Sahir Ludhianvi – Communist and a Poet

By Saswat Pattanayak

It was more than a coincidence that Sahir Ludhianvi was born on an International Women’s Day. His concern and respect for women was as much personal as it was political. For him, no one – and nothing – was more important than his mother Sardar Begum. Resenting her husband’s feudal properties, his mother had left that household and raised Sahir on her own. And Sahir grew up as an organic revolutionary against landlords and burgeoning capitalism of that era. And more importantly, as a progressive poet deeply aware of the capitalistic exploitations of women and the working class.

An avid reader of Marx, Sahir early on was influenced by Faiz and Josh – prominent communist poets of that era. His early compositions included “Jahaan Mazdoor Rehte Hai” [Where Workers Reside]. In 1937, Sahir joined All India Students Federation (AISF), affiliated to the Communist Party of India (CPI) – committed to anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggles. He was expelled from both the colleges (in Ludhiana and Lahore) that he attended, due to his political activisms. Sajjad Zaheer’s Progressive Writers’ Movement (PWM) would subsequently provide Sahir his cultural platform, to express himself as a socialist poet rejecting ‘art for the sake of art’.

As a revolutionary poet, Sahir wrote “Kuchh Baatein” [Some Issues]:
“Des ke adbaar ki baatein karey
Ajnabi sarkar ki baatein karey
Agli duniya ke fasaaney chhoddkar
Is jahannumzaar ki baatein karey”

[Let us talk of the nation’s tribulations
Talk of the colonial power impositions
Why bother with heaven’s splendors
Let us talk of the hell we possess]

As a communist poet, Sahir wrote the poignant verses “Aurat ne janam diya mardoen ko, mardone ne use bazaar diya” [Women gave birth to men; men made them commodities]. His analysis of feudalism/capitalism manifested itself in the splendid tribute to Taj Mahal, full of scorn borne out of a materialistic outlook that defined his work.

He wrote,
“Anginat logoen ne duniya mein mohabbat ki hai
Kaun kehta hai ke saadiq na tha un ke jazbe
Lekin un ke liye tasahir ka samaan nahin
Kyon ki woh log bhi apni hi tarah muflis the”

[Countless peoples in our world have showered love in abundance
Who can claim their heartfelt love ever lacked sincere affections
But they lacked the means of advertisement, of crude exhibitions
After all, they were like you and I: submitted by birth to cruel situations]

Sahir’s secular credentials were unmatched. An avowed atheist, he rejected the organized religions as impediments on the path to attaining a sense of humanity. Addressing an abandoned child without a social identity, Sahir wrote:

“Accha hai abhi tak tera kuchh naam nahni hai
Tujh ko kisi mazhab se koi kaam nahni hai
Jis ilm ne insaan ko taqseem kiya hai
Is ilm ka tujh par koi ilzam nahni hai”

[A bundle of joy you are, sans a given name
Disconnected from religions, that’s your gain
Religious texts have only divided humanity
My child! So far they couldn’t attack your sanity]

As a communist poet, he was not just dedicated to women’s empowerment and secular values, he also was a peacenik who refused to believe in sanctities of geographical borders that justify militarism. He wrote –

“Khoon apna ho ya paraaya ho
Nasl-e-adam ka khoon hai aakhir
Jung mashriq mein ho ki magrib mein
Amn-e-alam ka khoon hai aakhir
Bomb gharoen par giren ya sarhad par
Rooh-e-ta’amir jakhm khaati hai
Khet apne jalein ki auroen ke
Jis’t faakoen se tilmilaati hai”

[Shed our blood, or theirs
Lives lost are of human race
War on the East or against the West
Casualty is troubled peace
Bomb our land, or across the borders
Afflicted are souls under construction
Homeless our people, or theirs
Suppressed is oppressed expression]

It was his internationalism that was recognized in the Soviet Union and his commitment to humanist values remain unchanged till the end of his life. In 1961, when Patrice Lumumba was assassinated by CIA, Sahir would protest and leave behind a haunting masterpiece, like none other –

“Zulm ki baat hi kya, zulm ki aukaat hi kya
Zulm bas zulm hai aagaz se anjaam talak
Khoon phir khoon hai, sau shakl badal sakta hai
Aisi shakley ki mitao toh mitaaye na baney
Aise sholey, ki bujhao toh bujhaaye na baney
Aisey naarey ki dabaao toh dabaaye na baney”

[Injustice can only do so much
Capable of nothing much
But the blood can take many shape
Shapes that are permanent
Inextinguishable Embers
And indomitable slogans]

Sahir’s dream coincided with that of a revolutionary who is capable of imagining not just a world without borders, but also a world without prison cells – a song that is so relevant today in light of sedition charges routinely applied to silence independent thinkers of the society Sahir once had sought to liberate.

He wrote –
“Jis subah ke khaatir jug jug se hum sab mar mar kar jeete hai
Jis subah ke amrut ki dhuun mein hum zahar ke pyaale peete hai
In bhookhi pyaasi ruhoen par ek din to karam pharmayegi
woh subah kabhi toh aayegi…

Manhoos samaaji dhaancho mein jab julm na paale jaayenge
Jab haath na kaate jaayenge jab sar na uchhale jaayenge
Jailoen ke bina jab duniya ki sarkaar chalaayi jaayegi
Woh subah hum hi se aayegi”

[For the dawn, that for ages, we nurtured with sacrifices
For that morning of nectars, have we not consumed poisons
These impoverished souls will finally be rewarded
And such a dawn, shall one day be ushered in…

As crimes cease to be structural givens of societies
Justice no longer served with torture, death penalties
A new world needs no oppressive prison
We shall usher in such a new dawn!]
——

As a communist poet, like Neruda, Sahir was close to the women of his life. Since none of his relationship could be formalized, and he died shortly after his mother’s demise whom he loved endlessly, he remained much misunderstood in his personal life. Many criticized him as an egotist megalomaniac seeking attention. But Sahir remained indifferent to both adulation and brickbats.

In 1971, when he was awarded with the prestigious Padma Shri, he told his close friend and fellow progressive poet Jan Nisar Akhtar, “Yaar Jan Nisar, ab sarkar ko tumhe bhi Padma Shri se nawaazna chahiye” [Jan Nisar, the government should now honor you with a Padma Shri as well].
Jan Nisar, amused, asked Sahir, why [“Bhala aisa kyoun”]?
Sahir wryly replied, “Ab yeh zillat mujh akele se bardaasht nahni hoti.” [I cannot bear this embarrassment alone.]

———

[All translations by Saswat Pattanayak]

More translation of Sahir’s poetry –

Fellow Decent Humans

Taj Mahal

Radical Child

Giving Back

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2016: Divided We Fall

Last year alone, an earthquake – among many – left 9,000 dead in Nepal. Stampede among the devotees caused death of 2,200 people in Mecca. Over 3.1 million children – under five – died of malnutrition everywhere in the world. They were not victims of terrorism or organized murders. They did not perpetuate any evil to justify a divine plan that took their lives. And yet, not one God or multiple versions of Gods could do anything to save them. That is because there is no God. There is no reason for a belief in God, or adherence to any religion. And yet, as if such tolls were not enough, we exponentially increase the number of untimely deaths of fellow human beings while using religion, god, nationality, race, caste, gender and private capital and power as our divine alibi. Instead of love, we engage in war. Instead of sharing, we promote hoarding. Instead of cooperation, we encourage competition. Nothing will likely change in 2016. But the hope still remains that reason shall prevail over unexamined emotions, while using historical lessons from the years before, as potential tools of liberation.

2016: Divided We Fall

Yet another year went past defining
deriding, describing, disrupting
decrying. Terrorism.

In the fight against the evil
the war of the rich
pitting the poor, the unsung
the unknown, unemployed
famished, hopeless.
Handing them a shotgun
assault rifle, pistol,
an oath of loyalty
to the military, nation-state,
a god, a belief, holy text
preaching freedom, salvation
duty, patriotism, nationalism
Terrorism – both ours, the NATOs
and theirs, the ISILs.

Yet another year went past ridiculing
rehashing, regrouping, replenishing
renaming. Identities.

In the fight against the backward
the march of the elite
positioning the hungry, the oppressed
the voices without a social handle
the suicidal farmers, indebted students
the workers without a union
being Black while driving – car and life
and those bereft of privileges
to raise their consciousness.
Deluding them with elections
leader after leader, hope after hope
emptying the wallet of promises
showering the wealth of rhetorics
constructing the highway of dreams
preaching love, preaching hate,
after a while, love-hate.
Plutocracy – both ours, the voting class
and theirs, the ruling corporate bosses.

Yet another year went past propagating
polarizing, preaching, propounding
programming. Ignorance.

In the fight against the subjugated
the collusion of the masters
requiring the working class
to stay divided, trusting none
vanquishing incentives to imagine –
a planet without borders,
people without religions,
genders without assigned roles
to obliterate the regressive texts
that justify terrorism, by state; by others.
Unity, empathy, solidarity –
not anymore threats to ruling class
when the year went past us
like they were anathema to the workers.

This world never so fragmented
so in despair to not understand,
to lend an ear, a hand, a tear.
Never so lacking in care
that it advances a Trump, a Modi,
a Hillary, a Cameron, a Bibi.
Only a Paris. Eurocentric lease.
Warmongers, homophobes, xenophobes
In power everywhere, the worst of us.

Maybe its all that we can muster
– or, with contradictions exposed
we can take this just no more?
Won’t the new year notice any difference
shall we keep on penalizing dissidence?
Call fellow travelers aliens, illegals, refugees
– or, with our inhumanity exposed
we can reattempt unity amidst diversities?

(by Saswat Pattanayak)

[2015 || 2014 || 2013 || 2012 || 2011 || 2010 || 2009 || 2008]

Meritocratic Jury

(In the backdrop of Supreme Court of India’s bench comprising Justice Misra and Justice Pant citing national interest to scrap quota in higher education institutions)

 

Looks like you have the merit –
Birthright of the nationalist.
Wearing that Sacred Thread.
Making a call to daddy’s
old boys network every now & then.
Misra uncles and Pant uncles
And their colleague uncles.
Uncle’s uncles. Bhagwat uncles.
Generationally scholarly.
Proud Indian Hindus.
Feeling the national interests
Merit runs in their veins.

Your access not denied
to the temples.
Of gods and sacred texts.
Interpreted by
sacrosanct gatekeepers.
High Court
Jagannath Temple
Supreme Court
Meenakshi Temple.
Looks like you have the merit
To determine the fate
of those you get to oppress.
Alas.
Cannot reverse the caste,
whose virtues and vices –
are determined at birth.
No automatic entry
Into life of dignity.
But Hinduism is not religion.
Just a way of life.
Savarna – Salvation.
Dalit – Damnation.

No fault of Brahmins –
Just born that way.
Conspiracy of the galaxy
Coming together of forces
To offer them higher birth
infinite inborn meritocracy.

Being born a Brahmin
Is it a reservation –
Or is it a merit?
Who gets to answer?
The Brahmin himself.
The enlightened one.
So, end of argument.
Dialogues among his peers.
Their judicial reviews, their revisions.
Recommendations. Directions.
Judgements. Death penalties.
Fake penalties. Bail penalties.
End of reservations.

High priests of justice
Enlightened enough
to believe in no caste.
They create caste, they dispose caste.
Just a state of mind.
Situationally enlightened sign.

Unlike, those that decide
to liberate themselves,
for their own interests.
Not for the Brahmin nation’s –
sacred temples
sacred cows
sacred courts
sacred definition of merit.
A nation of monopolists
over professions of science,
law, medical, engineering,
historical lies.
All things intellectual,
no things scavengential.

Looks like you have passed
the Brahmin-Savarna IQ Test.
Standardizing the merit –
since the founding of
the Hindu religion,
not the disease.
Working to promote
the national interest,
not nepotism.
Feeding the country’s
collective conscience,
not meritorious lynching.

 

– Saswat Pattanayak, Peoples’ Poet, 2015

Modified

Modified

– Dadri –
Knock knock
Who’s there?
Your neighbor
My neighbor who?
Neighbor to trust

– Godman –
Knock knock
Who’s there?
Your Baba
My Baba who?
Baba, God, Man

– Leader –
Knock knock
Who’s there?
Your leader
My leader who?
Leader you can fear

– Tolerance –
Knock knock
Who’s there?
Your fan
My fan who?
Fanning a plane ticket

– Patriot –
Knock knock
Who’s there?
Your conscience
My conscience who?
Herr Herr Modi

Saswat Pattanayak, Peoples’ Poet, 2015

Silent Majority

First they came for the Muslims, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Pakistani.

Then they came for the women, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Feminist.

Then they came for the Adivasis, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Naxalite.

Then they came for the Dalits, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not an Ambedkarite.

Then they came for the rationalists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the farmers, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Gandhian.

Then they came for the beef-eaters, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Sickular.

Then they came for the historians, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not an Intellectual.

Then they came for the filmmakers, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a starving Artist.

They are coming after the working class, dividing us up, every single day –
And I know I will not speak out still –
Because I am not really a revolutionary.

– Saswat Pattanayak, Peoples’ Poet, 2015

(My reflection above is inspired by the famous poem by Martin Niemoeller who was an outspoken critic of the Nazis. The idea is to convey that one Hitler or one Modi is not responsible for the mayhems in any society. They are accomplished with the tacit support of the otherwise decent people who choose to remain silent while oppressive policies continue against “other” groups to which they immediately do not identify with. In Indian context, too many of us have remained silent throughout as state machinery and hindu nationalists have continued to target various marginalized groups. And it will not be far when those of us who have been thus far spared of the wrath have to also pay the price for maintaining stoic silence. Revolutionaries do not remain silent at atrocities – they have always spoken up and chosen sides and vocally articulated their position. And the circumstances to produce revolutionaries are not ordained by divine orders. They are for us to realize. Each of us has the ability to speak up, to protest. Let us not wait for an opportune time guided by just our own interests.)