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

The Sardar of Progressive poetry, who gave it new facets with his powerful imagery, preferred to recite verses on the battlefield of existence than seek gratification.

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.

Also read: Jaun Elia: A Communist Poet Who Found Religion and Marxism Compatible

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.

Ali Sardar Jafri. Photo: YouTube video screengrab

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.

Also read: Looking for Each Other, the Historical Task of the Hindu and Muslim

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.)”

Also read: As We Celebrate Urdu, Let’s Not Ignore the Signs of Its Decline in India

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.

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

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.

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: razanaeem@hotmail.com