Zahida Zaidi was a woman of many parts: a teacher of English, a poet of Urdu, a dramatist and actor, a literary critic, a radical feminist and lifelong voice of the liberal left. A student of English at the Aligarh Muslim University where she subsequently enjoyed a long innings as a Professor, she went away only briefly twice – once to study at Cambridge followed by a short stint of teaching at Miranda House in Delhi University. Aligarh was her dayar-e-shauq, her karmabhoomi. However, her long years in Aligarh did not, in any way, make her either provincial or cloistered; if anything, like the strong tree whose roots dig deep into the soil but whose limbs and foliage spread far, Zahida Apa (as she was called by young and old alike) was a citizen of the world. All along, her concerns were wide-ranging, catholic and all-embracing, and her voice that of the free-thinking, non-conforming, free radical.
Active in the Aligarh branch of the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) from her student days, she served as its Joint-Secretary in the late 1940s and, when it was revived in Aligarh decades later, as its President in 2002. A member of the student cell of the CPI in Aligarh, Zaidi once regaled me with her ‘activities’, how she and her sisters (the famous five called the Zaidi Sisters) worked actively for the local unit under the guidance of the legendary ‘Lal Siddiq’. On one occasion, their assigned task was to disrupt the university convocation with black flags for which she was arrested and spent several months in the Banaras Jail in 1950. While still in jail, she gave fiery speeches on the occasion of May Day – an offence for which the jailed women were lathi-charged and one of her sisters was grievously wounded. In protest, the agitators went on a 21-day hunger strike, confined though they were in solitary cells.
Zahida Apa went to Cambridge in 1956 and upon her return in 1958 chose not to rejoin the party. She spoke of her disillusionment with the party system and how the party had failed to look after them – young people with no support systems -- once they went to jail. She described the jail term as ‘salutary’, and described the party as ‘intellectually weak’ during the 1950s. She spoke of gaining the necessary discipline to think for herself as she grew older, and of learning to like the discipline but not the orders. Regardless of her differences with the party system, she continued to sympathize with the Leftist-Marxist ideology. Asked how she would define herself: as a progressive or modernist – especially since regardless of the etymological similarities between the two, their proponents occupy opposite ends of the literary spectrum – her answer was typically unequivocal: as a post-modernist and existentialist and ‘not a Shubkhoon brand of modernist’ referring to the popular journal from Allahabad that has been the fountainhead of jadeediyat (modernism). Her novel, Inquilab ka Ek Din (A Day of Revolution, 1997) is partly autobiographical; her young female protagonist is torn between her loyalty to the SFI and her yearning for intellectual freedom. Consequently, she feels suffocated.
In our last meeting, as we talked about the PWA, she shared some of the reasons for her discomfort with the party system. For instance, how in 1949 ‘orders came’ to criticize the poem Maut by Moin Ehsan Jazbi, who was a fellow-traveler of the progressives but not a party member. Instructed to tear the poem, Zahida Apa perforce did so but, as she herself told me, her review was taken apart by a non-progressive but influential writer such as Khurshidul Islam. This criticism for the sake of a writer’s professed lack of ideology disillusioned her. In later years, Jazbi himself wrote how he increasingly withdrew from literary activity and how his pen was silenced for a while in the face of such overt hostility. Zahida Apa’s pen, however, could never be silenced. She wrote voluminously on a range of subjects and has produced, by conservative estimates, over 15 books of prose, poetry and drama, apart from her translations of Chekhov, Pirandello, Sartre, Beckett and Ionesco for the stage.
An active member of the Janwadi Lekhak Sangh and the PWA, a dynamic presence on the mushaira circuit, and vibrant figure in the cultural life of Aligarh, she straddled the worlds of English and Urdu, of academia and activism with consummate ease. Her many literary works, in English on Urdu writers and vice versa, helped bridge the gap between our languages, cultures and literary sensibilities. In her constancy and devotion to the cause of liberalism, secularism and pluralism, Zahida Apa was an inspiration to many. Her death on 11 January 2011 marked the end of a long and illustrious career. May her legacy live long!
-- Rakhshanda Jalil
(Rakhshanda Jalil has recently completed a study of the Progressive Writers’ Movement and its Role in the National Freedom Struggle.)