By KHUSHWANT SINGH
The day Ali Sardar Jafri died in Bombay (August 1, at 8.30 am), an
ironical death in this season of troubled detente, I made it a point to
watch Pakistan Television to find out what it had to say about him. He was
not only in the front-rank of Urdu poets of recent times but also the
spearhead of the movement for a rapprochement with Pakistan. ptv made a
passing reference to Jafri's death as a poet who wrote of the need for
love and understanding between people. I was disappointed. So was I with
the coverage given by the Indian media, both the print and the electronic.
There was a lot more to Jafri than the hastily-written obituaries and
collages put together to meet deadlines.
I had known Ali Sardar and his beautiful wife Sultana for over 30 years.
During my years in Bombay we met each other almost every other week.
Despite his commitment to Communism, he liked the good things of life:
good Scotch, good food and comfortable living. He lived in a pokey little
three-room flat off Peddar Road. Apart from his wife and three children
who often stayed with him, he had two widowed sisters in the same
apartment. There was not much room to move about. Many of his books were
stacked under his bed on which he read, wrote and slept. I would arrive
armed with a bottle of Scotch. He sent for soda and biryani from a
restaurant, Allah Beli, facing his apartment. I sought his company because
he was about the most erudite of Indian writers I had met.
Ali Sardar also had a phenomenal memory. If I quoted one line of any Urdu
poet, he would come out with the rest of the poem. And explain every word
by referring to Persian poets - from Rumi, Hafiz to Ghalib and Allama
Iqbal. When I set about translating Iqbal's Shikwa and Jawab-e-Shikwa, I
went all the way to Bombay to seek his assistance. For two days Ali Sardar
and Sultana came to my hotel in the morning; we worked till lunch time
when Rafiq Zakaria and his wife Fatma joined us to find out how it was
going. After they left, we resumed our labours till it was time for our
I often needled Ali Sardar about his communism. He had been a card-holder
and had been expelled from the Aligarh Muslim University (which later gave
him an honorary doctorate) and spent 18 months in jail during the British
Raj and again after Independence under Morarji Desai. Although he had
ceased to be a card-holder, he stoutly defended Marxist ideology. What was
beyond my comprehension was that despite professing atheism, during the
month of Moharrum he often wore black and attended Shia majlises and
abstained from alcohol. During a TV interview with me, when he expected to
be questioned about Urdu poetry, I confronted him with his contradictory
beliefs in both Islam and Marxism. He was visibly upset and fumbled for
words. He took it out on me after the interview was over. He called me
everything under the sun short of calling me a bastard. I am sure if he
had not been so obsessed with Communism and social problems, he would have
made a greater poet.
I saw him often when he came to Delhi to record Kamna Prasad's series,
Kahkashaan (Milky Way), on contemporary Urdu poets. And later to
participate in the Jashn-e-Bahaar mushairas organised by Kamna to bring
Pakistani and Urdu poets together on one stage every year. He presided
over the last one a few months before he died. He had an imposing
presence: he was a lean, tall man with a mop of untidy, tousled grey hair,
sparkling dark eyes and ever-smiling face. His voice held his audience
spell-bound. His message to Pakistan at a time when Indo-Pak relations
were at their worst was one of peace:
Tum aao gulshan-e-Lahore se chaman bardosh,
Hum aayen subh-e-Banaras ki roshnee le kar
Himalay ki havaaon ki taazgee le kar
Aur iske baad yeh poochein ki kaun dushman hai?
(You come from the garden of of Lahore laden with flowers,
We will come bearing the light of a Benares morning
With fresh breezes from Himalayan heights
And then, together we can ask, who is the enemy?)
Ali Sardar was an incorrigible optimist. Inspired by Rumi's line, Hum cho
sabza baarha roeeda aym (like the green of the earth we never stop
growing), he summed up his life story (Mera Safar) in a few memorable
I am a fleeting moment
In the magic house of days and nights;
I am a restless drop travelling eternally
>From the flask of the past to the goblet of the future.
I sleep and wake, awake to sleep again
I am the ancient play on the stage of time
I die only to become immortal.
Ali Sardar, who was born into a zamindar family in Balrampur (Uttar
Pradesh) on November 29, 1913, won numerous awards for his poems, short
stories, plays and articles. They included the Iqbal sammaan, Soviet Land
Nehru Award, Jnaneshwar award and the Jnanpeeth award. More than all those
it was the warm-hearted applause he won wherever he went, the respect and
affection he received from people he knew that sustained him during his
difficult days. He returned the love he got in full measure. In a
collection of his poems he gave to Kamna's four-year-old daughter Jia, he
wrote the word pyar in Urdu five times on each line down 20 lines. That
was his parting message to the world.