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The Poetry Of Burning

Ardent pacifist, revolutionary poet, Ali Sardar Jafri was one of the last from a progressive age

The Poetry Of Burning

The day Ali Sardar Jafri died in Bombay (August 1, at 8.30 am), an ironical death in this season of troubled detente, I made it a point to watch Pakistan Television to find out what it had to say about him. He was not only in the front-rank of Urdu poets of recent times but also the spearhead of the movement for a rapprochement with Pakistan. ptv made a passing reference to Jafri's death as a poet who wrote of the need for love and understanding between people. I was disappointed. So was I with the coverage given by the Indian media, both the print and the electronic. There was a lot more to Jafri than the hastily-written obituaries and collages put together to meet deadlines.

I had known Ali Sardar and his beautiful wife Sultana for over 30 years. During my years in Bombay we met each other almost every other week. Despite his commitment to Communism, he liked the good things of life: good Scotch, good food and comfortable living. He lived in a pokey little three-room flat off Peddar Road. Apart from his wife and three children who often stayed with him, he had two widowed sisters in the same apartment. There was not much room to move about. Many of his books were stacked under his bed on which he read, wrote and slept. I would arrive armed with a bottle of Scotch. He sent for soda and biryani from a restaurant, Allah Beli, facing his apartment. I sought his company because he was about the most erudite of Indian writers I had met.

Ali Sardar also had a phenomenal memory. If I quoted one line of any Urdu poet, he would come out with the rest of the poem. And explain every word by referring to Persian poets - from Rumi, Hafiz to Ghalib and Allama Iqbal. When I set about translating Iqbal's Shikwa and Jawab-e-Shikwa, I went all the way to Bombay to seek his assistance. For two days Ali Sardar and Sultana came to my hotel in the morning; we worked till lunch time when Rafiq Zakaria and his wife Fatma joined us to find out how it was going. After they left, we resumed our labours till it was time for our sundowners.

I often needled Ali Sardar about his communism. He had been a card-holder and had been expelled from the Aligarh Muslim University (which later gave him an honorary doctorate) and spent 18 months in jail during the British Raj and again after Independence under Morarji Desai. Although he had ceased to be a card-holder, he stoutly defended Marxist ideology. What was beyond my comprehension was that despite professing atheism, during the month of Moharrum he often wore black and attended Shia majlises and abstained from alcohol. During a TV interview with me, when he expected to be questioned about Urdu poetry, I confronted him with his contradictory beliefs in both Islam and Marxism. He was visibly upset and fumbled for words. He took it out on me after the interview was over. He called me everything under the sun short of calling me a bastard. I am sure if he had not been so obsessed with Communism and social problems, he would have made a greater poet.

I saw him often when he came to Delhi to record Kamna Prasad's series, Kahkashaan (Milky Way), on contemporary Urdu poets. And later to participate in the Jashn-e-Bahaar mushairas organised by Kamna to bring Pakistani and Urdu poets together on one stage every year. He presided over the last one a few months before he died. He had an imposing presence: he was a lean, tall man with a mop of untidy, tousled grey hair, sparkling dark eyes and ever-smiling face. His voice held his audience spell-bound. His message to Pakistan at a time when Indo-Pak relations were at their worst was one of peace:

Tum aao gulshan-e-Lahore se chaman bardosh,
Hum aayen subh-e-Banaras ki roshnee le kar
Himalay ki havaaon ki taazgee le kar
Aur iske baad yeh poochein ki kaun dushman hai?

(You come from the garden of of Lahore laden with flowers,
We will come bearing the light of a Benares morning
With fresh breezes from Himalayan heights
And then, together we can ask, who is the enemy?)

Ali Sardar was an incorrigible optimist. Inspired by Rumi's line, Hum cho sabza baarha roeeda aym (like the green of the earth we never stop growing), he summed up his life story (Mera Safar) in a few memorable lines:

I am a fleeting moment
In the magic house of days and nights;
I am a restless drop travelling eternally
From the flask of the past to the goblet of the future.
I sleep and wake, awake to sleep again
I am the ancient play on the stage of time
I die only to become immortal.

Ali Sardar, who was born into a zamindar family in Balrampur (Uttar Pradesh) on November 29, 1913, won numerous awards for his poems, short stories, plays and articles. They included the Iqbal sammaan, Soviet Land Nehru Award, Jnaneshwar award and the Jnanpeeth award. More than all those it was the warm-hearted applause he won wherever he went, the respect and affection he received from people he knew that sustained him during his difficult days. He returned the love he got in full measure. In a collection of his poems he gave to Kamna's four-year-old daughter Jia, he wrote the word pyar in Urdu five times on each line down 20 lines. That was his parting message to the world.

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