Noor Zaheer


What can one write about an uncle who pampered one with hot chocolate and insisted on presenting a book on Marxism with it? What can one say about him who gets you the first proper job, the one that you love doing, and performs a detailed autopsy of all that you write, one who does not fear giving away his contacts and is convinced that Marsiakhwani is a one-man theatre, whose eyes glistened with knowledge through thick spectacles and a warm smile played on his lips as he conjured up a new jibe at politicians, society, religion and even himself? One who wrote to think, thought to analyse and analysed to remain a comrade.


Mehdi Chacha or Mehdi Mamu, as he was called by his friends’ children, passed away on January 2 in Aligarh where he had made his permanent home since the eighties. I knew him as a child, when we visited Delhi where Abba worked for the CPI from Lucknow where Ammi lived and worked at the University. Mehdi Chacha worked at the Soviet Information Centre in Delhi and could always be found bending over his table correcting proofs or with a writing pad on his raised knee translating something. He would get up immediately, escort us to ‘Dosti’, the cafeteria, and without asking would order chocolate for me and tea for himself. I never found out how he knew that I loved chocolate.


Older and with a degree in mass communications I met him after the performance of his play Ghalib Kaun Hai. He had written this play several years back on the advice of Dr Zakir Hussain for Sheila Bhatia, the well-known theatre director and opera artiste. Before I could congratulate him or even greet him he put a hand on my shoulder and said: “Are you unhappy over something?” Next day at the Mohan Singh Place Coffee House I had narrated him my unhappiness at the work I was doing in National Herald. Relieved to get it out of my system I had gone back to work only to get a call from him asking me to meet Aruna Asaf Ali. I left National Herald and spend five very happy years in Patriot, meeting Mehdi Chacha several times, discussing some of the pieces I wrote and, most importantly, discussing with him the Shah Bano Case on which I had special instructions from Arunaji to write on a weekly basis.


Mehdi Chacha, I found, had the Quran on his fingertips. Much later, when I had questioned him about this, he had jokingly replied: “But one must know to be able to contradict.” As a Communist it was his cause to contradict religion, as a scholar it was his duty to support everything he said with references and facts.


Syed Mohammad Mehdi had joined the Left movement and the Communist Party of India while he was still in his teens. When the party shifted base to Bombay, he joined the commune and much to the shock and sorrow of his feudal family, ate the ordinary food and slept on the floor as the other members. He worked for the party paper, organised the trade unions and was amongst the founding members of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). When he married, he brought his wife Zehra to the commune. To give her credit, she too gave up her aristocratic past and accepted the simple, uncomplicated life that Comrade Mehdi had chosen for himself. They were an inseparable couple.


When the Bombay commune broke up, he moved to Delhi where he lived for almost 25 years. An important member of the literary circle, he wrote several plays and his satire ‘Ghalib Ke Urhenge Purze’ was one the most successful plays performing more than three hundred shows. With this play he also renewed his association with the Indian People’s Theatre Association that he had joined in Bombay in the forties. He moved away to Aligarh after retirement, I moved away from active journalism to creative writing and theatre; for a few years we lost touch.


For any theatre activist, it is like sudden sunshine on a gloomy day to get a call from Ebrahim Alkazi. This was in the year 1990, when Alkazi, who had taken a long sabbatical from theatre, decided to stage a comeback. He had formed his own theatre training school, ‘Living Theatre’, and was planning to put up six plays in a year! Greek plays had been his natural choice and he had requested Mehdi Chacha to translate ten plays by Aristophanes, Sophocles and Euripides.


“It is a lot of work!” I had grumbled, when the translations in Urdu script had landed on my table to transcribe them to Hindi [Devanagari].


“How can you be a good writer without understanding the mythologies of different civilisations? This is an interesting way of going about it.” It was simple reasoning for a complicated situation. Alkazi, happy with the transcription, asked me to translate two other plays for him. That was Mehdi Chacha, a silent worker, a selfless guide but a farsighted scholar.


COMING from a feudal Syed family, Marsia rendering had been part of Comrade Mehdi’s inherited tradition. But his engagement with Marsia was not limited to an annual visit to his home in Mustafabad during Muharram where Marsia would be rendered to commemorate the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson, Imam Husain. His interest lay in it being a vibrant genre of literature, the fine nuances of relationships that Marsia explores, the co-existence of valour, sacrifice and devotion that it elaborates, and the pain, sorrow and pathos that just a few couplets can invoke. If one defines a scholar as one who explores knowledge then Mehdi Chacha was a part of this delving, forever looking at it from a new angle and innovative methodology. His claim that Marsiakhwani was a one-man theatre and for it to survive it had to be rescued from the chains of tradition and religion and handed over to contemporary theatre practitioners had shocked many including me. He had smiled at my astonishment, saying: “Still a Shia in spite of being an atheist?”


His approach to communism was also different; he wanted the Communist Party to address its mistakes, analyse its past and reinvent itself through forging a process of constant questioning and discussion. That is why he was not untowardly upset by the breaking up of the USSR or the decline of interest in Marxism across the world. He was sure that socialism is the way out for India and that Marxism can be reinvented to suit the requirements of the subcontinent. He had faith that the Communist Party of India could revive itself if it decided to take up issues the peasants and workers, concentrated on building up a mass base to contest the onslaught of globalisation and capitalism and for some years decided to stay out of electoral politics.


My last conversation with him was over the phone. I was visiting Comrade Zia-ul Haq in Allahabad; another comrade who has not given up on the socialist dream, whose wife treats me like a daughter and sons think of me as a sister; another Chacha from the huge ‘Comrade family’ that I have inherited. Mehdi Chacha had lost his wife Zehra Chachi a few weeks before but he was more concerned about Zia Chacha’s health who was the same age as him. He was so pleased to find me there and talked for while of my work, my children recalling everything as clear as if he had heard it a few minutes before.


I promised myself a visit to Aligarh, just to meet Mehdi Chacha. He decided it was time to leave. I could not keep the promise. But I pledge another one: soon, very soon, I’ll write down the lives, times and commitment of all those who decided to take up the cause of the people, who lived humbly to be able to undertake big tasks, who opened their hearts to everyone though they themselves were often let down by people, who in spite of being the ‘haves’ took a conscious decision to be the ‘have nots’ because they stood with justice.



The author is a writer, researcher and the President of the Delhi State IPTA.

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