India’s hugely influential progressive writers’ movement dates its inception to a meeting in the basement of the Nanking restaurant in Denmark Street – even then London’s ‘Tin Pan Alley’ – in 1934. Sajjad Zaheer was among those present. He was a student from an elite Muslim family in Lucknow, who had won a reputation as a contributor to a book of short stories in Urdu two years earlier which had been promptly banned in India for offending religious sensitivities.
Zaheer became a person of standing in Urdu literature, and one of the pillars of the left-aligned Progressive Writers’ Association which – along with the Indian People’s Theatre Association – shaped Indian popular and elite culture in the independence era. He was also a prominent communist in Indian and, after Partition, in Pakistan.
Among his most influential writings was a novella, London ki Ek Raat (A Night in London), written in Urdu in 1935 and published three years later. It’s a modernist-tinged story of a party given one autumn evening by an Indian student with lodgings in Bloomsbury, ‘where England’s revolutionary thinkers … gather’. As an account of an elite, radicalised diaspora in London, it stands comparison with Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club a generation later. It captures not simply the Indian student experience in London in the 1930s – petty racism and isolation on the one hand, camaraderie, political assertion and sexual adventure on the other – but is also an affecting account of an unsuccessful cross-cultural romance.
Ralph Russell, the Urdu scholar and communist, provided a partial translation some years ago of Zaheer’s work. But it’s only now that a full English translation has been published – translated by Bilal Hashmi and published in India by Harper Perennial.
I went recently to the London launch of the book at an address in Bedford Square – not more than five minutes walk from the rooms which were the setting of the novella, and from the onetime location of the Nanking Restaurant. The event did not have the dramatic potential of the student party, nor the literary importance of the basement gathering in Denmark Street.
But it did reveal one intriguing piece of information. Zaheer’s granddaughter confirmed to me that a key character in the novella, Sheila Green – who falls in love with an Indian student to be forsaken by him for India and its national cause – was based on an English friend of her grandfather.
And so perhaps, just perhaps, his work was in part an act of expiation.