Sajjad Zahir: The Voice of the Common Man
Hiren Kumar Bose
December 27, 2005
Banneybhai ki ajeeb dastan -- A hundred years after his birth
“Her childhood was spent free of any worries. At home her status was lesser than a maid. She was born in this class. An act decided by the God. He showers respects or insults according to his liking,” wrote Sajjad Zahir introducing the character of "Dulari", a laundi as they are called in Urdu. Dulari featured in a collection of short stories published in 1933, called “Angaray”. Like Premchand`s “Soje Watan” the British Government immediately banned the book.
For times to come Sajjad Zahir will be remembered, whether one likes it not, for bringing in the common man, the member of the working class as protagonists in fiction writing. Banney Bhai, his contemporaries endearingly addressed him, which included writers, poets, freedom fighters, communists et al. For others he was Sajjad Zahir: the littérateurs of Africa, Asia and Europe, and the readers of Urdu fiction, newspaper columns in the Indian subcontinent.
A century since his birth and despite his vast contribution towards the progressive writers movement Sajjad Zahir remains almost forgotten. Agreed he never considered himself more than a soldier but we have to accept history has been unkind to this colossus who happened to be a writer while elevating other lesser mortals. Though unacknowledged he still continues to live in the writings of those who contributed to the glorious moments of Urdu and Hindi literature.
Four young writers who also were active communist workers, namely Sajjad Zahir, Ahmed Ali, Rashid Khan and Mahmudeezzafar, all educated in Oxford, brought out together a collection of electrifying short stories entitled "Angaray" (Hot Coals). Consciously revolutionary the stories openly ridiculed religion and suggested the oppressiveness of the traditional and social institutions. "Angaray" was influenced by the socialist ethos of the Russian Revolution, which provided young nationalist Indians, including Sajjad and Company, with a powerful modern, egalitarian and anti-imperial creed.
In his introduction to "The Colour of Nothingness: Modern Urdu Short Stories (1991)", M U Memon writes that "Angaray" strove for an alignment of literature within the contemporary socio-political reality of India. At a deeper level however, because the writers were well read in Western fiction, the work introduced a more varied and relatively more complex treatment of the form of the short story, under what appeared to be unmistakable Marxist and Freudian influences. Naïve and simplistic from today`s perspective, these stories nonetheless carried within them the germs of some of the future developments of the form.
"Angaray", which criticized mullahs, social hypocrisy and much else, caused an uproar. The authors were accused of being "atheists" and "anti-Muslim". In fact, one of Sajjad Zahir`s stories was considered particularly blasphemous. Following pressure from the Muslim orthodox society, the Government of India duly banned "Angaray" "for hurting the religious susceptibilities of a section of the community."
Three years latter, in 1936, the All India PWA (Progressive Writers Association) came into being which met in Lucknow under Premchand. Its manifesto drafted by Sajjad Zahir and Mulkraj Anand, earlier in London, stated, "We want the new literature of India to make its theme the fundamental problems of our lives. These are the problems of hunger, poverty, social backwardness and slavery."
The PWA became an immensely powerful driving force for the new sub-continental literature between 1930s and 1960s. Committed to independence, religious harmony and the socialist, egalitarian creed, it led to a ferment in regional literature throwing up leading writers in Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali and Marathi, among other languages.
Son of the chief justice of Oudh High Court, Sir Sayyed Wazir Hussain, Sajjad Zahir was sent to London where besides acquiring a post graduation from Oxford, he completed his bar-at-law and also did a diploma in journalism. The victory of the proletariat in Russia still afresh in the minds of people and the freedom struggle in India gaining momentum Sajjad, then in Oxford, joined the Indian
National Congress branch of London and organized several student demonstrations. Soon he became editor of the mouthpiece of Indian students, "Bharat", which was banned by the Oxford University authorities. Attracted to the Communist ideology he even got in touch with the British Communist Party. On his return to India in 1935 he began practicing at the Allahabad High Court and became member of the All India Congress Party. Thanks to his oratorical skills and organizational powers he was appointed as the general secretary of the Allahabad Congress Committee, which gave him the opportunity to work with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. His association with the Congress Socialist Party and the All India Kisan Sabha soon brought him in touch with underground Communist leaders like P C Joshi and R D Bhardwaj. Having interacted with British Communists like Rajni Palme Dut and others during his studies in London Sajjad found his calling: he was appointed as the secretary of Uttar Pradesh branch of Communist Party of India. Till the end he remained a dedicated comrade always at the call of the party and rose to the rank of being an external member of the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union).
Thrice he was jailed by the British Government and spent around two years in Lucknow Central jail for his anti-British speeches. But that didn`t prevent him to write for the several pro-freedom Indian newspapers. In 1942, when the British Government lifted ban on CPI, Sajjad was made the editor of Quami Jung and Naya Zamana. Having shifted base to Mumbai in 1943, he remained here for the next four years. Reminiscing those days spent in Walkeshwar home---Sajjad lived here with his four daughters and wife, Razia---Dr Nasim Bhatia, his second daughter, presently the vice chancellor of Jodhpur University says, "The family income was paltry. Father received Rs 45 as remuneration for being the editor. Grandfather used to send Rs 200 every month and that`s the way the family expenses were met which included the hospitality of the guests, mostly shairs who often stayed overnight in our tiny flat." (Pragitisheel Vasudha October-December 2005)
Sajjad married Razia in 1938. A short story writer, both in Urdu and Hindi, Razia made name as one who perfected her craft in the language of tension and her stories, namely "Amar Jyot", "Ravan Jal Gaya", "Mojja" and "Allah De Banda Lo" were much read in the 60s and 70s Reminiscing her husband`s long absences in an article entitled, Intezar Khatam Hua Intezar Baki Hai (Pragitisheel Vasudha October- December 2005) she writes, "Nearly for ten years we almost lived separately. For eight years we met once a while and more than half of our lives were spent living separately but we continued exchanging letters. We consider ourselves fortunate unlike many other husband and wife."
Thanks to unstinted support received from litterateurs namely Faiz,Makhdoom, Sardar Jafri, Majrooh Sultanputi, Kaifi Azmi, Vamik Jaunpuri, Salam Machli Sahri, Sumitra Nandan Pant, Hiren Mukherjee, Sibte Hasan, Amrit Rai, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Ehtesham Husain, Ale Ahmed Suroor, Mumtaz Hussain, Krishn Chamder, Rajimder Singh Bedi, Ismat Chughtai, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, Upendra Nath Ashq, Yashpal, Ahmed Nasim Kasmi, Vishnu Dey and others the progressive writers movement did not remain as a `literary club`, but became a movement that stirred the soul of the ordinary man reading literature in Hindi and Urdu. It expressed the concerns of the ordinary man through literature.
Paying tribute to Sajjad`s genius, Yashpal in "Bahadur Sipahi Ko Salam" (Pragitisheel Vasudha October-December 2005) says, "I believe that so long as there is awareness in literature about progressiveness Sajjad Zahir`s will be remembered."
On the instruction of CPI, following Partition, Sajjad was sent to Pakistan to lay the foundation of a communist party. Remaining underground for three long years, he travelled to the different cities meeting trade unionists, intellectuals, students and workers. But ultimately was arrested and implicated in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case along with poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Air Commodore Mohammed Khan, General Nazir Ahmed and Brigadier Latif and Major Hasan Khan. He spent four and half years in prisons located in Quetta, Lahore, Hyderabad and Sind. It was due to the intervention of Pandit Nehru, then the India Prime Minister; he was released and arrived in Delhi in 1955 a stateless person, eight years since India gained freedom. Interestingly, his incarceration in Pakistani prisons did not put an end to Sajjad`s passion for writing; he penned, "Roshnai, a collection of essays on progressive writing and the progressive writers movement beside "Zikre Hafiz", his research based book on Persian poet Hafiz. In "Roshnai", he writes, "A poet`s first job is to write poems, not to preach. Not to explain the communist or the revolutionary ideology. To understand ideology we have the books. We don`t need poems for that. A poet`s relation is to the world of feelings."
Considered a seminal contribution to the discussion of Communist ideology in Urdu, Zikre Hafiz is not only a study of Hafiz`s kalaam but also conveys the contribution of the ancient poets importantly the progressive outlook to the literary form of ghazal. In fact, in 1940 while in Lucknow jail, he wrote an article named "Siraj Mubin" responding to the objections raised against new literature and acknowledging the importance of ancient literary forms, like Kasida, Ghazal, Marsiya, Masnavi,Vasokht, Katya and Geet awarded them the importance of literary heritage. Though a communist, he was not an orthodox one like the ones we come across nowadays who believe: If you`re not with us you`re not one of us. Though not a practicing Muslim in the common sense, he was a utilitarian one. He visited the mosque and recited the namaz during the Idd. Because he felt such religious occasion were moments when one could connect with members of his community, exchange pleasantries, share their happy and sad moments and remove the pointless divide.
A guiding light in the progressive writers movement, he organized the second All India Progressive Writers Conference in 1938 (Kolkata), 1943 (Delhi) and the last in Mumbai. The strengths and shortcoming of the movement is well documented in "Roshnai" and reflects Sajjad`s attempt to keep away from orthodoxy. Never was it stressed that the PWA was a body of socialist or communist leaning writers. While referring to poet Maulana Hasrat Mohani during the first conference, he writes in "Roshnai", "The Association has place for people of all creed. It only expects them to have faith in country`s freedom and democracy, not in communist ideology."
Three years after "Angaray" and "Bimar", a one-act play Sajjad wrote a novelette "London Ki Ek Raat" which is the story of Hiren and his beloved Shiela Green, both studying in Oxford. Critics consider "London Ki Raat" a blueprint of Sajjad`s latter life, which the protagonist executes following his return to homeland, just like its author. Take for instance, what Hiren tells Sheila, "You may be reading in the newspapers that in our country Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs fight among each other on matters related to religion. Does it mean that they are spiritual and religious? No, not at all. A handful of religious leaders who rarely remember God but in order to gain positions in the government and for their personal gains incite religious sentiments of innocent and poor people and make them fight each other. These people do not have anything to do with religion."
Besides writing original fiction Sajjad found time to translate Othello, Candide, Gora (Tagore) and Khalil Gibran`s Prophet. His last was "Pigalhta Nilam", a collection of his poetry, which has not received much attention from the literary critics. For instance take a small poem called "Dariya", which is about a person who is unable to sleep but the same remains unsaid: Aayo Mere Pas Aayo Najdik/ Yehan Se Dekhe/Is khidki se bahar/Niche ek dariya behta hai/ Dundhli Dundhli Hilte tasweeron ka/Khamoshi se bojhil/Zakhmo Sayon Mein/ Tir Chupaye Thartharate, jalte/ Kinare ke pahlon mein/ Bekal, dukhi/ Use bhi need nahi aati (Come to me closer/Let`s see/From this window/Down below moves a river/Unclear trembling pictures/Burdened by silence/Hurt by shadows/Hidden beneath trembling arrows, blazing/On the edges of thought/Alone, sad/The sleep doesn`t come up to him.)
Eternal sleep did catch up with Banneybhai in his sixty-eighth year. The writer, journalist, an indefatigable organizer and a dedicated communist died on September 13, 1973 in Alma Ata (Kazaksthan) while representing India in a conference of Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi writers.