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January 5, 2020

Raziya, Shaukat, and the PWA - Part - I


January 5, 2020

When Shaukat Kaifi died in November 2019 at the age of 93, another prominent woman of the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) movement of India, Razia Sajjad Zaheer, came to mind whose 40th death anniversary fell in 2019. Both were closely associated with left-wing literary and political activities and also supported their husbands, Kaifi Azmi and Sajjad Zaheer, in their pursuits.

In this two-part column, we have a look at the lives of Raziya and Shaukat through two books: ‘Mere Hisse ki Roshanai’ (My bit of light) by Raziya’s daughter, Noor Zaheer; and ‘Yaad ki Reh Guzar’ (Nostalgia) by Shaukat Kaifi herself. Noor Zaheer has been an accomplished actor on stage, civil society activist, kathak dancer, journalist, novelist, playwright, researcher, short-story writer; and has penned books in English, Hindi, and Urdu. Her novel ‘My God is a Woman’ has won critical acclaim and her short stories have appeared in English, titled ‘Raging Forests’, and in Urdu as ‘Rait par Khoon’ (Blood on Sand).

The lives of Raziya and Shaukat have many things in common. Both belonged to relatively conservative families; both were apolitical before getting married; both adapted their personalities to survive with meagre financial resources; and both managed to enhance their creative potential to contribute to the progressive movement in India. Raziya wrote novels, stories, and travelogues, composed radio features and plays, and translated world literature into Urdu. Shaukat, on the other hand, excelled at acting in films and theatre, from the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) to mainstream cinema such as in ‘Umrao Jan’ with Rekha.

But here we are more concerned with their personal lives to understand how these outstanding women segued from their comfortable lives into a challenging realm of left-wing and progressive politics. How they raised their children to become creative individuals, and how they stood with their husbands in the face of extreme hardships. Noor Zaheer’s book ‘Mere Hisse ki Roshnai’ lays bare the inside story of the Zaheer family from Lucknow to Delhi, and how Raziya managed to raise her daughters when her husband Sajjad Zaheer was in Pakistan for eight years, including five years in prison under the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case.

Noor Zaheer informs us that her mother, Raziya Dilshad, was born in 1918 in Ajmer, Rajasthan, in a family that had moved there from Banaras. Raziya’s father, Khan Bahadur Raza Hussain, was principal of Ajmer Islamia College and the family lived a comfortable life. At the age of 20, Raziya was married to Sajjad Zaheer, who had returned from England after completing his law degree. The marriage was entirely arranged and the husband and wife had never seen each other before the wedding. Since Sajjad Zaheer had founded the Progressive Writers Association and had no inclination to practise law, Raziya was expected to tame her husband back into a career-oriented life.

Well, Raziya never did that; rather she herself realized and understood the work her husband was doing. There was no question of trying to transform Sajjad, instead Raziya molded herself into an iron lady who was ready and willing to sacrifice life’s comforts for a materially coarse – but intellectually fulfilling – life. Within a year after their marriage in 1938, Sajjad was arrested by the British authorities for his political activities. Raziya gave birth to their first daughter, Najma, when her husband was in jail. Imagine a 21-year old newlywed woman holding her baby while her husband languished in prison. Sajjad remained in jail for a couple of years.

Then, ten years and three daughters later, the Communist Party of India (CPI) asked Sajjad Zaheer to move to Pakistan in 1948. But before that another story unfoldsed in 1946-47 – that of Kaifi and Shaukat in Hyderabad Deccan. In her book ‘Yaad ki Rehguzar’, Shaukat informs us that she spent her childhood in the colourful culture of south India but she was overtaken by the colour of Kaifi’s personality and poetry. The book is an expression of her progressive commitments, an emphatic worldview, and a clear vision of her concept of human civilization.

Shaukat exposes the feudal and tribal mores of Hyderabad state. Though the Nizam (ruler) of Hyderabad was a patron of arts and literature, he was also a debauch to the hilt and most of his courtiers too indulged in ruthless exploitation of the masses. Shaukat narrates how unsafe and vulnerable all young girls felt in Hyderabad state. Abductions and rape were a common occurrence. But the crux of the book is in her own story in which she recalls how she began loving Kaifi Azmi – it was almost love at first sight.

It was in February 1947, that Kaifi Azmi went to the PWA conference in Hyderabad, and that’s where 20-year-old Shaukat met Kaifi Azmi and both fell in love almost instantly. Unlike Raziya’s arranged marriage, Shaukat had to fight against her family to break her engagement with a cousin, and marry Kaifi. On Kaifi’s behalf, Comrade Mirza Ashfaque Baig went to Hyderabad and talked to Shaukat’s father. Luckily, her father yielded and brought her to Bombay where Raziya and Sajjad Zaheer with some other comrades persuaded her father to trust Kaifi as a responsible husband for her daughter. Comrades Mehdi and Munish Narayan Saxena arranged for the Qazi.

As an aside, I had an opportunity to meet and live with Mirza Ashfaque Baig and Munish Narayan Saxena in Moscow in the 1980s. Both used to recall their struggles of the 1940s and 50s. They fondly remembered the wedding of Kaifi and Shaukat where Josh, Majaz, Krishan, Sahir, Mohendra, Patras, Aadil, Wajd, Ismat, Jafry, Sultana, Sarosh, and many other progressive poets and writers had gathered at a short notice. Josh acted as Kaifi’s father, and of course Raziya and Sajjad as older siblings of the marrying couple. Since the Qazi was Sunni Muslim, Kaifi also pretended to be one.

Raziya was eight years older than Shaukat and already had three daughters. Raziya became an elder sister and guardian to Shaukat and led her through the maze of personal and professional challenges they were facing as progressive activists and intellectuals. Raziya and Sajjad hosted meetings of the PWA at their home from 4pm to 8pm every week. Sajjad was Bannay Bhai for everyone, and Raziya Apa took care of the teas and snacks. Bannay Bhai would rebuke anyone who missed the weekly meeting. Then there were regular poetry recitals (Mushaira) where Josh, Jafri, Kaifi, Sahir, and Majrooh were in regular attendance.

The Indian People’s Theater Association (IPTA) was formed in August 1947. Its founders included Sardar Jafri, Anil de Silva and K A Abbas; and then Balraj and Bhisham Sawheny, Prem Dhavan, Dina Pathak, Mohan Sehgal, Vishva Mitra Adil also joined. Prithviraj Kapoor was its honorary president and Zohar Sehgal honorary member. Ismat Chughtai wrote many plays for the IPTA. But that association of Raziya with Shaukat was short-lived as in 1948 Sajjad Zaheer had to leave for Pakistan and Raziya moved to Lucknow. The CPI had supported the Muslim League’s demand for the division of India and creation of Pakistan.

In the second congress of the CPI, general secretary P C Joshi was accused of being a reformist and pro-Congress. B T Ranadive replaced Joshi and declared that an armed uprising was on the cards and the people of India were ready for it. Joshi had opposed this line and advocated a more gradual approach to revolution as the people lacked awareness about it. Most of the CPI supported Ranadive and the decline of the party began. Most of the leaders were arrested and put behind bars. The CPI was banned in 1949.

To be continued

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]