How The Musalman, India's hand-written newspaper, is defying Covid-19 challenge

New Delhi - For 94 years, India's oldest Urdu language daily and possibly the only hand-written newspaper in the world, has kept history alive.

By Joydeep Sen Gupta

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Published: Wed 16 Jun 2021, 6:36 PM

Last updated: Wed 16 Jun 2021, 8:30 PM

The four-page Urdu daily 'The Musalman', which was founded by Syed Azmathullah in 1927, is winning over the Covid-19 challenge with aplomb.

Syed Arifullah, 45, the grandson of Azmathullah and the editor of possibly the world’s only hand-written newspaper, is leading a small team of like-minded people, who want to keep the 94-year-old tradition alive, despite the raging viral outbreak.

Located in the lively coastal metropolis of Chennai in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu (TN), the newspaper has a paltry staff of three reporters and calligraphers, respectively, who have been toiling hard under the able guidance of Arifullah to cater to their dedicated readers spread across the nation.

Rising to the Covid-19 challenge

Arifullah and his staff have been working overtime, as TN is reeling under the second and lethal wave of the Covid-19.

They have been putting the newspaper to bed like pre-pandemic times. Their distribution network ensures that the newspaper reaches their dedicated readers across the country, despite the Covid-19-induced lockdown restrictions.

“Our readership hasn’t been affected because of the lockdown. We’ve ensured that the newspaper reaches them. My small but dedicated team has been working hard for the dissemination of news,” Arifullah told Khaleej Times over the phone from Chennai.

A third-generation editor

From a family of three brothers and four sisters, Arifullah took on the role of editor in 2008, after his father Syed Fazlullah passed away. While his siblings don't work at the newspaper, he said "everybody is together" when it comes to 'The Musalman'.

Arifullah is the younger brother of Syed Nasarulla.

He cited his "grandfather's dream to run the newspaper" and that's why he has taken it up as his vocation. After completing his Master's in Business Administration (MBA) in marketing, he has been channelising his energy to keep the journalistic enterprises alive.

'The Musalman' caters to its dedicated readers and prints around 21,000 copies daily. The paper, which is delivered to nationwide subscribers, is also available on newsstands, and for an annual subscription of only ₹400 (Dh20).

The subscribers are spread across India, with copies being delivered to Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata.

The editor pointed out that the readers of 'The Musalman' are not limited to Muslims; "Many Hindus also read the newspaper, because they know the Urdu language."

Most of its advertisements come from institutions and the government, although a few also come directly from private organisations. "They are enough to sustain the newspaper," he said, adding: "While some of the advertisements are sent digitally, others are manual."

The newspaper is largely in black and white, but if an advertisement calls for a colour copy, such a facility is available.

Familial ties

'The Musalman' has been around for 30-35 years. "We treat them like family. If someone makes a mistake everyone stands up to help. No one points a finger at anyone," said Arifullah, a father of two sons and two daughters.

There are three male reporters who cover all aspects of news -- be it political, cultural and even sports. Of the three calligraphers, two are women.

It takes two hours for a calligrapher to complete one page written with a quill and ink. If anything goes wrong, most likely the page would have to be worked on all over again. The form then is turned into a negative, after which it goes to printing. "My calligraphers are experienced. They have been doing this for the last 25 to 30 years. Nothing goes wrong," Arifullah said.

A look at the printed sheets may seem like a simple job, but it is a laborious process.

The front page carries local and national news; page two makes space for international news and editorials. On the third page are quotes from the Holy Quran. The last page, usually, has everything else, including other local news and advertisements.

The main focus of the newspaper is to publish teachings from the Holy Quran and sayings of Prophet Muhammad, also called 'hadith'. Arifullah receives many calls from readers who ask for 'hadiths' to be published and he also receives letters of appreciation often for publishing them.

He receives about 20 calls a day from readers, some with queries and others to offer gratitude. While most of his readers contact him via email, he says he also gets a few letters by post.

"Over the years a lot (in the publishing industry) has changed" says Arifullah, "but if 'The Musalman changes', I’ll not be unique anymore, I will lose respect and credibility."

Many have often asked the only Urdu language newspaper in TN to switch to computers, but "the readers are happy", and that's what matters.

He says that as soon as computers made way for desktop publishing (DTP) many news houses advanced to it. "Urdu is a sweet and mellifluous language. Everybody understands it," he says while explaining what a beautiful language it is and why it is best hand-written.

On the social media spectrum, the newspaper does have a Facebook page, but hasn't been active of late.

Like his father, Arifullah, too, says, "he will work at 'The Musalman' till the very end." He doesn't know what the future holds or who will be next in line to take the family business forward. He has just settled down in life and looks forward to keeping his "grandfather's dream alive".


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