Remembering writer and Progressive Writers’ Association founder Sajjad Zaheer

The movement’s proponents were a powerful and inescapable force; they commandeered a space for themselves on the political, social and literary canvas and re-crafted the existing literary canon

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Rakhshanda Jalil

Sometime in December 1932, a book called Angarey ('Embers') appeared from Lucknow. It was an anthology - the first of its kind in Urdu - comprising nine short stories and one play written by three men and one woman, namely Sajjad Zaheer, Mahmuduzzafar, Ahmed Ali and Rashid Jahan. The next three months saw a torrent of abuse and fatwas against the book and its authors prompting the Government of the United Provinces to ban it on March 15, 1933, under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code.

The proprietor of Nizami Press, Malik Ali Javed, had already caved in completely after his press had been raided under orders of the city magistrate. He had confessed to his mistake in bringing out the book and apologised in a written statement on February 27 1933 for insulting the feelings of the Muslim community. He readily agreed to surrender the unsold copies of the book to the government. All but five copies were destroyed by the police. And yet, in an age innocent of the xerox or social media, Angarey created a furor far bigger than anything we have seen in recent times and the book and its four young contributors, especially Sajjad Zaheer who had compiled it and published it at his own cost, went on to become something of an urban legend.

In the few short months of its existence, Angarey was possibly read by few people. Those who had read it had done so perforce on the sly adding to the air of secrecy and furtiveness that the very mention of the book evoked for years to come. And while Angarey became a sang-e meel, a milestone, to mark the progression of socially-engaged, purposive literature in Urdu, Sajjad Zaheer's name became inextricably linked with not just Angarey but a radical new sort of writing.

As we mark his 112th birth anniversary on November 5, it seems appropriate to revisit his legacy. Shortly before the Angarey episode, Sajjad Zaheer (1905-73), the prodigal son of Sir Wazir Hasan, the Chief Justice of Oudh, had lately returned from England after completing his BA where he had been greatly influenced by communistic ideas and had also made friends with a wide circle of writers and intellectuals such as VK Krishna Menon, Mulkraj Anand, etc. In his first year of BA at New College, Oxford, Zaheer fell ill and had to go to a sanatorium in Switzerland for close to a year. He used this time to learn good German and French. On returning to England, he was influenced by the charismatic communist leader Shapurji Saklatvala, joined the Oxford Majlis and attended the Second Congress of the League against Imperialism held in Frankfurt where he met Viren Chattopadhyay, Saumendranath Tagore, NM Jaisoorya (the son of Sarojini Naidu), and Raja Pahendra Pratap.

From the League Congress, he took back the message of forging an alliance with nationalistic liberation movements in Indonesia, Egypt, etc. David Guest, the Marxist scholar from Cambridge, introduced him to Marx’s Capital. During his undergraduate days, he also read Lenin’s What is to be Done? which laid down the essentials in regard to the organisation of a communist party, the need of a centralised democratic leadership, discipline, etc. as well as Leftwing Communism: An Infantile Disorder and State and Revolution (both by Lenin) and John Stratchey’s The Struggle for Power. All this was supplemented by reading Labour Monthly and Daily Worker. In his reminiscences, called Yaadein, he spoke passionately of the tumult that grew inside him during his student days in England:

“We were gradually drifting towards socialism. Our minds searched for a philosophy which would help us to understand and solve the difficult social problems. We were not satisfied with the idea that humanity had always been miserable and would always remain so. … After the end of our university education, this was the beginning of a new and unlimited field of education.”

Sajjad Zaheer, did several very remarkable things soon after Angarey was banned: he went back to England ostensibly to study law but got immersed in political activities with the Communist Party of Great Britain, collected a group of like-minded Indians in England who helped him draft a manifesto of what would be the Progressive Writers' Association (PWA); returning to India, he organised the first All India Conference of the PWA in Lucknow in April 1936, became its general secretary, set up the first Marxist journal in Urdu called Chingari (with the help of Sohan Singh Josh in Saharanpur), wrote a novel called London ki Ek Raat (1935), Nuqush-e-Zindan, a collection of letters to his wife from the prisons of Lucknow and Allahabad (1944), Roshnai,a history-cum-memoir of the early days of the progressive movement (1956), Zikr-e-Hafiz, a critical look at the works of the legendary Persian poet Hafiz (1958), a collection of poems in vers libre called Pighalata Neelam (1964), but remained, primarily, an organiser and party worker. Given his family's close association with the Nehru family, he also served as Nehru's secretary for a brief period in the mid-1930s but was eventually expelled from the Congress and worked as a full-time member of CPI which he served as a member of the Central Committee. Having said that, it is his immense influence on modern Urdu literature that marks him for the close attention of the literary historian.

Despite his slender ouvre and limited literary output, his understanding of literature, especially its potential to serve as an engine of reform, makes him an important figure in a purely literary sense. His cosmopolitan upbringing and bilingualism coupled with exposure to new literary trends outside India made him uniquely qualified to mentor young writers and help usher in not just new styles but also new content. The five stories he had contributed to Angarey were quite unlike anything seen in Urdu literature.

The first and most obvious thing that strikes a reader even today is their true-to-life quality. Each story paints graphic pictures of the poorest and most downtrodden people – servant girls who have been bought as slaves to serve rich masters, down-at-heel poets living on the largesse of rich relatives, a sweeper living in a dirty, smelly hovel on a rich man’s estate as well as ‘vulgar lower-class types’ such as clerks and orderlies.

Sajjad Zaheer adopted the stream of consciousness and interior monologue techniques newly popularised in the west by writers such as James Joyce, DH Lawrence, Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf and introduced his readers to the flavour of ostensibly unedited, spontaneous, or live performances.

With a revival of interest in progressive writing and the influence of the progressive writers' movement, the significance of activist-writers such as Zaheer too needs to be evaluated. The role played by the PWA from the mid-1930s till the mid-1950s in shaping the political consciousness of large numbers of people, its unequivocal emphasis on the need for social change and the relentless portrayal of these twin forces in the literature produced by the progressives has been largely accepted. The movement and its proponents were a powerful and inescapable force; not only did they commandeer a space for themselves on the political, social and literary canvas of India for nearly three decades, they also re-crafted the existing literary canon.

In the years before Independence, they influenced the debates on imperialism and decolonisation and in the years immediately thereafter they were at the centre of the discourses on the nature of the newly-independent, post-colonised state and society. In the 30-odd years that the progressive wave swept through India, Zaheer was the good shepherd who tended his flock with tremendous ingenuity and dedication.

Dispatched to Pakistan in March 1948 by his party to set up the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP), Zaheer struggled in a hostile terrain, got embroiled in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case and was imprisoned along with Faiz and 14 others. Emerging from jail in 1955, he was allowed to return to India but as the saying goes, Chhute aseer to badla hua zamana tha. The world had changed.

Back home in India, Zaheer found new causes to espouse - the newly independent countries of Asia and Africa, the need for forging an Afro-Asian alliance, and for writers to be ever vigilant towards social realities. In his constancy towards the idea of progressivism, Zaheer's life demonstrates how movements propelled by ideas may die or end or be curtailed, but ideas don't die. The idea of progressivism as Zaheer understood and tried to instill among Indian writers is not dead and gone. It lives whenever a writer speaks out against injustice, inequality and oppression.

(Rakhshanda Jalil is author of Liking Progress, Loving Change: A Literary History of the Progressive Writers' Movement in Urdu, Oxford University Press, 2014.)

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