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Salmaan Taseer: A life less ordinary

139E80B6-061D-496B-936B-6E0BC6DF1912_w640_r1_sRaza Rumi remembers the man that was Salmaan Taseer

o these liars and swindlers, these contractors of faith

I am a rebel, I am a rebel

The last time I met Salmaan Taseer Shaheed (STS) was in the Punjab Governor’s House. This was a typical Lahori winter evening: misty and quiet, the palatial colonial mansion making it slightly surreal. A foreign dignitary was visiting; and I was part of the Lahori chatterati assembled in the stately living room that reeked of the Raj. Amid the chatter I took the opportunity to point out the rising tide of extremism in the country, and advised STS to be extra careful about what he said. STS’s response came with his characteristic bravado: “I am not afraid of these Mullahs. Should I stop speaking and stay at home?” He also said: “Being afraid is the worst state of mind.” Within seconds STS had cracked a joke and as always used his irrepressible humour to illustrate just how unafraid he was.

Two weeks later, I was in the same grand room, but in another state of mind: I was shocked and bewildered because STS had been gunned down in broad daylight. My grief since the day of his death has not abated and in fact has turned into a strange despondency: permanent and ominous. In his own words, STS was the “last man standing” against bigotry in a country that is slipping into the hands of extremists who have banned critical thinking and espouse the ideological project designed by the Pakistani state.

Twenty-two years ago I was introduced to STS as a friend of his children, Sara and Shaan, and his razor-sharp wit and unabashed irreverence have stayed with me ever since. Unlike most Lahori parents I had met, this man was refreshing and ultra-engaging. He would joke incessantly about us young lot, our idiosyncrasies and foolish squabbles. Over the years he even chided me when I took sides in a sibling rivalry or failed to tell him what his son or daughter were up to.


January 20th, 2011|Personal, Politics, Published in The Friday Times|23 Comments

Shah Hussain, Madhu Lal and the festival of lights

Lahore is celebrating Mela Chiraghan – the death anniversary of the elusive saint Shah Hussain who is also known as Madhu Lal Shah for his life long association with a Hindu disciple called Madhu Lal. Each year in spring the festival of lights is attended by thousands of people.

Lighting of lamps is a metaphor for killing the inner darkness that we live with. By invoking spiritual light through love and self-knowledge, we can overcome ourselves and attain the mystical state of union with the beloved.

Madhu Lal’s syncretic shrine represents the long-gone era of spirituality rising above religious identities and rituals. Here is a kaafi poem with translation on this blog. A few lines :

They alone know what is love and longing,
Who have it in their lives.
Like digging a well in dry land,
With no cart to carry away the sand. […]

March 29th, 2009|Arts & Culture, Lahore, Sufi poetry, Sufism|5 Comments

Living Lohawarana – a Lahori rambling

My piece for Himal Magazine’s October issue

LahoreThere was a Lahore that I grew up in, and then there is the Lahore that I live in now. Recovering from an exile status for two decades, I find myself today turning into something of a clichéd grump, hanging desperately on to the past. Yet I resist that. Writing about Lahore is a sensation that lies beyond the folklore – Jine Lahore nai wakhaya o janmia nai (The one who has not seen Lahore has never lived). It has to do with an inexplicable bonding and oneness with the past, and yet a contradictory and not-so-glorious interface with the present.

Lahore is now the second largest city in Pakistan, with a population that has crossed the 10 million mark. It is turning into a monstropolis. Had it not been for Lahore’s intimacy with Pakistan’s power base – the Punjab-dominated national establishment – this would be just another massive, unmanageable city, regurgitating all the urban clichés of the Global South. But Lahore retains a definite soul; it is comfortable with modernity and globalisation, and continues to provide inspiration for visitors and residents alike.

Over the last millennium, Lahore has been the traditional capital of Punjab in its various permutations. A cultural centre of North India extending from Peshawar to New Delhi, it has historically been open to visitors, invaders and Sufi saints alike. Several accounts tell how Lahore emerged as a town between the 6th and 16th centuries BC. According to commonly accepted myth, Lahore’s ancient provenance, Lohawarana, was founded by the two sons of Lord Ram some 4000 years ago. One of these sons, Loh (or Luv), gave his name to this timeless city. A deserted temple in Lahore Fort is ostensibly a tribute to Loh, located near the Alamgiri gate, next to the fort’s old jails. Under the regime of Zia ul-Haq, Loh’s divine space was closed and used as a dungeon in which to punish political activists. […]

October 7th, 2008|History, Lahore, Published in Himal Magazine, SouthAsia|4 Comments