and penniless. The sub-human conditions in which his brethren  lived haunted him   day and night and hence he used his pen to depict their plight. He drew inspiration from  Prem Nath Pardesi, another progressive writer who was popularly known as ‘the Prem Chand of Kashmir’. Apart from Pardesi, Brij Premi was influenced by the  great romanticist, Krishen Chander, who had  an emotional attachment with  J&K State and used to describe its natural beauty  in mesmerizing  narrative in his short-stories . Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi too had influenced Brij Premi’s style to some extent. Notwithstanding, the writer who most influenced Brij Premi  in his later life was the bespectacled, Liquor–addict  workhorse known as Sa’adat Hassan Manto. The latter had  such an impact  on his mind that he devoted his rest of life to undertake extensive research on Manto . Premi not only wrote ‘Sa’adat Hassan Manto-Life and works’ and ‘Manto Katha’ but also conducted research on several writers of J&K State besides other historical and  literary topics. Alas, the cruel jaws of death snatched him away at a time when he was at his productive best.

While talking of Brij Premi I must acknowledge the dedication and devotion of his worthy son Dr. Premi Romani towards his illustrious father.  I came to know Dr.Brij Premi through his son only when I was beginning to enter the ‘Make believe world of Literature’ from that of ‘Matter of the fact world of Science’. Romani having noticed my flair for calligraphy  asked me to write the final copies of his father’s thesis   .We used to sit till late in the night in his house at  Ali Kadal, Brij Premi used to give the corrected copy of his thesis which I used to write legibly. However I could not keep  my promise to the end due to some personal compulsions and wrote  about sixty percent of  the thesis only. Later Romani himself completed the rest. However, at the end, I  decorated  the thesis by drawing  caricatures of Manto at the beginning of each chapter.  My joy knew no bounds when only after 2-3 months I came to know that Brij Premi had been awarded the Doctorate by the Univesity of Kashmir. Having come to know Brij Premi so closely, I found him an unassuming, soft-spoken and a thorough gentleman who  had devoted a life time to Urdu literature and   Kashmir History. He  would not, however, display his knowledge by talking about it every where which was a distinct sign of his humility. He was simple in his life style, coy and modest and showed no signs of promiscuity commonly attributed to the poets and prose writers.

Abdul  Ghani Sheikh writes about Dr. Brij Premi, “Krishen Chander and Manto have a vivid influence  on the thought and style of Premi. His choice of words and felicity of his diction are superlative”. I do not, however, entirely agree with AG Sheikh. It is true that Brij Premi spent his life time on Manto and his works and one can see the latter’s influence on Premi’s writing in later part of his life but fact remains that most of the short stories written by Premi had been penned down much before Manto had made any impact on his mind. Though Premi wanted  to write stories based on psychology  and human  behaviour in the footsteps of Manto yet his own gentlemanliness and lack of exposure to what Manto called ‘Sewers of  society’  became a stumbling block for him. There were no brothels to visit in Kashmir, no Saugandhis or Sultanas to keep him company nor were there  any Babu Gopi Naths to sacrifice everything for these forlorn castaways. Pushkar Nath, a well-known writer from Kashmir comments, “Those days Manto started dominating the literary scene and slowly Brij Premi got attracted towards him. Though he could not write exactly like Manto since he did not have a similar environment as Manto was beset in, yet he absorbed and assimilated each and every word  of Manto and ultimately it all fructified in the form of his thesis ‘Sa’adat Hassan Manto Life and Works’.

‘Sapnoon Ki Sham’, a collection of short stories written by Dr.Brij Premi has sixteen short stories. Most of them are  written against the backdrop of beautiful  lush green fields of Kashmir surrounded by blue snow- capped mountains but poverty and exploitation which resulted in pestilence and consumption ultimately take over and expose the delicate moth-eaten fabric of the society. In  “Mansbal Jab Sookh Gaya” (When Manasbal Dried), a helpless mentally delinquent servant stakes his life to protect the property of his master. In ‘Larazte Aansoo’ (Trembling Tears), a man  seeking transfer on account of unhygienic conditions is asked by his boss to send his daughter which enrages  him  and turns him into a Socialist. “Hansi Ki Maut” (Death of a Smile) is a story of  brave educated and hardworking lady who struggles all her life to support her unemployed  husband and the child. ‘Bahte Nasoor’(Festering Sores) comprises three short short-stories or what we now call Mini stories. In the first, Prakash seduces his girl friend and  later sells her in Bombay red light area. In the second, a father loses his son for mere four annas which he could not afford. In the third story   two friends are compared, one who has acquired riches while the other  remains a pauper.

‘Nanhi Kahanyan’ (possibly the word was coined to mean Mini Stories)comprises two short short stories. In the first the exploitation  of police is exposed while in the second a master kills his servant for not supplying him his wife. ‘Ujhri Baharoon Ke Ujhre Phool’ (The Withered Flowers of Wasted Spring) is a story revealed by a madman who loses his wife and child as a result of  unemployment and consequent penury and finds his dreams  shattered . In ‘Yaad’ (The Memories) the narrator keeps watching the oarsman while crossing a river. The Oarsman  is lost in his thoughts trying to recollect his love-affair  in youth. ‘Sharnarthi’ (The Refugee) is a story of a refugee who has lost his father defending his village and is himself crushed mercilessly by a rich man under his car. Surprisingly, the rich man is not booked by the police. ‘Chilman Ke Sayoon Mein’ (Behind the curtain) is based on fetishism and has a distinct imprint of Manto in its treatment. ‘Aansoon ke Deep’ (The Tearful Farewell) is a story of a mother saying goodbye to a dying child.

‘Sapnoon ki Sham’ is a romantic story written  in the style of Krishan Chander where an uneducated woman Saaji falls in love with a village teacher who saves her life. She is later married to another person Salaama. Saaji is drowned in the rivulet  flowing by while trying to build a bund on its banks to offer help to her husband. The village teacher  offers a wreathe of his tears to the deceased while sitting on the bank of the rivulet. ‘Mere Bache Ki Saalgirah’  (The Birthday of my Son) is a story of dreams and apprehensions with romantic narrative in Krishan Chander style. The story touches the personal life of the progressive writer who is congratulated by his friends prophesying  that ‘Mao’ had taken birth in his house in the shape of his child. Needless to say that the writer must have felt proud dreaming his child to be a Mao in the making at  a time when Socialism was regarded as the goal of a  civilized society. ‘Amar Jyoti’ (The Eternal Flame) is another story influenced by Socialism where a Russian lady honours a dead body by digging a grave for him under the cloud of bullets and canons. Later on she   lights a flame on his grave. ‘Lamhon Ki Rakh’ (The Embers of Time) is a nostalgic  recollection of the narrator’s past love affair with Almas. ‘Teesein Dard Ki’(Writhes of pain) is a story of an apprehensive husband who always doubts his wife for her affair during the premarital days. On the contrary, the wife is magnanimous to look after her husband during his sickness unmindful of the treatment meted out to her by him earlier. ‘Khwaboon Ke Dareeche’ ( A Peep into the Dreams) is a story based on sadism and Voyeurism  and has a clear stamp of Manto’s style on it.

As per Abdul  Gani Sheikh, “Brij Premi nurtured his writings with his blood and never bothered about the returns from such writings”. Moti Lal Saqi thinks that “Premi’s stories describe men in bone  and flesh. They transgress the romanticism of middle class and venture into the areas of spiritualism and realism together. On the other hand, Prof. Manzoor Azmi believes that “ He(Premi) creates stories by describing a chain of events but does not believe in unnecessary conflicts between the events and characters to give it   a  melodramatic effect.”

One thing must be admitted here that Dr.Brij Premi picked up his pen at a time when the world of Urdu fiction was dominated by stalwarts like Krishen Chander, Bedi, Manto, Ashq, Ismat Chugtai and Qurratulain Hyder. The centre of activity had shifted to Bombay after the exit of Prem Chand and ‘futwas’ were being issued by writers’ organisations who would not entertain any new comers. Under such circumstances, Dr. Brij Premi had a herculean task to get himself  recognized while sitting in a remote corner of India. Further the local problems focussed by him were not considered as mainstream problems of India and therefore overlooked completely. Worse still, his state was the first state announcing land reforms bestowing ‘land to tillers’ which left no  ammunition  with the  progressive writers of the State. Though the political instability witnessed by the state could have provided  raw material to Dr. Brij Premi yet he could neither afford to take sides  with such elements who were responsible for creating such instability  nor  could he afford to subscribe to their subversive  politics. It would also mean that he had to stake his job for a cause to which he did not subscribe. But then Dr.Premi  sublimated  his inner desire  by turning towards research work and exploring the maniacal  world of Manto.

Coming back to Premi’s research on Manto, Premi had to understand Manto’s mind in three phases ; first, the socialist Manto, second,the Freudian Manto, and third, the real Manto. Brij Premi had  already  been groomed in socialism and had studied Russian writers like Gorky, Dostoevsky and Chekhov. He had also familiarized himself with the writings of the french writer Maupassant who left an indelible impression  on the mind of Manto. Premi had to learn the basics of  psychology and other behavioral   sciences to understand  the bulk of Manto’s stories like ‘Thanda Gosht’ and ‘Hatak’. Last of all, Brij Premi had to internalize the pain and agony of migration caused as a result of the division of the country and understand  stories such as ‘Khol Do’ and‘Mozelle’. Nevertheless,  Dr. Premi has lived upto the expectations of the Urdu fraternity by documenting the life and works of Manto with deftness  and dexterity.

As I said earlier, we lost Dr. Brij Premi at a time when he was in the prime of his life. The best was yet to come from him. Alas, nightmarish turmoil in  the valley and consequent migration to inhospitable plains took its toll and snatched us of an inquisitive soul.

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