Revisiting the Legacy of Sajjad Zaheer, Founder of the All-India Progressive Writers' Association

On his 45th death anniversary, a reflection on the life of Sajjad Zaheer

Rakhshanda Jalil - Sajjad Zaheer.jpg

Sometime in December 1932, a book called Angarey (Embers) appeared from Lucknow. It was an anthology – the first of its kind in Urdu – comprising nine short stories and one play written by three men and one woman, namely Sajjad Zaheer, Mahmuduzzafar, Ahmed Ali and Rashid Jahan. The next three months saw a torrent of abuse and fatwas against the book and its authors, prompting the Government of the United Provinces to ban it on 15 March 1933 under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code. The proprietor of Nizami Press, Malik Ali Javed, had already caved in completely after his press had been raided under the orders of the city magistrate. He had confessed to his mistake in publishing the book and apologized in a written statement on 27 February 1933 for insulting the feelings of the Muslim community. He readily agreed to surrender the unsold copies of the book to the government. All but five copies were destroyed by the police.

And yet, in an age innocent of xerox or social media, Angarey created a furor far bigger than anything we have seen in recent times and the book and its four young contributors, especially Sajjad Zaheer who had compiled it and published it at his own cost, went on to become something of an urban legend. In the few short months of its existence, Angarey was possibly read by few people. Those who read it did so perforce on the sly, adding to the air of secrecy and furtiveness that the very mention of the book evoked for years to come. And while Angarey became a sang-e meel, a milestone, to mark the progression of socially-engaged, purposive literature in Urdu, Sajjad Zaheer's name became inextricably linked with not just Angarey but a radical new sort of writing.

As we mark his 45th death anniversary this year, it seems appropriate to revisit his legacy. Shortly before the Angarey episode, Sajjad Zaheer (1905-73), the prodigal son of Sir Wazir Hasan, the Chief Justice of Oudh, had recently completed his B. A. and returned from England, where he had been greatly influenced by communistic ideas and had befriended a wide circle of writers and intellectuals such as V. K. Krishna Menon, and Mulkraj Anand. In his first year of the B.A. at New College, Oxford, Zaheer fell ill and had to go to a sanatorium in Switzerland for close to a year. He used this time to learn a good deal of German and French.

On returning to England, he was influenced by the charismatic communist leader Shapurji Saklatvala, joined the Oxford Majlis and attended the Second Congress of the League against Imperialism held in Frankfurt, where he met Viren Chattopadhyay, Saumendranath Tagore, N. M. Jaisoorya (the son of Sarojini Naidu), and Raja Pahendra Pratap. From the League Congress he learnt about the importance of forging an alliance with nationalistic liberation movements in Indonesia, Egypt, etc. David Guest, the Marxist scholar from Cambridge, introduced him to Marx’s Capital. During his undergraduate days, he also read Lenin’s What is to be Done? which laid down the essentials of the organization of a communist party, the need for a centralized democratic leadership and discipline, as well as  Leftwing Communism: An Infantile Disorder and State and Revolution (both by Lenin) and John Strachey’s The Struggle for Power. All this was supplemented by reading Labour Monthly and Daily Worker.

In his reminiscences, called Yaadein, Zaheer spoke passionately of the tumult that grew inside him during his student days in England:

We were gradually drifting towards socialism. Our minds searched for a philosophy which would help us to understand and solve the difficult social problems. We were not satisfied with the idea that humanity had always been miserable and would always remain so…After the end of our university education, this was the beginning of a new and unlimited field of education.

Zaheer did several very remarkable things soon after Angarey was banned. He went back to England ostensibly to study law but got immersed in political activities with the Communist Party of Great Britain. There, he collected a group of like-minded Indians in England who helped him draft a manifesto of what would be the Progressive Writers' Association (PWA).

After returning to India, he organized the first All India Conference of the PWA in Lucknow in April 1936, became its General Secretary and set up the first Marxist journal in Urdu called Chingari (with the help of Sohan Singh Josh in Saharanpur). He published a novel called London ki Ek Raat (1935), a collection of letters to his wife from the prisons of Lucknow and Allahabad called Nuqush-e-Zindan (1944), a history-cum-memoir of the early days of the progressive movement named Roshnai (1956), a critical look at the works of the legendary Persian poet Hafiz in Zikr-e-Hafiz (1958) and a collection of poems in vers libre called Pighalata Neelam (1964). All the while, he remained, primarily, an organizer and party worker. Given his family's close association with the Nehru family, he also served as Nehru's secretary for a brief period in the mid-1930s but was eventually expelled from the Congress and worked as a full-time member of the Communist Party of Indian (CPI), sitting on its central committee. Having said that, it is his immense influence on modern Urdu literature that makes him especially significant for the literary historian.

Despite his slender oeuvre and humble literary output, his understanding of literature, especially its potential to serve as an engine of reform, makes him an important literary figure. His cosmopolitan upbringing and multi-lingualism, coupled with his exposure to new literary trends outside India, made him uniquely qualified to mentor young writers and help usher in not just new styles but also new content. The five stories he had contributed to Angarey were quite unlike anything seen in Urdu literature. The first and most obvious thing that strikes a reader, even today, is their true-to-life quality. Each story paints graphic pictures of the poorest and most downtrodden people – servant girls who have been bought as slaves to serve rich masters, down-at-heel poets living on the largesse of rich relatives, a sweeper living in a dirty, smelly hovel on a rich man’s estate, as well as “vulgar lower-class types” such as clerks and orderlies. By adopting the stream of consciousness and interior monologue techniques newly popularized in the West by writers such as James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf, Zaheer introduced his readers to the flavour of ostensibly unedited, spontaneous, or live performances. He encouraged writers, by his own example, to bring in subjects that had been considered beyond the pale of literature.

With a revival of interest in progressive writing and the influence of the progressive writers' movement, the significance of activist-writers and founder-members such as Zaheer also needs to be evaluated. The more general role played by the PWA from the mid-1930s till the mid-1950s in shaping the political consciousness of large numbers of people has been largely accepted. The movement and its proponents were a powerful and inescapable force. Not only did they commandeer a space for themselves on the political, social and literary canvas of India for nearly three decades, they also re-crafted the existing literary canon. In the years before Independence, they influenced the debates on imperialism and decolonization, and in the years immediately thereafter, they were at the centre of the discourses on the nature of the newly-independent, post-colonised state and society. But in the 30-odd years that the progressive wave swept through India, Zaheer in particular was the good shepherd who tended his flock with tremendous ingenuity and dedication.

Dispatched to Pakistan in March 1948 by his Party to set up the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP), Zaheer struggled in a hostile terrain, got embroiled in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case and was imprisoned along with Faiz Ahmad Faiz and 14 others. Emerging from jail in 1955, he was allowed to return to India but as the saying goes, chhute aseer to badla hua zamana tha. The world had changed by the time the prisoners were released. Back home in India, Zaheer found new causes to promote: the need for forging an Afro-Asian alliance between newly independent countries and for writers to be ever vigilant towards social realities. In his constancy towards the idea of progressivism, Zaheer's life demonstrates how movements propelled by ideas may die or be curtailed, but ideas don't die. The idea of progressivism as Zaheer understood and tried to instill among Indian writers is not dead and gone. It lives whenever a writer speaks out against injustice, inequality and oppression.


Republished with revisions from The Wire


Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, critic and literary historian who has published over 15 books and written over 50 academic papers and essays. Her recent works include Liking Progress, Loving Change: A Literary History of the Progressive Writers Movement in Urdu (OUP, 2014) and The Sea Lies Ahead, a translation of Intizar Husain’s novel on Karachi (Harper Collins, 2015).