“His Every Word Became Poetry”: Lenin in Urdu Literature - II

Raza Naeem explores the Russian revolutionary’s influence on Urdu’s literati

“His Every Word Became Poetry”: Lenin in Urdu Literature - II
By the time of the formation of the Progressive Writers Association in 1936, events in the Soviet Union itself and in India had divided the communist movement – following the death of Lenin in 1924, the consolidation of Stalin’s power and subsequent expulsion of Trotsky from the Soviet Union. In India itself, the Communist Party split into the CPI and CPI-M (Marxist) in the 1960s. However among the poets, Lenin still remained a revered figure.

One powerful example of such uncritical devotion is “Lenin”, part of Ali Sardar Jafri’s 1949 collection Khoon ki Lakeer (The Bloodline). It is definitely not one of Jafri’s best poems, especially when he compares the old man to the innkeeper of a ‘Red’ tavern:

Jisne har qaum ko har mulk ko sairaab kiya

Surkh maikhaane ka voh peer mughaan hai Lenin

(He who fulfilled every country and nation

That tavern-keeper of the red tavern, Lenin)

Elsewhere reminiscing about the dreams of youth, Jafri in the poem Mere Khvaab” (My Dreams) narrates reading Lenin as part of a workers’ assembly,

“Ek kar-khane men

Chand naujavanon ne

Anjuman banai hai

Aur is men Lenin ki

Ik kitab padhte hen”

(In a factory

Some youth

Have made an association

And read a book of Lenin

With concentration)

It is in Kaifi Azmi’s paean to Lenin that one gets a break from the uncritical hagiography that surrounds commemorations of Lenin in our literature

Niaz Haider, a highly-regarded and promising communist poet, published a collection of poems to mark the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1967 titled Naveed-e-Asar Lenin (Lenin, the Glad Tidings of the Age). In one of the poems “Bahuzoor-e-Lenin” (In the Presence of Lenin) dated April 1958, the poet betrays the rather unfortunate tendency to make Lenin into a Byzantine saint:

“Jo khudaon ko bhi de yeh banda hai vohi

Jo kaleesa mein nahin hai, yeh maseeha hai vohi’

(He is the same man who mocks even the gods, leaving them in the lurch

He is the same messiah, who is not present in the Church)

It is in Kaifi Azmi’s paean to Lenin that one gets a break from the uncritical hagiography that surrounds commemorations of Lenin in our literature. Kaifi’s poem, part of his most tortured work Aavara Sajde (Vagabond Obeisances), published in 1974, invokes Lenin to address the splits in the worldwide communist movement, including India:

“Aik patthar se tarashi thi jo tum ne deevaar

Ik khatarnaak shigaaf is mein nazar aata hai”

(With a single stone you had carved the wall’s structure

A dangerous crack may cause it to rupture)

In the very next paragraph, he requests Lenin to write another scripture to solve the issues of the period,

“Ehd pecheeda, masail hen sivaa pecheeda

In ko suljhao saheefa koi tehreer kardo”

(The period difficult, the problems over and above it at this juncture

Resolve them, pray do write some scripture)

Google Doodle for Kaifi Azmi

The intention here, of course, is the nostalgia and recourse to a time when Lenin alone held sway as the colossus of the world communist movement and prospects for disunity looked bleak while he was alive.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the doyen of Pakistani progressives, surprisingly has no separate poem on Lenin, though he does have a poem in his Kulliyaat (Collected Works) commemorating the martyrs of the Battle of Leningrad from the Second World War. Faiz’s lyrical pro-peace speech which he made in Urdu while accepting his Lenin Peace Prize in 1962 only refers to the grand old man in a couple of lines, “The greatness of the Lenin Peace Prize indeed is evident from this single matter that the respected and sacred name of Lenin is associated with it. Lenin […] is the most venerable standard-bearer of human freedom in the present time.” One is not sure whether Faiz, unlike Kaifi and Sahir later on, was plain oblivious of, or had already seen some chinks in the Soviet system and was being merely deferential to his generous hosts.

Soviet poster - 'Colonialism is doomed'

Sahir Ludhianvi, meanwhile, devoted two poems to Lenin, one of which is a standard ode to the latter as the leader of the victorious revolution of 1917. The second poem, written on the occasion of Lenin’s birth centenary on the 24th of April 1970, fifty years ago, opens with the uncertainty which many in the communist world were also confronting regarding the division and disunity in the communist camp,

“Kya jaanen, teri ummat kis haal ko pohanche gi

Barhti chali jaati hai taadaad imamon ki’

(Where will your community go, how are we to know

The number of leaders continues to grow)

Sahir refers obliquely to the events in Moscow following the death of Stalin and the split in the communist movement, before which present enemies and ‘revisionists’ were once comrades. In closing, Sahir raises the apprehension that sect rather than class maybe the basis of a new division,

“Tabqon se nikal kar hum firqon men na batt jayen

Ban kar na bigar jaye taqdeer ghulamon ki”

(Pray we do not divide by sects rather than classes

In that fortune not favour the slave masses)

Pakistani resistance poet Habib Jalib’s eulogy to Lenin, titled “Lenin – Jawab iska paida kare kainaat”, part of Jalib’s 1975 poetry collection Ehd-e-Sazaa (The Age of Punishment), offers a unique perspective on how the Bolshevik leader inspires writers:

“He gave imagination to the writers

His every word became poetry”

While Urdu poetry is rich in references to Lenin, for the purposes of this brief review essay, I have not been able to find very many concrete references in Urdu fiction. However, Pakistan’s greatest living fiction writer Mustansar Hussain Tarar, who first visited Moscow as an eighteen-year-old Pakistani delegate to the 6th World Festival of Youth, mentions visiting Lenin’s mausoleum in his novella recounting that trip, Fakhta (The Dove):

“And Lenin[…]dressed in his traditional dress coat, waistcoat and broad tie, this same thick and ugly knot which has emerged in a distinct manner in millions of pictures and sculptures till now. Wide brow and har set in order[…]Lenin whose socialist system comprises more than half the world today; Lenin who deemed the workers and peasants the true claimants of the throne for the first time in history.”

More than half a century later, Tarar recreated the crumbling of that world and its impact on a generation of Pakistanis who had made Moscow their home, either physically or of their dreams for social justice and emancipation, in his novel Ae Ghazaal-e-Shab, which has been recently translated into English as “Lenin for Sale”. The eponymous Lenin refers to both the ideological sellout of his ideas in the new Russia where apparatchiks turned into businessmen –  capitalist Lenins and Stalins whom no one could touch – and physical sale as well. The main character of the novel finds that there is no market for the Lenin statues discarded by the new political dispensation, so he is forced to turn them into crosses. Here is how Tarar mercilessly describes one such Lenin crossing over from Russia into the United States:

“Following its immediate sale many Lenins came and went – American tourists were dead keen on them, and paid the asking price in dollars. They were packed in huge crates and shipped back home. Comrade Lenin, whose system had not been able to approach those shores in his lifetime, was now, after his death, entering the country of the yellow devil without any passport or visa[…]A Texan millionaire had placed him outside his front door with a placard on his chest: ‘Dogs and communists not allowed! By order of Vladimir Lenin.’[…] He was now a frivolous decoration piece in the system he had struggled to destroy and in this sophisticated capitalistic world he had been unable to fix the know of his tie – it was still loose and slovenly.”

Tarar’s treatment of the effects of the collapse of the Marxist-Leninist regime in Moscow is hitherto the only one that I have come across in Urdu literature and deserves to be treated in greater detail than is possible in this brief review.

Lenin statues are also the central character of Kishwar Naheed’s poem “Beesveen Saddi ka Ikhtitami Noha” (The Concluding Dirge of the Twentieth Century), but these statues refer to the Lenin statue which was dismantled in Berlin in 1991 following the end of the communist regime in Germany. Unlike Tarar’s main character in the novel, the writer of these verses is not in conversation with the dismantled statues, but with the dismantlers.

“Like the wind in anger

Uproots the sails

The roofs of the houses remain no longer

Causing the petals of flowers to scatter

In the same manner, in the same manner

You made the lifesize statues sunder

Like water flowing from thirst’s court

Becoming like a storm in riot

Wastes fields and plants belonging to you and me

Carries away all, animal, human and tree

In the same manner, in the same manner

You made the lifesize statues sunder


Like innocent children

Put paper boats in the water

Fly paper planes in the air

Make colourful boats from the soapy water

Sitting on the wooden horse, having fun

Pick up a club, taking it to be a gun

In the same manner, in the same manner

You made the lifesize statues sunder”

The accusatory refrain at the end of every stanza (“Bilkul vaise bilkul vaise hi/Tum ne qad-e-Adam mujjasamon ko tor daala”) contrasts starkly with the sense one gets from the poem of the dismantling of the Lenin statues – and by extension the Leninist system – being as natural and inevitable a process as the vagaries of nature and humans; they are calamitous but predictable.

It is pertinent to end this piece with a parody of Mirza Ghalib by the humorous Delhi poet Nazar Barni, Zuban Kyun Ho? (Why This Language?), wherein Lenin makes a cameo appearance,

“Voh kehta hai ke Amrika ko Lenin ne basaya tha

Ho jab ustad hi jaahil toa mera imtihaan kyun ho”

(Lenin had settled America, he is wont to say

When my teacher is indeed ignorant, sitting for my exam will not pay)

The couplet is not only a comment on the notoriously uncritical guru-shagird relationship in South Asia, but also on those dogmatic Leninists for whom Lenin seems to be everywhere, even out-discovering Columbus!

Note: This is the first in a series of articles and reviews commemorating Lenin’s 150th birth anniversary. All translations from the Urdu are by the writer, unless otherwise stated. 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

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached via email: razanaeem@hotmail.com and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979