Raza Naeem

Har cheez bhula di jaayegi

Yaadon ke haseen butkhane se

Har cheez utha di jaayegi

Phir koi nahin yeh poochhega

Sardar kahan hai mehfil mein

(Every memory will be erased from the beautiful temple of memories

Every single thing will have gone

Then, no one will ask:

Where is Sardar in the soiree?)

The writer, orator, poet, short-story writer, dramatist, critic and filmmaker, Ali Sardar Jafri, who passed away in Mumbai 20 years ago on August 1, never received his due as a poet, perhaps due to his programmatic verses and his overt association with the Communist Party of India.

In his later years, he received some recognition as a poet who wrote optimistically about Indo-Pak relations. When Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee took a bus journey to Pakistan in 1999, the following four-liner by Jafri was played on its PA system, and became quite the rage for a while:

“Tum aao Gulshan-e-Lahore se chaman bardosh

Hum aayen subh-e-Banaras ki raushni le kar

Himalaya ki havaaon ki taazgi le kar

Phir is ke baad ye poochen ki kaun dushman hai?

(Come bearing the fragrant garden of Lahore

And we will bring the light of a Banaras morning

And the fresh breeze from the Himalayas

And then let us ask: who is the enemy?)”

Jafri was not only among the founders of the Progressive Writers’ Movement; he raised the standard of Progressive literature with his powerful imagery, giving it new meanings and facets.

He began his career as a fiction writer, but later moved to poetry. He also wrote a few plays for the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). He was jailed twice: by the British during 1940–41, for the crime of making a speech at the height of opposition to the imperialist war and by the government of independent India in 1949 for espousing the cause of socialism.

In the first instance, the chargesheet against Sardar was so flimsy that had he fought the case, he would have definitely been released. However, in keeping with the tradition of opposition to the colonial power he said in full court that he did not recognise the court or its law, therefore the question of presenting a defence did not even arise. He was sentenced to six months of hard labour. He was kept in Lucknow jail for several days and then sent to prison in Banaras.

By the time Sardar was released, the complexion of World War II had changed due to Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union. And, crushing Malaya and Burma, the Japanese forces had reached the borders of Assam.

Clearly, it was not the time to be a fence-sitter. His book, Lucknow Mein Paanch Raaten (Five Nights in Lucknow), talks about his days in Lucknow when the training of squads by the Communist Party as part of mobilisation for the War effort, had commenced. He too joined the effort and began to write anti-fascist dramas and speeches for radio. It was at that time that the mushaira which Sardar Jafri has mentioned in the book, was held.

Then, in 1949,  in a moment that reminds us of Frantz Fanon’s account of the betrayal of that moment of decolonisation by local elites, Jafri was arrested by the Indian government for being a supporter of socialism, joining colleagues like Faiz and Sajjad Zaheer who had suffered similar incarceration in Pakistan.

In later years, like a good communist, he also aroused the ire of religious fundamentalists and was subjected to death threats in the 1980s when he came out against the treatment of divorced women under the Muslim Personal Law. His opposition to the infamous Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act in 1986 earned him the ire of Muslim communalists. The sight of Jafri being shouted at, slapped and garlanded with slippers by goons was a moment that further politicised many college students, motivating them to stand firmly against the atmosphere of rapidly increasing communalism in India.

Ultimately, we must remember that Jafri led a celebrated life – the Jnanpith award was bestowed on him for the year 1997. In 2013, on the occasion of his birth centenary, a website was inaugurated by the Sardar Jafri Foundation.

Jafri’s long poem Karbala – recited by him – is available in the public domain. I have chosen to translate one of his poems called Guftagu Band Na Ho (Let Not the Conversation Cease), speaking of the possibilities of more harmonious Indo-Pak relations.

Before sharing my translation of this poem, just to give readers a taste of the Urdu idiom, I want to share the opening stanza of the poem, which is also how the poem closes:

“Guftagu band na ho

Baat se baat chale

Subh tak shaam-e-mulaaqaat chale

Hum pe hansti hui ye taaron bhari raat chale

(Let not the conversation cease

Let one word lead to another

And let our evening tryst go on till dawn

While the starry night-sky smiles down on us

Though we have hurled the stones of bitter words at each other

We have swirled poison in our goblets in the form of sarcastic jibes

Our brows furrowed, our gazes venomous

But be that as it may, let hearts awaken in chests

Let not despair imprison our words

Whoever the murderers are, let them not kill dialogue

If that is done, a word of faith may escape at dawn

Love will arrive on trembling legs

Eyes downcast, hearts aflutter, lips atremble

Silence will then be fragrant like a kiss on the lips

And the only sound left will be that of buds flowering

And then there will be need for neither word nor talk

In the movement of the gaze, an emotion will sprout

Tenderness will be our guest, hate will be asked to leave

Hand in hand, accompanied by the whole world

Bearing the gift of pain, and the bounty of fondness

We will cross the deserts of animus

And find ourselves on the other side of oceans of blood

Let not the conversation cease

Let one word lead to another

And let our evening tryst go on till dawn

While the starry night-sky smiles down on us.)”

Another poem of his, Avadh ki Khaak-e-Haseen (The Beautiful Land of Avadh), is a beautiful exemplar of Jafri’s Progressive poetry, which turned labour into romance and ordinary folk into protagonists. In Urdu it begins thus:

“Ye seedhe saadhe ghareeb insan, nekiyon ke mujassame hain

Ye mehnaton ke khuda, ye takhleeq ke payambar

Jo apne haathon ke khurdarepan se aindagi ko sanvaarte hain

Lohaar ke ghan ke neeche lohe ki shakl tabdeel ho rahi hai

A longer excerpt of the poem follows in English translation below:

(These simple poor folk are the epitome of goodness

These gods of labour, these prophets of creation

Who make life beautiful with their calloused hands

Under the blacksmith’s anvil, iron is changing shape

The potter’s wheel hums

And goblets dance to its beat

The white flour emerges from the black millstone like a musical note

Flowers of fire bloom in stoves and ovens

Cooking utensils sing along

Skillets black with smoke laugh with lips made of sparks

Dupattas hang on ropes

And from their borders, a row of drops falls to the ground

On the hearts of these golden streets

The red borders of black long skirts shine on

How beautiful is this simplicity!

I sit in my prison cell and often wonder

That if I could, I would take the beautiful earth of my Avadh in my lap

And light up its beautiful, shimmering forehead

With thousands of kisses.)”

Baba-e-Urdu Maulvi Abdul Haq used to say, be wary of the person who is praised by all or who agrees with everyone. In the course of his long life, Jafri’s ill-wishers often accused him of being very arrogant or inflexible; and after his death he is not remembered in the same way as some of his more ‘humble’ and ‘flexible’ peers.  But then the intent of the minstrel of revolution was not to find favour in everybody’s eyes but to tell the truth.

In many circles, there was much antipathy towards the human values and life-giving forces with which Sardar had a loyal and deep association. The view in those circles was that a poet should neither have a life anchored to ideals nor have any business feeling the sorrows and joys, hopes and wishes of the wretched of the earth.

But it was precisely this exercise of truth that gave life to Sardar Jafri’s art. His art reflected the voice of his conscience and his philosophy of life, which was based on struggle. He always preferred to recite verses on the battlefield than seek gratification. However, those who were lucky enough to know him personally would testify that if Sardar was hard like steel on the battlefield of existence,  he was even softer  than silk at the banquet of beauty and love.

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently based in Lahore, where he is also the President of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached at: razanaeem@hotmail.com

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