Ink and light

Sajjad Zaheer with his comrades formed the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) in 1936 when he was around 30

November 26, 2023
Sajjad Zaheer at a Progressive Writers’ Association Meeting in this image. — University of Austin, Texas

The Arabic word ‘noor’ has multiple meanings. Depending on the context, it can mean brightness, divine light, or simply ‘light’. ‘Raushnai’ is a Persian word having similar meanings, but it can also mean ink and splendour. ‘Zaheer’ is an Arabic adjective denoting something open, shining, or visible.

With this brief preamble, we come to the theme of this column: Noor Zaheer and ‘Raushnai’. Noor is an author, dancer, educator, and journalist currently living in London. Her parents Razia and Sajjad Zaheer were prominent progressive activists and writers who raised four daughters; Noor being the youngest.

Sajjad Zaheer’s first claim to fame was ‘Angaarey’ (burning colas or embers) – a collection of groundbreaking short stories by some progressive writers in the early 1930s. This collection of stories invited the ire of the clergy and the conservative lot, forcing the British government in India to impose a ban on it.

Sajjad Zaheer with his comrades formed the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) in 1936 when he was around 30. This became a giant literary movement that has influenced at least three generations of writers in the past nine decades. The names of novelists, poets, and short-story writers who received inspiration from the PWA are too many to cite here. The PWA’s moving force Sajjad Zaheer played an instrumental role for at least 40 years till his unexpected death in 1973. After Partition, he moved to Pakistan where, along with Faiz Ahmed Faiz and other comrades, he got implicated in a fabricated Rawalpindi conspiracy case in 1951.

He spent eight years in Pakistan – five in prison. In jail, he managed to write ‘Raushnai’ – the story of the formation of the PWA – which became a classic and a compulsory reading for anyone interested in the history of the progressive writer’s movement in the Subcontinent.

In 2005, Noor Zaheer published ‘Mere Hisse ki Raushnai’ (my share of the ink), and she has now written ‘Sihaee ki aik boond’ (a drop of black ink). In Pakistan, Aslam Khawja of Progressive Book Publishers Karachi has combined the two books into a single volume that is worth reading.

The books contain memories of Noor Zaheer with her parents mostly in the 1960s and 1970s when they lived in Bombay, Delhi, and Lucknow – their hometown. Though Noor was fairly young in the 1960s, she has vivid memories of how her parents used to recall their days together in the 1940s when their small home in Bombay became a centre of progressive activities. That was the time when the British had thrown India into the Second World War without discussing this matter with the Indian leadership. After the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, the Communist Party of India sided with the British, calling it the people’s war against fascism.

After the war ended, on the eve of Independence, the progressive movement found itself in a challenging situation regarding the creation of Pakistan. Sajjad Zaheer came to Pakistan leaving his three daughters and wife to fend for themselves in India. That was the time when Razia had to work pretty hard – doing translation work and writing stories and dramas, earning money that was hardly enough for them to survive.

When Sajjad Zaheer moved back from Pakistan to India in 1956, he lost his Indian citizenship and again Razia had to intervene by talking directly to prime minister Nehru to restore her husband’s Indian citizenship.

Noor beautifully narrates how in 1964 they set up their home in Delhi as it was for the first time after 1948 that the entire family was together. In 1973, when Sajjad Zaheer passed away, they still lived in the same house. Her book weaves one anecdote after another, making it a seamless story of a teenage girl who was observing two giants of Urdu literature under one roof. The story is not entirely biographical nor is it sequential, but it keeps the reader engaged in the events unfolding in their lives and the people and places they visit.

Razia and Sajjad emerge as a loving couple whose private lives are full of challenges; they face them with courage and stamina together. Noor has done great service by writing these books as most readers did not know much about the characters and personalities who spent time with them.

In the book, their home is a place where friends find refuge from the hardships of life. Within their four walls, you find smiles and laughter but rarely tears and tantrums. This is the picture of a home that is enviable to many, but not replicable for most.

In these books, you meet writers who became the strong pillars of the progressive movement in the Subcontinent. These people are part and parcel of the Zaheer family and all of them have assumed grand status in the history of Urdu literature.

The vignettes that Noor Zaheer has presented in this book look like beads in a sparkling rosary. Her style of writing is so spontaneous that it carries the reader into the confines of her home where almost everyone is surrounded by books and papers and occasionally by bottles of poets and writers’ favourite drink.

While the first book is more about Noor’s father and his activities, the second – ‘Siahee ki aik boond’ –revolves around the challenges that her mother Razia faced almost daily. At times she takes up the role of a strict mother who is bent upon training her daughters in all sorts of chores. At others, she is a writer who wakes up at sunrise and starts her translation and writing work that she can’t do without. She is a disciplinarian with a code of conduct for herself and the entire family and friends.

Razia was all alone when her entire family migrated to Pakistan and her in-laws were in no mood to help her as she was the wife of a man who had challenged family traditions. Still, she worked. Stories from her past include one where she was brave enough to enter a crowd that was looking at a dead body. She went home and brought a bed sheet to cover the body while the crowd looked on. She taught hundreds of girls and moulded many of them into progressive individuals who could stand up for their rights.

In these books, we get to know poets such as Faiz, Firaq, Josh, Kaifi Azmi, Majaz, Niaz Haider, Sardar Jafri and writers including Bedi, Ismat Chughtai, Krishan Chander, Mulk Raj Anand, Namvar Singh, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas and many others who spent evenings with the Zaheer family.

Noor was an observant child who could document episodes from her memory. This was a home where secularism prevailed. Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs all were welcome as they respected each other and seldom indulged in egotism or self-righteousness. They respected all religions but never accepted any extremist or fundamentalist interpretations of them.

The book also tells us about some elders in the family who deprived their nieces of due share in the family legacy after the death of Sajjad Zaheer. Noor shares some startling details about how patriarchy affected her eldest sister who could not resist increasing religiosity in her husband who mentally tortured Razia in her old age.

Both Razia and Sajjad Zaheer died in the 1970s when they were still in their sixties. They lived a full life and contributed immensely to the progressive movement. Noor Zaheer is a fine example of how they raised their daughters.

‘Raushnai’ is a torch that Razia and Sajjad kindled, and Noor is carrying that torch with aplomb. Definitely, ink (raushnai) and light (noor) go hand in hand.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets/posts NaazirMahmood and can be reached at: mnazir1964yahoo.co.uk