01 January 1970

The Pioneering Progressive: Sajjad Zaheer

Weekend Reads

The Pioneering Progressive: Sajjad Zaheer

On the 50th death anniversary of the literary icon this month, a tribute to his life and legacy.

Sajjad Zaheer
Sajjad Zaheer

The sudden death of the founder of the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) Sajjad Zaheer 50 years ago on September 13 deprived us and the field of Urdu literature of such a beloved personality whose services in connection with the growth of modern Urdu literature will always be remembered. This point is worthy of consideration that his death occurred at a time when he was participating in the conference of African and Asian writers (held at Alma Ata). The truth is that the unity of African and Asian writers and their friendship had always been very dear to Sajjad Zaheer.

Since a year prior to that, he had been collecting material about the life and poetry of the first Urdu and important and unique Farsi poet Amir Khusrau of the subcontinent from everywhere in London, Berlin, Moscow, Tashkent, Kabul and India since the sexacentennial of Amir Khusrau’s death was to be celebrated around the world in 1975.

Sajjad Zaheer was the fourth son of the Chief Judge of the Lucknow Chief Court, Sir Syed Wazir Hasan. He passed his B.A. from Oxford University and became a barrister in 1935 but he neither practiced law nor did any job rather devoted all his time to political and literary activities. In 1937 he married the famous Urdu short-story writer and novelist Razia Sajjad Zaheer.

During his stay in England, he openly participated in movements against imperialism and developed an interest in socialism. Sajjad Zaheer basically had a literary temperament, so he had relations with such important writers and poets in London like Auden, Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, Ralph Fox, Jack Lindsay, David Guest, Maurice Cornforth and Mulk Raj Anand who were famous for their progressive inclinations in those days. Zaheer had complete expertise in French and English. But he always expressed his thoughts very much in Urdu; since he had a very deep emotional attachment with Urdu. He had written his famous novel Landan Ki Aik Raat (A Night in London) in London, which is still as fresh and popular as it was in its early period. After this novel, he also wrote quite a few very fine short stories.

A Night in London by Sajjad Zaheed
A Night in London by Sajjad Zaheed

His second magnificent work was the compilation and publication of a collection of short stories which is remembered as Angaare (Embers). The short stories of Professor Ahmed Ali, Dr Rashid Jahan and her husband Mian Mahmuduzzafar were included in this collection. Immediately upon publication, this book had caused a stir in the whole country. In the modern era, these stories appear to be very harmless, but the period in which this book was published and came to the fore, the Urdu readers of that time were not used to reading such honest and harsh criticism about our social and moral hypocrisy. The result was that the traditionalists strongly rebuked the book so much so that the writers in the book were also given life-threats. Eventually, the UP government confiscated this book.

This era was a time of grave crisis in the whole world politically, morally and ideologically. Hitler had recently come upon the seat of power of Germany in those very days and General Franco and his companions had overthrown the democratic and elected government in Spain with the help of the German Nazi and Italian Fascist powers. Obviously, the freedom lovers and democrats of Europe and Asia were naturally very disturbed by the expanding plague of this personalistic power therefore they organised the progressive forces of the whole world so that the flag of individual freedom and his democratic rights can be kept high. In this background, Sajjad Zaheer and his comrades laid the foundation of an organization of writers which could fight in favour of the material and intellectual success of humanity.

Before establishing the PWA in 1936, Sajjad Zaheer met almost all the eminent scholars, writers and poets of the subcontinent and exchanged views with them on this issue. This idea of his was highly praised by Allama Iqbal, Rabindranath Tagore, Maulvi Abdul Haq, Munshi Premchand, Qazi Abdul Ghaffar, Mrs Sarojini Naidu, Mian Bashir Ahmad, Maulana Abdul Majeed Salik, Maulana Ghulam Rasool Mehr, Sufi Ghulam Mustafa Tabassum, Maulana Hasrat Mohani, Maulana Chiragh Hasan Hasrat, Josh Malihabadi and many other writers. His own agemates and contemporaries, for example Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Dr Akhtar Hussain Raipuri, Professor Majnoon Gorakhpuri, Professor Ahmed Ali, Professor Firaq Gorakhpuri, Akhtar Shirani and Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, etc. supported him fully. The first conference of the PWA was held in Lucknow in 1936 under the chairmanship of the great Urdu novelist and short-story writer Munshi Premchand. Sajjad Zaheer was elected as the General Secretary of the Association in this meeting and in a very short time the Association proved itself to be a dynamic force and began the watering of new values in our literature.

Faiz Ahmad Faiz with Sajjad Zaheer
Faiz Ahmad Faiz with Sajjad Zaheer

During house arrest from 1939 to 1944, Sajjad Zaheer wrote many literary essays under the name of ‘Siraj Mubeen’ which were published in the representative magazine of the PWA Naya Daur. After his release, he went to Bombay where he fulfilled the responsibilities of editing Qaumi Jang. In the same period, he was elected a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of India. Despite his political activities, Sajjad Zaheer never neglected the service of Urdu literature and language. He had adopted this service from the very beginning as a self-implemented duty and he kept fulfilling this duty till the end with great responsibility and affection. He arranged for Ghalib Day for the first time in Bombay’s history and celebrated with great pomp. A few days after that he celebrated Shibli Day in the same manner.

Writers of different schools of thought participated in both these occasions. The truth is that Sajjad Zaheer’s feelings about art and literature were always very deep and delicate. He remained so generous and passionate regarding writers that even those writers who disagreed extremely with his political path not only expressed faith in his friendship and association but always extended a cooperative hand regarding his literary objectives.

At the end of 1947 Sajjad Zaheer had continued to Pakistan but in 1951 he was arrested in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case. During the painful confinement of Hyderabad and Mach Jail Sajjad Zaheer wrote two books of extremely clear and durable literary importance one of which is a review and critical study of the life and poetry of the great Farsi poet Hafiz Shirazi. The name of this book is Zikr-e-Hafiz (An Account of Hafiz). The other book is Roshnai (The Light) which is a history of the beginning of the Progressive Writers Movement and its expansion as well as a logical rebuttal of those absurd charges which were levied at this Movement from time to time. Within the period of detention in jail, he had also written some poems which were published in Delhi with the title of Pighla Neelam (Melted Sapphire) in the form of a collection. The majority of these poems consisted of those which are called abstract poetry nowadays. In the preface to Pighla Neelam, Sajjad Zaheer has created very important critical debates regarding the problems of the modern poets of the new generation and the limited nature of traditional symbolism and diction; since according to him the young poets of today appear to be complaining of generally not grasping and covering all aspects of the traditional symbols and diction of the spirit of the modern era while expressing their thoughts.

Sajjad Zaheer had been released from Mach Jail in 1955. But immediately he was sent to India. He kept his heart imbued with wishes of goodwill for Pakistan and its people for life and made extreme efforts for friendship and cordial relations between both countries. He was the editor of a daily newspaper (Hayat) and being a journalist was trying to obtain permission to come to Pakistan in the days leading to his death. In this connection, he had also met his old Oxford classmate and then-Pakistani ambassador in London Mian Mumtaz Daultana and Daultana too had written to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto about it. But before Bhutto could reply, Sajjad Zaheer very much departed from this world.

Sajjad Zaheer was not some kind of a fast writer. In his 35-year-old literary career he wrote just one novel, a few short stories and dramas a booklet on dialectical materialism, a critical review of the poetry of Hafiz Shirazi, the history of the Progressive Movement, a poetic collection and more than two dozen essays but whatever he wrote has left very deep influences on modern Urdu literature.
He began his literary career as a short-story writer but soon he came towards criticism and undoubtedly this same proved to be the best representation of his ideas and thoughts.

His critical essays carry the status of a milestone in the history of Urdu criticism. New directions for the interpretation and criticism of classical and modern literature have opened up through his essays. The simplicity which was a part of his personality, the same is the quality of his literary style. He never used the standard techniques and heavy words of literature to influence and frighten readers. He was very much not convinced of making his intellectual superiority acknowledged by anyone. He definitely convinced a person with arguments but he never showed traditional scholarly pompousness. He used to discuss and argue with great respect and expended his whole scholarly strength. But he never hurt the feelings of anyone. He used to criticize very harshly but neither did he have malice in his heart for anybody nor he ever made personal attacks. Or assumed a patronizing attitude about his opponent.

Nature had given him a very sweet disposition. The fact of the matter is that he was the most favourite and beloved personality of his time. He had an endless desire for meeting people and he met especially young writers and sharp and intelligent youth with great affection. Not only did he welcome them with great cheerfulness and happiness but he also exchanged views about their problems with great attention and warmth. That too like a loyal friend and a friend on a par with them, not as a mufti passing judgement. He would hear the conversation of others with great patience and peace and never tried to harass any visitor. This is the very reason that every visitor of his used to call him Banne Bhai with great affection.

Sajjad Zaheer had great abilities for managing and arranging literary ceremonies. For example in the first forty years of the last century travelling from Dhaka to Peshawar and from Madras to Delhi; and gathering writers belonging to different languages and racial groups on one platform; and then to unite them within a big organization was a dangerous stage but Sajjad Zaheer accomplished and demonstrated this task with extreme elegance and cheerfulness. During this time he never showed haste or ever became angry with anybody or his face seen to have the effects of weariness, fatigue and displeasure.

Sajjad Zaheer was harshly biased regarding both literature and politics. He remained a lifelong fighter for his objective in sight. And in this path, he undoubtedly made very great sacrifices. But despite all this, he never tried to impose his ideologies upon his friends and relatives. Along with being a very enlightened person he was a person endowed with taste and love of beauty. Therefore, he had an intense love for every beauty of life be it in any form and with this same intensity he used to detest people’s poverty and pathetic circumstances and impose restrictions on their minds. He was a great admirer of Eastern and Western music and endlessly loved Farsi, Urdu and Hindi poetry.

All his life he kept struggling for the glory of humans and humanity with great sincerity and zeal and he never even gave a trace of bitterness of any kind on any occasion. His name will be remembered in the history of Urdu literature as the founder of a life-giving movement which gave birth to two generations possessing high creative abilities from the beginning to his death.

(The author is an award-winning translator and researcher based in Lahore, where he is also the President of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached at: [email protected] and tweets at @raza_naeem1979)