Daily Times: Sunday, January 28, 2007

Lahore Lahore Aye: Remembering old friends

By A Hamid

Ibne Insha was in the middle of writing his long romantic poem ‘A Baghdad night’. I would go to his place in the morning and find him shaving himself in a mirror he had nailed to a wooden pillar in his veranda. The first thing he would say would be, “Ya Sheikh, let me finish shaving and then on to Lawrence Garden.” Since the poem under composition invoked the Baghdad of Caliph Haroon-ur-Rashid, he now addressed me in keeping with those distant times. I was now ‘Ya Sheikh.’ On days when he wanted to go gallivanting with me in the streets of the city, he would say, “Ya Sheikh, let’s go for a long stroll on the streets of Baghdad.”

Ibne Insha lived in front of Nishat Cinema on Abbott Road. The house still stands. It looked like a Buddhist pagoda, and was actually the annexe to the main house that had been allotted to Sahir Ludhianvi. He lived in the main house and the annexe he had gifted to Ibne Insha. As soon as Insha was ready, we would walk to Lawrence Garden and spend the morning drinking tea under an amaltas tree in its open air café. After ordering a half set of tea, he would recite the fresh additions he had made to his Baghdad poem. I would listen to him with rapt attention and then say, “Ibne Insha, it would do the world a lot of good if you were to stop writing poetry.” “Ya Sheikh the Mean-spirited, you may not think I am a poet but I tell you, one day people are going to sing my verses in the streets.” He had yet to write his famous poem ‘Insha Ji uttho ab kooch karo, iss shehr meain jee ka lagana kya’ (Let’s rise and go Insha Ji, this is no city to which one can give one’s heart), which many years later Amanat Ali Khan immortalised in his hauntingly beautiful voice.

Wit and humour came to Insha naturally, effortlessly. In the foreword to Urdu ki Akhri Kitab, he wrote, “We are grateful to the Department of Education for having instructed schools through a circular letter not to purchase this book. Consequently, no day passes when we do not hear for more school libraries than we can count, asking that this book not be sent to them. We are unable to keep up with these orders.” A one-line note on an inside page said, “This book may not be printed without permission, and if printed, not sold, and if sold, then sold without letting anyone know.”

Of the many battles that have been fought throughout history on the fields of Panipat, Ibne Insha wrote, “Till that time of which we write, only one battle had been fought at Panipat. No second battle had taken place. The people of Panipat waited long but when no second battle looked like taking place, leading citizens of the town went in a delegation to the court of the Emperor Akbar and submitted that a second battle of Panipat must take place so as to ensure that those who supply fresh produce to the army, sharpen swords and bury the dead remain in business.”

In those days, the office of the literary journal Savera was located on McLeod Road. The ground floor of that building housed the favourite haunt of progressive writers and poets: the Paradise Restaurant, whose proprietor was most accommodating when it came to extending credit to its regulars. Ibne Insha and I had secretly perfected the signatures of Zaheer Kaashmiri, who frequented the place. We would seat ourselves royally in the restaurant’s gallery, order tea and quantities of cakes and tarts, then put Zaheer Kaashmiri’s signatures on the bill when it arrived. There was a sign that the proprietor had hung at the restaurant’s entrance, which was updated regularly. It said, “The following poets and writers have not paid their bills.” Zaheer Kaashmiri’s name was invariably on that list. But all good things must come to an end. When Zaheer, who looked like Shakespeare, finally discovered that his signatures were being forged, he kicked up such a rumpus that at one point we thought the entire building would come tumbling down.

Ibne Insha’s prose was fautless and I have yet to know of anyone, including those who call themselves “People of the Language or Urdu’s native speakers, who could identify even a single word or expression used that did not meet the highest standards of idiomatic excellence. Insha spoke Urdu in his native Ludhianwi accent. Safdar Mir and Bari Alig – Manto’s literary mentor – were great proponents of Punjabi and were often found advocating their cause with vigour. Bari once said, “When a Punjabi speaks Urdu, he sounds like someone who is telling a lie.” Once Safdar, who had chosen the pen name Zeno for his English writing, said to me, “A Hamid, you are a Punjabi and yet you write in Urdu. You are a traitor to Punjabi.” My answer to Safdar, who was also known – but behind his back – as the Boxer of the Progressive Writers’ Movement – was, “Pick out any passage from any of my stories and show it to an acknowledged authority on Urdu. If he says that it is Urdu, I will start writing in Punjabi from that moment on.”

Safdar, though my senior, was also my drinking buddy but Ibne Insha was not into that. My drinking days are long past but now that I think about it, so many memories come to life. One of my friends, a Punjabi poet whose name I will withhold, was always in the “mood,” come evening. In that euphoric state one thing the wise do not do is to argue with a policeman on duty, which is what my friend did. Once at the station, the inspector on duty asked, “And how should we treat you?” “Exactly the way Alexander the Great treated Darius,” he replied. The inspector burst out laughing, then rose from his chair and said, “Brother, you are free to go. I am sorry.”

The last time I met Ibne Insha, who had begun to travel around the world on UNESCO-related business I think, was in Lahore. I had had some friends over for dinner. After they were all but gone, the doorbell rang. It was Ibne Insha, standing there smiling. “I was in Japan. Hit town today and am leaving for Karachi tomorrow, from where I go to London for a checkup. But I had to see you before I left.” I led him in. A couple of stragglers were still there. Insha took one look around and said, “You scoundrels, you have been holding parties while I have been away.” The he asked Rehana, my wife, “Girl, what is there for dinner?” She told him. “Get me a bit of sweet rice,” he said. I walked out with him to see him into a waiting car. The last thing I remember is his mischievous smile as the car disappeared in the dark. And so did Ibne Insha not long afterwards.

A Hamid, the distinguished Urdu novelist and short story writer, writes a column every week based on his memories of old Lahore. Translated from the Urdu by Khalid Hasan

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