Dawn Tuesday Review, 24-30 December, 1996
In the history of literature we find people who undergo expulsions, displacements or confinements for the sake of their inner voice. Usually, the perpetrator I a tyrant and the writer is the victim. Zameer Jafery’s is a similar case, albeit with a difference. The expulsion, displacement and confinement he has undergone for the sake of his literary career were not the result of a person or the system. The tyrant in this case was no one but himself.
Here is an outline of the first 80 years.
Zameer was born in Chak Abdul Khalique, a village near Mangla (Jhelum). In those days people did not keep records of births:
There were births but no dates of birth. If you ask me, my birthday falls on three days – what an amusing idea to be born in installments.
The fact that my date of birth is unknown must not make you think I was born in pre-historic times, because somebody once said it was 16 January, 1916. On another occasion they decided on 18 June, 1915. Finally everyone agreed on 1 January, 1916 for convenience’s sake and choosing to be a little practical, (I believe it is easier to count the years of my life that way). My elder brother was born in 1918!
His father was a mystic and a small landowner. (“There were no big jagirs in our area.”) The elders of the family were convinced that Zameer would neither be a mystic nor a successful landowner; instead he would do little to prove his worth.
“In school I was known for passing humorous remarks. If a drama was staged I was invariably asked to play the fool.” Zameer attributes the humor in his personality to a reaction to the exaggerated seriousness that prevailed in the family. “My father lived until I was 28. I do not recall many incidents when we had a long conversation.”
Diamond College, Campbellpore. Islamia College, Lahore. Punjab University. Poetry.
The stone is set rolling…
1938, he joined Daily Ihsan. It was the largest selling daily of Northern India after Zamindar. (Nawa-i-Waqt was a weekly in those days.) Drawing a monthly salary of Rs 30 was good enough for him to live a moderately easy life in Lahore, and send some money home.
It gelled with the plan chalked out for the large family, too. “Our ‘economy’ was planned on the basis of each brother taking up a different job, with at least one of them staying back at home to tend to the fields.”
Sometime later Zameer gave up his job and went back to his village to find a government job. He forgets to tell me why, and I don’t care to ask. I have read his autobiographical sketch in Urtay Huvay Khakay, and I know that people like him don’t need reasons to leave a job. They need reasons to hang on.
Zameer’s job is never done
That was the beginning of the Second World War. (“Not my doing,” I can imagine him whispering into my ear just now). He first got a humble job in the government – two steps lower than the tehseeldar on the ladder of hierarchy – but then left it too. “The atmosphere wasn’t quite literary.”
This time he quotes a reason. His next job took him to Delhi. He was appointed an “assistant, basically a euphemistic term for a clerk”; but a sobriquet ‘assistant’ did carry more weight than a plain ‘clerk’. Delhi was like heaven. All the literati were clustered in one city, Sayel Dehelvi, Krishan Chandar, Bukhari Saheb, Col. Majeed Malik, N.M. Rashid.
To top it all, mushairahs in Simla, which meant more names like Reza Ali, Dr Taseer and Sultan Ahmed, plus opportunities for Zameer to hone his talent for poetry and to start thinking about compiling his first anthology.
However, it was not reason enough for him to stay on.
Zameer gets commissioned into the army and finds himself on his way to the Far East to fight against the Japanese. So far, most of his poetry had been serious. When he published his first anthology in 1940 it was titled Karzar (The Battlefield). A brush with death was not an infrequent experience and the imagery in his serious poetry, even today, has a lot to do with the days spent in the camp.
The downside of life was an educating experience, turning him a bit stoical. “I remember a sergeant who was lying down with a bottle of liquor while we were under heavy shell-fire. Somebody asked, ‘aren’t you concerned about the war’? And he replied, ‘I won’t become Winston Churchill by worrying about it!’” Perhaps incidents like these or maybe it was the beauty of the jungle, that compelled Zameer to start a daily diary – just streak of contradiction in this otherwise hopelessly disorganized person – which betrays an innate poetic urge to create form of beauty out of the chaos of life.
A more significant development as far as his literary career was concerned went was that his poems began ‘laughing’. With the exception of a few humorous verses he had written in the early days, this period set him off to write humorous poetry which would over shadow his serious verses – much to his disadvantage, as some would say.
“Death was always lurking. We had to face it and defy it at every step,” he reasons. “Humor should find a place of honor in literature. It is a serious thing too. Humor at its best embodies the tragic within itself. It would be a pity if it were left in the hands of non-serious people. I would also like to add that the rating of humor should be done in a wider context of literature. Humor is considered a second-rate creation in that context and the reality of life is pain with ghazal and other forms of poetry becoming a higher order.”
Major Hasrat of Singapore
The end of the war saw him as a victorious soldier brought to the retrieved territory of Singapore. “Those who have witnessed the march of a victorious army on to a strange land know what such life means,” – or something to that effect he writes somewhere. It was against this backdrop that he met Chiragh Hasan Hasrat, the colossal poet, scholar and writer. One of the most beautiful pen-portraits of this forgotten legend of our literature is to be found in Urtay Huvay Khakay.
Hasrat was servicing as a major in the public relations section, in charge of editing and publishing Urdu magazines and newspapers. Zameer worked under him for two years after the war.
“It is difficult to recall him without his books, cigarettes and liquor,” Zameer writes in his pen-portrait. His knowledge of language, history and religion was simply astonishing. While in Singapore he wrote a series of articles about classical Urdu poets, complete with samples of their work, life histories and debates on the authenticity of dates – without consulting as much as a single reference book, since there were none available in Singapore!
Why was he forgotten soon after his death?
Zameer explains that Hasrat was not serious about promoting his work or about life for that matter. He would allow his creativity to dominate the other aspects of his life too. There is this self defeating tendency of the creative talent which makes the artiste turn away from his calling. It is no coincidence that Zameer chose Hasrat as his mentor.
The dawn of independence
“I can never forget the magic of the moment when we saluted the sun that rose on the first day of independence. We were in our army uniforms and all of a sudden like a spell, it had transformed from a shackle into a badge of freedom.”
Zameer never speaks of the independence in ambivalent terms – a point of departure from his contemporaries like Faiz and Manto. For that matter he might sound less literary and more simple. “But that is just what I am,” he would perhaps say.
The Kashmir War, 1949
“I am grateful to God Almighty that he gave me the opportunity…”
And then he resigned. He was a captain at that time. Sometimes he is amused when he recalls that the future Field Marshal was only a major at that time – just a few rungs above Zameer himself.” What if I had also continued in the army?” he chuckles. Zameer Jafery, a chief martial law administrator! It is a strange idea to grapple with.
Confident that he had perfected all the finer points of journalism imbibed from his mentor in the Singapore days he started Baad-e-Shimaal, the first Urdu newspaper of Rawalpindi. The circulation rose to 3,000 a creditable figure for those days but the project failed due to lack of reserve capital.
“A big landowner offered us an easy loan of Rs 100,000 but we thought it would cost us our freedom of expression…”
Nevertheless, the knack for journalism lay buried within. To date Zameer has been writing newspaper columns off and on. A section, Nazar Ghubaray has been published too.
Elections – not a bad idea back in 1951
“Money did not run in our family, but honor did…”
He had two opponents. One from the Muslim League, the other from Jamaat-i-Islami.
“I never thought of making personal attacks in my speeches, neither did they. And there was nothing to be said in that sense. Nobody had taken bribes, or committed fraud, or usurped loans, or had a bad record, or was loose of morals. Those were strange days. We displayed courtesy by not canvassing in each other’s native villages. On the day of elections I extended food and comfort to the polling agents of my opponents in my village, and they returned the favor in theirs.” This was the brighter side of the picture, typical of an era when arms had not become a regular part of election campaigns. On the darker side, however, the league leadership had been actively pressurizing the machinery to tamper with the results, and in the bargain they earned a bad reputation.
Friends, not masters
After losing the elections, Zameer faced difficult times. He had been used to the comforts of the British army, and hardship did not suit him well. His former colleagues had risen to some high-ranking positions and asked him to join the army again, even though he lost his seniority.
The fear of gathering moss
Life after that was comparatively eventless. He got opportunities such as working with Hafeez Jallundhri and Azam Kreevi in the ‘Department of Morale’ of the Pakistan Army, being enrolled on deputation for village improvement programs together with Ibne Insha, Ahmed Shabbir and Mumtaz Mufti during Ayub Khan’s Martial Law, participating in the 1965 war and finally being the Director of Public Relations in the Capital Development Authority of what was then in the process of becoming Islamabad.
“I have laid down some of the oldest bricks in this city.”
In the last position he remained for about fifteen or sixteen years. And then he left it, just in time to avoid getting entitled to a pension. “My junior was waiting for his promotion and I had begun feeling like an immovable block of wood.”
Zameer had received countrywide recognition as a humor poet. “Freedom (of Pakistan) brought me recognition,” is the theory he advocates, and then goes on to say. “The incentive for writing humor was so great that I could not pay the same kind of attention to serious poetry.” Yet the poetry of humor does not constitute the greater part of his poetry. He has some 38 publications to his signature.
Apart from humorous and serious poetry and humorous prose, he has written devotional and patriotic verse, children’s poetry, travelogues, biographical reminiscences and versified translations.
“I think I have broken new ice in the domain of translations. I have translated Malaysian and Australian poetry which was unknown to the Urdu readers before. I have also translated samples of what is called ‘grave humor’ in English. I call it gorkhund in Urdu. That was a new genre as far as Urdu poetry is concerned. Then, I have also translated into Urdu about 1,500 couplets from Saiful Maluk of Mian Muhammad Bakhsh, which is replacing Rumi’s Mathnavi in Punjab since people have stopped reading Persian. In my verse translation I have retained the taste of the original Punjabi, thus illustrating how close the two languages can come to each other. The couplets I have chosen are short of ‘quotable quotes’ from the great Sufi poet.”
Things he did not do
He wrote the first teleplay of the Lahore Television Station. Since then he has been approached by the television people time and again, but he has not been able to get himself to write for TV or film. “I don’t know why I can’t do things which are profitable!”
Despite a career that saw him take up several jobs, he never got to make a house or earn a pension. The only house he owns is his ancestral home, and the only pension he gets is from the army. Living in a rented house in Islamabad is unusual for a retired senior official of the CDA. Mention this to Zameer and he will probably answer with a characteristic chortle.
“I never did anything that would compromise on the flow of my creative writing,” he claims.
One who values one’s own creativity must also show respect for the other’s. What is he doing in the Films Censor Board, then?
“I have never caused any film to be rejected, my role there is rather like that of somebody from the other side. To me, censorship is like murder. If something is bad for the society, let the society reject it. Why curb the opportunity?”
The impression I gathered about him in my single visit was that of a man living a moderately comfortable life (“Thanks to Independence, the writer today is comparatively well-off … although things should improve further”). The plans in his mind and a pen and paper can keep him happy for a long time to come.
His nostalgia does not stop him from looking forward, though. “I can learn from the younger generation, thank God,” he says. While his humorous poetry carries the tone of the ‘40s, it reflects the concerns of the ‘90s.
“I have not written my masterpiece yet,” he says. He has no idea what it would be. But the autobiography that he is writing might be a step towards it.
“My greatest problem is how to organize the huge amount of material that I have at my command – my diaries since 1943 and the already published biographical sketches of famous people I’ve lived with. Should I include those sketches in my memoirs? The other thing, I am trying to figure out is this: is an autobiography different from a diary? As far as I’ve been able to deduce, I don’t see much of a difference between the two. I’ll probably run through my diaries and just exclude those parts which are neither insignificant or reveal too much about me,” he laughs.
“I wish to present my honest impressions of each moment I lived. I guess my autobiography will be just as convoluted as my life has been. I am not a methodical person,” he concedes.
This interview was conducted in Rawalpindi in 1996. Zameer Jafri passed away on May 12, 1999.