On Literature for Social Change

An Interview with Indian writer Noor Zaheer, the daughter of Sajjad Zaheer

An edited version of this story first appeared in The Express Tribune on January 19, 2014.

Islamabad – There is certain fearlessness and optimism around Noor Zaheer, when she speaks.

To the left-leaning activists, writers and intellectuals assembled at her book’s launching ceremony in Islamabad on Monday, January 12, she spoke as if she was their leader. Engaging them with stories and pithy one-liners that had the potential of becoming political slogans, she got them to applaud and, perhaps, to dream again.

The daring tone remains even when her sentences are measured, during an interview with The Express Tribune after the book launch.

Some of that fearlessness, she might attribute to her training in theatre. Some of it might be just plain genetic.

Zaheer, 55, is one of the four daughters of renowned Urdu writers Sajjad and Razia Sajjad Zaheer. Her father, Sajjad Zaheer, is revered as one of the greatest Marxist thinkers and revolutionaries of the subcontinent on either side of the border.

He co-founded the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) in pre-partition India — the association spearheaded the “progressive movement” in Urdu literature through its members’ struggle and advocacy to end socioeconomic oppression.

Now, Zaheer is carrying on her parents’ legacy in modern-day India, through the pen and through her activism as a member of the Communist Party of India.

She is currently visiting Pakistan on an invitation from the PWA here to promote her new book of Urdu short stories, “Rait per Khoon” or “Blood on the sand.”

Her short stories, as speakers at the book launching ceremony mentioned, highlight socioeconomic problems in a manner similar to the 20th Century’s progressive Urdu writers.

But there are few writers who are focusing on social realism in Urdu short stories or Urdu poetry these days. Zaheer, who has previously published two books, connects this lack of people-oriented writing to the larger, and more unfortunate, dearth of social movements in South Asian countries.

“The movements for the people have to be strong to throw up writers who take up these causes,” she said. “So since the movements (in South Asia) have over the decades become weaker, that is why I think writing is not taking up these very important issues.”

Those movements once thrived in India. But they have been hurt because the resistance struggle is not as simple now as it used to be in colonial times when the aggressor was just one entity, Zaheer said. Nongovernmental organizations that only work for a cause from project to project have also hurt the movements, she said.

The leftist forces in India and Pakistan, which should theoretically champion the cause of the masses, need to have more internal discussions and to reach out to the public, she said.

Meanwhile, contemporary South Asian literature’s shift away from social realism, according to Zaheer, is mostly because “very important issues have become very casual.”

Of these important issues, perhaps the most important is the death of a human being, which has been trivialized by wars.

Across the region, she said she has noticed the sensitivity for human life transform in to disassociation from death.

“Even when you take up the issues, of say farmers, what do you harp on? What is your focus point? That he or she is tortured (by socioeconomic conditions) so much that they die or commit suicide,” she said. “An accident should be shocking and provoke good literature or a few lines of poetry, but that is not happening.”

It is not happening and the PWA has almost become irrelevant in Pakistan. There could be a lesson for Pakistani writers from India though, where Zaheer said they are trying to revive the progressive movement.

“We are trying very hard to bring relevant issues to writing and to make a difference,” she said.

She mentioned two important initiatives they are focusing on in India: the revival of the people’s publishing house which would publish more books from regional languages and the concept of a “people’s literature festival.”

Zaheer, who has been working for a decade in Himachal Pardesh on restoring Buddhist monasteries and documenting oral traditions there, thinks corporations and private organizations that sponsor literature festivals will eventually try to dictate the content of contemporary writing.

The people’s literature festival is a way of circumventing corporate control on literature, she said.

There is that bit of fearlessness and optimism again.

The first festival is planned to be held later in 2014 in Azamgarh, India, the birthplace of the great Urdu poet, Kaifi Azmi. The festival could be the spark that reignites the progressive movement’s flame in South Asia. Or it might just sputter and fizzle out.

It is difficult to predict the future, but Zaheer, it seems, is willing to fight till the end.

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