Abbas ,the Journalist

Roving Camera: The Journalistic Writings of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas

Dr. H.S. Chandalia*

Khwaja Ahmed Abbas was essentially a ‘Communicator’, the identity he chose for himself. While communicating for more than fifty years he chose different forms of writing including journalism, novel, short-story, cinema and autobiography. Much critical attention has been drawn towards his contribution to Indian Cinema, a little to his world of fiction including his novels and collections of short stories but the genre which kept him engaged and fulfilled his urge for communication most – journalistic writing, did not get the proper critical attention it deserved.

Abbas began his career as a journalist when he joined the National Call, a New Delhi based paper after finishing his B.A. Later while studying Law in Aligarh Muslim University in 1943, he started Aligarh Opinion, India’s first University Weekly during the pre – independence period.

Abbas’s father wanted him to become a lawyer but he was more interested in journalism. So, on a stipend of a small amount he reached Bombay and joined The Bombay Chronicle in 1935.While at Bombay Chronicle, he started writing a column called “Last Page”. When he shifted to The Blitz weekly, he carried the column with him and continued writing this column till 1987. It was published simultaneously in Urdu and Hindi as “Azad Kalam”. Thus, it became the longest – running political column (1935 – 87) in Indian Journalism.

Besides the column Abbas wrote several works in prose which border on diary, biography, autobiography, travelogue, screenplay, interviews and political commentary. In his case it becomes really difficult to classify a particular work in a specific category. His wide experience as a journalist seems to be present in almost all of his works including the works of fiction. Even the screenplays and stories he wrote for other producers and directors and the films that he directed and produced himself bear the stamp of his journalistic vision.

However, for the convenience of literary appraisal one may classify the non – fiction of K. A. Abbas into the following categories. The first category is his journalistic writings in the form of columns published in The Chronicle, Bombay The Blitz, Bombay and other newspapers and magazines. Selections from the columns arranged chronologically are published in two books namely I Write As I Feel (1948) and Bread, Beauty, and Revolution (1982). The second category of Abbas’s non-fiction is a series of books based on his meetings with important personalities of the world. He had travelled around the world twice and gathered a lot of experience and exposure which finally got recorded in the form of his books, some of which are In The Image of Mao-Tse Tung ( 1953), Face to Face with Khruschev ( 1960 ), Till We Reach The Stars, The Story of Yury Gagarin ( 1961), That Woman : Her Seven Years in Power ( 1973 ) , Jawahar Lal Nehru : Portrait of An Integrated Indian ( 1974 ) and Indira Gandhi : The Last Post ( 1989 ). Three of these books are about the charismatic personality of Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the iron lady of Indian Politics. Abbas was much impressed by Pdt. Nehru and saw Indira Gandhi’s arrival on the scene of Indian Politics as an extension of the Nehruvian era. However, in his later writings he grew a little critical of the policies of Mrs. Gandhi.

 Another category of his non – fiction includes the books that he wrote in response to some political changes or events that took place in the world politics and politics at home. They are books like Outside India : The Adventures of a Roving Reporter ( 1939 ) , An Indian looks at America ( 1943 ) , A Report to Gandhiji : A Survey of Indian and World Events during the Twenty one Months of Gandhiji’s Incarceration ( 1944 ) , Kashmir Fights for Freedom ( 1948 ) , China can Make It : Eye Witness Account of The Amazing Industrial Progress in China ( 1952 ) , 20th March 1977 : A Day Like Any Other Day ( 1978 ) , Janata In a Jam ( 1978 ) . These books depict perceptive accounts of contemporary political and social activities.  The approach is realistic and Abbas depicts the objective reality with an internationalist’s point of view.

Abbas became associated with the world of cinema quite early in his career. He started as a film critic but soon took up the challenge of writing scripts and screenplays. Later he directed films, produced films and formed his own film company’ Naya Sansar’ , which continuously produced films that were socially relevant and took up issues related to the down – trodden and the middle class. It was the scripts which gave Raj Kapoor the image of a common man or Aam Adami through his films like Jagte Raho, Awaara, Shri 420, Mera Naam Joker etc. He wrote the screenplay for Neecha Nagar, a film which became the first film to win the Palme d’ Or (Golden Palm) at Cannes Film Festival.

Besides writing scripts and screenplays Abbas wrote critical books on Indian Cinema. His book Mad, Mad, Mad World of Indian Films and Bombay, my Bombay are collection of his small essays about Indian Cinema and the personalities which were very important in the formative years of Indian Cinema. How Films Are Made (1999) is another book on Film making published by National Book Trust, New Delhi. In the introduction to his book Mad, Mad, Mad world of Indian Films, Abbas made a very perceptive remark about the contradiction of the film world:

Madness is part of this art industry – its fantabulous star- prices, it’s larger – than – life figures of success and its grimmer – than death failures. Money makes the film, but money alone can not act, money alone can not adjust the lens that bends beauty and glamour to the famous and glamorous star – faces. Money is everything, but money is nothing!

                                         (Introduction, Mad, Mad, Mad world of Indian Films)

Among his other non – fiction writings are his famous autobiography I Am Not An Island and two plays. One play Barrister At Law is based on early life of Mahatma Gandhi. The other play is not very well known and its text also is not easily available.

There are several interviews of K. A. Abbas which have been either recorded and aired on Radio or published in journals, Newspapers and Magazines. These are non – fictional almost autobiographical musings of the author narrated by him but recorded and documented by other persons. One such interview was recorded for radio and its transcript is available with Cambridge University. The interview is taken by one Mr. Shanker and reveals several undisclosed facets of the life and mind of K. A. Abbas. In the course of the interview Abbas talks of his days as a scholar of Aligarh Muslim University and describes how four friends including Ansar Harvani, Sibt –i- Hasan, Akhtar Hussain and himself went some forty kilometers away from Aligarh to meet Jawahar Lal Nehru who was travelling by a train. In the interview Mr. Shanker has recorded the description of the complete dialogue that took place between the four young students and Pdt. Nehru. The group of four friends including K. A. Abbas asked several questions about democracy, revolution, socialism, justice and the condition of peasants in the country, particularly, that of those living in villages near Aligarh. Abbas recalls that the answers given by Pdt, Nehru to their questions were quite different from what they had imagined. He was forth right in his views and believed in people’s education and organization as a tool for any revolution. In this interview, Abbas quotes Nehru’s vision of revolution:

If you want to bring about a revolution in the minds of the people, you must learn, and the people must learn, to ask questions, not to take anything on trust, but to question everything, to adopt an attitude of enquiry, of quest, of discussion, of not believing anything till it had been proved on the touchstone of logic and reason.

                                                                                               (Transcript 8)

As a young scholar these words must have made a lasting impact on the mind of Abbas. Most of his writings reflect his uncompromising commitment to the voice of reason and enquiry. Abbas challenged the policy of the Censor Board in the court of law and succeeded in convincing the jury that an artist has to have the freedom to depict reality.

It is difficult to examine critically all the works of non – fiction written by K. A. Abbas in a short paper, Hence, the scope of this paper is limited to two books only namely I Write as I Feel and Bread, Beauty and Revolution. These two books contain selected pieces of his journalistic writing from 1941 to 1982 which roughly covers the maximum stretch of his career. Though it must be noted that Abbas kept on writing till his last breath in June 1987 and his story “Mother and Child” was published posthumously by the Illustrated Weekly of India.

I Write As I Feel contains one hundred and nine pieces of Abbas Sahab’s prose writings which appeared as his columns between 1941 to 1947. This period was a turbulent time in the world history. Europe saw the most fatal blow and the stains of the blood of innocent people were spread all over the so called civilized world. The world war second ended with the United States dropping atom bombs on Japan. The freedom struggle of India sharpened with the Quit India movement and the famous Naval revolt. Abbas’s vision caught the glimpses of these events like a roving camera and responded to them in his typical style – full of wit and wisdom. He was conscious of his role as a progressive journalist who would dream of building an egalitarian society not with in the country but in all countries across the globe. The world was changing rapidly and so was journalism. From international politics to the issues of poverty and hunger, from European economic crisis to the Indian theatre and art – everything became the subject matter of these columns. Unlike traditional canons of objectivity, these writings are quite subjective. The author, who remained anonymous initially, could not remain so for long. The identity of the author as a secular, democratic and progressive thinker became the hall mark of these pieces. In the preface to the book titled in a typical Abbas style as  “ The First Last Page “ Abbas admits his subjective approach in these columns :

I have been what may be described as a “subjective reporter”, concerned not so much with collecting objective news but with chronicling the emotional, human background of news. What I have written, therefore, has been necessarily colored by my own views and thoughts and feelings. ‘Subjectiveness: I have been assured is my chief failing. For what has appeared on the “ Last Page “ , I have been variously described and dismissed as a “ sentimental petit bourgeoise”, an emotional dupe of the communists”, ‘ a Middle –of- the- road Marxist, and the most consistent of all the Nehruites – including Nehru ! I shall be the last to challenge any of my critics. They are welcome to their opinions. There is sufficient evidence to show, however, that a fairly large number read the Last Page, many of them because it reflects their own views and their own reactions to various developments in the country and abroad.   (vi)

Abbas is very forth right in his confession. Though he accepts a certain degree of subjectivity as a “ failing “, this very subjectivity turns out to be his strength in more than one ways. One such example in the opening piece of the book titled “We eat our Hats !” The German attack on Russia was an event  which none of the “ Wise” Diplomats, bureaucrats and foreign affairs editors had expected. So the event makes them gobble their hats. Abbas’s use of parody, pun and subtle wit succeeds in making a dig at this entire class of elite intellectuals:

“ And so you see why they are eating their hats…..Whatever hats that come to their hand ! Hence all the dearth of hats in town, and hence all the extra – sapient stuff that has been appearing in your paper for the last two weeks. It is all due to the undigested hats – thanks to the biggest mad – hatter of all the history, Adolf Hatler – alias Mein Fuehrer! “(4)

Abbas does not hesitate in pulling Hitler down through his sarcastic remark and deformation in the very spelling of his name from “ Hitler to “Hatler “ . However, in other pieces which demand greater solemnity and sobriety he easily moulds his style to suit the subject. The “Death of Tagore” written on August 17, 1941 is full of such somberness. Abbas talks of his versatility and also the immortality of his work which we now realize as truth. Tagore was revered in his life time. Tagore is respected today also is one of the best intellectuals of twentieth century. Abbas was right when he concluded the piece with his lines, “Tagore is dead, Tagores never die. “  (5)

Abbas shows keen interest in literature and fine arts. He considered them as highest instincts of humanity. But he is more happy when art becomes a medium of celebrating the strength and potential of human physique and intellect. He is not a votaries of “ Art for Art’s sake, “ rather he rejoices in that art which addresses the contemporary questions of life and depicts them revolting against the traditional mythological narratives. “ The Dance of Machines “is a performance of dance choreographed by Uday Shanker. Admiring his effort Abbas writes:

“And through a medium that he understands and has mastered, in terms of rhyme, movement and gesture, he gives us his analysis of the social break – up of the Indian village community by the intrusion of industrialism. And instead of legendary goods and goddesses he puts real, live human beings on the dance stage! (9)

Similarly, on the question of cinema and morality, he puts forward very rational and progressive views. He challenges the very idea of linking morality with sexual behavior and expands it to the behavior of human beings driven by greed, false pride and chauvinism. He boldly said that feudalism had vulgarized entertainment while the modern cinema has democratized the profession of entertainers. To him the masters who exploited their servants, the doctors who cheated patients giving those quack medicines and women/ men who married for money were more immoral than the people in cinema. He rightly says that the atmosphere of any place is the sum total of the character of its occupants. So, the possibility of morality or immorality is the same in a temple, an educational institution and a cinema studio depending on the people who work there.

Abbas was well read and well informed on the themes he choose to write about. He would do a lot of homework to research and find out the background of the stories he took up. One feels surprised the way he could gather such accurate information. At the arrival of Cripps Commission there were no computers and no means of accessing information as we have today. Yet the amount of information that is available in his column “Prelude to Cripps?” shows the resourcefulness of Abbas. His description of Sir Stafford Cripps reminds one of the description of the pilgrims in Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales– full of subtle and mild humor :

Sir Stafford is generally punctual, but one day he hit a new high in punctuality by arriving ten minutes earlier than the time fixed. He generally wore a smile on his face as well as a flower in his button -hole. Also, he wore his (by now) familiar features – a high intellectual forehead, keen eyes behind rimless glasses and yellowing teeth. These last are caused by the solitary vice Sir Stafford allowed himself – smoking. But he is rather promiscuous in the enjoyment of his favorite weed. One day he appeared smoking a proletarian cigarette, on another day a Cigar (which probably Churchill gave him with his blessings!) and on yet another day sucking at a pipe ( which, perhaps, is a present from Stalin! ) It is not known whether he is taking with him a hookah from India. The description shows none of the prejudice (28) that a journalist of a country fighting for freedom against the colonial power could have towards the representative of the empire. Nor does it show any fear that one would feel in penning those critical remarks about his personality which border on his personal traits. Not only this, Abbas, later in the piece criticizes those journalists who always addressed Stafford Cripps as “your Honors”. He writes that it was not befitting of a journalist to address him like that.

The book has a piece titled “Bread and Revolution” though the same is used as a title of the second collection called Bread, Beauty and Revolution. It is a beautiful piece of prose which depicts the reality of India during the period of severe economic depression in the world. The inflating prices of the commodities of daily use and the acute scarcity of food grain has made the life of the Indian masses miserable. Abbas begins the piece by alluding to the Nobel Winning novel The Good Earth written by Pearl. S. Buck and a film based on it. He quotes a dialogue from the film, “What is Revolution ?”

‘ I don’t know, but it has something to do with food.” Later Abbas describes how it was easy to relate this dialogue to the pathetic state of Indian poor and middle classes. It is ironical that though the film based on The Good Earth arouses our pity towards the suffering of famine-stricken people in China, we remain complacent about the similar condition of our own people suffering similarly. Abbas in his very calculative style draws a beautiful comparison between the text and the ground reality in a very touching paragraph:

In The Good Earth there are vivid scenes of a famine – stricken area, showing how the Earth dries up and cracks, how the cattle and the humans have to live by eating roots and even mud, how hunger makes man mad,” This is what we see on screen, and perhaps the complacent Bombay crowd thought of it as something that can happen only in far of China. But in India, we have had famines as acute as the one so dramatically and so poignantly depicted in The Good Earth (68)

Abbas criticizes the black marketeers and the hoarders of food grain. To him food is more important than anything else. It is a crude reality that satisfying one’s hunger is more important than all other abstract values like morality, patriotism, religion, politics, love and loyalty. Abbas seeks the solution to this problem of starvation not in any divine intervention but in a new world order “Which guarantees the elementary material needs and thus releases human energy to flow in channels of more creative purposeful living.”

The book contains more than a hundred articles ranging from Indian freedom struggle to the rise and fall of Nazism and Fascism in Europe. The roving camera of Abbas’s journalistic eye shows a wide range of topics from politics to art, from the intellectual talk of philosophy and economics to the more mundane and coarse realities of the lives of the multitudes. He talks about the debate on’ kissing’ scenes in cinema and the issues related to modernism and orthodoxy. The book ends up with an article written on 22nd August 1947, just a week after the independence of India and is aptly titled as “The End is The Beginning.”

The second volume titled Bread, Beauty and Revolution about thirty five years of the journalistic writings of  K.A.Abbas. The book begins with a piece titled     “Letter To A Child Born On August 15, 1947,” and ends with the another similar article “ A Letter From Future” which is the penultimate piece of the volume followed by the last “ The Story Of A Story.” Thus, the second book of the collection of articles which appeared as the last page of the Blitz reveal Abbas’s preference for the Letter form to address his audience. Perhaps this conscious choice is made to enable the author to address the people directly. “Letter to A Child Born On August 15, 1947” reminds us of Salman Rushdie’s Midnights Children also. The piece beautifully sums up the long history of struggle for independence and tries to capture the mood of the great historical movement of transfer of power. The spirit of the day was “Volcanic” and the upsurge of emotions unprecedented. Abbas talks of the contribution of all streams of freedom fighters from the first war of Independence in 1857 to Gokhale, Tilak, Gandhi, Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Subhas and the common people who remained unnamed in History. He congratulates the generation born on August 15,1947 for being able to breath the air of independence and freedom. Yet he is conscious of the challenges of future and emphatically states that the torch of freedom is being handed over to this new generation so that they may translate the political freedom into more important “ social justice, economic freedom and true democracy.”

Though Abbas calls himself the most consistent Nehruite, he doesn’t spare him when he makes a statement against communism. In his article “Invite Mao To New Delhi” Abbas refers to a meeting of the Common Wealth nations at Colombo. Pdt. Nehru as Prime Minister of India participated in that and criticized feudalism  and colonialism. But he is reported to have added that unless foreign domination were removed, it would be difficult to ‘stem the communist tide in those countries.”Abbas took exception to this and very openly criticized Pdt. Nehru for making such a statement and becoming party to the colonial design of Europe and America. He writes, “Surely Jawahar Lal Nehru must realize the glaring inconsistency between his five, anti-imperialist sentiments and the fact of his participation in the conference the very basis of which is the negation of the freedom of Asia.” ( BBR 40 ) He further adds that the opposition of communism by the common wealth countries is because, “ European and American imperialists and capitalists know that a communist Asia shall not tolerate their continued exploitation of the natural resources of Asiatic countries. “ (40)

The truth of this bold statement is seen in the twenty first century in which the United Stares of America and Britain jointly displaced all those governments which dared to resist the capturing of their natural resources be it Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Libya, or Syria. Of course they could not succeed in Venezuela and Korea but the attempts were of course made.  Even in India the Multi National companies and the corporate world of Indian capitalists are after the resources of the people. And none except the Communists and Maoists are there to fight against such exploitation.

Abbas who revered Gandhi initially, became a Nehruite later but towards the later part of his life, became sympathetic to the Naxalites. He wrote a novel called Naxalites and also made a film with the same name. He got the award for best direction for this film. In this book also occurs a column titled “ Naxalites, My Brothers! “ written in 1973. In this longish essay Abbas describes the Naxalites as “young men (and women too) who have become personally and politically disillusioned with the slow process of democracy which are holding up dynamic social change in India: who are impatient to do away with the hypocrisy, the cant, the him burg, the corruption, the favoritism the nepotism, the callousness, the indifference to the needs of the people, of the establishment in India.” (250)

He is sympathetic towards them and shuns state violence against them. He writes, “ They are not mad dogs to be shot and chained and fettered along with felons and robbers and common murderers.” ( 251 ) On the contrary he blames it on the state which has failed to exercise its duties to the people : “ It is symbolic of our social and governmental failure that some of the finest and the most intelligent of our youth feel frustrated enough to join movements of extremism and adopt tactis of terror.” ( 251 )

There are several pieces about Nehru, Indira Gandhi and other political leaders. In one article Abbas creates an artificial situation in which Indira Gandhi is interviewing Pdt. Nehru. The idea is to raise contemporary issues and to show that the two leaders are interested in those. In still another article Abbas writes a letter to Mrs.. Gandhi. The year i9n 1977, could be the period of emergency. Abbas raise certain very fundamental questions about individual’s freedom to think and to express his ideas. In yet another piece titled “ A Warning To Indira” Abbas cricises the anti-people, anti – revolutionary role of bureaucracy and warns Indira Gandhi of the resentment of people against the excesses of emergency. The last piece of the collection talks about the dispute about his story called “ Sardar ji” which was sued against by some Sikh gentleman in Jhansi. Abbas describes the entire story of the genesis of the story and all the debates that raged around the story.

Reading these columns, one feels fully convinced that Abbas had a mission in life- The mission of building up a democratic, socialist and secular world and of course the nation. There are occasions when some passages appear to be repeated in some other works of fiction. The journalistic tinge is visible in his fiction and his journalism too is not without the impact of his fondness for story telling.

 It would be appropriate to, conclude with what Abbas said in his interview with Indian Literary Review: …. I feel that many of the writers whom I have admired were journalists. They got their inspiration for their creative writing from journalism and continued to write very well indeed,” (An Evening in Lucknow, An Interview).

Works Cited

Abbas, K.A. I Write As I feel.Bombay :Hind Kitabs . 1948.Print

Bread, beauty, and revolution: being a chronological selection from the Last pages, 1947 to 1981, New Delhi: Marwah Publications .1982.Print

I Am not an Island: An Experiment in Autobiography.Ed.SureshKohli.New Delhi: 2010.Print

An Evening in Lucknow.Ed.Suresk Kohli.New Delhi:Harper Collins.2011.Print




*Professor of English,JRN Rajasthan Vidyapeeth ,Udaipur,Rajasthan









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