By Safir Rammah ApnaOrg, USA
Journal of Sikh and Punjab Studies, Spring 2021
Nadir Ali, Punjabi short story writer, poet and activist for Punjabi language rights, passed away in Lahore on December 16, 2020.
His remarkable transformation from a high-ranking officer of Pakistan military as a colonel to a celebrated Punjabi writer will forever serve as an inspiration for those who take up the unconventional and difficult task of promoting Punjabi language in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
Punjabi, the language of common people, has a long history of attracting the best and brightest Punjabi writers when Persian was the language of choice of North India’s literary class. This unique capability of Punjabi has not diminished even after nearly two centuries of almost complete domination of Urdu in Pakistan, as proven by its entrapment of Nadir Ali. It started with a traumatic experience that ended Col. Ali’s military career. He then followed a long process of studying Punjabi literature extended over a few decades that eventually made him one of the best Punjabi writers of his time.
Starting quite late in his life, he published a collection of his poetry Bol Jhoote te Sache (Words True & False) and three books of short stories: Kahani Paraga, Kahani Kara and Kahani Lekha (the word Kahani used in the titles meaning story). He also wrote regular columns in English newspapers on Punjabi literature that received all around critical admiration. His autobiography Balpan da Shehar (The Town of My Childhood) has not yet published in a book form but it was serialised in twelve parts in a Punjabi magazine Pancham during 2009-2010.
Ali belonged to Punjab’s educated middle class that emerged after western style mass education slowly replaced the indigenous system of education after the annexation of Punjab. His father was the first person in his family to go to school and attend college and Aligarh University where he studied law. Political consciousness had started awakening in India and Punjab by that time and he participated in some of the major political movements of that period. He was an active participant in the Khilafat movement and toured many parts of India as its worker. Later, he became a member of Congress Party and admirer of both Mahatma Gandhi and Maulana Azad. He also took part in Ahrar’s agitations in 1930’s, finally settling down in Kohat as a successful lawyer. Eventually, the family moved to their village Machhiana near Gujrat when Nadir Ali was very young, splitting their time between Gujrat and their nearby village.
Ali grew up and got his early education in the traditional Punjabi rural atmosphere of 1930s and 1940s. During school days he used to travel every afternoon from Gujrat to Machhiana to spend most of his after-school time in his village. Even while enjoying the modern facilities of those days, his large extended family was by and large still living the traditional Punjabi way of life.
Ali attended high school at Gujrat and then studied at Cadet College Hasan Abdal. District Gujrat was among the areas designated as military districts belonging to the so-called martial races in Colonial Punjab by the British government for hiring in Indian Army. Ali followed that tradition and got commission in Pakistan military officer corps after graduating from the Cadet College in 1958. He spent most of his early career in Pakistan Army Special Service Group (SSG) before becoming a popular instructor at Pakistan Military Academy. He was looking forward to a bright military career but the East Pakistan debacle and 1971 war with India changed everything for him.
He volunteered to serve in East Pakistan during the popular Bengali nationalist rising that led to military operations against Mukti Bahini guerillas and their civilian supporters. Although he didn’t participate in Pakistan military’s atrocities but whatever he observed troubled his sensitive soul to the point of giving him a nervous breakdown after he returned back from East Pakistan. What he saw in East Pakistan haunted him all through his life. For months he remained under psychiatric care in a hospital, losing his memory for a long period of time. This episode was the key turning point which changed the direction of his life. After coming out of the psychiatric care, he resigned from the military service. He felt confident enough to talk about the events of 1971, openly, many years later in a long interview with BBC Urdu in 2007 under the title Aik Fauji Ki Yadasht (A Soldier Remembers). He also gave a talk at the BRAC University in Bangladesh in 2011 on his experiences during the six-month period he was posted there.
Ali had studied Marxism and he largely agreed with Marxist doctrine. The left movement in Lahore in late sixties and early seventies had adopted the cause of ‘local’ languages. He started attending the weekly meetings of Punjabi Adabi Sangat where he met Najm Hosain Syed among other Punjabi activists. It changed his life. He used to reminisce: “One of the things that helped me recover was getting in touch with this group. And Najm played a great role in that, in helping me regain my memory, my life before 1971, talking about my childhood, and also about ’71."
He migrated to USA in 1984. But after five years he went back to Lahore permanently. He received the coveted Waris Shah Award from Pakistan Academy of Letters in 2006.