DĪVĀN SIṄGH MAFTOON (1890-1974) was in his day the most talked-about editor in Urdu journalism. Born in the Punjab he migrated to Delhi in the early twenties. His sole asset was a smattering of Urdu. Gradually, he grew in his command of the language and became known for his mastery of Urdu prose acclaimed for its lucidity and exactness. Through his felicity in Urdu prose, he naturalized himself in the milieu of Ghālib's Delhi. He achieved to a considerable degree its style and refinement. In his conversation, in his dress and in his tastes, he became a sovereign Delhi-ite. He had a natural genius in personal relationships. Among his lifelong friends and admirers was Josh Malīhābādī. The poet's description of Dīvān Siṅgh in his autobiography Yādoṅ kī Bārāt (Procession of Memories) is evidence of his esteem for him : "In eye contented, short of stature, of high courage, generous in hospitality, lion-hearted, friend of friends, the death of the enemy, prince-baiter, helper of the weak, worst of foes, best of friends. "
Dīvān Siṅgh was born of a Sikh family of Hāfizābād in the Gujrāṅwālā district of West Punjab on 4 August 1890. His father, a physician in government service, died when he was still an infant. This imposed severe hardship on the family. Young Dīvān Siṅgh had to interrupt his studies when he was a student of the middle school and seek employment with a cloth-merchant. Even at that age, he was an avid reader of Urdu newspapers. He also contributed an occasional piece to the only Urdu daily of that time in northern India, the Aam.
A pamphlet (Khūn-i-Shahādat kā Tāzā Qatrā Qaum kī Nazar) he wrote about the excesses of Mahārājā Bhūpinder Siṅgh of Paṭiālā won him the favour and patronage of the Nābhā ruler, Mahārājā Ripudaman Siṅgh. With his support he launched from Delhi a weekly called the Rayyat, with Hassan Nizāmī as his collaborator. But the paper ran only for six months, and had to fold up owing to heavy losses. Dīvān Siṅgh took employment in the Nābhā court, but was dismissed from service with the deposition by the British of the Mahārājā on 9 July 1923.
Dīvān Siṅgh returned to Delhi to start another Urdu paper - the Riyāsat. The birth of the Riyāsat was a notable event in Urdu journalism. It was a real putsch so far as princely India was concerned. Dīvān Siṅgh threw open the columns of the Riyāsat to the grievances and complaints of the subjects of Indian states. He boldly took up the cause of the victims. The Indian princes began to feel vulnerable in the presence of the Riyāsat. Several were the cases brought up against it and its editor. The most famous was the suit started by the Nawāb of Bhopāl which lasted six years.
Apart from its political importance, the Riyāsat evolved a distinctive literary style. Dīvān Siṅgh's Urdu prose, smooth and direct, was utterly exempt from rhetoric. It was considered a model of chastity and correctness and won his paper instant audience. Many new writers began to copy it. Yet Dīvān Siṅgh was always modest about it. He used to say that no Punjabi could really master the subtle nuances of the Urdu idiom and, least of all, as he put it funnily, a Sikh.
The Riyāsat, as edited by Dīvān Siṅgh, was an experience for the people of that generation. Apart from leaders characterized by deep humanitarian concern and uncompromising nationalist views, he wrote two regular columns for his paper. These were "Nāqābil-i-Frāmosh" (Memories Unforgettable) and “Jazbāt-i-Mashriq" (Sentiments from the East). The former was a column of memoribilia rendered in brisk, captivating style, with a sting or moral at the end. The latter sampled a wide range of Indian folklore and poetry in several of the languages. These columns each yielded a fascinating book - Nāqābil-i-Frāmosh and Jazbāt-i-Mashriq, both permanent possessions of Urdu literature.
Nāqābil-i-Frāmosh is not a schematic autobiography, yet it is an intimate book of memoirs. Its prodigality of confidence is entrancing. In short, clipped epsiodes it unfolds the life of the author. It does not fail to capture its turmoil and irony, its fun and enjoyment. The outlook is throughout sane and robust. There is no attempt here either at self-pity or self-glorification. Nothing about the story seems manipulated - it reads naturally and unobtrusively. In parts, it has the excitement of a thriller, especially in the unravelling of courtly intrigue. It could thus be read also as documentation of princely India. Vast numbers of the author's friends and enemies tumble in and out of the narrative and they make a whole age come alive. Among friends whom Dīvān Siṅgh mentions with real affection are Bhāī Kāhn Siṅgh of Nābhā, Qāzī Sir Azīz ud-Dīn, prime minister, Datīā state, Mr. K. C. Roy, managing director, Associated Press of India, Sir John Thompson, Political Secretary, Government of India, Sardūl Siṅgh Caveeshar, B. G. Horniman, Bhayyā Shaikh Ehsān ul-Haq, and Josh Malīhābādī. Nāqābil-i-Frāmosh has been translated into Hindi and published under the title of Triveṇī. An abbreviated paperback was also brought out in Punjabi.
Jazbāt-i-Mashriq reflects Dīvān Siṅgh's eclectic literary taste. Song and verse of delicate emotion have been gathered here mainly from Hindi, Braj and Avadhī and, occasionally, from Punjabi, Pushtu, Kashmīrī, Bengalī and, even, Persian and Arabic. These are reproduced in the original, in Persian characters, with Dīvān Siṅgh's Urdu rendering which is always lucid and evocative. The book seems to have given him immense satisfaction. For he wrote in the Preface "My religious belief is no secret from my friends and others who know me. Throughout my life I have neither declared my faith in God nor had ever the courage to deny Him. I do not believe in heaven or hell. But, from the endeavour I have made to serve literature through this book, I am mentally conviced and satisfied that, if God, heaven and hell exist, I have secured myself a niche in heaven by the publication of this book. The prophets and poets whose verses I have here collected must intercede on my behalf. "
In his politics Dīvān Siṅgh was a rebel. On several occasions he came into clash with authority. He challenged the powerful men of his day and fought out valiantly. But he would never hit below the belt. He throughout remained severely critical of leaders in communal politics of all shades - Hindu, Muslim and Sikh. About Master Tārā Siṅgh's policies he wrote with extra acerbity and persiflage, perhaps because he knew him personally. But he recorded readily and sportingly his appreciation of many of his qualities.