As Zaheer Kashmiri Centenary Ends, a Tribute to the Revolutionary Juggler of Amritsar

Today, as we mark the end of Zaheer Kashmiri’s centennial year, we remember his indefatigable attention to the world's happenings and his faith in the power of the common people.

‘Hamein khabar hai ke hum hain charagh-e-akhir-e-shab
Hamare baad andhera nahi ujala hai’

(‘We know that we are the lamp at the end of the night
After us there won’t be darkness, but light’)

It may seem natural that the customary centennial tribute to Zaheer Kashmiri – who was born 101 years ago today in Amritsar – is written by someone who now heads the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) in Lahore. While Kashmiri lived, both the PWA and Lahore were indistinguishable from the man himself. However, for me, an additional  – albeit personal – reason to write about Kashmiri is that like me, he was also Kashmiri and hailed from Amritsar, from where my maternal grandfather migrated to Lahore in 1947.

Kashmiri was among those poets who not only participated in the organisational activities of the PWA but was also at the forefront of practical politics.

He also participated in the activities of workers and peasants and was imprisoned for this. This relationship with captivity continued even after 1947, especially during the Zia-ul-Haq dictatorship in Pakistan.

Kashmiri was born into a family of pirs whose ancestors swept the shrine of Saboor Shahwali. His father worked in the Central Investigation Department (CID), eventually retired and took to selling vegetable oil on Lahore’s Beadon Road.

Kashmiri had reached Lahore before Partition. He did his Masters in English and began working in films. He started writing poetry when he was 11 years old. The first verse he composed was:

‘Khuda ki rehmat se baadal aaya
Rehmat ka jalva haq ne dikhaya’

(‘The cloud arrived with Divine potency
Truth showed the splendour of mercy’)

Kashmiri was zealous and a crusading harshness defined his temperament. He had an intensity of ideology and extremism which also affected his poetry. Like Sardar Jafri and Kaifi Azmi, he too suppressed his own problems and emotions and penned poems to draw attention to international issues.

He writes about himself:

‘Imperishable artistic values can be created in accidental and temporal titles. Influenced by this thought, I began to fashion topics out of national and international events. I recited verses on the imperialist period of the Second World War; tried to make conspicuous the popular period of the War; mentioned the unparalleled courage of the martyrs of Sevastopol; versified the red revolution of Europe, etc.’

This mode of thinking made Kashmiri more attentive towards topical and issue-based poetry. We find in his poems a loftiness imposed from above rather than creative anguish. That is why his poems from this phase do not leave a permanent impact on us.

Zaheer Kashmiri’s own style is resonant of Iqbal, Faiz, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi and some other poets. His poems give themselves to oration like Sardar Jafri’s.

Also read: ‘Let Not Despair Imprison Our Words’: Remembering Ali Sardar Jafri, 20 Years On 

For example, this portion of his long poem, Asia, says:

‘Aaj arz-e-Telangana ke goshe goshe men commune ban-ne lage
Aaj khakister zindagi se vahan zindagi ke hayule ubharne lage
Aaj bujhte hue aansuon se vahan aab-e-meher-e-jahan taab peda hui
Aaj sookhi hui khetiyon se vahan narm sabze ki sanjaab peda hui
Aaj mard-e-Telangana nairang fatah-e-muhabbat dikhane laga
Aaj mard-e-Telangana tajdeed-e-Mashriq ka musarda sunane laga
Aaj mard-e-Telangana Hainan-o-Java se be-dar ke rishte milane laga’

(‘Today communes in every corner of Telangana are surging
Today shadows of life from life reduced to ashes are there emerging
Today water from a strong sun was created from extinguishing tears
Today from the dry fields was created the ermine of green pastures
Today the man of Telangana begins to show the magic of love’s victory
Today the man of Telangana begins to recite the message of the East’s novelty
Today the man of Telangana became the cause of Hainan and Java’s doorless unity’)

After a particular period of crisis passed for the Progressive Writers Movement, Kashmiri withdrew from temporal poetry and returned to writing ghazals.

Ahmed Bashir’s ‘Jo mile the raste men’.

Kashmiri has been immortalised in eminent Pakistani historian K.K. Aziz’z magnificent book on The Coffee House of Lahore: A Memoir 1942 – 57, as well as Ahmad Bashir’s landmark book of character sketches Jo mile the raste men (‘My Fellow Travellers’).

Aziz chronicles the early years of Kashmiri’s life in 1940s and 1950s Lahore, most memorably the few hours he spent with Kashmiri watching the ‘14 anna’ film at Lahore’s Bhaati Gate, which, though a ‘painful novelty’ for the young middle-class narrator, revealed itself to be deliberate action on Kashmiri’s part.

Kashmiri had wanted Aziz to imbibe the company of the poor and oppressed who frequented that particular theatre, as well as experience its tea stall.

By this time the progressive cultural movement had begun in India, and Kashmiri joined in. He became the vice president of the All Punjab Students Federation when he was in his third year at college.

One day, before going to college, while reading the Hindustan Times, the young Kashmiri read that Dr M.D. Taseer – an associate of Iqbal and one of the pioneers behind the PWA – had declared, ‘My services are at the disposal of His Excellency.’

To Kashmiri, this ode to the British crown at the height of World War II totally exposed Taseer’s ‘revolutionary’ credentials. Taseer would later give speeches on All India Radio in Lahore, which to Kashmiri was the worst example of ‘country-selling’. It also made him reach the conclusion that the basis of knowledge was not books, but rather an analysis of facts, sincere research and a study of the constructive elements of history; and if this was not the foundation of knowledge, then that knowledge itself was weak and unreliable.

The Communist Party of India had a complex and problematic relationship with the War. Kashmiri’s case – as well as the cases of those like him such as Josh Malihabadi who, too, opposed the war and was put under house-arrest – explained it very well.

Also read: Lenin in Urdu: His Every Word Became Poetry

When the War started, he called a conference in which he made a fiery speech against the British. He was arrested as soon as he came off stage. He was in a solitary confinement cell when he received the results of his BA exams. 

During his 10 months in confinement, Kashmiri was moved to five different jails and became a pucca revolutionary. Upon his release, he became the secretary general of the Amritsar District Trade Union, attracting CID officials who started following him around.

When strikes became widespread in factories and owners started suffering losses, the CID prepared a treason case against Kashmiri and secured a warrant for his arrest. But Kashmiri somehow learnt of the warrant as soon as it was issued and went into hiding.

He disappeared from Amritsar as completely as if he had died. He travelled around Bihar and Bengal, observing the suffering of peasants and writing poetry about the long hair and black eyes of the women.

He came back to Amritsar after a year, convinced that the arrest warrant against him had been filed away. He had, by now, become famous across India thanks to his poems that seemed to have quietly made their way into the offices of various magazines while he was in hiding.

He started working in Amritsar with new vigour. He had already become very assertive, and now he bullied his old comrades into reorganising the Trade Union Congress. It was during this period that he organised a ‘raid’ upon the bungalow of Amritsar’s deputy commissioner.

Also read: Kaifi Azmi: Socialism’s ‘Stormy Petrel’

One of Kashmiri’s closest companions in the Trade Union Congress was Gopal Das Sehgal. Being a man of influence in Maheshwari Pictures, Sehgal got Kashmiri a job as the lyricist for the 1945 movie Ragni. This job changed the course of Zaheer’s life.

Around this time, Zaheer left Amritsar and settled in Lahore. In 1959, he started writing a column in Ehsaan daily, under the pseudonym ‘Majnu’. He had been the editor of Sawera, the iconic journal of literature and the arts which recently brought out its hundredth issue.

He wrote the story of Teen Phool (‘Three Flowers’), a movie that he directed himself. He remained associated with Masavaat (‘Equality’) – the magazine of the Pakistan Peoples Party –  as well.

Azmat-E-Aadam (The Greatness of Man), Taghazzul (Versification), Chiragh-e-Akhir-e-Shab (The Lamp At the End of The Night), Raqs-e-Junoon (The Dance of Passion) and Auraaq-e-Musawwir (The Artist’s Pages) are collections of his poetry. His book on literary criticism is titled Adab Ke Ma’adi Nazariye (The Material Ideologies of Literature).

He passed away on December 12, 1994 in Lahore.

Bashir’s sketch, which covers the period of Kashmir’s life in Lahore post-1947 on the other hand, unflatteringly brings out the ‘juggling’ aspect of Kashmiri, the Communist Party ideologue, who while being dedicated to the cause, also wanted to divert attention to himself, whether by attracting hotel waiters, writers or women:

‘Zaheer’s primary purpose in life is to impress and surprise people with his tricks. He teaches Marxism to hotel waiters, trains intellectuals in the art of preparing a paan, explains philosophical concepts to women, and informs street eunuchs of rates charged by kathak dancers. He is a master of all trades…

‘In a few meetings you cannot know him because he shows a new face at every moment in every meeting. You will establish a critical opinion about him in just one glance. This is your compulsion; because your opinion will be wrong. Even his closest friends do not have the same opinion about him but all of their opinions are correct. You may establish whatever opinion you like about him, then change it. Your every opinion will be definitely correct.

‘Ask the writers, they will say, ‘Him? He is a self-styled sort of philosopher.

‘Ask the philosophers, they will respond, ‘Yes. He can recite a verse or so, but philosophy is no child’s play.

‘Prostitutes consider him a saint and ascetic. Saints and ascetics consider him a rake and impure. The college boys consider him an intellectual. Intellectuals consider him a goonda. But he is neither saint nor writer; he is a blackmailer, a thief, a dacoit. How come he has the same relation to literature and philosophy what he would have to Majha and Malwa. Actually all these people are right because Zaheer is a self-styled sort of philosopher, poet, writer, saint, ascetic, lover, goonda, dacoit and everything which people say he is.’

It was this loveable juggler that I remembered as I briefly accompanied a senior writer friend for the lone centenary celebration for Zaheer Kashmiri in Lahore last December at the historic Kisan Hall in the city’s old Mozang area. It was organised by one faction of the leftist National Students Federations

The invitation card of the lone programme held to celebrate Zaheer Kashmiri’s centenary at Lahore, in December, 2019. Photo: Author provided.

And today, as we mark the end of Zaheer Kashmiri’s centennial year, I reflect on how ironic it is that the verse with which I began this piece has now become  proverbial among leftist circles in South Asia but the memory of the poet himself cannot draw a hundred people to his centennial celebration.

But then, Kashmiri’s perpetually raised finger dances in front of my eyes, and punctuated by his forceful laughter, he says, ‘This is the helplessness of your mind, comrade!’

All translations from the Urdu are by the writer.

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: [email protected]