Shaheryar Ali

“Not a famous man” Ralph Russell called himself in his autobiography “Findings, Keepings: Life, Communism and everything“. It’s quite an understatement. Anyone who loves Urdu and has any interest in the literary movements in Indian subcontinent knows Ralph Russell. He was one of those rare men who become legends in their life time. Ralph Russell spent all his life serving Urdu language. He popularized it , built structures and mechanisms of teaching Urdu in Europe especially in the UK. He has been called the “Baba e Urdu of Britain”. He developed friendships with great Urdu poets and writers. He wrote books introducing the classic Urdu poets , introducing their thought and craft to the western audience.

Ralph Russel’s life is an inspiration. His struggle, his commitment to humaniyy and the oppressed and his continuous unrelenless opposition to colonialism, imperialism , capitalism and wars. In that he can be compared to likes of Eric Hobsbawm, perhaps the greatest of historians of our times. Just like him Russell remained till his death “an unrepented communist”

Just like every progressive Russell started his quest by adopting “Atheism”, which led to “humanism” than to Socialism and Communism. The opposition to poverty, war, oppression, colonialism,censorship, imperialism bound him to communism for life. He was sharply critical of the degeneration of Communism in Soviet Union and China. He never accepted their adoption of totaliterianism which is anathema to Marxist thought.

His love affair with Urdu is yet another fascinating story. At the age of just 16 years he joined Communist Party .In his 20s he was drafted in Army in 1940 and was sent to India where he learned “Urdu” , the language of the Army , as he calls it to spread the message of communist Party in India. During this time he spread the thought of revolution in sepoys and the village boys he met and was successful in setting up branches in Army sepoys who even gave “subs” to CPI. There he translated the classical Marxist-leninist literature in Urdu.

On his return he studied at SOAS, the traditional “den of communists” in London . He took degrees in Urdu and Sansikrat. Now for the first time he came accross the “Urdu literature”. He later went to Ali Garh Moslem University and there he met and befriended great Urdu writers. He frequently travelled to India and Pakistan and kept contact with any body who was anybody in Urdu Literature. His biography , the first part is fascinating account of his early struggle. Even as a young school lad he fought with the “school establishment”, this fight continued till his long war with “SOAS university establishment”

The second and third parts of his biography are named “Losses and Gains” and “Some day”. These deal with his time in UK and the development of British welfare state by Labour Party after the war. The nationalization, the Mccarthyism and red scare, Revolutions of 68 , cold war , disintigration of USSR and his battles with SOAS establishment. His scholarly work , his efforts to built mechanisms for Urdu teaching in UK and his efforts in introducing teaching of Urdu in British schools.

Russell in colaboration with his close friend Khurshid Mir introduced 3 of classical urdu poets to west. Mir, Sauda and Mir Hassan, in the book “Three Mughal Poets”. He translated Ghalib into English and introduced his poetry to west. He also gave an anthology of urdu literature.

Perhaphs his greatest contribution is his effort in developing courses for teaching urdu and his efforts to introduce Urdu into British school. By doing so he helped preserve not only a language but a whole culture and civilzation in British immigrant population.

He all his life remained critical to the colonial and imperialist mindset of Europeans. In SOAS he always struggled for “academic freedom” and against the racial and oriental biases of University establishment. He published it as “Oriental despotism: A report on School of Oriental and Africamn Studies , University of London”

This great man passed away peacefully on 14/9/2008. He was born in 1918.

“I was born in 1918. I became a communist at the age of 16 and am still content to call myself one despite the traumatic experiences from 1946 onwards of the corruption and eventual collapse of the communist movement and the Soviet Union, because I still hold to the humanist values which made me a communist. I believe that true communism is not only consistent with these values but is a logical development from them”

Ralph Russell