The men who ‘stole’ the Ravi

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn March 12, 2017

Two score and six years ago when a curious teenager - a fledgling Ravian pen-pusher at that - set foot in a real life newspaper newsroom - newsprint and ink smells included - he had no idea of the scale of human interaction he was to experience.

This column has always been about the people, the places, the things and the faces that make Lahore the city that it is. It is a very long story, mostly forgotten, maybe deliberately out of growing ignorance, maybe for communal reasons. But through thick and thin the city remains unique in every respect. For me people matter most. That is why in this piece we will touch on two poets and a politician that I had the honour to meet, and meet repeatedly, in the initial decade of my unending ‘studentship’ of this amazing profession. Our exchanges were never about money, or flashy cars, or massive bungalows, or expensive clothes, but about their genuine concern for human suffering, about a culture and a history ignored, and about issues current and past.

My late father was a close acquaintance of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, so I did know him slightly. My mother was a close friend of his wife Alys, as well as her sister Bilquees, the mother of the late Salman Taseer, killed as he was by a religious fanatic. In the 1970s when ZA Bhutto was the prime minister, he appointed Faiz to an important post in cultural affairs. I went to interview him in his Gulberg office, for ‘culture’ was my beat title. My opening question was simple: “What is culture?” His answer was even simpler. “Anything on the ground is our culture”. That is as simple, and prescient, an answer as anyone could give, and a massive learning process for me had started.

When Gen. Ziaul Haq expelled him from Pakistan, he was to say that what pained him most in life was not being allowed to return to the soil of his birth. “It is a pain difficult to fathom,” he was to tell me. But then this correspondent was also to himself bear several physical beatings on the dictator’s bidding. The scars of those still remain. When the CMLA of Punjab threatened to kill my two daughters - with my Editor ZA Suleri further adding to my misery – it was with a small family of four that we landed on a cold February night at Heathrow airport.


That challenge was physical, but within two day I was walking on the main road just off Piccadilly Circus searching for work. My eyes did not believe it when I saw Faiz Sahib escorted by two beautiful ladies in yellow saris approaching. He stopped, hugged me and said: “Do not despair, one day you will return because under every brick of Lahore is a unique story. Dig them out and write about them”. So every time I write the thought of his wish is before me.

The other poet who also Faiz respected most was Ustad Daman. I remember attending Faiz’s funeral. Just when they were about to return him to dust, at the Model Town G-Block graveyard gate a yell went out. “Stop it, Faiz cannot leave without me”. It was a very sick Ustad Daman who had barely made it in a rickshaw. He ran to the grave sobbing, and once at the edge he threw in some mud and promised: “I will be with you very soon.” Within a fortnight that December 1984, the great Punjabi poet was no more. At various mushairas we noticed that Faiz would never sit down as long as Daman was standing.

My first meeting with Ustad Daman was in my student days at his hujra in Taxali area of the old walled city. He offered us friends a drink each and soon we got talking. The experience of meeting him in the very same room where the great 14th century Punjabi Sufi poet Shah Hussain once lived was overpowering. It was mesmerising. The poet’s book collection was impressive, for it included the English language masters as well as those of the Russian greats. He advised us to read all the time. “Once you stop reading, you will be dead.” To our shock he presented us four friends with a book each. My Mikhail Sholokhov prize is still with me.

In that time period as the dictatorship of Gen. Ayub Khan was at its height, a young Sindhi politician, ZA Bhutto, had excited the imagination of the students of Lahore. A public meeting was planned at Gol Bagh opposite our college, and the military dictator had flooded the garden with water. He then got live electricity to run through the water. But then a most unlikely squad of gutsy students, who I observed from the college Oval wall, rescued their hero. The group included Jahangir Badr, my elder brother Rahim, his friend Nawaz Sharif, the now Federal Minister Khwaja Asif, Ziauddin Butt and Tasweer Shah. This was the sort of ‘tough’ group that spent more time at GC’s Malik’s Milk Shop in the college than in classes. The strong Sharif carried Bhutto into the Government College, ran with him to the Principal’s house of Prof. Rashid. There he was offered tea and stayed for about an hour. Prof Rashid was not home and his son, Dr. Zafar Rashid entertained him. Jahangir Badr managed to hire a rickshaw from Urdu Bazaar and secretly, cloth over his head, whisked the emerging leader to his Faletti’s Hotel room.

As a reporter I was often to meet ZAB, and always was amazed at how up-to-date he was about every journalist he met. When I managed a position in my Masters in Economics examination, he congratulated me and offered me a job. I refused. He smiled and said: “True son of your father.” But then to his credit every time we met, mostly on my airport beat, he would take me aside and feed me an exclusive story.

It was painful to see him being tried. By that time I was also working for the BBC. On a crispy March 1978 morning at three in the morning my bedside phone rang. A source in Islamabad informed that ZAB was being sentenced to death. I rushed to the Lahore High Court through empty streets, parked my motorcycle and walked to the main court. Out walked Bhutto. He glanced at me, nodded and was led away to a waiting vehicle. My exclusive despatch from the Telegraph Office opposite the courts led the 7am BBC World Service News with his death sentence. He himself was the ‘world exclusive story’ that morning.

Bhutto certainly had his faults. Faiz and Daman were very different, but both were politically very alive. Bhutto admired them both. Daman was scathingly critical of ZAB, and rightly so. The poems of Faiz silently spoke for him. But for me they were the giants of the 1970s. Today 39 years later they all remain more than mere memories.


Back To Majid Sheikh's Columns

Back To APNA Home Page