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EXCERPT: Progressive by nature:A Rebel and Her Cause:

EXCERPT:  Progressive by nature:A Rebel and Her Cause:

ALWAYS a stormy petrel, Rashid Jahan had become first ‘Doctor Rashid Jahan’, in itself a novelty for the daughter of a respectable Muslim family, and after the publication of Angarey and the furore it caused, she was being called ‘Rashid Jahan Angareywali’. Possibly as a fallout of the fuss and fury over Angarey or as a process of natural evolution, she now became ‘Comrade Rashid Jahan’. Path-breaking and unconventional as she was, and militantly independent-minded too, it would be facile to suggest that she joined the party under the influence of committed friends like Sajjad Zaheer or Mahmud, both communists by the time she met them. She joined the Communist Party of India as a full-time member in 1933 and became an active member in the Uttar Pradesh (UP) wing.




On 14 October 1934, while still working for the Provincial Medical Services (PMS) and posted in Bahraich, she married Mahmuduzzafar. Thereafter, began a period of short stays in different cities, doing whatever work was expected of her by the party and combining it with her own abiding interests: writing and medicine. When Mahmud took up the only full-time employment he was to engage in his entire life — that of vice principal of the Muhammadan Anglo Oriental (MAO) College in Amritsar where, in addition to his administrative duties, he also taught English — she resigned from the PMS and went to live and work in Amritsar from 1934 36.

With Mahmud busy with his teaching and administrative tasks, Jahan found herself once again at the centre of a charged circle. The notoriety that came in the wake of the Angarey episode and made them (in)famous in the Urdu speaking world possibly added to the aura of this unusually well known communist couple. The Punjab of the 1930s, alive to the call of communism, already had one of the most active communist units in the country (after the ones in the Mumbai and Calcutta presidencies). Sohan Singh Josh, who was arrested and tried in the Meerut Conspiracy Case, was active in Punjab; he would join hands with Zaheer and Mahmud to launch a newspaper called Chingari in 1936. Jahan wrote for Chingari and edited it when Mahmud and Josh were underground. The seeds of communism, sown by members of the Ghaddar party, had found rich soil in the land of the five rivers. Trained in Moscow by the COMINTERN, many Ghadrites brought back an organised, cadre based system of functioning; they attached special importance to increasing memberships in workers’ bodies and kisan sabhas. By the mid-1930s, Jahan and Mahmud would have found plenty of like minded people. Mahmud may, (and this is conjecture on my part), have accepted the assignment to teach in Amritsar with the ‘blessings’ of the party.

Even before the Jallianwala Bagh incident of April 1919 had seized the national imagination, Amritsar was known for its vibrant cultural and political life. One of the largest cities in Punjab and the spiritual centre of Sikhism, it was the home of Saadat Hasan Manto and Abdul Bari Alig, a city throbbing with literature inspired from the Russian Revolution. The entry of a couple as charismatic, intellectually alive, and attuned to the socio economic concerns of their times as Jahan and Mahmud would, no doubt, have created a stir. Their cosmopolitanism and the whiff of controversy that surrounded them would, doubtless, have added to their aura as an unconventional, even bohemian pair. Faiz Ahmad Faiz, then a young lecturer in English at the MAO College from 1935 42, records meeting Jahan and Mahmud:

“... it was in that city (Amritsar) that I became politically conscious. Largely due to the friends I had made there Mahmood uz Zafar (sic), Dr Rashid Jahan and, later, Dr Taseer. I had entered a new world. I began to work in the trade union movement, became involved in a league for civil liberties and joined the Progressive Writers’ Movement. Never before had I felt so much at peace with myself and my environment.”

Faiz also recollects his introduction to communism and his first reading of the Communist Manifesto, about which he later said: “I read the Manifesto once, and the way ahead was illuminated.” In fact, one can trace the perceptible movement away from shabab (romanticism) to inquilab (revolution) in Faiz’s poetic oeuvre as he was introduced to socialism in the company of Jahan, Mahmud, Zaheer, Taseer and others. In a poem such as ‘Mujhse Pahli si Muhabbat Mere Mahboob Na Mang’ (‘Don’t Ask Me for that Old Love, My Love’), for instance, Faiz acknowledges the heart tugging beauty of the beloved but he can also see the other sorrows of the world which claim his attention. He juxtaposes the beloved’s beauty against the miseries and ugliness of the world, a world which has hunger, disease, and deprivation, a world that can never let him love her as he once did, for a love that is divorced from social reality is too individualistic, too meaningless:

Aur bhi dukh hain zamane mein muhabbat ke siwa

Rahatein our bhi hain wasl ki rahat ke siwa

There are other sorrows too apart from love

And other pleasures too apart from that of union

Jahan’s only surviving sibling, Birjees Kidwai, remembers visiting her sister and brother in law while she was still a student at the girls’ college in Aligarh. Like Zaheer, she was taken in by the sounds and sights of Punjab, so different from her sheltered world in Aligarh. She recalls the commune like atmosphere in her sister’s home and the company of several young men, such as Faiz, who joined them on large, rambunctious picnics in the countryside. However, the Amritsar days were not days of hedonism; for the first time, Jahan came in close contact with workers. Hajra Begum writes:

“While she had adopted Communism at an ideological level by the time she arrived in Amritsar, hitherto her experience of the poor working class was confined to her medical practice and training. She knew the mazdoor as a patient, not as friend and comrade who could work alongside her, shoulder to shoulder. She had studied the principles of socialism in theory; so far she had not had the opportunity of putting them into practice. Her personal life was separate from her political life. Perhaps that is why when you read her early stories in the collection entitled, Aurat you sense something is missing. Her characters are alive, their troubles and sorrows are real, but when you finish reading the story you sense an incompleteness. Either she holds out no solution for the suffering men and women, or the solution appears artificial, even unreal.”

In 1935, while Mahmud and Jahan were still at Amritsar, Zaheer returned from England. In London, while ostensibly studying for the Bar at Law, Zaheer and a group of young men had drafted a manifesto of the All India Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA), a copy of which Zaheer had mailed to several prominent Indian intellectuals and writers, including Premchand. Taken in by the manifesto’s rousing call to throw off the shackles of convention and forge a new sort of literature, one that would be attuned to the radical changes taking place in society, Premchand published its Hindi translation in the October 1935 issue of his influential literary journal, Hans. Soon after reaching India in November 1935, Zaheer made his way to Allahabad where his father, Sir Wazir Hasan worked in the Allahabad High Court. Within days of his arrival, he re established contact with his Angarey comrade, Ahmed Ali, who in turn introduced him to his colleagues at the university and opened the door to the intellectual life of this vibrant city located at the confluence of two mighty rivers.

An opportunity presented itself for the Angarey quartet to meet: an Urdu Hindi Writers’ Conference in Allahabad in December 1935 organised by Tara Chand under the aegis of the Hindustani Academy. Recalling that time, Zaheer writes:

“Dr Rasheed Jahan (sic) arrived from Amritsar. We were already in correspondence with her about the Progressive Movement, and we wanted her to be present in our discussions with other writers, so that on her return to Punjab she could facilitate our contacts with the writers there.”

The Angarey group set about meeting — and convincing — a galaxy of writers about the need for a new literary grouping: Premchand, who instantly offered his unstinting support to an all India body of writers devoted to socially engaged writing; Maulvi Abdul Haq, the Baba i Urdu who had been running a humongous dictionary project from Hyderabad, proved to be just as cooperative in appending his signature to the manifesto Zaheer showed him; Josh Malihabadi, the poet who sang sweetly and robustly of revolution, willingly gave his consent to the idea of an all India association of progressive writers; Firaq Gorakhpuri, the legendary poet and teacher at Allahabad University, joined in; Munshi Daya Narayan Nigam, the editor of Zamana from Kanpur, similarly gave it his blessings. Soon, letters were pouring in: Sibte Hasan reported from Hyderabad that he had managed to get signatures from many prominent writers including the influential Qazi Abdul Ghaffar, the editor of Payam; Hiren Mukherjee wrote to say he was getting a group of writers together in Calcutta; soon branches of the PWA began to sprout in Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Calcutta, Hyderabad, Aligarh.

Returning from the Urdu Hindi Conference in Allahabad, Jahan suggested that Zaheer come to Amritsar with her and travel through the Punjab to create interest in the PWA. He agreed; in January 1936, Zaheer travelled to Amritsar and stayed with Jahan and Mahmud, in whose home he first met Faiz. Together, all four travelled to Lahore where Faiz introduced the progressives from UP to the intellectuals of Punjab. Zaheer’s Roshnai carries a wonderful account of these days spent with Jahan and Mahmud, talking of progressivism, meeting some of the greatest Urdu writers of their time, discovering the delights of Punjab such as drinking lassi and the sight of men wearing voluminous shalwars. ?

The above excerpt has been taken from the chapter ‘Comrade Rashid Jahan’.

Excerpted with permission from:

A Rebel and Her Cause: The Life and Work of Rashid Jahan

By Rakhshanda Jalil

Oxford University Press

ISBN 978-0199401680

270pp.

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