Minnat Ali’s Kafoner Lekha and the biography of an autobiography

After enjoying English and world literature for a while, I developed an interest in South Asian literature. This led me to study the writers of this literary tradition. Last on my list of authors is Minnat Ali (1932-2008), recipient of the 1975 Bangla Academy Literary Award for short stories. I grew up hearing so much about the word maker in our Brahmanbaria district, but never had the opportunity to meet him in person.

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During my trip to Bangladesh in February 2020, I contacted some of his relatives and family members to learn more about the writer and, if possible, collect his writings. At my request, one of his relatives, Mr. Shamsul Alam Shahin (1964-) from our village Araisidha directed me to the eldest son of Minnat Ali, Khushbu Mohammad Al Aman (1963-). I met Mr. Al Aman at “Shuvo Bari” – as the name of Minnat Ali’s estate – in the heart of the city of Brahmanbaria. Mr. Al Aman treated me with the proverbial Bangladeshi hospitality. He shared with me a glimpse into his father’s literary career and was gracious enough to present some of his late father’s books to me as a gift. Among them was Kafoner Lekha (2005).

Back in Kuala Lumpur, I read the books. Even though the title sounded familiar, I was certainly not prepared for the treasure I found in the covers of Kafoner Lekha. In the book, Minnat Ali recounts the autobiography of the famous scholar, writer and freedom fighter Fazl-e-Haq (also spelled Fadl-e Haqq) Khairabadi (1796-1861) – so named because he was born in Khairabad in what is now the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. According to researcher Jamal Malik of the German University of Erfurt, Khairabadi “was one of the first political prisoners of the colonial era, who … resigned from the post of kutchery leader and… drafted the first constitution of independent India based on the “principles of democracy”. “

In his autobiography, Khairabadi provides eyewitness testimony to the Great Rebellion of 1857-59 and its aftermath. A defining event in British colonial history in South Asia, the Great Rebellion (known as the Sepoy Mutiny in colonial parlance) impacted colonial relations in the region for the next ninety years. A number of local patriots and freedom fighters challenged imperialism head-on and, as a result, suffered ruthless cruelty from the British occupying power. Khairabadi recounts the tragic end of Mughal rule in Delhi and criticizes sold-out intellectuals and opportunists who colluded with the British in exchange for advantages and privileges. They allowed the foreign power to establish its domination and wrest its independence from the people of South Asia.

The 60-year-old Khairabadi actively participated in the rebellion. Moreover, as a prominent intellectual and religious, he launched the famous call to the anti-colonialist nationalist bugle. fatwa-e-jihad against the British. He declared that fighting the colonial system of exploitation was a religious duty. He traveled to Ayodhya (Ajodhya) and other areas near and far to deliver inflammatory speeches and motivated the freedom fighters to embark on the battle against British rule to reclaim independence.

The colonial government became alarmed and accused Khairabadi of treason. After the fall of Delhi, he took prolonged punitive measures against the people of the country. Khairabadi and other anti-colonial intellectuals have been arrested, tortured and faced sentences, including death. In 1859, a mock trial was conducted and Khairabadi was exiled for life on the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal.

Although now a tourist destination and often compared to Hawaii for its scenic beauty, during colonial times Andaman was a nightmare and synonymous with a death sentence, especially for anti-colonial freedom fighters. Mainly because of the horrors associated with the Andaman High Security Prison and “the strong currents and shark infested waters that surround it”, the island gained notoriety and was commonly referred to as kala panir desh (land of black water).

At that time, the deputy jailer of Andaman Prison was an English thirsty for knowledge and deeply interested in Eastern traditions, especially Indian astronomy. At his disposal was a precious Persian manuscript on the subject. He knew there were scholars among the inmates under his care and he gave it to someone to unpack and decipher its contents. This prisoner passed on the work to Khairabadi who embraced it as a godsend opportunity to engage in scholarly activities after a long hiatus. He translated and annotated the book for the benefit of the jailer who read it and was surprised by Khairabadi’s depth of knowledge, as evidenced by his notes and comments. The jailer then rushed to the prison barracks to meet the great scientist.

Khairabadi was absent for penal servitude (forced labor). After waiting some time, the jailer saw him return to the prison barracks with a shovel on his shoulder and a bamboo basket under his armpit. This scene deeply moved the jailer who could not control his tears. He removed the shovel and basket from Khairabadi’s hands and lamented that such a man of letters had to do menial and laborious tasks with ordinary prisoners.

From that day on, the jailer spared the work of Khairabadi prison. Meanwhile, having been released from penal servitude, Khairabadi decided to write his autobiography. He managed to collect charcoal for use as a pen and cloth as paper and began to write his memoirs on the Great Rebellion in Arabic.

There was another writer-scholar named Inayat Ahmad from Kakori in Uttar Pradesh who had been imprisoned in Andaman before Khairabadi. Inayat Ahmad is known to have written a biography of the Prophet Muhammad in prison and rendered a favor comparable to a British official by translating an important Persian book on geography titled Taqwim al-Buldan (A sketch of the countries) by the great scholar Abul-Fida (1273-1331). On the recommendation of this British official, Inayat Ahmad was released from Andaman prison. Seeing Inayat Ahmad, Khairabadi gave him his manuscript written on shrouds, saying, “Dear brother, please give these funeral garments to my son Abdul Haq.”

Andaman prison authorities did not examine the contents of the clothing package as they mistook it for funeral clothing. The package arrived safely in mainland British India. Meanwhile, artists, writers and the intellectual community on the subcontinent have submitted petitions to the London Privy Council for Khairabadi’s acquittal. As a result, in 1861 a release order was issued and her second son Shamsul Haq recovered her from the British colonial administrative center of Calcutta.

With the release order in hand, Shamsul Haq began his journey to Andaman to bring back his father. After a long four-day sea voyage when he reached Andaman, he found a long funeral procession. “Who died?” he inquired. “The well-known scholar Fazl-e-Haq Khairabadi,” was the response. Shamsul Haq immediately said inna lillahi wa innna ilaihi rejiwoon and shouted aloud: “Abba!” He joined the procession, buried his father in Andaman soil, and returned home heartbroken.

Over time, scholars from British India decoded the text of Khairabadi’s autobiography written on burial clothing, made copies, and disseminated it to various parts of the region. They did so in secret, fearing colonial surveillance, censorship and punitive measures. After many decades in 1941, politician Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958) persuaded a scholar named Abdus Shahid Khan Sherwani to translate the work into Urdu. When writing his introduction, Abul Kalam Azad titled the unnamed manuscript Sawratul Hindia (Indian rebellion) under which the autobiography is now known. Shortly after the publication of its Urdu translation with the original Arabic text, the colonial government confiscated all of its copies and subjected the publisher to harassment and torture. The book was not freely accessible to the public until after independence in 1947.

[Acknowledgement: I am indebted to Minnat Ali’s grandson, Md Habib Ullah Mormo for providing me with biographical information.]

Md. Mahmudul Hasan, PhD, works in the Department of English Language and Literature at the International Islamic University of Malaysia.

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