Remembering Ali Sardar Jafri, the Sardar of Progressive poetry, 20 years on

Jafri began his career as a fiction writer, but later moved to poetry

Raza Naeem August 01, 2020

Har cheez bhula di jaayegi

Yadon ke haseen butkhane se

Har cheez utha di jaayegi

Phir koi nahin yah poochhega

Sardar kahan hai mehfil mein

(Every memory will be erased from the beautiful temple of memories

Every single thing will have gone

Then, no one will ask:

Where is Sardar in the soiree?)

For some reason, Ali Sardar Jafri, who passed away in Mumbai twenty years ago today never received his due as a poet, perhaps due to his programmatic verses and his overt association with the Communist Party of India. In his later years, he experienced some recognition as a poet who wrote optimistically about Indo-Pak relations. When Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee took a bus journey to Pakistan in 1999, the following four-liner by Jafri was played on its PA system, and became quite the rage for a while:

Tum aao Gulshan-e-Lahore se chaman bardosh

Hum aayen subh-e-Banaras ki raushni le kar

Himalaya ki havaaon ki taazgi le kar

Aur us ke baad yeh poochenge kaun dushman hai?

(Come bearing the fragrant garden of Lahore

And we will bring the light of a Banaras morning

And the fresh breeze from the Himalayas

And then let us ask: who is the enemy?)

Jafri began his career as a fiction writer, but later moved to poetry. He also wrote a few plays for the Indian People’s Theatre Association. He was subjected to periodic incarceration twice: first, by the British in 1939. And then – in a moment that reminds us of Frantz Fanon’s account of the betrayal of the moment of decolonization by local elites – Jafri was arrested by the government of independent India in 1949 for espousing the cause of socialism, joining his colleagues like Faiz and Sajjad Zaheer who had suffered similar incarceration in Pakistan. Like a good communist, he also aroused the ire of religious fundamentalists, and was subjected to death threats in the 1980s when he came out against the treatment of divorced women under the Muslim Personal Law.

His opposition to the infamous Muslim Women’s Protection Act in 1986 earned him the ire of Muslim communalists; college students of that period still remember watching him being shouted at, slapped and garlanded with chappals by goons – a moment that further politicized some of those young witnesses against the atmosphere of rapidly increasing communalism in India. However, in the end, we must remember that Jafri led a celebrated life, having had the Jnanpith award bestowed on him in 1993. In 2013, on the occasion of his birth centenary, a website was inaugurated in his honour.

Jafri’s long poem Karbala – recited by him – is available in the public domain. I have chosen to translate one of his poems called Guftagu Band Na Ho (Let Not the Conversation Cease), speaking of the possibilities of more harmonious Indo-Pak relations.

Before sharing my translation of this poem, just to give readers a taste of the Urdu idiom, I want to share the opening stanza of the poem, which is also how the poem closes:

Guftagu band na ho

Baat se baat chale

Subh tak shaam-e-mulaaqaat chale

Hum pe hansti hui ye taaron bhari raat chale


Let Not the Conversation Cease by Ali Sardar Jafri

Let not the conversation cease

Let one word lead to another

And let our evening tryst go on till dawn

While the starry night-sky smiles down on us

Though we have hurled the stones of bitter words at each other

We have swirled poison in our goblets in the form of sarcastic jibes

Our brows furrowed, our gazes venomous

But be that as it may, let hearts awaken in chests

Let not despair imprison our words

Whoever the murderers are, let them not kill dialogue


If that is done, a word of faith may escape at dawn

Love will arrive on trembling legs

Eyes downcast, hearts aflutter, lips atremble

Silence will then be fragrant like a kiss on the lips

And the only sound left will be that of buds flowering


And then there will be need for neither word nor talk

In the movement of the gaze, an emotion will sprout

Tenderness will be our guest, hate will be asked to leave


Hand in hand, accompanied by the whole world

Bearing the gift of pain, and the bounty of fondness

We will cross the deserts of animus

And find ourselves on the other side of oceans of blood


Let not the conversation cease

Let one word lead to another

And let our evening tryst go on till dawn

While the starry night-sky smiles down on us.

Raza Naeem

The author is president of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore. He is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and translator. His translations of Saadat Hasan Manto have been re-translated in both Bengali and Tamil, and he received a prestigious Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship in 2014-2015 for his translation and interpretive work on Manto. He is presently working on a book of translations of Manto's progressive writings, tentatively titled Comrade Manto.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.

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