Published: January 13, 2015 - 13:19

The extreme cold this winter took me back to Ali Sardar Jafri’s Five Nights of Lucknow, first published in 1998 as a collection of 11 terrific essays.

In the chapter titled Fourth Night, it is written how stormy the weather was in December 1941. This was on the eve of the civil disobedience call against the British by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in August 1942, to quit India. Politics around the world was hot and Indian hearts and minds were filled with hope of a better life after the retreat of the colonialists from South Asia.

Jafri, the revolutionary Urdu poet, was then not yet 30. He was excited about meeting other new age poets such as Jan Nisar Akhtar, who was even younger, at a poetic soiree led by Josh Malihabadi and hosted by All India Radio. Sharing the stage that evening with them were Asrar ul Haq Majaz, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Moin Ahsan Jazbi and the slightly older Makhdoom Mohiuddin from Hyderabad. In the audience sat Razia and Sajjad Zaheer, Anwar Jamal Kidwai, Sibtey Hasan and Ahmad Ali.

Once the formal event was over, the caravan of youthful poets stepped into the cold and, braving the freeze at midnight, walked across the city to the Khandari Lane home of Jafri in the Lalbagh neighbourhood.

The raging storm had made the gigantic tamarind tree outside Jafri’s humble home sway like a demon. Street bulbs strung on electric wires oscillated back and forth, making shadows do crazy dances.

The poets trooped into a room strewn with a few cane chairs, one table and three beds woven in rope. All the furniture was pushed aside and straw mats were spread on the floor. Two buckets were turned over for use as candelabras. The fireplace was lit.

There was peace in the room. Warmth radiated from the fireplace as well as from the fevered hearts of youngsters filled with thoughts of freedom and social justice. Despite the cold, despite a lack of light there was enough warmth to make all the faces in the room beam in togetherness. Every forehead glowed. Hearts were on a high. It was difficult to say whether poetry had inebriated them, or the bottle.

Meanwhile, the angry knuckles of the tempest outside continued to knock loudly on the door, making the candle flames quiver.

Deaf to the din, the poets who came from different parts of the region, concentrated on catching up with each other’s feelings. They sat around the upturned buckets and smiled in the flickering light. Despite the paucity of everything else, plenty of admiration was expressed for each other’s work without envy, jealousy or suspicion.

That evening was filled with camaraderie as poet after poet forgot his own work and recited what the other
had written.

Faiz said that there was a poem about a man who did not care for the shore while his boat was safe, or broken, which everyone was reciting in Lahore but whose name is unknown:

Jab kishti sabit aur saalim thii sahil ki tamanna kisko thii ab aisi shikastha kishti par sahil ki tamanna kaun kare?

Jazbi’s face lit up, listening to Faiz reciting his poem. He got up and hugged Faiz and, to the rhythm of the winds blowing mercilessly outside, he recited Faiz, so full of hope that the dark night would soon emerge from the clutches of dusk, bathed in serene moonlight:

Gul hui jaathi hai afsurda sulagthi hui shaam, dhul ke niklegi abhi chashme mehtab se raat, aur mushtaq nigahon ki suni jayegi aur un hathon se mas honge ye tarsey huye haath.

Faiz smiled some more as Majaz continued to wonder if the screen was splashed with colour because of the beloved’s beauty, or her clothing:

Unka rukhsar hai aanchal hai ki pairahan hai, kutcch tho hai jisse hui jaati hai chilman rangin...

Now Jazbi was on his feet, dancing as he recited some more Faiz.

As the night raced with the storm towards dawn, Jazbi kept pace by singing his own composition from Death. Asks Jazbi of death to wait while he wakes up his sleeping life and fills his woeful existence with a little celebration:

Apni soi hui duniya ko jaga lun tho chalun, apne ghum khane mein ek dhoom macha lun tho chalun...

What a beautiful way to want to change the world!

This story is from print issue of HardNews