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A Branch Of The Sapling Of Sorrow

Biographies & Autobiographies | 32 Chapters

Author: Ali Amjad Translated from Urdu by Arif Ansari

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Ali Amjad was once a recognized name in India’s labor movement. Because of his deep involvement with India’s freedom movement and workers’ rights movement, he was often incarcerated for long periods of time. After coming to Pakistan, he chose the field of labor law for the defense of worker’s rights. He is included among the senior lawyers of Pakistan’s supreme court, where he is well renowned. His novel Kali Mati (“Black Soil”), ba....


This narrative is a political record from the Pakistani-Indian subcontinent, the narrator of which has frequently been a part of the struggle every step of the way. This narrative has not been compiled from hearsay traditions or merely bookish references, but is a part of personal experiences. This story was lived. This story is of a youth’s fire.

Ali Amjad firmed up his relationship with the All-India Communist Party and the trade union movement when he was still wet behind the ears. True to his courageous viewpoint, with his perseverance and intelligence, he was able to find his niche in the movement very quickly, and, risking his life, faced some tribulations head-on. He gave his life to labor struggles—first in India and then in Pakistan—and continues to be a diligent activist to this day. In normal times, few are interested in political issues and labor struggles. It is the author’s style of writing that has made this narrative so captivating and proven once again that truth is more interesting than fiction.

Ali Amjad received nationwide fame when he organized a labor strike in Jamshedpur and Tatanagar. This area was the domain of Tata, of the industrial syndicate fame, whose stranglehold over labor had resulted in no labor strikes there for thirty years. The strike was a result of the party’s leadership and Ali Amjad’s strategic ingenuity. It is a different matter that there was a lot of violence against the workers and Ali Amjad was imprisoned for four years for conspiracy.

Ali Amjad studied law during his incarceration and obtained a formal law degree. Then, the circumstances under which he had to say farewell to India also had a political background. The narrative of those circumstances is quite thought-provoking.

Despite keeping his distance from practical politics in Pakistan, Ali Amjad has penned his observations and analysis of the situation there in a pleasing style and with impartiality. The description of some of the political events is so interesting that it is hard to put the book down. Numerous incidents of political and non-political natures have made this book extremely interesting. Ali Amjad is a mature-minded follower of politics, and there are perhaps few people like him left among us who have observed the politics of both India and Pakistan from up close.

Ali Amjad is the younger brother of the well-known Indian communist, Ali Ashraf. His sister, Zahra Daudi, who passed away recently, was a very active worker of Karachi’s College Teachers’ Association. She too wrote a number of books. This family has always kept a deep connection with the politics of the common people. One can say ‘this house is full of sunshine.’

Hasan Abidi

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In one of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s essays, A Dark and Rainy Night, an old man is remembering bygone days, rinsing old thoughts, and finds nothing but sorrow in his hands. In the imagery of this drenched night, with tears wetting the old man’s face and regret filling his memories, I find a glimpse of the helplessness and anxiety of this generation’s Muslims who, under the burden of the memories of a paradise lost, became the chains on the feet of their and their neighbors’ future. This sense has become even more acute over time for the reason that we, even a generation later, remained prisoners of those memories for a long time.

My contemporaries and I reached adulthood in the shadow of the British government. When I opened my eyes, that is, when I was able to see and understand everything around me, I found myself in Hyderabad, Deccan, where the splendor and glory of Asaf Jahi was casting a shadow. The Resident Sahab Bahadur may well have been the real ruler but, in the view of the people, Asaf Jahi’s currency was the only legal tender at the time. The Nizam Royal Railway and the government to which it was a leaseholder were efficient in putting a veil of self-deception on the real government of the Resident Sahab Bahadur.

The very first lesson of the English curriculum was “God Save the King,” and “our king” was George V. I remember the day I was sitting at home, loudly reciting my lessons to memorize them, when I was summoned by Abbajan in his resounding voice. Fearfully, I presented myself to my father and was asked to bring him the book from which I was learning the lesson. He didn’t say anything, just tore off that page from the book and told me to go read the rest of it. Of course, I did not have the courage to ask him then why the book had been given this punishment or what transgression I had committed. I just breathed a sigh of relief that I wasn’t punished. But, on remembering this incident even today, it is still not clear to me if my father’s anger was an expression of his strict nationalism or the misrepresentation of Asaf Jahi’s imperialism that George V’s currency was not a legal tender within the boundary of Hyderabad. Times have changed so much. Then, whether our father was addressed with that title or not, he was “huzoor” (My Lord). Even though he may have had emotions of love and affection in his heart for his children, openly expressing them would have been considered a sign of extreme weakness. Stoicism and hardiness were considered symbols of strength of character. Therefore, outwardly he would maintain the awe-inspiring persona of a steely ruler. Perhaps it was this ruler mentality that was very hard to shed and became a part of the Indian Muslim’s cultural heritage—or perhaps this characteristic was not limited to the Muslims. The rise of dynastic rule in Victorian covenant was similar in a way.

We used to go to the royal mosque for Friday prayers. Since Huzoor Nizam himself, in all his essence and exquisiteness, accompanied by members of his family, came to pray with the congregation, all the voluntary prayers which were not prescribed would be exhausted waiting for his arrival. During this time, various decrees would be announced which were required to be observed. One such decree forbade looking toward the twelve-door passage through which Huzoor and members of his family would pass to join the prayer congregation in the front row behind the Imam. Perhaps the matter of privacy of the veiled ones was the consideration.

Of the many memories of Hyderabad, the one of the mosque of Red Hills refuses to stop following me. I took my first lesson in Quran from the Maulvi Saheb there and another lesson that left an indelible impression on my life. Maulvi Saheb would often expound the virtues of purity and holiness. In the courtyard of the mosque was a tap for water which was used by the worshippers to wash their hands and feet. Sometimes, they would fill water in a pot and take it away to perform their ablutions. The mosque was on a hillock. This water would drain down to the bottom of it and a sort of a pond got formed there. Boys belonging to the Kol and Bhil tribes would often be seen collecting water from this pond in their black pots and taking it home. Right in front were the railway tracks and, across from them, their mud and straw huts. The Kol and Bhil tribes were probably the indigenous people of the area but they were considered untouchables of the lowliest caste. One day, Maulvi Saheb saw the boys filling water from the pond and immediately ordered, “Throw stones at these rascals. These wretched ones are desecrating the mosque.” All the boys started throwing stones at the dark skinned, scrawny lads as if it were a game. Seeing this, the group of semi-naked boys started to run away. At that time, I could not understand the motives behind Maulvi Saheb’s orders and I never had the courage to ask him but I had been hearing the story of the pack of wolves guarding the water spring from the lamb.

Due to its protracted length, the duration of our stay in Hyderabad proved very costly for us. The quest for knowledge and wisdom, for which our venerable father left home and came here, was not fulfilled. In all these years of distress, our aging father neither forgot the estate he had left behind nor was there any change to the tilt of his hat. If he taught us to be proud of anything, it was of his intelligence and wisdom. He may not have forgotten his lost estate but he felt it beneath his dignity to talk about it. In general, Muslims have, from then till now, continued to feel proud of their lost dominions and their past glory. In my view, Muslim rule establishment, its stability and their decline are the expressions of the rise and fall of nations respectively, as long as these Muslim rulers were not representatives of some exalted genealogy nor able to leave any marks of their greatness on the pages of history. The concept of democracy was anathema to them as it would open the doors for the vast number of indigenous people, whom they looked down on with contempt, to rise to power. The state of Hyderabad was like that as well, where the Muslims made up merely ten percent of the population perhaps. It must be said that, during Asaf Jahi’s rule, many good things, even very good things, happened as well. These include establishment of Osmania University and education in Urdu. Many famous books of English, Economics, Philosophy, Science and many other topics were translated into Urdu as well, even though the language of the state—Andhra Pradesh—was Telugu and the state of Hyderabad was comprised of a Telugu, Marathi and Kannada speaking populace. In reality, Urdu was not the mother-tongue of anyone except the rulers but the foundation it lay in southern India was the reason that Hindi later got the chance to thrive. Otherwise, perhaps, Hindi would have had the same difficulties in Andhra Pradesh and Mysore, etc., as it did in Tamil Nadu.

Among the foggy memories of Hyderabad, I remember the public garden where I would even go solo to hang around. Then there is the memory of the death of a younger sister, Sakina, when I did not even understand the concept of death properly. Later, much later, Nanhey Bhaiyya told me that we did not even have enough money to get that young girl treated. Then, Aslam Bhaiyya got a job as an accountant at R.R. Gopal’s cloth shop and our joys knew no bounds as that would turn the family around.

Abbajan resolved to go back. So, this time, we left Hyderabad for Darbhanga around November, 1933. In January 1934, during the last days of Ramzan, when it was very cold, suddenly an earthquake, evoking apocalyptic catastrophe, jolted northern India. For a long time after that, the scripture’s Day of Judgement was associated with that devastating earthquake. We used to hear about Shaq Alqamar—the splitting of the moon miracle in Muslim tradition—and later in the masthead of the newspaper Medina, published from Bijnor, we read its synopsis as follows:

“Miracle Shaq Alqamar is clear from Medina

The moon has split to give faith an embrace!”

That day, I saw the earth split with my own eyes or witnessed Mother Earth’s chest burst open. I saw people standing around me get swallowed into what seemed like the jaws of the dragon in the blink of an eye. All this happened so suddenly, in an instant, that I could not understand at all what was going on. One moment earlier, I crossed the culvert from where I needed to head toward the market and, the next moment, people were running out of their homes and shops, sprawling on the ground, their hands folded for mercy and, behind them, the buildings from which they were fleeing were crashing to the ground. The earth was splitting and hot water was shooting from the ground in places. Seeing layers of the earth being slashed, I ran up a mound, thinking that rocky ground would likely not split that easily. At that instant, all the people cried out. All around were pleas for help. Some were injured, some were dead, some were silently groaning, and some were beating their chests. At that moment, a thought crossed my mind—did this divine rage descend on my neighborhood too? I hope my house has not crashed into the ground. I raced home to find Abbajan lying on his reclining chair, warming himself on the second floor of the house or contemplating what was firm and intact from his reclining position. Meanwhile, the floor beneath his feet, along with the pillar supporting it, had collapsed, and Ammajan and my elder sister were buried in the rubble. Ahsan Bhaiyya ran to get the madarsa boys to help. A ladder was propped up from below and the pillar and rubble removed to find my mother alive but injured. A bed was used as a stretcher to carry her out of the rubble. My sister was unhurt. Abbajan came down using the ladder and Ashraf Bhaiyya with him. People considered it a miracle that nothing happened to him. After that, our prestige increased in people’s eyes.

I was studying at the Muslim school then. I think the headmaster’s name was Ahmad Ali Jafri. In those days, he organized a debate on “Benefits of Benediction.” What I said at the debate boils down to this. Benediction soothes the heart and difficulties are eased. The heart grows stronger but whatever is to happen happens. Whatever happens has already been deemed by Almighty Allah.

If every benediction makes Allah change his mind, how can he maintain order in the universe? One man may pray, O’ Allah, let it rain so much that there is water all around. Another man may ask Allah for the sun to shine so brightly that even the rainwater drains dry up. Who would Allah listen to then? Then, Allah’s decrees are not so fickle that they can be changed at any moment. They are as firm as the law of nature that the sun will rise from east and set in the west! The headmaster listened to my arguments and at the end even commended me, saying, “How well you have put it, young man.” In the end, however, he encouraged me to ask Abbajan what he felt about this issue. The result of whatever I had said was that I became well known as an infidel at school.

Around that time, in Darbhanga, or in Laharia Sarai to be more accurate, an exchange of views took place between Arya Samaj leaders and scholars of the religious movement, Ahl-e-Hadis. One cannot imagine such an exchange today. A religious debate among Hindus and Muslims, that too at an open forum! These days, even a debate among Muslims of different sects on issues of religious differences is considered absolutely unfeasible. In those days, perhaps the misconception was common that reasoning could change doctrines or perhaps this exchange was organized so that the religious leaders could exert their omniscience on their flock. Anyhow, it was the Arya Samaj’s thinking that, like the Christian missionaries, they would be able to attract irreligious people towards Hinduism. I do not remember any more details of the debate and its arguments except that the Muslim scholars and the Arya Samaj pandits sat across from each other in a big room outside the Madarsa Ahmadia Salafia. Hindu religious books were piled up next to the Muslim scholars as were Islamic texts of Hadis and interpretations next to the pandits. Both sides were attacking the other with references to their religious texts and rebutting those attacks with their rational arguments. No one would let go the mantle of vigor and depth of thought. Gradually the debate got heated when an upstart young pandit went on a severe attack.

“Hey, what can be said about you folks? You have kept your gods under lock and key.”

“What nonsense do you utter?” a few Muslims shouted.

“Well, don’t you utter the nonsense ‘Khuda band tala’ (God locked up)?”

Before anyone could explain to the silly youth that ‘Khuda Vand Taala’ meant “God Lord Almighty,” the Muslim youth present there went on a counter attack.

“And you? You have made your god run away. Don’t you go around chanting? Bhag! Bhag! (Run! Run!) Bhagwan (God).”

With that, the exchange ended. Thankfully, the situation did not explode, and everyone returned to their homes.

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Vande Mataram and Inquilaab Zindabad

It was either the end of 1934 or the beginning of 1935. Some elder folks from Chhapra, accompanied by some youths, reached Laharia Sarai. They had come in regard to marriage proposals for my brothers, Ali Athar and Ali Aslam. In reality, the marriage proposal had already been accepted, only the details needed to be agreed upon. It was the month of Ramzan but these gentlemen were not fasting as it was not required when traveling. I was asked to join them for a meal. I was not required to fast at that age but I was very fond of fasting. After all, the reward to a child for a day of fasting is equal to that of seventy-two days of fasting for a regular person. That’s what we were told. I put my foot down. The guests may not be fasting and we should certainly pull out all the stops to offer our hospitality and to be good hosts. Why should I lose a day of fasting for that? It was weighty reasoning and my stubbornness to boot. Plus, the scriptures forbid coercion or repression in matters relating to practice of religion. So, I prevailed.

For a long time, I thought of and read Urdu’s famous poet Majaz Rudaulvi’s name as Majaz Urduboli.1 I saw him for the first time at the wedding of my brother, Athar Saheb, at our family home in Karim Chak. Farhatullah was also with him among Nanhey Bhaiyya’s friends who were attending the wedding. I heard one of Majaz’s poems, from his own tongue, titled Train in the Night.

The train leaves the station again, like a wave on a sea

Singing under its breath, in the silence of the midnight

And then,

It is going to run over whatever may come in front

Telling the secrets of evolutionary life along the way

For a long time after that, I used to hum this poem and, in particular, these couplets, thinking that the secret of evolutionary life was that whatever came in front of you had to be run over, trampled under your foot and you had to keep moving along, and so on. After a long time, when I had the opportunity to think and discuss, I had to agree with Prof. Kaleem’s suggestion that Majaz’s poetry was, in fact, about the prime of youth and this concept of evolutionary life was really about the ‘strength,’ or the omnipotence and determined nature, of a swordsman’s arm which, in and of itself, was contradictory to the concept of evolution. In any case, perhaps in those times, the concept of revolution itself was symbolic of a destructive process. I remember a few verses from Majaz himself, in another of his popular poems titled Revolution.

Winds will blow from the jungle with the odor of blood

Glance in any direction, there will only be blood

Blood in hutments, blood in palaces, blood in the bedchambers

Blood in the monastery, blood in mosques, blood in churches

In this way, the times will learn the lessons of a bloody war

There will be ashes in the sky, crimson twilight on the ground

And on the horizon, amidst a thousand tumults

Shall rise the sun of our land’s freedom.

On the occasion of this wedding, we discovered that Ashraf Bhaiyya, influenced by Tolstoy, had decided to completely abstain from meat, although what was the need to go so far away to make that decision? Our Hindu friends did not indulge in any kind of meat in their food.

The predicament was that the food served at the occasion of weddings in Muslim families did not have any dish that was meat-free. With much difficulty, and I don’t know how much effort went to it, a pure-vegetarian meal was arranged for Ashraf Bhaiyya. Perhaps it was in his youth that Ashraf Bhaiyya announced that he had added the title of ‘Shaukat’ to his name and insisted that everyone call him only by that title. This was the result of the political popularity of Shaukat Ali, which he attained during his involvement in the Khilafat Movement along with Maulana Mohammad Ali. Now, looking back, I wonder how a youth of seventeen got the chance to come under the influence of Tolstoy? Gandhi-ji’s practice of Ahimsa got no mention in our home. Later, this obsession with Shaukat Ali’s name also subsided. I am amazed when I think about how old we were then. Ashraf Bhaiyya was seventeen or eighteen and Nanhey Bhaiyya was twenty-one or twenty-two. At that age, Bhai Athar, along with a lot of hope and desire, was publishing a magazine, Shamim, from Patna. Ashraf Bhaiyya was writing stories for this magazine. Perhaps, in those days of servitude to the British, we became intellectually and politically mature quite early or else the interests of young adults are different these days.

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Biographies & Autobiographies | 32 Chapters

Author: Ali Amjad Translated from Urdu by Arif Ansari

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A Branch of the Sapling of Sorrow

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