It was auspicious to have flagged off the 100th birth anniversary celebrations of Razia Sajjad Zaheer at Lucknow’s Kaifi Azmi Academy recently.

After all Lucknow is where the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) was launched in 1936 to inspire writers to record the grim realities of life. It was to discourage reactionary and revisionist tendencies and to encourage literary trends reflecting communalism, racial antagonism, and exploitation of man by man. The idea was to bring the arts in closer touch with the people and to register the actualities of life, as well as lead us to a future we imagine.

Razia’s husband, Syed Sajjad Zaheer was founder secretary and the literary movement had the support of writer Mulk Raj Anand. Poet Kaifi Azmi was a leading light along with Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Krishan Chandar, Ali Sardr Jafri and Ismat Chughtai.

For the following two decades the PWA was to influence the political consciousness of a great number of Indians with its single minded emphasis on social change.

And once upon a time the PWA had commanded a membership so widespread that it formed one of the largest blocks for the defence of culture in the world.

Writes Mulk Raj Anand of the dark foggy November days of the year 1935 in London:

When after the disillusionment and disintegration of years of suffering in India and conscious of the destruction of most values through the capitalist crisis of 1931, a few had emerged from the slough of despondency of the cafes and garrets of Bloomsbury and formed the nucleus of the Progressive Writers’ Association. In November 1934 Indian activists like MD Taseer, Mulk Raj Anand, Jyoti Ghosh, Pramod Sengupta and Syed Sajjad Zaheer met in a back room at the Nanking Restaurant on London’s Denmark Street to form the left wing and anti-imperialist Indian Progressive Writers’ Association.

Sajjad Zaheer recalled the two years preceding 1935 when the political effect of the economic crisis had engulfed the world and Germany gave birth to the dictatorship of Hitler and his Nazi party.

In London and Paris, we daily came across the miserable refuges who had escaped or were exiled from Germany. Everywhere one could hear the painful stories of fascist repression…. The painful darkness, which, spreading from the bright world of arts and learning that was Germany, was throwing its fearful shades on Europe — all these had shattered the inner tranquillity of our hearts and minds. One power could stem the tide of this modern barbarism — the organised power of the factory workers, the power that emerges from the working together, through co-operation, through ceaseless struggle against repression and exploitation of capitalist. The experience of the continuous class struggle creates on this class a revolutionary class consciousness enabling it to frustrate the attempts of capitalism to put the clock back and to become the creators of anew civilisation.

The PWA laid the foundation of an all-embracing awareness in Lucknow in 1936 when culture was declared an inseparable part of any economic, political and social struggle.

Munshi Prem Chand had presided over the conference and he denounced the idea that creative writers and other artists should be above politics.

Every sensitive writer and artist was concerned with what happened around him or her. In India, the aspiration for freedom from foreign rule, putting an end to all that is outdated in the centuries-old Indian society, rapid transformation of India’s life and culture along the line of modernisation-all these could not be separated from the aesthetic tastes and talents of the writers and artists.

On a world scale, no sensitive human being, including writers and artists could but be concerned with the threat of fascism and war that hangs like a Damocle’s sword over humanity.

Munshi Prem Chand also denounced religion as it took upon itself the task of striving after man’s spiritual and moral guidance by using fear and cajolery, reward and retribution.

The writer was defined as the standard bearer of humanity, of moral uprightness, of nobility. It was the duty of a writer to help all those who are downtrodden, oppressed and exploited, and to advocate the cause of the voiceless.

Soon after the PWA had sent a manifesto signed by Rabindranath Tagore, Sarat Chatterjee, Munishi Prem Chand, Jawahrlal Nehru and others to the second congress of the International Writers Association held in London in June 1936 declaring:

Today the spectre of a world war haunts the world. Fascist dictatorship has revealed its militant essence by its offer of guns instead of butter and the lust of empire building in place of cultural opportunities. The methods resorted to by Italy for the subjugation of Abyssinia have rudely shocked all those who cherish a faith in reason and civilisation. Rivalry and contradiction among big imperialist powers, deliberate provocation of crude national chauvinistic sentiments, high-speed rearmaments – these are but portents of the critical situation in which we are placed today. On our own and on behalf of our countrymen we take this opportunity in declare with one voice with the people of other countries that we detest war and want to abjure it and that we have no interest in war. We are against the participation of India in any imperialist war for we know that the future of civilisation will be stake in the next war.

Born in Ajmer in 1917, Razia married Sajjad Zaheer and came to live in Lucknow around these hopeful times. She was very much a part of the PWA but not as well known as some of the other writers. She published her first novel at the peak of the literary movement in 1953 under the influence of the values mentioned in the manifesto of the PWA.

For Razia, the words of Prem Chand in his inaugural address remained sacred throughout her life and her writing is greatly influenced by what the great Hindi writer said about the use of language.

We were content to discuss language and its problems; the existing critical literature of Urdu and Hindi has dealt with the construction and the structure of the language alone. But language is a means, not an end; a stage, not the journey’s end. Its purpose is to mould our thoughts and emotions and to give them the right direction. We have now to concern ourselves with the meaning of things and to find the means of fulfilling the purpose for which the language is constructed.

Our literary taste is undergoing a rapid transformation. It is coming more and to grips with the realities of life; it interests itself with society or man as a social unit. It is not satisfied now with the singing of frustrated love, or with writing to satisfy only our sense of wonder; it concerns itself with the problems of our life and such themes as have a social value. The literature which does not arouse in us a critical spirit, or satisfy our spiritual needs, which is not ‘force-giving’ and dynamic, which does not awaken our sense of beauty, which does not make us face the grim realities of life in a spirit of determination, has no use for us today. It cannot even be termed as literature.

We believe that the new literature of India must deal with the basic social backwardness and political subjection. All that drags us down to passivity, inaction and unreason, we reject as reactionary. All that arouses in us the critical spirit, which examines institutions and customs in the light of reason, which helps us to act, to organise our selves, to transform, we accept as progressive.

Razia’s writing stands out for the way she uses language to tell her stories especially of women belonging to different class in society. Her capture of different dialects spoken by different characters in society is telling and realistic.

For this reason and more, it is most important to revisit the writing of Razia today and to remember the writer at a time when wonderful ideas like progressive, liberal and secular are reduced to bad words.

When minds seem to regress and feelings are without shame. When the murder of fellow citizens is become routine and the politics of hate threatens to reign supreme.

When regressive, reactionary forces fight to dominate that is the time to pick up the struggle started by progressive, creative people like Razia who died in 1979, and to design a revolution of our own.