On Habib Jalib

Kazim Aizaz Alam has sent this piece on the great poet for publication at Jahane Rumi.

I was recently introduced to someone who had been a companion of Habib Jalib. Khurshid sahib now works at the Karachi-based afternoon paper, Qaumi Akhbar, and sometimes reminisces about the good times he shared with people associated with the film industry. Being a film/theatre reporter for 59 years now (yes, he started his journalistic career in 1950!) Khurshid sahib has come in touch with every notable film star, director, writer, poet, musician and singer of Pakistan.

One of his dear friends was Habib Jalib. According to Khurshid sahib, whenever Habib Jalib was in town, his Vespa (that he still drives) would serve as the poet’s conveyance. Last time when he met Jalib sahib, he was in Karachi for a book-launch ceremony. In those days there used to be a UBL hostel in Saddar. The then president of the UBL was Jalib sahib’s fan who had arranged his stay at the hostel. Khurshid sahib picked him up from there and took to the Arts Council of Pakistan where the ceremony was to take place. He clearly remembers that Jalib sahib’s health was not good and he looked too frail. The poet walked into the venue with the help of Fehmida Riaz and Khurshid sahib. Benazir Bhutto was the chief guest and was accompanied by Begum Nusrat Bhutto. He says that both the distinguished ladies rushed forward and welcomed the ageing poet with utmost respect. Such was Jalib sahib’s regard that despite his bitter criticism of Benazir Bhutto’s policies during her first government, she had come to pay homage to the great revolutionary.

Khurshid sahib is also a witness to the event that made Jalib sahib write one of his eternal songs. Khurshid sahib, along with Habib Jalib and Riaz Shahid, went to see film star Neelo who was hospitalised after she attempted suicide. She ate sleeping pills in a large quantity because the notorious Nawab of Kalabagh, who was at that time governor of West Pakistan, had asked Neelo to dance before a foreign dignitary which she refused. Consequently, the governor sent his armed men and got her abducted. She was literally dragged to the governor’s residence in a humiliating manner and then forced to dance. When Riaz Shahid listened to her story, Khurshid sahib narrates, he became emotional and said that he would restore her honour by marrying her with dignity. Riaz Shahid was a well-educated and trained film director and had a reputation of making films with a political message. As Jalib sahib was overwhelmed by the goodness of Riaz Shahid, he wrote “tu ke na’waqif-e-aadab-e-ghulami hai abhi / raqs zanjeer pehan kar bhi kya jata hai” which was later included in the film ‘Zarqa’ directed by Riaz Shahid with a slight modification in its lines. Here, one should remember that Habib Jalib was a strong proponent of secularism and women and minorities’ rights in an era when talking about these things in public involved a great risk.

Khurshid sahib says that knowing Jalib sahib’s financial problems a few film producers would pay him relatively better for his songs. One such production house was Evernew Productions. He says that once he accompanied Habib Jalib along with famous TV journalist Mujahid Barelvi to the production house where Jalib sahib received Rs5,000 for his song. In those days, according to Khurshid sahib, this was more than the going rate for a film song. Coming out of the office, Jalib sahib affectionately said to Mujahid Barelvi: “Yaar Mujahid, ye paise khal rahey hain jaib mein, tum rakh lo”. Mujahid Barelvi reminded Jalib sahib that he was soon to leave for London for a mushaira and for that he had no decent shoes — the pair Habib Jalib was wearing had many stitches. To this Jalib sahib ‘agreed’ and asked the two journalists to help him buy a pair of shoes.

The then prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, visited Habib Jalib just a few weeks before his death. During the meeting, Nawaz Sharif offered the ailing poet a Rs500,000 cheque knowing that he had no proper means of income and was clearly short of money. Unsurprisingly, Jalib sahib refused to accept the cheque, saying he didn’t take monetary help from the state. But Nawaz Sharif persisted and pledged that he would have his medical treatment at state’s expense. When Jalib sahib didn’t budge, Nawaz Sharif respectfully complained that he had accepted a Rs100,000 cheque from Benazir Bhutto when she was the prime minister. Jalib sahib said that he accepted the money because it was a part of an award that the PPP government bestowed on him. He said if the sitting government wanted to honour him it might give him an award but made clear that he would never accept aid from the government.

Jalib is a towering figure in Pakistan’s history. He remained a diehard communist till his last breath and never compromised his principles. Alas, we hardly have any other such people amongst us anymore. In Ghalib’s words:

Maqdoor ho to khak se po’nchoo’n ke aye la’eem

Tu ne who ganj hai gara’n maya kia ki’ye

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