A pioneering progressive

September 24, 2023

A tribute to the life and legacy of Sajjad Zaheer

A pioneering  progressive


yed Sajjad Zaheer, the founder of the Progressive Writers’ Association, passed away 50 years ago. He was then participating in a conference of African and Asian writers held at Almaty. Unity and friendship among African and Asian writers had always been dear to him.

A year earlier, he had been collecting material about the life and poetry of Amir Khusrau in anticipation of the sixth centenary death anniversary of the poet to be celebrated in 1975.

Zaheer was the fourth son of Sir Syed Wazir Hasan, a chief judge of the Lucknow Chief Court. He had passed his BA from Oxford University and became a barrister in 1935. However, he neither practiced law nor seek employment. Instead, he 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 had participated in anti-imperialist movements and developed an interest in socialism. Zaheer had a literary bent and was friends with some influential writers and poets in London including Auden, Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, Ralph Fox, Jack Lindsay, David Guest, Maurice Cornforth and Mulk Raj Anand. Zaheer was proficient in French and English but always wrote in Urdu to which he had an intense emotional attachment. He wrote his famous novel London Ki Aik Raat (A Night in London) while in London that remains popular to this day. He also wrote some short stories during that period.

He was also associated with the publication of Angaaray (Embers), a collection of short stories among others by Prof Ahmed Ali, Dr Rashid Jahan and her husband Mian Mahmud-uz Zafar. The book caused quite a stir when it was first published as the Urdu readers of that era were not used to reading such direct and harsh of the society. Today, these stories appear to be quite harmless. Angaaray received some very harsh reviews and some of the writers got death threats. In the end, the UP government confiscated this book.

This was a time of grave political crise. Hitler had recently taken over power in Germany. General Franco and his companions had overthrown the elected government in Spain with support from German and Italian powers. It was in this context that Zaheer and his comrades laid the foundation of an organisation of writers to support progressive ideals and causes.

Zaheer met with many eminent scholars, writers and poets of the subcontinent and exchanged views with them on this issue. Among others, the idea was endorsed 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 and Josh Malihabadi. His contemporaries, including Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Dr Akhtar Hussain Raipuri, Professor Majnoon Gorakhpuri, Professor Ahmed Ali, Professor Firaq Gorakhpuri, Akhtar Shirani and Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, too, supported him. The first conference of the PWA was held in Lucknow in 1936. It was presided over by Munshi Premchand. Sajjad Zaheer was elected the association’s general secretary. In a very short time, the Association proved itself a dynamic force.

Zaheer had his favourites and biases in both literature and politics. He remained a lifelong campaigner in both dimensions and made great sacrifices. Still, he did not impose his ideas on his friends and relatives.

During house arrest from 1939 to 1944, Zaheer wrote many literary essays under the name of Siraj Mubeen that were published in Naya Daur, a PWA publication. Upon his release, he went to Bombay, where he edited Qaumi Jang. He was also elected to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of India. Despite his political activities, Zaheer never abandoned his literary work.

He organised a Ghalib Day for the first time in Bombay that was celebrated with great pomp. A little later, he also organised a Shibli Day. Writers from various schools of thought participated in these activities. Zaheer’s feelings about art and literature were always intense. Seeing his generosity and passion some of the writers who disagreed with his politics too cooperated with him in his literary objectives.

In 1951, Zaheer was arrested in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case. During his confinement at Hyderabad and Mach Jails, he wrote two books of enduring literary significance. Zikr-i-Hafiz is a critical study of the life and poetry of poet Hafiz Shirazi. Roshnai is a history of the launch of the Progressive Writers’ Movement and its growth as well as a rebuttal of the charges brought against this Movement from time to time. He also wrote some poems that were later published from Delhi under the title: Pighla Neelam. In his preface to Pighla Neelam, Zaheer raised several questions regarding modern poets, the limitations of traditional symbols and poetic diction.

Zaheer was released from Mach Jail in 1955 and immediately sent to India. He continued all his life to build goodwill and friendly relations between Pakistan and India. As editor of a daily newspaper, Hayat, he had applied for permission to visit Pakistan. In this connection, he had also met his Oxford classmate Mian Mumtaz Daultana. Daultana had written to (then prime minister) Zulfikar Ali Bhutto about this but before Bhutto could reply, Sajjad Zaheer departed from this world.

Sajjad Zaheer was not a prolific writer. In a literary career spanning over 35 years, he wrote just one novel, some 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 around two dozen essays. All his writings, however, had profound influence on modern Urdu literature.

He had begun his literary career as writer of fiction. However, he soon shifted to writing criticism, which proved the best representation of his ideas.

Some of his critical essays represent important milestones in the history of Urdu criticism. These essays opened new ways for interpreting and criticising classical and modern literature. He never used jargon to intimidate his readers and never claimed intellectual superiority over others. He was seen as a harsh critic but had no malice towards anybody. He never made personal attacks.

Sajjad Zaheer was one of the most popular people of his time. He also had an endless desire to meet people, especially young writers and showed them great affection. He welcomed them with great cheerfulness and happiness and exchanged views about their problems with great attention and warmth. He would listen to others patiently and never put down any visitor.

Sajjad Zaheer was very good at managing and arranging literary ceremonies. Founding the Progressive Writers’ Association was a great achievement. During his meetings with the diverse writers all over the subcontinent in those days, he never showed impatience or got angry with anybody.

Zaheer had his favourites and biases in both literature and politics. He remained a lifelong campaigner in both dimensions and made great sacrifices. Still, he did not impose his ideas on his friends and relatives. Besides being very enlightened, he was endowed with a refined taste and a love of beauty.

He used to detest poverty and human misery. He greatly admired music, ,eastern as well as western and loved Persian, Urdu and Hindi poetry.

All his life was a struggle but he never became bitter.

The writer is the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He may be reached at razanaeem@hotmail.com and tweets at @raza_naeem1979

A pioneering progressive