Syed Sajjad Zaheer: The Writer of One Night in London

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Sajjad Zaheer was born in a small village just outside Lucknow, northern India, Sajjad Zaheer remains one of the most prominent and iconic literary and political voices in South Asia and beyond. Zaheer was one of four sons in a privileged family. His father was Sir Wazir Hussain, a notable judge and Chief Justice of the Oudh Court. After completing his studies in politics and law at the University of Lucknow, Zaheer travelled to the UK to enroll at the University of Oxford. Initially, this was a course mapped out for him by his father, who wanted his son to become a barrister. However, Zaheer’s eight year sojourn in the colonial heartland would prove to be a defining moment in shaping his political sensibilities and the alternative path he would follow on his return to India.

Once he had reached Britain, the struggles against colonial rule in his homeland were thrown into sharp focus for Zaheer. His response was similar to that of his contemporary, Mulk Raj Anand. Together, these pre-independence diaspora intellectuals developed a keen appreciation of the urgent need for emancipation in their country. Formative to this was the presence of a South Asian community already vocalizing its concerns in the metropolitan capital. This included figures like Syamaji Krishnavarma and V. D. Savarkar who played a leading role in the Ghadar Party. The injustices of colonial rule became apparent to Zaheer, as did the need to challenge the status quo through a marked socialist political activism. He established links with the Communist Party of Great Britain and was one of its first South Asian members. During his time in Britain Zaheer also became editor in chief of the periodical Bharat. This was a journal of socialist politics headed by South Asian students at Oxford and concerned with the struggle for independence and the plight of the poor in India. In the literary arena, he and Anand had several encounters with members of the Bloomsbury Group, and were deeply influenced by the modernist literary movement, if not its politics. Zaheer and Anand’s attendance of the International Congress for the Defense of Culture in Paris in 1935, organized by some of the most prominent names in the European artistic and literary landscape, was also a key influence. The previous year, Zaheer and Anand had laid the foundations for the All India Progressive Writers’ Association at a gathering in a London restaurant where they drafted the manifesto. The organization sought to marry the political and social with the literary, and held numerous meetings in London where students and aspiring writers discussed articles and stories. Zaheer also began his novella, London Ki Ek Raat(‘A Night in London’, 1938) when in London, completing it on his return to India.

Zaheer left London for India via Paris in 1935. Once in India, he continued to develop the organization, which held its official inaugural meeting in Lucknow from 9 to 10 April 1936, which the writer Premchand presiding. The group published several texts inspired by Marxist, oppositional and subversive politics, including a translation of Tagore’s Gora (‘White Man’), and Zaheer’s own anthology of progressive Urdu literature, Roshnai (‘Light’). After partition, Zaheer left for Pakistan, and continued to be an active socialist campaigner in his country’s tumultuous political landscape. This made him jailed at various points throughout his life. His continued commitment to express the political thoughts through literature resulted in the creation of the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association. It was en route to a conference arranged by this organization in Kazakhstan that Zaheer suffered a massive heart attack which ended his life.

Wife Razia Sajjad Zahir

His wife Razia Sajjad Zahir born on 15th October, 1918 in Ajmer and died in Delhi on 18th December 1979 in Delhi also was an Indian writer, translator and a prominent member of the Progressive Writer Association. She won the Uttar Pradesh Sahitya Akademi Award and the Soviet Land Nehru Award.

Daughter Nadira Babbar

Their Daughter Nadira Babbar born on 20th January, 1948, married to Raj Babbar is an Indian theatre and Hindi Cinema actress and director, who is the recipient of Sangeet Natak Akademi Award

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