Light spills into the streets. Run out into those streets and sing the songs he loved so well. “We will not mourn Safdar. We will remember him in celebration.”
This is the indomitable will of Qamar Azad Hashmi, popularly known as Ammaji. She is mother of Safdar Hashmi, a Communist playwright, actor, director, lyricist, and theorist who was brutally murdered in Delhi while performing a street play, Halla Bol in 1989.
At 85 Ammaji is still young at heart and working on the next volumes of her father’s Persian poetry.On March 4, Urdu Academy is celebrating the life of this extraordinary woman
Born on the 4th March in 1926, in Jhansi, Qamar Azad Hashmi carried her father’s Persian poetry manuscripts from one relief camp to another during the partition, wrote her first book at the age of 69, decided to do her masters at the age of 70. Spent years under extreme poverty by selling waste wood, broken glass, nails and rusted bolts of iron, salvaged from her husband’s ruined furniture business after partition, walked several kilometers everyday to save a few paisas, to buy some fruit for her children, she raised five children, all of whom ended up not running after lucrative posts but doing something different for society.
Her father, Azhar Ali ‘Azad’ who was a Tehsildar, wrote Urdu prose and Persian poetry, edited , Urdu literary magazine, her grandfather was also a recognised Persian poet.
Her mother, Zubaida Khatoon, was a woman far ahead of her times. She was against retrogressive traditions, was against dowry, neither gave any to her daughters or took any. She knew several languages, knew horse riding and rifle shooting.
Qamar’s father had a transferable job because of which her School education was completed in different parts of UP. Later she did her High School from Girl’s School Aligarh, Montessori training in 1953 from Delhi, B.A. from AMU in 1960, M.A. from Osmania University in 1996 at the age of 70.
She shifted to Delhi in the mid 40’s along with her parents, when her elder brother began teaching at the Kashmiri Gate polytechnic.
In the aftermath of the Partition the family had to leave home in Timarpur and live with her brother’s friend Hameed Hashmi’s family in Kashmiri gate for some time. This is where she met Haneef Hashmi, Anis Hashmi and their mother Begum Hashmi, the founding president of the Delhi committee of the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW). Qamar was to later marry Haneef Hashmi.
The Hashmis were a political family and the family was called the first red family of Delhi. Haneef worked with the All India Students Federation and underwent three years of imprisonment during the Quit India movement, including almost six months in solitary confinement where he suffered his first nervous breakdown.
Qamar’s family was not politically active though they had strong views and engaged in heated discussions on all social and literary issues. When the Hashmis, with the exception of Haneef, decided to leave for Pakistan, Qamar’s family moved out of Kashmiri gate and spent many months at the refugee camps at the Purana Qila and the Humayun’s Tomb, before eventually leaving for Pakistan.
Once in Pakistan Qamar came in contact with Sajjad Zaheer. Sajjad Zaheer knew the Hashmis well and knew that Qamar and Haneef had planned to get married. He convinced Qamar that she should go to Delhi and bring Haneef to Pakistan. Qamar returned to Marry Haneef and to settle down in Delhi.
The Hashmis had left behind a flourishing furniture business that began to sink in the immediate post partition period. The business collapsed and the family lived in extreme poverty for several years, the house was in disrepair and Haneef spent his days trying to find non existent work, in those days, it was not easy for a Muslim to find work.
In 1952 Dr. Zakir Hussain, the then Vice Chancellor of Aligarh University, asked him to come to Aligarh to try to set up his business in the university town. Qamar stayed back in Delhi with her children, trying to make both ends meet by selling whatever of value she could find in the now closed down workshop. She also did her Montessori training in those days.
Qamar and the children too shifted to Aligarh in 1954. The children grew up in Aligarh and received their initial schooling there. The business was not doing well, Qamar somehow finished her B.A. and found a job as a Head Mistress in one of the 7 nursery schools started by the New Delhi municipal committee in 1961, She worked in that capacity till 1990. Winning the Delhi state award for the best teacher and running the biggest nursery school in Delhi. For three years she travelled to Aligarh almost every weekend, to be with her family, most of the time travelling in unreserved compartments.
She brought the children back to Delhi in 1964, Haneef had meanwhile given up trying to run a furniture business by 1962 and began working as an archaeologist at AMU. Haneef shifted to Delhi in 1969 and took over as Technical Editor of Soviet Land magazine in 1969. 1969 to 1976 was the only period when the entire family was in Delhi and they were for the first time in their life not leading a hand to mouth existence. Haneef, fell ill and after spending a few months in a hospital died of blood cancer at the age of 54 in September 1976 and Qamar had to recast her life once again.
In 1989 her younger son was killed, while performing a play near Delhi. Qamar wrote about the incident a few years later, “The Streets of Delhi, accustomed to the sound of Safdar’s light-hearted step, to the music of his voice and his laughter, are silent and stunned. With the thunderous crash the crystal has shattered. It splinters with a brittle brilliance. The fragments will never become whole again. What has happened cannot be undone. …Safdar, vibrantly alive, is no more. No one seems to understand what has happened. …What am I to do now? I cannot think, cannot feel any more. But life, like death, is an eternal truth. One has to live, one’s ownself, for others, for realizing Safdar’s ideals. Wipe your tears, Comrades. Lift your torches. Light the Flames.”
Qamar – Ammaji to a very large number of people in Sahmat, in Anhad, in her neighbourhood and among a lot of others who have known her threw herself in the work of Sahmat, formed in memory of her beloved son.
Qamar has authored a biography of her son Safdar called Panchwan Chiraagh – the book is a mother’s attempt to come to terms with the loss of her son, it is also a personal account of the times from the early decades of the 20th century to its last decade. An account of shattered dreams, defeats, despair and also of hope and determination. The book originally written in Urdu and was published in Urdu and Hindi by Sahmat, an English translation by Madhu Prasad and Sohail Hashmi was later brought out by Penguin.
Qamar has also brought out the first volume of her Father’s Persian poetry and is working on the second volume.
Qamar was hit by a vehicle while crossing a road in 2004 and had to undergo a series of operations including a brain surgery and was bedridden for almost four months, once out of it she was back again and finished her third book. This one was for the SCERT Delhi meant for teachers working with young children and outlines her own experiments in working with young children.
Qamar now lives with her younger daughter Shabnam Hashmi and actively participates in Anhad’s programmes. She is working on the next volumes of her father’s Persian poetry. Her spirit continues to inspire the younger generations.