Professor Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar (1894 - 1955) needs no introduction. His contributions in the field of magneto-chemistry made him a well known name among scientists, Bhatnagar was the first Chairperson of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and University Grants Commission (UGC). The Government of India (GoI) awarded him with Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian award. Since 1958, Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Science and Technology (SSB) is regarded as India’s Nobel in science..
Bhatnagar’s scientific achievements are a common knowledge yet not many know about his flair for writing Urdu poetry. He seems to have inherited this love as his maternal grandfather, Munshi Hargopal Tufta, was one of the most loved pupils of legendary poet Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib.
Bhatnagar started writing Urdu poetry at an early age. He wrote for himself and got these published as his poems were emotions scribbled on a paper. Most of these poems were lost over a period of time. Once on his wife Lajwanti’s insistence, he gave his poems to Faiz Jhinjhanvi. Again, as luck would have it, these were stolen along with other valuables. He never again tried to get his poems published and just remained a regular at the meetings of Urdu mehfil.
After the death of Lajwanti, Bhatnagar opened her trunk to found a sheaf of notes that turned out to be his poems. As a tribute to Lajwanti, Bhatnagar decided to fulfill her wish to see his poems published. He send these to Munshi Naval Kishore Press and a book was soon published. He named the book Lajwanti. According to Bhatnagar, the name was chosen because in one of his poem, Biwi aur Kitab (Wife and Book), he had written,
Meri biwi ne kaha ek din jo main hoti kitaab
Tere diid-e-shauq se har waqt rehti faizyaab
(One day my wife said, if I were a book, you would have always looked me with passion)
Bhatnagar writes, “Now Lajwanti is a book and its pages will always be turned open by me. Because my wife desired her forehead to be pages of a book, which can enjoy my touch as I turn the pages.”
Bhatnagar’s collection of Urdu poetr, Lajwanti, was first published in 1946. It carried forewords by stalwarts Maulvi Abdul Haq, Khwaja Hasan Nizami, Khwaja Mohammad Shafi Dehalvi, Kunwar Mohinder Singh Bedi Sahar and Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru. Abdul Haq believed that the language of Bhatnagar was pure yet easy to understand. Nizami wrote that he can be called Maahir-ul-kalaam (an expert poet) on the basis of his poetry. Sapru wrote, “Your (Bhatnagar’s) expertise in Urdu literature is not second to your mastery of sciences”. In his opinion, Bhatnagar’s poetry shows distinguished philosophy and poetic skills. The language was supposed to be the purest, without any corruption, form of Delhi Urdu literature. Moreover, Sapru saw this book, published in 1946, as symbol of Hindu Muslim unity.
The first poem, Khuda (God), is a polemical poem, where Bhatnagar challenges the atheistic belief. A person asks him to prove that how the whole universe cannot be explained by the scientific laws of nature, to which he returns to nature and argues that without a superpower nature cannot exist. This long poem sums itself in these words,
Gharaz mayassar jo chashm-e-dil ho to uska jalwa kahan nahi hai
(If one has a well intentioned vision with a pure heart, then God’s revelation is everywhere)
In another poem, Kimiya-o-falsafa (Chemistry and philosophy), Bhatnagar generates another debate. A man tells him that eastern philosophies are the real wisdom while modern experiment-based sciences are a deviation from the truth of God. Moreover, modern science and technology is nothing but a means to accumulate wealth at the expense of others. Where, the poet replies back that a study of natural sciences brings humans close to God. He writes,
Azal ke raaz hain nihaan dil-e-murakkabat me.n
Agar khuda ko dhundna hai dhund ghaas paat me.
(Eternal secrets are hidden in these chemical compounds,
If you want to find God, search in nature)
For him, a study of science brings us close to religion. This is against the common wisdom of those times.
Scientists are perceived, by many, to be practical people, with a dearth of emotions. Contrary to popular belief, Bhatnagar displayed deep emotions of love in his poetry. Not only was the book named after his wife, several poems were devoted to her memories. In my opinion, these are few of the finest romantic poems in Urdu language. One such poem, Biwi aur Kitaab, has already been mentioned. Naama-e-shauq, was actually written as a letter from London on the occasion of her birthday. It is one of those masterpieces, which every woman would love to receive from her husband as a birthday gift. He writes,
Sochta hu.n ke ab karu.n kya nazar
Dil to pehle hi kar chuka hu.n nisaar
(I wonder what more can I offer
Heart has already been given to you)
Mufaaraqat, a poem written on the death of Lajwanti, his wife, can bring tears to anyone’s eyes. The poem was written with emotions dipped in sorrow. Bhatnagar shows anger at her, arguing that she had promised to live with him and by leaving him behind, the promise had been broken by her. He writes,
Kya nahi hai yaad tumko apna paiman-e-wafa
Jaa rahi ho chhodh kar kya yahi hai shaan-e-wafa
(Don’t you remember your promises
You’re leaving me, is this your respect for vows)
Bhatnagar asks, how would he live alone in a house without her,
Kya lage jii ghar me jab tum hi na ho pesh-e-nazar
(Heart will not find solace in a home where I can’t see you)
He further laments at his human constraint,
Chaand taare toD laaun tumko laa sakta nahi
Uff ye meri naa-rasaai tumko paa sakta nahi
(Even if I can bring moons and stars to the earth but you cannot be brought back)
In another poem, Bhatnagar had drawn a sketch of paradise where Chitragupta welcomed Lajwanti and she met all her family members, who had died before her. The conversation among the relatives, as they ask her about Bhatnagar is a masterpiece. The poet makes his readers feel the pain he was going through.
Aa-jaao, is another poem where Bhatnagar had put his longing for the deceased wife into words. The words writhe in agony, as he wrote,
Main jaagta huun ke shayad kahi se aa jaao
(I am awake with a hope that, maybe, you will come from somewhere)
Another remarkable poem, written in a local dialect of Hindi, is Din raat main tumko dhundhat huun. The poet, like a crazy lover, searches for his beloved in the rain, mountains, rivers, trees, flowers and everywhere. A large portion of the book is devoted to the memories of Lajwanti and brings out a romantic side of Bhatnagar. This was not all and he shows much more diversity.
The book also contains several patriotic poems. One should keep in mind that the book was published in pre-independence India and thus writing nationalist poetry was a courageous act. These poems are testament to Bhatnagar’s nationalist outlook.
In Thigni Sarkar (Dwarf government), Bhatnagar describes his interview with Leo Amery, the secretary state for India during the WWII. Amery asked him what did he think of Congress, Muslim League and other contenders to power and how could the British leave India in such a chaos. Bhatnagar replied that if the British were really honest about leaving, they should not think much and hand the power to any Indian. Bhatnagar, sarcastically, wrote that the power could be transferred to him as well. In another poem he brings out the racist policies of the British government in India.
In Mariiz har dil Aziiz, Bhatnagar compared India to a patient and its leaders as doctors of different schools. Congress, Hindu Mahasabha, Muslim League, Akali Dal, Azad Hind Fauj and other groups had their leaders with divided ideologies. Each one of them believed that the country’s problems could be solved by them because they understood the problem better than others. Bhatnagar believed that this is why India could not achieve independence. He wrote,
Jo khud hi paaband-e-ain-o-aan ho watan ko azad kya karega
(One who himself is dependent on ideologies and ego, how can he free the nation)
The idea of a united India was also deep rooted in his poetry. Those were the times when India was facing unprecedented communalization of politics. Feeling that soon after the World War, India would be freed he wrote for a new world order,
Isaa ka daur aaye Buddha ka raaj aaye
Phir nuur-e-Mustafa se ye bazm jagmagaye
(Times of Christ will come, Buddha’s empire will return
The world will illuminate with the teachings of Prophet Muhammad)
While leaving Punjab University, Lahore, after teaching for 16 years, in 1940 Bhatnagar wrote a moving poem, where he pointed out the increased fanaticism in the name of religion and language in Lahore at the time. He wrote,
Tera aalim kaar-zaar-e-kufr-o-imaan ho gaya
Vaaye qismat ilm bhi Hindu Musalmaan ho gaya
(Your (University’s) scholars have become bogies of religious hatred
Our fate that knowledge has become Hindu and Muslim)
The problems women face in our society had also been pointed out by him. In one such women centric poem, he writes,
Aurat hai kaun jispe musibat padi nahin
(Where is that woman who hasn’t faced troubles)
The University Anthem of Banaras Hindu University (BHU),Kulgeet, was also written by Bhatnagar when he taught there, 1921 - 1924.
Lajwanti shows romantic, creative, nationalistic and social side of a great scientist. When science students are becoming productivity oriented and their engagement with literature, arts and humanities are discouraged people should read more about the great scientists the nation has produced. Book is a must read for anyone who has an interest in Urdu literature.
(This write up has been possible because of the generous sharing of the above facts by Prof. Amitabh Joshi, from JNCASR, with me. Joshi is a recipient of Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize, 2009 and writes Persian and Urdu poetry as well.)
(Saquib Salim is a historian and a writer)