This has been a cruel year for the world of Urdu letters.
Intizar Husain, Nida Fazli, Joginder Paul, Zubair Rizwi, Malikzada Manzoor, Abid Sohail, Paigham Afaqui and now the last of the great Urdu progressive writers — Kashmiri Lal Zakir, who passed away on Wednesday, 31 August, in Chandigarh.
Looking back, it was a life well spent for Zakir sahab. Awards and encomiums came in ample measure, including the Padma Shri in India and the Nuqoosh in Pakistan as well as the Fakhr-e Haryana (‘Pride of Haryana’) from the state government where he worked in several capacities, including as chairman of the Haryana Urdu Academy; they served as signposts of an eclectic and rich career spanning many decades.
Born in village Bega Banian in district Gujarat in West Punjab, now in Pakistan, Zakir sahab was a prodigious writer. Having written over 130 books including short stories, plays, poetry, travelogues, as well as tomes on environment and education, he is best remembered for his seminal novel, Karmavali, a novel that depicted the tragedy of the partition with rare empathy. Such was the effect of Karmavali on its readers that it moved fellow progressive writer, KA Abbas to note that it had been ‘not authored with ink only; but penned with the tears of humanity.’
The novel was turned into a play by the premier National School of Drama and staged over a hundred times all over India. What sets Karmavali apart from the scores of other ‘Partition novels’ is Zakir sahab’s consistent refusal to be snared in the binary of viewing the cataclysmic events of the year 1947 as either taqseem or azaadi. He insists on viewing Partition as a human tragedy of epic proportions. What is more, it is a tragedy that the principal characters in his novel never fully comprehend.
In Karmavali, Zakir sahab also goes beyond the rhetoric of nationalism, the much-touted two-nation theory and the building of a new country on purely religious grounds. As events pan out and murder, loot and pillage unspool in epic proportions from the decisions of a handful of men, there appears to be little fellow feeling on religious grounds amongst those most affected. In the villages of rural Punjab, the ties are of kinship and neighbourliness. In the new country, where these refugees search for new homes, they are treated as ‘aliens’, be they muhajirs there or sharanarthi here, they are refuge-seekers who speak a different dialect, eat different food and despite the commonality of religion are still different.
Zakir sahab’s depiction of physical hardships and abuse, especially of women, wass heart wrenching. His portrayal of women was in the same league as some of the great progressive writers such as Krishan Chander and Rajinder Singh Bedi. And like Bedi, his depiction of life in Punjab is ripe with full-bodied flavours and sights and sounds from a way of life that is rooted. Timeless and unchanging, it follows the cycle of the seasons and is comforting in its ceaselessness. Mendicants roam the villages singing songs of Heer-Ranjha:
Heer aakhiyya jogiya jhoot bolein
Kaun bichchare yaar milanwada ae
Karmavali, the protagonist of Zakir sahab’s seminal novel, recalls the annus horribilis thus: ‘That year Khushia became ten years old. That year Faiza laid the foundations of another human life in my womb. That year our fields yielded much more crops than previous years…’ But that same year her life withers; she has to leave for a new country and a new home leaving behind her son whom she will meet decades later, a son who has been raised by a Sikh Granthi. The years that follow, of struggle and rehabilitation, are years of hardship and disillusionment. Karmavali knows that her story is that of a dried-up stem, solitary, emaciated and unyielding: a story without a moral. A way that leads nowhere, is that a way? A night without end, with no morning in sight, is it a night?
In contrast to the dark, pathos-laden landscape of his prose, his poetry was full of vim and vigour. As a testament to his faith in better times ahead, he had said:
Yeh aur baat hai ke aage hawa ke rakhe hain
Chiragh jitney bhi rakhe hain, jala ke rakhe hain
(It is another matter that we placed them before the wind
However many lamps we placed we made sure they remained lit)
Woh chala jayega zakhmon ki tijarat kar ke
Muddaton shehr mein uss shakhs ka charcha hoga
(He will go away after selling his wounds
And for ages that man will be discussed in the city)
Tum gunahon se darke jeete ho
Hum inhein saath leke chalte hain
(You live in fear of sins
We walk along with them)
May your faith in better times be vindicated, Zakir sahab, and may the lamps you had lit burn brightly to dispel the darkness of our times as you go gently into the night.
You can read the writer's blog here.