I have seen Sahir from close quarters- in 1943 when he was less of Sahir and more of a college student and had come from Ludhiana to Lahore for publication of his collection of poems- Talkhiyaan (Bitterness).
In 1945- when with the publication of Talkhiyaan, his popularity soared. He became the editor of the famous Urdu magazines- Adab-e-Lateef (Culture of Ideas) and Shahkaar (The Great Creator) of Lahore. Devendra Satyarthi introduced me to him.
In 1948- when he had reached the zenith of his fame. He had left the film world of Bombay to settle in Lahore. I was staying with him for a couple of days as a member of an unofficial delegation to Lahore. Despite these meetings , I would not have had an insight into his personality and through that into his poetry if I had not met him in Delhi in 1949.
My encounter with Sahir was unexpected, but yet not surprising. In the two days that I had spent with Sahir in Lahore, I could make out that he could not have remained happy there. That was because there he was surrounded on all sides with people of same belief and religion. There was freedom of neither the pen nor of speech and he was intensely missing those whose names were evidently Hindu or Sikh and with whom Sahir had spent his entire life and I had also noticed that his venerated mother too was elated to find us Hindus in her house. So, when I unexpectedly ran into Sahir in Delhi, I was not unduly surprised and when in his usual naughty style, he informed me that the Pakistani government had issued warrants against his name, I did not even feel the need to ask him the reason. Later, when I went to Lahore to bring his mother back to India I came to know that his pen had dripped a few drops of poison and venom on the new State in the fortnightly Savera.
Delhi was not Sahir’s final destination, but a mere foothold on the way. He wanted to reach Bombay at the earliest where, he imagined, the film world lay in wait of him. But perhaps thinking that even the wayside that Delhi was had a right on him, he gifted one full year to it. Though I have met Sahir often after that, I got the chance to understand him and his poetry only during that year. During those days we not only worked together for the Urdu magazine Shahraah (The Royal Road) and Preetlari (The Beads of Love), but also stayed under the same roof. I also had the opportunity to stay in his house for four years in Bombay when I was a guest in the house for months together during the course of my treatment for throat cancer.
Sahir has just got up from sleep (generally he does not get up before 10-11 a.m.) and as always, he is lying with his tall frame curled like a jalebi, his long hair spread out and his large eyes open as if mesmerized by some unseen sight. During this meditation, he cannot tolerate any kind of disturbance. Even his mother, whom he holds in high esteem and whose only support he is after her separation from his zamindar father, cannot dare to enter his room. Suddenly, he gets delirious and shouts “Tea !”.
And after this, for the entire day and if he gets the chance even during the night, he continuously keeps on speaking. He cannot sit in one place for more than half an hour and even as the gathering of friends is not less than worshipping a goddess. He presents cigarette after cigarette to them. As a precaution for his throat, he splits a cigarette into two but often smokes them together ! He offers them endless cups of tea and even helps himself to a cup or two. He regales them his own nazms and gazals and with hundreds of couplets from other poets also, which he has memorized just like his own poems. He recites them with interesting anecdotes and backgrounders. He remembers every small and significant details in his life. He remembers the letters of his friends and articles from magazines word by word. So much so, he remembers entire dialogues from the movies Indrasabha (The Court of Lord Indra) and Shaabharram which he saw as a child.
The interesting thing is that whether he starts making a point about Lata Mangeshkar’s melodious voice or the strange taste of the dosa, the underlying theme is that if this age has produced a great Urdu poet, it is Sahir- Sahir Ludhianvi, whose collection of poems Talkhiyan has seen 21 editions in Urdu and 11 in Hindi. And he makes this point in such a way that the listener is not even aware of the slow brain- washing he or she is being subjected to.
And around 10, 11 or even 1 o’clock in the night when his friends part from him promising to return the next day, and when at least one brave warrior remains with him, he experiences a very vile feeling of being alone and from somewhere the germs of Bohemianism engulf him, and everyone in the world appears small, even like an insect as compared to himself. At that time, the day- long jocular and easygoing Sahir is transformed. The conversations of the day (of which he has memorized each word), he recounts and makes fun of the mannerisms of his friends whom he had admired during the day.
But the next day, he invites those very friends to partake whiskey and food at his own expense. He begins to praise their qualities of head and heart and becomes an enigma in himself.
His enigmatic personality manifests itself in strange ways. It is in his nature to quickly get fed up, feel ashamed and scared on a trivial issue. Another characteristic is his indecisiveness. He cannot decide what to recite in a poetical symposia or gathering. It is impossible for him to decide matching shades for his dress- so much so that he needs a friend to decide the dish to eat, perhaps that is the reason why he remains a bachelor. He does not want others to look for a wife for him and there is no question of looking for one himself.
I sometimes felt that all this is a pretense and sometimes we would flare up on this. I often felt that he is trying to make me an undeserving hero and I was not at all ready for this, hence I would lose no opportunity to make fun of him and play him down. He would still be trying to prepare the grounds to prove the greatness of a new nazm of his, that I would tell him the plot of a long new story of mine, comparing myself with Chekov, Gorky or Guy de Maussapaunt. With mock seriousness, I would recommend those clothes which made him look funny and many a time I made him have ice cream for his breakfast. Then it slowly dawned on me that he was more to be pitied than to be made fun of. He has not deliberately inculcated these habits, instead they have grown around him like weeds and within the folds of these habits are the unfortunate circumstances in which he was born and brought up and which along with other traits- both good and bad- became a part and parcel of his personality.
Abdul Hayee ‘Sahir’ was born in 1921 in a jagirdaar family. Besides his mother, his father had a number of other wives too. But being the only son in the family, he was brought up with a lot of love and affection. But he was still a child when the doors of prosperity were closed on him. Fed up with the depravity of her husband, Sahir’s mother separated from him and since Sahir had given preference for his mother over his father, he was no longer the heir to his father’s property. And with this started the long and arduous phase of struggle of his life.
The days of an easy – going life were over. However, the desire for those luxuries remained. Even his mother’s jewelry had to be sold off but the will to live on remained. On top of this, his father had threatened to eliminate or at least have him separated from his mother. Frightened, his mother put him under the watchful eyes of bodyguards to protect him. So along with hatred, a strange sort of dread also began to gnaw at him. As a result, his mind was beset with a number of problems. He fell in love and failed due to poverty, lack of courage and social consequences. Against his desire and nature, he was forced to do small time jobs to make ends meet. He passed his days in great melancholy. There was a struggle between the desire for fulfillment and his sorrowful present. The dialectic worked between the mind and the heart as well as between life and death. It was this very dialectic that transformed an ordinary student to Sahir. And the bitterness of the heart and mind began to resound in his poetry.
As a poet, Sahir came of age when after Iqbal and Josh, Firaq, Faiz and Majaz reigned. It is evident that any new poet could not have remained impervious to the influence of his towering contemporaries. Consequently, Sahir came under the influence of Faiz and Majaz. In fact, so much so, in his early poetry, Sahir was suspected of echoing Faiz- the same soft soulful voice, the same careful weaving together of beautiful words and the same sleep- inducing ambiance. But soon, his own personal experiences came to influence his poetry, a deep sense of revulsion and revolt against the class one of whose representatives was his own father and the other the father of his beloved, and his conscience tempered in the heat and fire of worldly sorrows, showed him the way and it became evident that instead of Faiz and Majaz, Sahir’s creations bore the stamp of his personal experiences and they had hues of their own. It was Sahir’s very own experiences that could make him cry out-
I come of those whose ancestors have always
Supported the shadows of alien rulers
Since that cursed moment of the Revolt
Have served the authorities in difficult times
No road, no aim and no trace of light either
In deep darknesses does my life tramp
In these vacant spaces shall I remain forever lost
I am ever aware of this, my beloved
But sometimes it just does cross my mind
That if I could have lived under the soft shadows of your tresses
I could have been happier
This all- engulfing darkness, which has become the fate of my life
Could have also spent itself in the splendors labyrinths of your eyes.
And I feel the reason why Sahir, who earned a place much higher than that of his contemporaries lay precisely in his unique personal experiences which he presents shorn of any sheen, except the necessary creative ornamentation. Besides the sorrows of love, the venom and bitterness for soceity that his poetry spewed forth is also not borrowed- it voices his own life experiences.
Sahir is essentially a romantic poet. Failure in love left such a deep scar that the other sorrows were shadowed out. Finding silken dresses swaying around him, he could not do anything else except suffer a hundred heartaches. He found his beloved’s lowered eyes in front of him and he began to ask her in pain-
O the one who lights up my fleeting dreams
Do I ever cross your dreams ?
Search from within your eyes and tell me
Whether the future holds a glimmer of dawn at the end of my long nights ?
and it is possible that he could have kept on asking such questions and not finding a satisfactory answer would have succumbed to the dark and dense shadows whose flow started from the love of a woman and would have remained confined and limited to love poetry. But when he found no answers to his persistent questions, frightened of this constant dialectic he began to develop a habit for deep thinking. Why did this happen ? Why does it happens thus ? And he came to the conclusion that it should not happen as it does. And thus did his personal love, after crossing many a milestone, converged on this little dot where the love of the beloved transforms itself into the love for the entire world and –
You are unaware of this, my beloved,
That two days that I did love you, transformed this simpleton forever.
leads to his whispering in his beloved’s ears-
How can I ever think of forsaking your love, my beloved
The sorrows of this world have been enough to break me.
And then goes on to proclaim in so many words-
I have other cares too besides yours, my beloved
Even a moment’s relief I cannot find from them
Under the very chins of these high rise buildings
At every step screams the cry of a hungry beggar
Cries of hunger from every house
The noise of a seething humanity from every direction
In the din of the humming factories,
Are submerged the thousand cries of poor folk
Youthful faces being sold in every street
Sorrow drawn over enchanting eyes
This unending war- and the coquettish young men of my land,
Whose blosssoming youth is it consumes
On every protest, the long winding arguments of law
Humiliations, sufferings in this era of forced servility
These sorrows are enough to destroy me,
Do not inflict more pain on me with the sadness in your eyes.
And he did not just stop here. As his wounded conscience continued to torment him, he developed a persistent will to continuously fight these sorrows, to subdue them and transform them into happiness. And in doing so, he came to grips with those issues that confront this Age. It is true that in presenting some of these themes, he has not been as successful as in his handling of the love theme, it is sometimes astonishing to find that he has allowed himself to be first and foremost a poet, begins to plead that people should not consider him a poet and when he pledges-
From this day onwards, O workers and peasants
My ragas are yours
Hungry folks! From now on my sorrowful tenors are yours
From this day onwards,
My poetry shall exist to melt the chains that bind,
From this onwards,
I shall spew not dewdrops, but sparks of fire.
This twist in his poetry makes one suspect whether Sahir actually meant what he said and whether he would be able to stick to his pledges? Will his poems now never ever –
Contain longing and hope
The sound of the steps of death
Of life sensuously stretching itself out
Rays of a future and the darkness of the present
The sound of furies and the deep notes of dreams
-in other words, shall his poetry reflect the thousand other hues of life and not just the red colors of a radical political movement ?
Fortunately, Sahir proves himself to be the classical beloved of the Urdu poetry- and he goes back on his words. At least, he does take a step backwards, and after displaying a few sparks he comes back into the safe havens of his idol- house. He realizes that his job is not to wave the red flag, but to sing songs from the rostrum.
While discussing Sahir’s poetry, one of Urdu’s foremost poets- Kaifi Azmi who has been proclaimed by one responsible Communist Party leader as the Red flower of Urdu poetry, has observed that Sahir’s decision to sing songs from the stage and distance himself from the comrades who carry the flag shows the disparity between Sahir’s thought and action and this contradiction has brought anarchism in his life and pessimism in his poetry. He also drew some other similar conclusions and though he recognizes Sahir as being essentially a progressive poet and a friend of the progressive movement, he nevertheless calls upon Sahir to recite his poetry as well as wave the red flag. It appears that in Azmi’s views, reciting poetry is not so important as keeping the flag aloft.
While the flag has its own significance, the rampart too has an import of its own. History is witness to the fact that when the composers of poetry have tried to wave the flag also at the same time, either the rampart has collapsed or the flag could not remain flying. And it is absolutely incorrect to say that only by writing about workers and peasants can one get admitted to the portals of the progressive ranks. Our society is divided into many classes and our artists come from different social backgrounds. Because of certain conditions, if a writer is not able to transcend these class limits, he can very well continue to write healthy, idealist and progressive literature while remaining within the constraints imposed by his class origin. Writers from a bourgeois or upper classes can very well depict the aimlessness and irrelevance of their classes and render as high a service as a peasant or a worker through direct participation in class- struggles.
In contrast to this, if a poet or a writer, while remaining within the confines of his social class, and without being aware of whether a worker works on a lathe machine standing or laying down, and without knowing what time of the year a crop is harvested begins to write about workers and peasants; his words shall not carry the same convictions as those which are based on his own experiences and which are the foundation of great literature. Fortunately, on the whole, Sahir gives us what he has received in life in the form of his verse.
Since the last few years Sahir has been in Bombay and according to Kaifi Azmi, he is a afflicted with all the crassness that film industry is beset with today. One does not know if while writing lyrics for films, he might decide to become a producer or a director himself (because today he owns a fleet of expensive cars and bungalows and has by and large stopped writing nazms), but like Kaifi Azmi, when I first met Sahir, he was only a poet and when I shall meet him last, he would still be a poet because till today he cannot decide for himself what clothes to buy and the more popularity he gains1, he realizes that as a poet his fame is receding.
……the last I met Sahir was in 1978 when his mother, who considered me her son, died and Sahir suffered his first stroke and he was contemplating giving up the film industry and move to a life of relaxation and poetry.
……and the last news I heard about him was on 26th October 1980, when at 5:30 am in the morning, the phone rang and I came to know that the previous night he had sufferred another heart- attack and my beloved friend was no more.
May God shower all his Graces on him,
For the one who has passed away had many a deserving qualities
1 He has been honored with a Padma Shri and his new book of poetry Aao Ik Khawaab Bunain has been awarded the Soviet Nehru Award, Urdu Academy Award and the Maharashtra State Award. During the Indo- Pak war, Indian soldiers had named one of their posts after his name and many of his poems have been translated into English, Russian, Arabic, Persian, Czeck and many other foreign languages.
From Sahir and His Poetry Ed. By Parkash Pandit (Hind Pocket books, 1987)
(translated from Hindi by Bhupinder Singh*)
*: My thanks to Anand Mohan Sharma for helping to get this translation started, and for helping out with some of the more difficult Hindi words- bhupinder