Juggler of Amritsar: Zaheer Kashmiri (1919-1994)

Juggler of Amritsar: Zaheer Kashmiri (1919-1994)

Hamen khabar hai ke hum hain charagh-e-akhir-e-shab

Hamare baad andhera nahi ujala hai

(We know that we are the lamp at the end of the night

After us there won’t be darkness, but light)

It may seem obligatory to write the customary centennial tribute to Zaheer Kashmiri – who was born 102 years ago on August 21 in Amritsar – by someone who now heads the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) in Lahore. For, while Kashmiri lived, both the PWA and Lahore were indistinguishable from the man himself. However, for me an additional – albeit personal – reason to write about Kashmiri is that like me he was also Kashmiri and hailed from Amritsar, from where my maternal grandfather migrated to Lahore in 1947.

Kashmiri was among those poets who not only participated in the organizational activities of the PWA but was also at the forefront in practical politics. He took part in the activities of workers and peasants and also suffered the trials of imprisonment for these. In fact, this relationship with captivity continued after 1947 – even in the dungeons of General Zia-ul-Haq's dictatorship in Pakistan.

He originally belonged to Kashmir, born into a family of pirs whose ancestors were sweepers at the shrine of Saboor Shahwali. His father worked in the Central Investigation Department (CID); later retired and sold vegetable oil on Lahore’s Beadon Road. Kashmiri had reached Lahore before the 1947 Partition. He did his Masters in English. In the beginning, he worked for films. He started writing poetry when he was eleven years old. The first verse he composed was:

Khuda ki rehmat se baadal aaya

Rehmat ka jalva haq ne dikhaya

(The cloud arrived with Divine potency

Truth showed the splendor of mercy)

Kashmiri was a very zealous man and a crusading harshness was to be found in his temperament. Due to this difficult nature, he possessed ideological intensity and extremism which also affected his poetry. Like Sardar Jafri and Kaifi Azmi, etc., he too suppressed his individual issues and internal emotions to stress the importance of international issues and planned his poems for this end.

The Communist Party of India had a complex and problematic relationship with the War. Kashmiri’s case, as well as those like him – such as Josh Malihabadi who opposed the war and was put under house-arrest – illustrated this

He writes about himself:

Imperishable artistic values can be created in accidental and temporal titles. Influenced by this thought, I began to fashion topics out of national and international events. I recited verses on the imperialist period of the Second World War; tried to make conspicuous the popular period of the War; mentioned the unparalleled courage of the martyrs of Sevastopol; versified the red revolution of Europe, etc.”

This mode of thinking made Kashmiri more attentive towards topical and issue-based poetry. We find high-soundedness imposed from above rather than creative anguish in those poems; that is why these poems do not leave a permanent impact on us. Zaheer Kashmiri’s own style could not be fixed. He joined his voice now with Iqbal, Faiz, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi and some other poets. Then he begins to orate like Sardar Jafri. For example, this portion of his long poem Asia:

Aaj arz-e-Telangana ke goshe goshe men commune ban-ne lage

Aaj khakister zindagi se vahan zindagi ke hayule ubharne lage

Aaj bujhte hue aansuon se vahan aab-e-meher-e-jahan taab peda hui

Aaj sookhi hui khetiyon se vahan narm sabze ki sanjaab peda hui

Aaj mard-e-Telangana nairang fatah-e-muhabbat dikhane laga

Aaj mard-e-Telangana tajdeed-e-Mashriq ka musarda sunane laga

Aaj mard-e-Telangana Hainan-o-Java se be-dar ke rishte milane laga

(Today communes in every corner of Telangana are surging

Today shadows of life from life reduced to ashes are there emerging

Today water from a strong sun was created from extinguishing tears

Today from the dry fields there was created the ermine of green pastures

Today the man of Telangana begins to show the magic of love’s victory

Today the man of Telangana begins to recite the message of the East’s novelty

Today the man of Telangana became the cause of Hainan and Java’s doorless unity)

After the passing of the crisis period of the Progressive Writers Movement, Zaheer Kashmiri withdrew from temporal poetry to return to writing ghazals.

Kashmiri has been immortalized in eminent Pakistani historian K.K. Aziz’z magnificent book The Coffee House of Lahore: A Memoir 1942 – 57, as well as Ahmad Bashir’s landmark book of character sketches Jo Mile The Raste Men (My Fellow Travellers). Aziz chronicles the early years of Kashmiri’s life in 1940s and '50s Lahore, most memorably the few hours he spent with Kashmiri watching the ‘14 anna’ film at Lahore’s Bhaati Gate, which though was a ‘painful novelty’ for the young middle-class narrator, revealed itself to be a deliberate action on Kashmiri’s part; for the latter wanted the former to imbibe the milieu of the poor and oppressed who frequented that particular ‘cinema’, as well as experience the tea stall where Kashmiri and Aziz subsequently went.

Communist intelligentsia in colonial India had a complex relationship to the Second World War. Pictured: Indian recruits line up to fight for the Allies, 1943

By this time the Progressive Movement had begun in India, Zaheer joined the movement to personally resolve the question of the class system in India and became the vice president of the All Punjab Students Federation when he was in his third year at college.

One day, before going to College, while reading the Hindustan Times, young Kashmiri read that Dr M.D. Taseer – an associate of Iqbal and one of the pioneers behind the PWA – declared “My services are at the disposal of His Excellency.” To Kashmiri, this ode to the British crown at the height of World War 2 totally exposed Taseer’s ‘revolutionary’ credentials. Taseer would later give speeches on All India Radio in Lahore, which to Kashmiri was the worst example of ‘country-selling’. It also made him reach the conclusion that the basis of knowledge was not books, rather an analysis of the facts, sincere research and a study of the constructive elements of history. And, he held, if this is not the foundation of knowledge, that knowledge was weak and unreliable.

The Communist Party of India had a complex and problematic relationship with the War. Kashmiri’s case, as well as those like him – such as Josh Malihabadi who opposed the war and was put under house-arrest – illustrated this difficult relationship to the War very well.

When the War started, he called a conference in which he made a fiery speech against the British. He was arrested as soon as he came off the stage. This is how it came to be that he was in jail when he heard the result of his BA exams. He was kept in a solitary confinement cell.

During his ten months in confinement, he was moved to five different jails. He became a 'pucca' revolutionary in jail. Upon his release, he became the secretary general of the Amritsar District Trade Union. His activities attracted CID officials who started following him around like his shadow.

When the strikes became widespread in factories and the owners started suffering losses, the CID prepared a treason case against Zaheer and secured a warrant for his arrest. But Zaheer somehow learnt of the warrant as soon as it was issued and went into hiding.

He disappeared from Amritsar as completely as if he had died. But he was, in fact, roaming around Bihar and Bengal: observing the suffering of their peasants and writing poetry about the long hair and black eyes of the women.

He came back to Amritsar after a year, convinced that the arrest warrant against him had been filed away. He had by now become famous across India, thanks to his poems that quietly made their way into the offices of various magazines and got published. He started working in Amritsar with a new vigour. Kashmiri had already become very assertive, and now he bullied his old comrades into reorganising the Trade Union Congress. It was during this period that he organised a raid upon the bungalow of Amritsar’s deputy commissioner!

One of Zaheer’s closest companions in Trade Union Congress was Gopal Das Sehgal. Being a man of influence in Maheshwari Pictures, Sehgal got Zaheer the job of lyricist for the movie Raagni. This job changed the course of Zaheer’s life. He left Amritsar and settled in Lahore. In 1959, he started writing a column in Ehsaan daily, under the pseudonym Majnu. He had been the editor of Sawera, the iconic journal of literature and the arts which recently brought out its hundredth issue. He wrote the story of Teen Phool (Three Flowers), a movie that he directed himself. He remained associated with Masavaat (Equality), the magazine of the Pakistan Peoples Party.

Azmat-E-Aadam (The Greatness of Man), Taghazzul (Versification), Chiragh-e-Akhir-e-Shab (The Lamp At the End of The Night), Raqs-e-Junoon (The Dance of Passion) and Auraaq-e-Musawwir (The Artist’s Pages) are collections of his poetry. His book on literary criticism is titled Adab Ke Ma’adi Nazariye (The Material Ideologies of Literature).

Poster for a commemoration of Zaheer Kashmiri in 2019, which the author attended

He passed away on the 12th of December 1994 in Lahore.

Bashir’s sketch, which covers the period of Kashmir’s life in Lahore post-1947, unflatteringly brings out the ‘juggling’ aspect of Kashmiri, the Communist Party ideologue: who while being dedicated to the cause, also wanted to divert attention to himself, whether by attracting hotel waiters, writers or women:

Zaheer’s primary purpose in life is to impress and surprise people with his tricks. He teaches Marxism to hotel waiters, trains intellectuals in the art of preparing a paan, explains philosophical concepts to women, and informs street eunuchs of rates charged by kathak dancers. He is a master of all trades[…]

In a few meetings you cannot know him because he shows a new face at every moment in every meeting. You will establish a critical opinion about him in just one glance. This is your compulsion; because your opinion will be wrong. Even his closest friends do not have the same opinion about him but all of their opinions are correct. You may establish whatever opinion you like about him, then change it. Your every opinion will be definitely correct.

Ask the writers, they will say, ‘Him? He is a self-styled sort of philosopher.

Ask the philosophers, they will respond, ‘Yes. He can recite a verse or so, but philosophy is no child’s play.’

Prostitutes consider him a saint and ascetic. Saints and ascetics consider him a rake and impure. The college boys consider him an intellectual. Intellectuals consider him a goonda. But he is neither saint nor writer; he is a blackmailer, a thief, a dacoit. How come he has the same relation to literature and philosophy what he would have to Majha and Malwa? Actually all these people are right because Zaheer is a self-styled sort of philosopher, poet, writer, saint, ascetic, lover, goonda, dacoit and everything which people say he is.”

I remembered the lovable juggler as I briefly accompanied a senior writer friend for the lone centenary celebration for Kashmiri in Lahore in December 2019 at the historic Kisan Hall in the city’s old Mozang area, organized by one faction of the myriad leftist National Students Federations. And today, having already marked the end of Zaheer Kashmiri’s centennial year in 2020, I reflect on how ironic it is that the verse with which I began this piece – which has now become proverbial among leftist circles in South Asia and where the poet proclaimed himself as the ‘lamp at the end of the night’ heralding a new morning – still could not even muster a hundred people to honour his name in his centennial year on that bleak winter evening in Lahore.

But then, Kashmiri’s perpetually raised finger dances in front of my eyes, and punctuated by his forceful laughter, he says, “This is the helplessness of your mind, comrade!”


All translations from the Urdu are by the writer.

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