By Zubair Ahmad
The News : January 10, 2021
Remembering eminent Punjabi short story writer and poet, retired Col Nadir Ali
Picture courtesy : Amarjit Chandan
My first column in The News on Sunday (TNS ) was published on February 27, 2000. Titled Remembrance of Things Past. It was on Nadir Ali Sahib’s first two short story collections Kahani Kara and Kahani Lekha. He published his maiden collection of poetry Bol Jhoothay tay Sachay in 1990. His last collection Kahani Praga, came out in 2004.
Nadir Ali was a man of many colours. He was a retired army officer and a formidable Punjabi writer and activist. His short stint in East Pakistan as a major of the Pakistan Army from April to October in 1971 left a lasting impression on him. In an interview with Farah Zia for TNS he said, “I returned to West Pakistan and broke down with paranoid schizophrenia, completely out of touch with reality. I was a mental patient for two years, was hospitalized for six months and lost my memory in the process of treatment. I was retired as a disabled person in 1973.” He added: “But I found a few things. One, there was no resistance at all. They were un-organised, unarmed, poor people whose houses were being burnt and some innocent people were getting killed. About the killing of Hindus, I always refused and said that I was not going to kill unarmed people.” Though he didn’t kill a single civilian, what he saw became a nightmare for him.
He was initially reluctant to talk about his experiences in East Pakistan, but gradually recovered from the paranoia. He gave a memorable interview to BBC Urdu in 2007. It was called Aik Fauji ki Yadasht. In another talk at BRAC university in Dhaka in 2011, he asked for forgiveness for all the atrocities committed in East Pakistan.
In his talks he managed to narrate details about the war; expressing himself as best as he could, presenting the other side of the story. Though his account has been dismissed as a single soldier’s experience, his testimony remains crucial and relevant to comprehending the ground situation in East Pakistan in 1971.
A crucial chapter in his life began when he met poet, playwright and critic Najm Hosain Syed in the 1970s. He once said, “…Najm played a great role in helping me regain my memory, talking about my life before 1971 and also about ’71, my childhood etc.” He joined Sangat – a meeting place for poets and intellectuals – at 49 Jail Road Lahore and attended their weekly gatherings until he fell ill, i.e. about a year ago. In 1984, he migrated with his whole family to the US but returned five years later.
By choosing to write in Punjabi, Nadir Ali dived into his people‘s collective political subconscious – discovering the missing links, creating and re-creating reality, eventually discovering the forgotten but indispensable self. This is true of all his stories. He began writing late in his life, somewhere in his early sixties, hence his works capture most of the 20th century. He wrote stories about the upper and lower classes with equal zeal. There are stories about thieves, prostitutes, landlords, killers, policemen, civil servants and army men. A striking feature of his stories is the immense respect with which he describes his female characters. He portrays prostitutes in his stories with utmost dignity; as human beings who possess the knowledge to cure the malaise of men.
Most of his stories are set in a town called Noorpur, which could very well be his native village. Memories often become more beautiful than the reality they are based on. Certain memories keep haunting you after they have gone deep into the subconscious. Sometimes they become the source material for your creative endeavours. Surprisingly, a lot of his stories are about village life when he spent most of his life in big cities like Lahore, Dhaka, New York and San Francisco. He also wrote stories set in the USA. Two of his stories were dramatised: Ikk M n D i n d and Chupp. The stories plunge deep into the psyche of the Punjab, especially love relationships, revealing how liberated Punjabi society once was.
He sometimes wrote about himself in his stories, disguised as one of the characters. Taunting and ridiculing himself in the third person, shaking the very foundations of self-importance created by men of power and affluence.
He recently penned his autobiography B lpa d Sheher (The City of Childhood), which was serialised in 12 monthly episodes for the monthly Punjabi magazine Pancham from February 2009 to December 2010. It is also perhaps his last published piece of writing in Punjabi. Written in a stream of consciousness; the flow of events and description of people in the book is mesmerising. He wrote his autobiography when he was around 70, when his understanding of the art of storytelling was at its peak. In his autobiography he tells stories of his father, his visits to the Indian Punjab and other cities of India, his fellow army friends and partition of the Punjab.
Nadir Sahib wrote regularly for TNS, mainly about modern Punjabi poets such as Najm Hosain Syed, Amarjit Chandan, Mazhar Tirmazi and Mushtaq Sufi.
I end this tribute by sharing the following poem written by Mazhar Tirmazi on the passing of Nadir Ali: