IN THE EVENING, once the heat begins to ebb, Mazhar-e-Alam shuffles up the stairs to his shop, asks his neighbour to raise the metal shutter, and settles down for business under a hanging bulb. Perched above a bicycle repair shop in the old Nakhas neighbourhood of Lucknow, across from the decrepit Prakash Talkies and next to a dealer in used plastic barrels, the Mazhar-e-Alam Library is one of the few quiet, nearly invisible institutions that sustain Urdu in a neglectful world.
Alam is a small man, 74 years old, in a neat white chikan kurta and a Gandhi cap, and wearing a hearing aid. Surrounding him are bundles of old issues of Urdu women’s magazines like Pakeeza Aanchal (The Chaste Hem), obsolete geography textbooks, a few Hindi pulp novels of the kind you get at railway stations, and a cricket poster, perhaps tacked up by his son, Arshi.
These mundane things are not what bring Alam to his shop every day, though. He comes to talk about literature, and he disdains any other pastime. “All kinds of people come here,” he says expansively, but quickly clarifies, “I mean, people connected to literature.” His disciples in poetry come to have their work corrected, while others sit for hours, discussing Ghalib or Islamic medicine. The library is more modest now than it was before the 1977 Muharram riots, when it was looted and burned, but readers still come here to consult the old newspapers, film magazines, agriculture manuals, mystery novels, and the tens of thousands of other wonders that Alam can produce from his warehouse.
Alam daily follows the path laid down in 1938 when his father, Sayyid Ijaz Hussain, named his library after his infant son. Connoisseurs have been visiting since before his birth to read the books he and his forefathers have collected, treasures like a 1903 manuscript of Zehr-e-Ishq (The Poison of Love), a mid-19th-century narrative poem that was circulated secretly after having been banned for being too tragic. Alam grew up attending his father’s monthly mushairas, where the city’s great writers would recite their works. At age 10, he began publishing and reciting poetry, under the pen name Tajassus, which means ‘searching’ or, after his father, Tajassus-e-Ijazi (‘in search of the wondrous’). When Alam talks about himself now, he talks about literature. He describes his poetic descent from the celebrated 19th-century elegist Mir Babbar Ali Anees, excitedly relives a recent literary gathering in Hyderabad, and boasts that Jawaharlal Nehru praised the 11 patriotic poems Alam wrote on the night of the Chinese invasion in 1962.
Tajassus sahib cultivates an air of nostalgia mixed with authority. He will ponderously intone the dogmas of Urdu orthodoxy, pausing for ages between words, and then spontaneously contradict himself, letting his passion glimmer. Like many, he wavers between fiercely protecting Urdu’s grandeur and allowing it to relax and breathe. “If the language of Lucknow’s remaining families weren’t there as an ideal, the Urdu language would fall from its literary standard,” he warns. “In the present era, literary work in Urdu has more local colour, which can never be trusted as literature.” But then he suddenly recites a poem in Awadhi, a language (or, as he insists, dialect) local to the Lucknow region. He eventually concedes: “Language isn’t standing water; it’s a flowing river. Branches come off of it, and water from various places merges into it.”
An old friend pokes his head in, and Alam greets him enthusiastically. Playing on bukhar, the Urdu word for fever, he says, “I heard you had a visit from Bukhari sahib!” The friend chuckles, and they chat for a few minutes. Later, he once again evokes the image of water and the restless searching of his pen name. “My passion isn’t imprisoned by any topic, nor by preaching any point of view. It’s parched and searching for water, and this thirst will remain till the last breath I take.”
David Boyk is working towards his PhD in South Asian history at the University of California at Berkeley. He is based in Patna and Oakland, California.