Awami Idara Urdu library Mumbai Has a Glorious Past

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Past the monsoon puddles and rows of ramshackle houses, sits an old two-storied decrepit building. Inside, old men bend over a table where albums of photographs, many barely surviving the ravages of time, are scattered. They pick up a black-and-white group photo and try to identify themselves. Young, dreamy-eyed boys fed on the heavy gruel of Marxism, they look eager for newness and change. A change which many say remained a chimera.

The old men are members of Awami Idara, a library-cum-cultural centre of the mill workers of Muslim quarter of Mominpura, Madanpura, Kalapani and Sankli street in Central Mumbai. Like the men, the Idara too is a shadow of its former self.

Gone are stirring speeches, the passionate poetry which instigated workers of the world to unite and break the chains of capitalism. Since capitalism rules the roost everywhere, the old comrades at Awami Idara too have reconciled to it. Recently the Idara called some leading Urdu writers of Mumbai, appealing to them to save one of few relics of the city’s `progressive’ past.

“It is difficult to engage the youth for a communist cause,” rues Javed Kamil Idara’s secretary. Perhaps Mumbai’s only Urdu library founded (1952) and run entirely by mill workers, Idara was, for decades, a Mecca for mill workers. After toiling at their looms and spinning machines, the workers repaired to the Idara to read, listen to writers and watch plays of Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA).

Abdul Qadir, 67, was member of the IPTA’s troupe and still remembers a few stirring songs. “Much before Prem Dhawan and Kaifi Azmi became popular lyricists, they would pen songs for us. We looked upon them as our ideals,” recalls Qadir who, after a stint in the Air Force, has dedicated himself to the Idara. It was Kaifi who had named the then small, fledgling library Awami Idara (public institution). Since it was a hub of communist writers and intellectuals, the Idara naturally came close to the House of Soviet Culture, the former USSR’s propaganda wing in Mumbai. The culture house helped the Idara in several ways, including lending it a projector and a screen to show Russian films to the toiling, mostly hungry masses.

Members recall the huge crowd at film screenings at the Idara. After the USSR suffered the seismic pulls of perestroika and glasnost in the 1990s and its culture house in Mumbai closed down, the Idara received a letter reminding it to return the projector and the screen to its owner.

“The projector was lent to us when USSR was alive. We will return it after communism is back in Russia,” tersely replied Idara’s the then secretary Comrade Maqsood. Poet Abdul Ahad Saaz remembers attending mushairas and soirees as a child. “Then mushairas at Awami Idara attracted big names like Kaifi, Majrooh, Sardar Jafri and Sahir Ludhianvi. Now these are things of the past,” says Saaz.

Just as heated discussions and grooming of idealists through progressive ideas and literature are. Writer-journalist Sajid Rashid was a regular visitor to the library in the 1970s. “If I had not visited Idara so religiously, perhaps I would never have become a writer,” admits Rashid, a classmate of underworld don Dawood Ibrahim at Ahmed Sailor High School in Nagpada area. Rashid says while progressive literature saved him, it didn’t attract Dawood who gradually drifted to the world of crime.

Interestingly, Idara has sailed against the tides of a different kind. It grew amidst hordes hamlets populated by the Ahle Hadees who practise a puritanical Islam, dreaming to restore the faith to its pristine glory. The essentially Godless Idara never clashed with the Ahle Hadees who have a massive mosque in the vicinity, built with a generous endowment of a Saudi King. Rashid says the Idara faded also because it came under the influence of the orthodox. But the Idara’s members swear by communism.

“We never discuss religion here. Both the communists and the orthodox have worked together,” claims Idara’s bearded president Rashid Ahmed, even as loud sermon of a cleric from the nearby mosque drifts in the room.

More than religiosity, the eight-year-long strike led by trade unionist Datta Samant in the 1980s, spelt doom for the Idara.

Now being run with the donations from some of the boys who benefited from the Idara and are now well-settled in the Gulf, the Idara fights its ideological irrelevance through charity. It distributing books and notebooks among poor children and organises health camps. It holds talks and mushairas while Labour Day (May 1) is still a big day in its calendar. That day the red flag gets hoisted at the decrepit building even as a motley group of old and tired communists sing songs of revolution: “Jaaga naya insaan zamana badlega/Utha hai jo toofan zamana badlega (The new man has awaken to change the world/the rising storm will change the world.)

Attributing it, progressive writer Sajjad Zaheer had once likened the Idara with Taj Mahal of the Mazdoors (workers). In the Idara’s visitors’ book, celebrated writer-film director Khwaja Ahmed Abbas remarked on May 1, 1975: “The Idara will go higher than the soaring Qutub Minar.” Perhaps the Idara survives on such lofty dreams.

By Adab Nawaz,

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