Harking Back: Voices of sanity missing from Lahore’s streets

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn May 22, 2016

When Faiz Ahmed Faiz was being buried in the Model Town G-Block graveyard in November 1984, I happened to be covering it as a reporter. Suddenly, as the body was lowered into the grave there was a commotion at the gate of the graveyard.

To see what was happening, I moved in that direction and saw the great Punjabi poet Ustad Daman emerge, with some difficulty, from a rickshaw and rush towards where Faiz was being buried. He was shouting: “You are leaving me alone, and I will be following you sooner than you expect.”

He threw in some dirt and left crying like a child. Exactly 12 days later the great sage and poet of Lahore passed away. Few poets have had such an impact on people as did Ustad Daman. Perhaps Habib Jalib comes close in popularity, but even he considered Daman as the ultimate.

My first encounter with Daman was when I went to his ‘hujra’ at the end of Tibbi Bazaar. This was, so it is claimed, where Shah Hussain lived. In the room, books filled till they almost touched the roof. Then he invited me and my friend to a drink, a rather stiff one I will confess.

As I started off to interview him he told me he was a tailor by profession but became a poet because he had managed to earn just enough to survive. “My father was a tailor and mother a washer woman. So unless I was a rogue there was no way out of this profession. Thanks to Mian Iftikharuddin who gave me a chance to recite my poem at the Congress jalsa at Mochi Gate, I have never looked back. Nehru was very impressed and later offered to look after me in India. How could I give up Lahore, Partition or no Partition?”

What was the saddest thing to happen to him? Prompt came the answer: “When my wife died in the Partition madness and I was helpless. If Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs could not live together, how can Muslims live in peace alone?” It was clear that he did not agree that the division of the subcontinent was a sensible solution and a way of earning our freedom. His views were clear and he never held them back.

As time went on, authorities did what must never happen to our finest souls. Gen Ayub Khan jailed him, Z.A. Bhutto had him tortured by making him lie on ice and Gen Zia simply got him beaten up. But such violence surely cannot bend men like Daman, or Jalib, or even Faiz.

Lahore has been home to all these great poets, and while hundreds of others were also tortured, or made to flee abroad, the sheer barbarity that Daman faced made him sad. Probably it had convinced him that we had mistaken the ‘freedom’ granted as a licence to undertake any criminal activity that one desired. That way of life still continues, and is growing.

But what prompted me to write this piece was the fact that the works of the great poet need to be published in its entirety, and that has not been done. There have been efforts by three of his admirers, but much more is needed, especially resources, to help get the task done. We live in times when even the educated, the so-called enlightened, are not willing to assist this endeavour.

But then Daman would certainly not have been surprised at this callous approach of the have-nots. Poets and writers that upset the status quo are still viewed as traitors, a colonial approach that just does not leave the way we think. For this reason Daman chose to be buried next to another non-conforming poet, Shah Hussain, just next to the Shalimar Gardens.

As I walked through the streets where Daman lived, it is interesting to see that the bookshops known as ‘anna ketab’ libraries where Daman once worked have all disappeared. Life inside the Walled City no longer is about books, or poetry, or learning, or even mushairas or even political debate in the Mochi Gate grounds where Daman once ruled supreme. There today exists a truck stand for the traders who have destroyed, and continue to, the Walled City. For that matter even the walls of the old city have disappeared and it will take a massive effort to get something nearing common sense to see this ancient city back on its feet.

But will the authorities allow our schoolchildren to study the poetry of Daman, Jalib and Faiz as part of their regular studies? The answer probably is a big ‘No’. Just how can poets who defy the status quo be allowed to be part of our collective memory? No wonder we have no culture to fall back on, except what belongs to a sandy foreign land of make-belief piety.

The man that was Ustad Daman was very clear on the effects that Partition had on the people of the subcontinent. Once when invited to India to a mushaira, he read a verse that had the entire hall crying. Let me share it with you:

“Ainaa azadian hathon barbaad hoay;

Hoay tusee we o, hoay assi wi aan.”


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