Urdu progressive writer, Kashmiri Lal Zakir, celebrated his 93rd birthday on 7 April 2012. Looking back, it has been a life well spent. Awards and encomiums have come in ample measure, including the Padma Shri in India and the Nuqoosh award in Pakistan; they serve as signposts of an eclectic and rich career spanning many decades.
Born in village Bega Banian in District Gujarat in west Punjab, now in Pakistan, Zakir sahib is a prodigious and eclectic writer. Having written over 130 books, including novels, short stories, plays, travelogues, as well tomes on environment and education, he is possibly the last of the progressives and remembered best for his seminal novel, Karmavali, a novel that depicted the tragedy of the partition with rare empathy.
Such was the effect of Karmavali on its readers that it moved fellow progressive writer, K A Abbas to note that it had been ‘not authored with ink only; but penned with the tears of humanity.’ The novel was turned into a play by the premier National School of Drama and staged over a hundred times all over India. What sets Karmavali apart from the scores of other ‘partition novels’ is Zakir sahab’s consistent refusal to be snared in the binary of viewing the cataclysmic events of the year 1947 as either taqseem or azaadi. He insists on viewing partition as a human tragedy of epic proportions. What is more, it is a tragedy that the principal characters in his novel never fully comprehend. In Karmavali, Zakir sahib also goes beyond the rhetoric of nationalism, the much-touted two-nation theory and the building of a new country on purely religious grounds. As events pan out and murder, loot and pillage unspools in epic proportions from the decsions of a handful of men, there appears to be little fellow feeling on religious grounds amongst those most affected. In the villages of rural Punjab, the ties are of kinship and neighbourliness. In the new country, where these refugees search for new homes, they are treated as ‘aliens’ the refuge-seekers who speak a different dialect, eat different food and despite the commonality of religion are still different.
Zakir sahab’s depiction of physical hardships and abuse, especially of women, is heart rending. His portrayal of women is in the same league as some of the great progressive writers such as Krishan Chander and Rajinder Singh Bedi. And like Bedi, his depiction of life in Punjab is redolent with the full-bodied flavours, sights and sounds of a way of life that is rooted to the soil. Timeless and unchanging, it follows the cycle of the seasons and is comforting in its ceaselessness. Mendicants roam the villages singing songs of Heer-Ranjha:
Heer aakhiyya jogiya jhoot bolein
Kaun bichchare yaar milanwada ae
And so it continued till the tides of partition rent the fabric of life asunder. Karmavali, the protagonist of Zakir sahab’s seminal novel, recalls the annus horribilis thus:
‘That year Khushia became ten years old. That year Faiza laid the foundations of another human life in my womb. That year our fields yielded much more crops than previous years…’
But that same year her life withers; she has to leave for a new country and a new home leaving behind her son whom she will meet decades later, a son who has been raised by a Sikh Granthi. The years that follow, of struggle and rehabilitation, are years of hardship and disillusionment. Karmawali knows that her story is the story of a dried-up stem, solitary, tenderless and unyielding: a story without a moral. A way that leads nowhere, can that be a way. A night without end, with no morning in sight, is it a night?
In contrast to the dark, pathos-laden landscape of his prose, his poetry is fiull of vim and vigour. As a testament to his faith in better times ahead, he says:
Yeh aur baat hai ke aage hawa ke rakhe hain
Chiragh jitney bhi rakhe hain, jala ke rakhe hain
Woh chala jayega zakhmon ki tijarat kar ke
Muddaton shehr mein uss shakhs ka charcha hoga
Tum gunahon se darke jeete ho
Hum inhein saath leke chalet hain
To conclude, we can only wish Zakir sahib a long and fruitful innings ahead and, in the words of the poet:
Allah karey zor-e-qalam aur ziyada!