It‘s 3 pm on a scorching afternoon in the Sambhali Gate area of Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh. The lanes in this densely populated pocket of the city are silent except for a scrap dealer doing the rounds with his cycle cart. Sitting on the floor of the entrance corridor of her house, Arshi Hashmi, 42, is reading Khatoon Mashriq, one of the oldest surviving Urdu magazines for women. Creases appear on Hashmi’s forehead as she hears the whistle of a pressure cooker. She rushes to the kitchen. “It is an addiction. Once you are hooked to it, you are in for your lifetime,” says Hashmi, on her 20-year association with the magazine.
In an age of daily soaps and shrinking reading habits, a subculture of Urdu periodicals exists in Muslim households in parts of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Hyderabad, West Bengal, Maharashtra and Odisha. Hashmi’s generation has grown up reading magazines such as Khatoon Mashriq, Pakeeza Anchal, Bano, Mashriqi Dulhan and Mashriqi Anchal delivered by postmen or bought from neighborhood markets. Not to mention hundreds of reading groups - many formed by women within the extended family - in which these magazines are exchanged.
For the price of a basic McDonald’s burger, readers get tips on fashion, cookery, embroidery and hairstyles, and a smattering of short stories, poems and translations of best-selling crime novels. Chances are that in almost every Muslim household, you will find a mother, grandmother or aunt who is a fan of these journals. They are to Urdu what Grihlakshmi and Grihshobha are to Hindi.
Click below to listen to an excerpt from a debate on purdah (veil) system published in Ismat magazine in 1935
“The characters and their dilemmas set in traditional Muslim families have remained with me for years. They make up for the loss of cultural values we see around us,” says Hashmi. Imagine a print version of the Zee Zindagi TV channel.
Commenting on the role of such publications, Gail Minault, professor emeritus, department of history at the University of Texas, Austin, US, noted in a 1998 essay on the subject, “Like etiquette books, cookbooks, and various types of how-to-manuals, they constitute a vision of everyday reality that is hard to duplicate in other literary forms.”
Once enjoying cult status due to the writings of influential Urdu authors such as Ismat Chugtai, Krishan Chander and Qurratulain Haidar, zanaana risaale (as the magazines are called in Urdu; literally, women’s journals), however, they now face an existential crisis.
Khatoon Mashriq’s office is in a dilapidated building in Matia Mahal, one of the bylanes of Old Delhi. Publisher Fareed Farooqui, 42, is shortlisting stories for the next edition of the 87-year-old magazine. From a peak circulation of 1.3 lakh, it is down to 35,000 - a death knell for a publication that survives on subscriptions. In 2013, Fareed’s wife Shabana joined him after he had to let his team of eight go due to budget constraints. Farooqui says every time he thinks of shutting the magazine down, its legacy makes him change his mind. “Iskaa naam poore Hindustan mein hai (It is popular across the country). Also, I don’t have any other skill,” he says.
He sees multiple sources of recreation and dwindling Urdu literacy among the masses as reasons for this genre of magazines staring at a bleak future. “No new readers are getting added. Once the current crop of readers is replaced by the mobile and Facebook generation, publishers like us are going to be in trouble,” he adds.
Khalid Mustafa Siddiqui, 76, managing editor of Pakeeza Anchal and a veteran in the Urdu publishing industry, set aside Rs 50 lakh in 2015 for his dream project, Khawateen Ki Duniya, a monthly magazine with production quality at par with mainstream magazines. He says he knew it would be short-lived but went ahead with it as a passion project. “We had to cease publication after eight editions... but I have no regrets about launching it,” says Siddiqui, sitting in his study in a plush apartment in South Delhi’s Friends Colony East.
Click below to listen to an excerpt of a short story from the May 2016 edition of Pakeeza Anchal
There are efforts underway to reinvent content, tone and style. Characters in many stories occasionally use English words that are added in the annotation along with the Urdu script.
In 2015, Khatoon Mashriq introduced a segment, Qalmi Dosti (Pen Friends) allowing readers to befriend people they find interesting. Mumbai-based writer Aftab Ajmeri, who helps film actors improve their Urdu pronunciation and has written dialogues for the TV serial Jodha Akbar, writes regularly for the magazine and says he keeps in mind the changing milieu. “While I ensure that my stories have social messages, I cannot continue to use the tone and tenor that was in fashion five decades ago. The era of ‘aap janaab’ is over. Even nawabs don’t talk like that nowadays,” says Ajmeri.
What Ajmeri describes as social messages, however, are perceived by many as stereotyping of women. “The content is designed to create the idea of a perfect housewife. They occasionally talk of women’s rights but there is complete silence about non-implementation of these rights. You will not find any holistic debate on triple talaaq, or articles on contemporary issues such as inter-community marriages or property rights of women,” says Farhat Rizvi, a senior journalist based in Delhi who has been researching the Urdu media.
Rizwi says when she submitted pieces on such themes to some of these journals, publishers told her, “Ye hamaare mijaaz ki cheez nahin hai (This is not in keeping with our character).” In that context, she says, the approach is similar to the “audience will not watch it” argument of commercial filmmakers who avoid offbeat films.
The earliest women’s periodicals in Urdu - notably, Tahzib-un- Niswan, Ismat and Khatoon - founded in the early 20th century in the backdrop of the Nationalist movement -- were more progressive. A piece in Ismat in 1935 made a strong case against the purdah (veil) system. “We did not bother about the preaching of Quran and Hadith before imposing the purdah system and throttling the voice of women. Similarly, given the current social scenario, we should not consider religious scriptures and we should ban purdah with immediate effect. The community should realise that purdah is harming us socially, politically and economically,” the article stated.
Click below to listen to an excerpt from an article on women’s participation in Khilafat & Swadesi movements, carried in Ustani magazine in 1920
An essay titled ‘School ki Ladkiyan’ (School Girls) in Tahzib-un-Niswan in 1927 noted, “Those who oppose women’s education keenly observe the circumstances and conduct of school going girls. If they find anything going against tradition, they blame it on education.”
An edition of Ustani in 1920 documented in detail the participation of Delhi’s women in Khilafat and Swadesi movements.
Purwa Bharadwaj, who edited the Hindi transliteration of these magazines for Nirantar, a centre for gender and education, says these journals once contributed immensely to breaking the stereotypes of Muslim women. “Earlier, the only two images which would come to one’s mind were of a woman from royal family or a burqa-clad woman. These magazines made us understand that Muslim women were serious about crucial issues; had diverse aspirations and exposure to the world, just like women from other communities and sects.”
Women’s journals in the post-Partition era, however, were relatively moderate and inward-looking. They addressed Muslims in India who were experiencing seclusion.
The contemporary phase began in the early 1980s. “This was when publishers of these magazines realised that while the popularity of the Urdu script was in decline, Urdu literary culture was gaining unprecedented popularity,” says Hilal Ahmed, assistant professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Studies.
Far removed from this literary discourse, in Moradabad’s Sambhal Gate, Hashmi is busy expanding her reading list. “The other day, I came across a new risaala. I paid extra to the person at the book shop to get me all the previous editions,” she smiles.