He was a poet who spoke out for the poor. He was also one who truly believed that India and Pakistan could be friends, if the countries tried hard enough. From the time he was arrested for writing against British rule in India, to when he climbed onto the famous Lahore “peace” bus with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee last year, Ali Sardar Jafri spent his entire working-writing life speaking out for what he believed in.

On Tuesday, August 1, 2000, that remarkable voice was silenced. A revolutionary Urdu poet and intellectual, Jafri, died of a brain tumour at the age of 86, in Mumbai.

Ali Sardar Jafri
Ali Sardar Jafri [Illustration by Shiju George]
Jafri was among the last surviving members of the progressive movement in Urdu literature. An active member of the Communist Party of India, he was the self-proclaimed spokesman for the poor, and wrote zealously to promote peace and friendship between India and Pakistan, during his 69-year-old career. Last year, when Prime Minister Vajpayee went to Lahore with his message of peace, not only did Jafri accompany him, Jafri’s acclaimed collection of poems ‘Sarhad’, which called for Indo-Pak friendship and peace, was gifted by Vajpayee to Pakistan’s then Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif.

Born in Balrampur, Uttar Pradesh, Jafri came to Mumbai in 1942 and made it his home. He firmly believed in the cultural unity of the subcontinent. Once, when a Pakistani audience asked him why he did not come over to Pakistan, he said he could not make do without eating the arhar dal of Gonda district of Uttar Pradesh, his native place. Needless to say, the audience was floored.

Jafri’s literary career began at the young age of 17 as a short story writer with the pen name Hazin. But his first love was poetry. He has written nine books of verse, two plays, one memoir-reportage, three collections of critical essays and one volume of short stories. And the two countries of his affection have honoured him repeatedly. He was awarded the Iqbal Gold Medal by the Pakistan government in 1978 and in India, he was awarded the prestigious Jnanpith Puraskar in 1998. His memorable work, ‘Ek Khwab Aur’, won the Sahitya Akademi award.