‘MAZMOON’, or essay, is an Arabic word. The Arabic root from which the word ‘mazmoon’ is derived means ‘to contain, comprise or include’. Therefore, the contents or subject matter of a letter or a piece of writing is also called ‘mazmoon’. A subject (a branch of knowledge or discipline) and an essay (an article or composition), too, is ‘mazmoon’ in Urdu.
So the name ‘mazmoon’ points to the fact that it is a piece of writing that contains information or views on any particular topic or issue. But Dr Safia Mushtaq Hashmi, the author of Urdu mazmoon nigari ka irtiqa, a just-published PhD dissertation, could not do justice with the definition of ‘mazmoon’ or essay. While discussing what an essay is, she has just reproduced a few subjective and impressionistic quotations from English works, but those quotations do not define the term essay and emphasise the essayist’s personality and its charm instead. Dr Safia Hashmi says that “there is no predetermined definition of Urdu essay writing” and swiftly moves on to the types of essays, history of Urdu essays, the earliest essayists and the samples of early Urdu essays.
Though the publication of the book must be appreciated as it researches a topic on which one rarely finds new works (a few books written earlier are out of date and out of print), the writer would have made her work more valuable by adding an introductory chapter on the etymology of the word ‘mazmoon’ and the origin of the word ‘essay’. She should have mentioned, objectively, that the genre in English owes both its name and development to the French writer Montaigne. He coined the term ‘essai’ (essay) when his first work appeared in 1580, though the genre was extant in the classical era. The word ‘essay’ is from the French ‘essai’, ‘to attempt or try out’, as an essay is an attempt to capture the essence of an issue or topic. Hence, Roger Fowler says that an essay is “literally, the try-out, in discursive prose, of an idea, judgement or experience”.
What the author does not realise is that definitions of essay in Urdu and English abound. Frances Bacon, for example, had described, in 1597, his essays as “grains of salt which will rather give an appetite than offend the society”. According to Dr Rafiuddin Hashmi, expressing one’s views on any specific topic in writing is known as ‘mazmoon’. Dr Abul Lais Siddiqi says that ‘mazmoon’, or essay, is a genre of prose that expresses views on a specific topic. J. A. Cuddon succinctly wrote under the heading ‘essay’: “a composition in prose (Pope’s ‘Moral Essays’ in verse are an exception), which may be of only a few hundred words (like Bacon’s ‘Essays’) or of a book length (like Locke’s ‘Essay concerning human understanding’), and which discusses, formally or informally, a topic or a variety of topics”.
According to M.H. Abrams, an essay is “any brief composition in prose that undertakes to discuss a matter, express a point of view or persuade us to accept a thesis on any subject whatever”.
The book of Dr Safia , published by Lahore’s Al-Vaqar Publications, is divided into seven chapters. The second chapter says that Urdu essay writing began in 1845 when Aloys Sprenger, an orientalist who was the principal of Delhi College, launched an Urdu weekly Qiraan-us-saadain from his college. At Delhi College the medium of instruction was Urdu and the students were encouraged to write essays and awarded medals for writing good essays in Urdu and/or English. Master Ram Chandr, Moulvi Zakaullah and Pyare Lal Ashob were the pioneers of Urdu essays and they penned the earliest Urdu essays, even before Sir Syed Ahmed Khan who is often dubbed as the father of modern Urdu prose.
The third chapter describes modern Urdu prose and especially Urdu essays written between 1857 and 1899. In addition to Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, some other writers, too, contributed a lot towards the development the genre and making it popular in Urdu, such as, Altaf Hussain Hali, Mohsin-ul-Mulk, Mir Nasir Ali, Muhammad Hussain Azad, Shibli Nu’mani and many more.
The fourth chapter takes into account the services of some Urdu periodicals in promoting Urdu essays in the early 20th century and these periodicals include Makhzan, Zamana, Urdu-i-mu’alla, An-Nazir, Mu’aarif, Urdu, Humayun, Nigar, Nairang-i-khayal, Oriental College Magazine, Adabi dunya, Saqi, Adab-i-lateef, and some others. In the fifth chapter the author has surveyed the development and progress of Urdu essay between 1936 and 1947.
Another area that would have made the book all the more worthwhile would have been the mentioning of the controversy over the vagueness of the term ‘inshaiyya’ in Urdu, which has been a bone of contention among some literary circles in recent history. Yet another issue lacking explanation is the term ‘maqala’ (article or research paper) and how it overlaps the definition of essay. It is ‘inshaiyya’ where the issue of personal charm and informal style of a writer comes into account. An ‘inshaiyya’ is in fact a kind of essay, usually referred to as ‘personal essay’ or ‘light essay’.
Aside from that, the book is a much-needed research work that thrashes the issue and discusses the history and development of Urdu essay meticulously with special reference to some essayists.
Published in Dawn, March 21st, 2016
Urdu Wikipedia (Urdu: اردو ویکیپیڈیا), started in January 2004, is the Urdu language edition of Wikipedia, a free, open-content encyclopedia. As of 23 October 2017, it had 124,742 articles.
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