NAW Interview with Jamil Urfi

Born in 1960, Jamil Urfi completed his schooling from Delhi and later studied at the Aligarh Muslim University, University of Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and in England. As a campus correspondent for Youth Times – a youth magazine published by the Times of India group, he reported on social and political events from his university. Urfi has written several books and has also edited an anthology of writings on Indian birds. He has an abiding interest in history, architecture, period publications and popular cinema of the 1960s and 70s – themes which figure prominently in this book. He lives and works in Delhi. Read the review of his book, Biswin Sadi Memoirs. 

NAW- Tell us about your book, ‘Biswin Sadi Memoirs’. How did you get the idea for it?

It began when I started thinking of my growing up years, which happens to be 60’s & 70’s,  as a story, which needed to be told. Also, I could sense a change; one is ofcourse a change which happens with age as one grows older, but this was a different type of change— one brought in by technology (especially  communication), changes in value systems  etc., eventhough nothing earth shattering like a major revolution, take over by extra-terrestrials, world war or a partition like event  had happened in the meantime.

How must it have been then when the 19th century gave way to the 20th , if indeed a block of 100 years could be a way to segmentalize time ? I remembered that all through the 60’s and 70’s there was a sense of ‘newness of the times’— modernity, progress etc  being talked about. There was no better reminder of it than the Urdu magazine called ‘Biswin Sadi’ which my neighbour Mr. Rakha Mal Chaddha aka Khustar Girami used to bring out. So I did not have to hunt very far for the title of my book — it had be something connected to the 20th century or  ‘Biswin Sadi’.

NAW- What made you decide to write a memoir as your first book? People generally write it when they are in the last leg of their life’s journey and perhaps one of the reasons behind it is that invariably people’s perceptions and opinions tend to change once they read a memoir or an autobiography because it’s all true and not fiction, so did this thought ever cross your mind when you decided to write Biswin Sadi?

Yes, its true that people generally write memoir’s  when they are either in the last leg of their life’s journey or if they are famous people, having been involved with important events in their lifetime. This genre of memoir – the type which I have attempted–recording events, personalities, cultural icons, entertainment etc as an observer, I noted with satisfaction had been explored by others. The easiest to recall is Stephen Alters memoir ‘All the way to heaven’, which covers a similar time period. Nirad Chaudhary’s ‘Autobiography of an unknown Indian’, is another one though there is a lot of serious analysis in it.

The 60’s & 70’s are much talked about and remembered with nostalgia now so I felt that many people would be able to connect with the things mentioned in my book. The idea was also to record rememberances of those times before they just disappeared from the mind or I got busy with something else. For me writing this book was also an exploration of myself. Where I came from, who was I, why did I have the beliefs which I have, how did my political consciousness evolve etc.

NAW- What made you choose the Bollywood style theme for the book?

I felt using the film metaphor would help in grabbing the reader’s attention and also getting my point through.The influence of Hindi feature films all through our growing up years, when the information and entertainment boom had not happened, was inescapable. I think most of us then were deeply influenced by those films which usually had to be seen in large cinema halls (therefore going to cinema was a social thing).

NAW- Did you maintain a journal or some diary that came in handy while writing the book? How did you research for the book?

While writing I tried to recall all the broad events and happenings, details of which I was able to flesh out by the help of resources available from the internet and by spending long hours in libraries and reading lots of books. I looked at all the junk of yester years- diaries, notes, press clippings, photographs, other memorablia,  which I had in my personal collection. I revisited several old Hindi films on Youtube and embarked upon a plan to take photos of old buildings, which I later studied very carefully.

Usually,  I wrote short passages of events or things whenever I remembered them or when I had free time. Later I arranged them in some order— theme wise or in a chronological manner and started working on the language part. All this took a couple of years and so the book had been a long time in the making. At a final stage I started looking for what specific things I could find a reference or some sort of proof, and that is where the research, reading and googling really helped.

NAW- Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not writing?

I love  reading and travelling. Over the past few years I have taken to motorcycles as the preferred mode of transport and travelled quite a bit across Rajasthan, Punjab and Uttaranchal.

NAW- Please name your favourite writers. Are there any who you’d like to name as an inspiration?

I have enjoyed reading works of  Amitav Ghosh, Arundhati Roy, and a host of others. I am mostly a non-fiction type and so I tend to read more on politics, culture, history, sociology, natural history, history of science etc.

NAW-What are you currently reading?

I just finished reading ‘Punjab: A History from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten’ by  Rajmohan Gandhi. I have now started reading Rauf Ali’s memoirs, ‘Running away from elephants—Adventures of a wildlife biologist’.


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