Stacks of paper, ink bottles, reed pens and wooden slopes for writing – these are the first of the many things anyone would notice when they step inside a computer-less office of The Musalman.
Established in Chennai, India in 1927, the newspaper is 91-years-old, and is possibly the world’s only handwritten newspaper, according to the Hindu.
It is the only newspaper, the office of which is without a computer. The Musalman is operated from Chennai, where editor Sayed Arifullah operates the newspaper.
Arifullah proudly displays his 13 degrees in his office and has been working at the newspaper for the past 10 years. In his mid-30s the young editor exudes a casual confidence.
Third generation: Editor Syed Arifullah took over the newspaper from his late father, who in turn inherited it from Mr Arifullah’s grandfather. Photo: YouTube
Syed Azathullah, Arifullah’s grandfather, started the handwritten newspaper because “he felt there was no voice for Muslims and there should be one”.
Located in a small lane closer to one of Chennai’s iconic Wallajah Mosque, the small office has two rooms where one houses the press and the other acts as reception area.
Arifullah said, “We are renovating, hence the bustle.”
The newspaper has seen three editors since its inception, founder Azathullah, his son Syed Fazlullah and now, Arifullah.
Arifullah explained that the reason why he took over the reins from his father. “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.”
Arifullah himself carefully selects all the articles that are written on the four-page broadsheet.
According to him, the reporting is much like, The Economist. Reporters are based in different parts of the country and the newspaper does not carry any bylines.
Two translators come in and set out the news in Urdu, which is later painstakingly written by three calligraphers called khatibs. These khatibs write out each news item on the broadsheet using calligraphy pens.
A painstaking process, Khatibs write every single page of the newspaper. Photo: The Hindu
While calligraphy is the soul of the paper, however with the advent of technology, the khatibs are hard to find. The Industrial Training Institute in Srinagar which was one of the last government institutes where Urdu calligraphy was taught has ended due to no takes.
Arifullah explains that it is a challenge to find skilled scribes, but he is not looking for anyone at the moment – he quickly adds.
Khatibs working at The Musalman have been working 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,” Arifullah says.
Once the scripting is done, the advertisements are added into the paper.
The newspaper goes for printing around 1 pm and the paper reaches to its 21,000 readers by the evening.
Arifullah adds that despite the paper costing only 75 paise, it is the cheapest paper in the country, but his income comes 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 admirer, 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 added.
The Musalman has all readers all over India. “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 calligraphy is the soul of The Musalman. Photo: The Hindu
The newspaper carries a few advertisements, in English and Urdu, for various private and state ads.
The format of the paper is such that the right side of the front page carries a Quranic verse. The front page is for top stories with a thrust of international news. Page two consists of the editorial and other two pages include local news and advertisements.
The Monday edition is different – there are more articles on the Quran and Islamic history.
After partition Urdu language fell out of favour and many newspapers shut down. However, the last decade has seen a slow reversal in India where revival of papers like Sahara (renamed as Roznama Sahara) and Inquilab have established Urdu newspapers.
Despite digitalisation of most of the newspapers, 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 Musalmanwas 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.”