Reed pens, ink bottles, stacks of papers — these are the first things you notice when you step into the computer-less office of The Musalman. Aged a venerable 91, what is possibly the world’s only handwritten newspaper (and the only one without a computer) shows no signs of signing off.
In its office in Chennai, a dark green visiting card bears the newspaper’s name and that of its editor, Sayed Arifullah, and lists the 13 degrees he holds.
Arifullah, in his mid-30s with a salt-and-pepper beard, exudes a casual confidence. He has been at the helm for nearly 10 years now.
The Musalman, established in 1927, was started by Syed Azathulla, Arifullah’s grandfather, because “he felt there was no voice for Muslims and there should be one.” Located in a small lane next to Chennai’s iconic Wallajah Mosque, the office is a tight space with two rooms, one housing the press and the other acting as reception area. “We are renovating, hence the bustle,” he says.
Since its inception, the newspaper has seen three editors: Azathulla, his son Syed Fazlullah and now, Arifullah. When I ask if he had always planned to take over the reins from his father, he shrugs. “It was important that the newspaper be kept running and so I chose to do it. I edit, I write, and I run the paper now.”
Almost all the articles in the four-page broadsheet are selected by Arifullah himself. He says he has reporters in different parts of the country, but the newspaper, much like The Economist, does not carry bylines. Around 10 every morning, two translators come in and set out the news in Urdu. In the next two hours, the paper’s three calligraphers, called katibs, painstakingly write out each news item on to the broadsheet using calligraphy pens in a Harry Potter-esque manner.
The calligraphy is really the soul of the paper. But with the advent of technology, the katibs, earlier employed in newspapers and Urdu publishing houses, have become redundant. The Industrial Training Institute in Srinagar, one of the last government institutes where Urdu calligraphy was taught, wound up the course last May because of no takers.
Finding skilled scribes is a challenge, Arifullah acknowledges, but he is quick to add that he isn’t looking yet. His scribes have been with the paper for the past 30 years. “At that time, my father conducted calligraphy tests, analysed their handwriting, and hired them. They have remained with us all these years — we’re like a family,” he says.
Once the laborious scripting is done, the advertisements are added and the paper is set to the negative. It goes to print around 1 p.m. and reaches most of its 21,000 readers by the evening. And it costs 75 paise. “It’s the cheapest paper in the country!” Arifulla quips dryly, his income coming from the press and not the paper.
“We cover all sorts of news: national, international, local… all the important happenings,” says the editor. From the Egypt elections to ‘carcinogenic’ coffee, The Musalman does cover it all. But like most Urdu newspapers, the focus is on opinions rather than news itself. “The Urdu newspapers in our country are often revenue-strapped and might not be able to carry breaking news or pay for agency copy, so the focus is on providing opinions and context,” says veteran journalist and Urdu aficionado Shams Ur Rehman Alavi.
Arifullah seconds this. “We don’t carry breaking news. It’s very difficult to rewrite entire pages, so we stopped.” He also says that there is a strong preference for topics that are close to the community. “Our focus is obviously on Islam and Islamic teachings, but that is not all of it. We have many Urdu readers who are non-Muslims as well,” he says.
The paper has readers all over the country. “Delhi, Kolkata… families who have been subscribing to the newspaper for generations. We send them the paper by courier. It’s a very personal process,” says Arifullah.
The newspaper carries a few advertisements, in English and Urdu, for jewellery, furniture, tour operators, even a few government tenders. Otherwise, it largely sticks to a format. The front page is for top stories with a thrust on international news. Page two carries the editorial, and the other two pages are for local news and advertisements. The Monday edition is different — there are more articles on the Quran and a bit of Islamic history.
In the pre-Independence era, many prominent newspapers in north India were in Urdu and were read by everybody, regardless of religion. But after Partition, Urdu fell out of favour and many newspapers shut down. The last decade has seen a slow reversal, with the revival of papers like Sahara (renamed Roznama Sahara) and Inquilab.
Other papers might be going online, but The Musalman has no such plans. As Arifullah says, the paper’s uniqueness is in being handwritten, and anything else would kill the legacy.
For 91 years, the paper has been published every day, without fail. Even during Partition, The Musalman was on duty. So what happens after Arifullah? Will his children carry forward the legacy? “Sure,” he says, sounding amused. “They aren’t even five yet, but sure.”