Ali Sardar Jafri, Indian Airforce

Ali Sardar Jafri

Born in 1914 in Uttar Pradesh, Ali Sardar Jafri took part in the freedom struggle and shone brilliantly on the U.P. literary horizon. The poet laureate wrote excellent prose besides meaningful and sensitive verses, and was recognised as one of the tallest Urdu poets of the 20th century. For his contributions to the literary scene, he was awarded the prestigious Jnanpith award.

In September 1965, even as the guns blazed from either side of the border, Sardar Jafri broadcast his poem Sarhad(Border) on All India Radio. It was a peace 'offensive' which stressed that "after all the killings you will finally have to talk peace sitting across a table".

Thirty-four years later the the husband-wife duo of Sqn Ldr Anil and Seema Sehgal set the poem "Sarhad" to music. The album of the same name went on to make history. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee presented it to his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif when he took the 'peace bus' to Lahore in February 1999. Jafri was also among the passengers on that trip.

In an interview given to journalists at the time, Jafri said that in the last stage of his life he was more concerned about the survival of the world, than beauty. "I think writers after me will complete what I could not, they will see the beauty that I did not.''

"The first song in the cassette is of my poem Guftagu Band Na Ho (Conversation - To Friendship between India and Pakistan),'' says the poet, pausing to brush back a strand of his long salt-and-pepper hair that falls across his face. His eyes light up as he begins to recite from the English translation:

"Keep the conversation going.
One word leading to another.
The evening rendezvous lasting till dawn,
The starry night laughing down with us.
Though we hurl our stones of abuse,
Pass around poisoned cups
Brimming with taunts,
Gaze steely-eyed at each other,
None of this matters.
Though we are helpless,
Just keep our hearts
Warm and beating.
Don't let words
Be stifled with helplessness.
Don't let voices be murdered.

He pauses again, this time to narrate an incident that occurred on his last visit to Karachi. A journalist had asked him, "Don't you feel like settling down in Pakistan?'' Jafri replied: "Certainly not.'' The acquaintance was surprised. Jafri explained, "You see young man, I belong to the Gonda district of Uttar Pradesh and the arhar dal of that place is very famous. In fact it is staple diet. And I can't quit eating that dal''.

The poet says, "The journalist probably thought I was joking. But no. Patriotism has some relation with a person's body too. It is the elements of the place which bind a person to it -- the earth, the water, the air -- all these things matter''.

He recalls the time the first Indian Airlines plane was hijacked to Lahore. "That day a friend, a Punjabi writer, lamented, "Arre Sardar, how I wish I was on that aircraft!' I was a little puzzled and asked him why and what he would have done there. He said, `I would have got down and touched the earth of Lahore, that's all.' That is the sentiment by and large''.

It has been a busy year for the Jnanpith awardee, who spends his time shuttling between the Capital and his home in Mumbai, apart from travelling all over the country on lectures and book-promotion tours. Just back from a 20-day trip to Kerala, Jafri finds refuge in his room at the India International Centre. Away from the flashing cameras and echoing mikes the poet recalls his days in Lucknow district jail. "I actively participated in the student's movement. I was first arrested in 1940, there were many subsequent occasions.'' He says he had "good company'' in Lucknow jail, surrounded as he was by Bahagat Singh's colleagues and Sajjad Zaheer, the founder of the Progressive Writer's Movement.

"Sajjad and I used to correspond from our separate cells. The wardens were generally helpful and used to carry the letters to and fro. One unfortunate day a letter was confiscated by the jailor. Since he was most illiterate he didn't know who Keats was. He thought that Keats was a code word we were using to convey political messages.'' The small IIC room begins to echo with peals of the poet's throaty laughter. He catches his breath and recites from Conversation again:

"By dawn some word of love
Is bound to emerge.
Love will be victorious,
It surely will.
Our hearts will stir,
Mouths tremble,
And eyes well with tears.
Silence will perfume
Like a kiss,
And will resound
With the sound of opening buds.
No need for talk,
When eyes glow with love
Hate will leave for ever
Giving way to affection.''

It is late evening, and the poet has places to go, people to see. "With the world in our hands, bearing gifts of love and pain, the two countries shall cross the deserts of hate.'' And unlike most, who spend a lifetime in search of god, the poet spends his life in search of man.

On 1st August 2000, the great poet of India - Ali Sardar Jafri passed away in Mumbai.

On Sept 10, 2000, rich poetic tributes were paid to Jafri at a mushaira organised by Rasa Jadvani Memorial Literary Society in the Jammu Varsity campus in Jammu State. Leading poets recited their poems praising the contribution made by him.

Mr Farooq Nazki, Media Advsior to State Government, who presided, threw light on the patriotic fervour in the poetry of the Sardar and read out some of his poems. Mr Ved Bhasin, who was the chief guest at the function, recalled his meetings with Ali Sardar Jafri and appreciated his spirit of humanism, friendship and goodwill.

Prof Zahoor-ud-Din, Registrar of JU and patron of the society, disclosed that the great Urdu poet was associated with the Urdu Department of th Jammu University for few months and made rich contribution. Prof Lalit Magotra, president, Dogri Sanstha, while appreciating the nationalistic and wide vision of this Urdu poet stressed that the writers and poets of other languages like Hindi, Dogri, Kashmiri, Punjabi should also emulate his example.

Rana Rajinder Singh, ex-Chief Engineer and admirer of Urdu poetry, spoke about the life and contributions of Ali Sardar Jafri. He made an assessment of the literary works of this great writer, poet and an intellectual. Mr Rana said that Jafri was a symbol of love and national integration.

Dr Shohab Inayat Malik, president of the society announced that a two-day seminar on life and works of Ali Sardar Jafri will be organised shortly by the University of Jammu. Mr Asser Kishtwari presented vote of thanks.

The poets who recited their poems included: Messrs Noor Sidiqi, Malik Ram Anand, Betab Jaipuri, Shafaqi Sopori, Shakeel Ibn-e-Rufayee Talib Kashmiri, Aseer Kistwari, Bashir Ahmed Tishna, Mohan Singh Ultaf, Nadeem Kishtwari and Tambeen Kishtwari.

On August 1, 2001, Ali Sardar Jafri's first death anniversary was marked by the release of the book "Ali Sardar Jafri: The youthful boatman of joy". The work which presented the poet and the person through the eyes of comrades as well as critics - was released in the evening at the India habitat centre by Rajya Sabha member Karan Singh.

The book, which was edited by Sqn Ldr Anil Sehgal, not only espoused the poetry and personality of Jafri, it also traced the history and importance of the progressive writers movement that shook the literary world in the late 1930's. Two essays throw light on the role of Urdu during the national movement. Over 40 photographs show Jafri in the company of eminent personalities such as Dr Rajendra Prasad, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Raj Kapoor and Qurratulain Hyder. Contributors to the volume include Kaifi Azmi, Javed Akhtar, Shabana Azmi, I K Gujral and Jafri's widow Sultana.

The man who wrote the famous lines 'Guftugoo Bund Na Hon, Baat Se Baat Chalen,' on India-Pakistan relations, was remembered by a host of friends and fans who were present for the book release. Speaking on the occasion, the former Sadar-i-Riyasat said, "Sardar's passing away signified the end of an era. He was responsible for bringing about a revolution in the Urdu language and served it for six decades."

Regretting India's present situation, Dr Singh said, "we are not achieving the goals that great poets like Ali Sardar Jafri dreamt of. How can we tackle the world if our own house is not in order?" In his inimitable style, the eminent scholar embellished his address with references to Swami Vivekananda and the Gita, "life and death go on, but man is immortal."

Former Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral, who presided over the event, described Jafri as a "critic without malice," and said, "he was a man of independent thought. When I was information minister, Sardar said at a Congress session in Mumbai that Urdu had done a great deal for this country and had to be given its due. The then Prime Minister heeded his words and a committee was formed to look into the matter. It eventually came up with the three-language formula."

"The beating of the hearts of the youth was reflected in Sardar's work. He was a sculptor, there was a lot of weight in his words," said Mr Ramesh Chandra, Managing Trustee, Bharatiya Jnanpith.

Ghazal exponent Seema Anil Sehgal treated the audience to some enthralling nazms.

(Adapted from articles in Indian Express 22/02/1999 & Daily Excelsior 10/09/2000, 3/082001)