Divan Singh, Maftoon
Journalist and Acclaimed Urdu Writer (1890-1974)
Divan Singh Maftoon was in his day the most talked-about editor in Urdu journalism. Born in the Punjab he migrated to Delhi in the early twenties. His sole asset was a smattering of Urdu. Gradually, he grew in his command of the language and became known for his mastery of Urdu prose acclaimed for its lucidity and exactness.
Through his felicity in Urdu prose, he naturalized himself in the milieu of Ghalib’s Delhi. He achieved to a considerable degree its style and refinement. In his conversation, in his dress and in his tastes, he became a sovereign Delhi-ate: He had a natural genius in personal relationships. Among his lifelong friends and admirers was josh Malihabadi. The poet’s description of Divan Singh in his autobiography Ya-doh ki Barat (Procession of Memories) is evidence of his esteem for him:
"In eye contented, short of stature, of high courage, generous in hospitality, lion-hearted, friend of friends, the death of the enemy, prince-baiter, helper of the weak, worst of foes, best of friends."
Divan Singh was born of a Sikh family of Hafizabad in the Gujranwala district of West Punjab on 4 August 1890. His father, a physician in government service, died when he was still an infant. This imposed severe hardship on the family. Young Divan Singh had to interrupt his studies when he was a student of the middle school and seek employment with a cloth-merchant. Even at that age, he was an avid reader of Urdu newspapers. He also contributed an occasional piece to the only Urdu daily of that time in northern India, the Aam.
A pamphlet (Khun-i-Shahadat ka Taza Qatra Qaum ki Nazar) he wrote about the excesses of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala won him the favour and patronage of the Nabha ruler, Maharaja Ripudaman Singh. With his support he launched from Delhi a weekly called the Rayyat, with Hassan Nizami as his collaborator. But the paper ran only for six months, and had to fold up owing to heavy losses. Divan Singh took employment in the Nabha court, but was dismissed from service with the deposition by the British of the Maharaja on 9 July 1923.
Divan Singh returned to Delhi to start another Urdu paper – the Riyasat. The birth of the Riyasat was a notable event in Urdu journalism. It was a real putsch so far as princely India was concerned. Divan Singh threw open the columns of the Riyasat to the grievances and complaints of the subjects of Indian states. He boldly took up the cause of the victims. The Indian princes began to feel vulnerable in the presence of the Riyasat. Several were the cases brought up against it and its editor. The most famous was the suit started by the Nawab of Bhopal which lasted six years.
Apart from its political importance, the Riyasat evolved a distinctive literary style. Divan Singh’s Urdu prose, smooth and direct, was utterly exempt from rhetoric. It was considered a model of chastity and correctness and won his paper instant audience. Many new writers began to copy it. Yet Divan Singh was always modest about it. He used to say that no Punjabi could really master the subtle nuances of the Urdu idiom and, least of all, as he put it funnily, a Sikh.
The Riyasat, as edited by Divan Singh, was an experience for the people of that generation. Apart from leaders characterized by deep humanitarian concern and uncompromising nationalist views, he wrote two regular columns for his paper. These were "Nagabil-i-Framosh" (Memories Unforgettable).;and "fazbat-i-Mashriq" (Sentiments from the East). The former was a column of memoribilia rendered in brisk, captivating style, with a sting or moral at the end. The latter sampled a wide range of Indian folklore and poetry in several of the languages. These columns each yielded a fascinating book – Nagabil-i-Framosh and Jazbat-iMashriq, both permanent possessions of
Nagabil-i-Framosh is not a schematic autobiography, yet it is an intimate book of memoirs. Its prodigality of confidence is entrancing. In short, clipped epsiodes it unfolds the life of the author. It does not fail to capture its turmoil and irony, its fun and enjoyment. The outlook is throughout sane and robust. There is no attempt here either at self-pity or self-glorification. Nothing about the story seems manipulated- it reads naturally and unobtrusively. In parts, it has the excitement of a thriller, especially in the unravelling of courtly intrigue. It could thus be read also as documentation of princely India. Vast numbers of the author’s friends and enemies tumble in and out of the narrative and they make a whole age come alive. Among friends whom Divan Singh mentions with real affection are Bhai Kahn Singh of Nabha, Qazi Sir Aziz ud-Din, prime minister, Datia state, Mr K.C. Roy, managing director, Associated Press of India, Sir John Thompson, Political Secretary, Government of India, Sardul Singh Caveeshar, B.G. Horniman, Bhayya Shaikh Ehsan ul-Hag, and josh Malihabadi.Nagabi1-i-Framosh has been translated into Hindi and published under the title of Triveni. An abbreviated paperback was also brought out in Punjabi.
Jazbat-i-Mashriq reflects Divan Singh’s eclectic’ literary taste.. Song and verse of delicate emotion have been gathered here mainly from Hindi, Braj and Avadhi and, occasionally, from Punjabi, Pushtu, Kashmiri, Bengali and, even, Persian and Arabic. These are reproduced in the original, in Persian characters, with Divan Singh’s Urdu rendering which is always lucid and evocative. The book seems to have given him. immense satisfaction. For he wrote in the Preface "My religious belief is no secret from my friends and others who know me. Throughout my life I have neither declared my faith in God nor had ever the courage to deny Him. I do not believe in heaven or hell. But, from the endeavour I have made to serve literature through this book, I am mentally conviced and satisfied that, if God, heaven and hell exist, I have secured myself a niche in heaven by the publication of this book. The prophets and poets whose verses I have here collected must intercede on my behalf."
In his politics Divan Singh was a rebel. On several occasions he carne into clash with authority. He challenged the powerful men of his day and fought out valiantly. But he would never hit below the belt. He throughout remained severely critical of leaders in communal politics of all shades – Hindu, Muslim and Sikh: About Master Tara Singh’s policies he wrote with extra acerbity and persiflage, perhaps because he knew him personally. But he recorded readily and sportingly his appreciation of many of his qualities.