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Khushwant Singh: ‘The last Pakistani living on Indian soil’

My tribute to KS (first published in DAWN on March 30)

IT is difficult to evaluate the legacy of writer, journalist and an icon of our times Khushwant Singh who passed away last week after leading a full life that many would dream of leading. Singh was immensely popular in Pakistan. For the past two decades I have spotted his books — legit and pirated — at almost all bookstores in every city. His writings had an impact and inspired generations to emulate his incomparable style. His larger than life stature in India was equally recognised in Pakistan.

Singh was born in Hadali village (now in Pakistan), lived in Lahore and until his last never disowned his roots. Such was his worldview that Partition and the ensuing bitterness did not change his empathy for Pakistan. This is why many Pakistanis were his friends and he gave them due attention, respect and time. A photograph of his best friend from pre-Partition days, Manzoor Qadir (jurist and Pakistan’s law minister under Ayub Khan) was displayed prominently in his living room.

It was Singh’s stature in the world of Indian journalism that is perhaps unprecedented for its influential relationship with readers. As a critic of the establishment, Singh guarded his intellectual independence. His proximity to Indira Gandhi and a brief period of closeness aside, he remained a fierce commentator on all things political and cultural. Singh for example returned the honours awarded to him after Gandhi’s operation at the Golden Temple in the 1980s. Over time, his column ‘With Malice Towards One and All’ became a regular window of refreshingly fresh and iconoclastic commentary. Singh’s attitude to Pakistan was always irksome for the rightwing Hindus and often he would get hate mail, which was a source of amusement to his expansive spirit. Of course Singh came from a privileged background and things were easier for him compared to a lot of writers and journalists across the region. But he did give up a career in law and diplomacy to become a writer. And a prolific one at that.


Farewell, Dear SM


“Death, a necessary end, will come when it will come…”

Salma Mahmud, or SM as we called her at TFT, quietly left us last week. I can imagine her, part-disdain and part-panic when death would have walked up to her, announcing that it was time to change her residence. She was not unfamiliar with change or moving around as her life journey was always full of surprises, drama and anguish.

Salma ji was the eldest daughter of MD Taseer, the great poet-intellectual of early 20th century Punjab, and older sister of the brave and unforgettable Salmaan Taseer. Our acquaintance began as colleagues at TFT when SM was working as an assiduous and creative editor. We would correspond half a dozen times a day, and then we started to talk regularly, even when there was no work to discuss. SM was awfully funny and irreverent, and had great taste in literature. It is a separate matter that she also loved reading what she herself called “trashy novels”. I would encourage her to review them for TFT, as I found the idea most exciting that a woman who had read everything under the sun could take a break and enjoy racy and “fun” books.

Her husband Mahmud Sahab was a great companion of hers, a man infinitely proud of his learned wife and fully involved in her writing.

SM was born in Kashmir when Dr. Taseer had started his career as an educationist. In an interview she told me: “My father was the essence of love and affection. I can’t recall any cross words, except just once towards the end of his life, when he was an ill person, and he apologised to me afterwards. He lavished lovely presents on us, especially books, which he bought all the time. Beautiful Japanese art books, for example, as well as the usual classics and Enid Blyton. Wonderful dolls came for us from FAO Schwartz, the legendary toy shop, when he visited New York in 1948.” The 1940s were a turbulent as well as a deeply enriching decade for SM as she imbibed the literary milieu in which her father was a shining light. At the same time she also discovered the existential and social “aloneness” of her father despite his stature as a poet.

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Dr. Taseer took a Pak-nationalist line after 1947 which isolated him from some of his “progressive” writer friends. One cannot for long begrudge men of letters for the political choices they make. SM carried her childhood and all the great cities she lived in with her wherever she went. Her memories of Dehli, Simla, Srinagar and Lahore became the lens with which she viewed the world, art and beauty. Lutyens’ Dehli and the Lodhi road bungalow, where she attended dinners held for luminaries such as EM Forster defined for her the idyll of life. But the Partition and its tragic aftermath changed her life.

By 1950, MD Taseer was dead, leaving lots of ideas and poetry but little inheritance for the family. SM’s English mother Christabel (sister of Alys Faiz) took it upon herself to raise her children and provide them with all they needed. SM studied at the Kinnaird College before pursuing a Masters degree at the University of Edinburgh. Like her father, SM turned into a seasoned teacher of the English language and literature and taught in the Gulf and Pakistan in various institutions. Till her last she was dedicated to education and was affiliated with the Beaconhouse National University. […]

June 9th, 2013|Personal, Published in The Friday Times|0 Comments

In memoriam – Asim Butt (1978-2010)

But it was Asim’s venture into public art and his subsequent adoption of the Stuckist creed that turned him into a major figure at a relatively young age. Unlike his peers, he broke out of the studio and its sensibilities. His murals at the Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine in Karachi were electric, and involved the transitional communities of beggars, prostitutes, and the dregs of society who had been rejected by convention.

Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi (1916-2006)

Ab aik baar to qudrat javaabdeh thehre

hazaar baar ham insaan aazmaaye gaye

Now Nature must be held accountable at least once

We humans have been held answerable a thousand times

Few men evoke such awe and respect as the departed poet and writer Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi who breathed his last on July 10 2006. His mastery over poetry – he has been equally prolific in traditional ghazal and nazm – and prose – as a short story writer, journalist and literary critic – stand at the pinnacle of Urdu literature and he has contributed to the language over 50 titles.

Born in 1916 amidst the scenic Soon-Sekasar valley in district Khushab, nature influenced the evolution of Qasmi’s poetic sensibilities. Exposure to the grim realities of rural India’s inequities also played their part in his development as a writer; the underlying theme of his poetry is human dignity and his short stories – regarded as next in line to another master, Munshi Prem Chand, for their directness and simplicity – portrayed the woes of the Punjabi peasantry and their interaction with power structures. Following his matriculation from Campbellpur in 1931, around the time when he wrote his first poem, he moved to the Sadiq Egerton College in Bahawalpur and graduated in 1935.

Qasmi’s early short stories such as “Hiroshima say pehle, Hiroshima Kay Ba’ad” narrated the devastating effects of the Hiroshima bombing on a small Punjabi village which fed recruits to the British army. His other stories “Lawrence of Thalaibia” and “Rais Khana” attacked pirs and feudal lords for their relentless exploitation of peasants.

ai Khudaa ab tere firdaus pe meraa haq hai

tuune is daur ke dozakh mein jalaayaa hai mujhe

My Lord! Now, I can rightfully claim thine paradise

You have burnt me in the hell of my times

Yet another field that benefited with Qasmi’s presence was journalism, both from his own writing and his work as an editor.

By the late 1930s Qasmi was editing reformist magazines such as Phool and Taleem-i-Niswan . In the next two decades he edited renowned publications such as Adab-e-Latif , Sawera , Naqoosh, and daily Imroze – a leading Urdu daily which he left when Ayub Khan’s Progressive Papers Limited took over in 1959, despite encouragement to stay on – and finally a journal he set up himself, Fanoon.

Qasmi’s writings in Imroze and later in the daily Jang have been noted as progressive critiques on social and political issues. His journalistic writing was terse and often bold compared to his peers and he never compromised on the principles he held close to his heart. His Imroze editorials opposing Ayub Khan’s martial law landed him four months of incarceration in 1958-9. Qasmi’s last column for Jang in 2006 argued that the Constitution of 1973 was a consensus document and should not have been amended time and again. […]

February 12th, 2009|Poetry, Published in The Friday Times, Urdu|2 Comments