Settling With Cain

Athar Ahmed Saeed remembers his Government College days and the rebel poet Faraz

Settling With Cain
We took our matriculation examination in the Muslim League High School Number 2, on Rattigan Road, Lahore. This was the former campus of the DAV school, where Bhagat Singh had once studied. On the morning of the 5th of July 1977, my father was taking me to the exam centre. There were soldiers deployed at the squares and intersections with an occasional army vehicle. There had been a coup overnight and the army had taken over. General Zia-ul-Haq went on the television that evening announcing the sacking of the government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and promising elections within ninety days.

I went to the Government College Lahore, later that year. This was a world of great intellectual energy. Here I met Nadeem Khan, who wrote poetry of great merit in Urdu and Punjabi. Sadly, he did not pursue this in his later years. He also knew everybody worth knowing in Lahore in the world of letters. Another friend was Shahid Bhatti, a rebel in the earnest with a wonderful Lahori accent and a disarming smile. He was studying literature.

General Zia-ul-Haq's crackdown on political activities meant that poetry became a vital form of dissent

The official literary club was called the Majlis-e-Iqbal. Professor Mirza Muhammad Munawwar was in charge. He was a learned academic and a great speaker. He was conservative in his views and a devotee of Allama Iqbal. He was also in charge of the college magazine Ravi. In fact, it was rumoured that unless you demonstrated strong affiliation to Iqbal’s poetry, you could never become the editor of Ravi.

The contrarian worldview of Nadeem and Shahid led them to organise an alternative literary society called the Adabi Majlis. The format of its meetings was that a member would read an original piece and present it for criticism. All present would give their views over tea and biscuits. It was quite exciting for us teenagers, freshly out of high school, to be taken seriously.

We would often go to Nadeem’s house at the edge of the city, near Allama Iqbal Town which was just being developed; sharing one bicycle and buying snacks off the vending carts. We would drink tea and read poetry till late at night. Musawwir, who was studying pre-Engineering, but was very knowledgeable in literature, was a regular attender. We read Ibn-e-Insha, Musatafa Zaidi and Faiz together.

Government College University, Lahore

On 4th of April 1979 Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was executed by Zia-ul-Haq. All protests were brutally crushed. Shoaib Hashmi, who was on the Economics faculty, was arrested and kept in a lockup for a short period.

This was a period of uncertainty and trauma for the nation. Zia-ul-Haq was using the fig leaf of piety to legitimise his stranglehold on power. Ahmed Faraz was the director of the Lok Virsa in Islamabad. In a mushaira at the Radio Pakistan, he had read his poetry, which annoyed General Mujib-ur-Rehman, who was the Minister of Information and the chief guest. Faraz was sacked by the military regime.

Shortly afterwards, Faraz was visiting Kishwar Naheed in the Pakistan National Centre, Lahore, where Nadeem met him by chance and invited him for a poetry session at the Government College. The society managed to acquire the Sir Fazal Husain Reading Room and the supervision and support of a friendly Urdu lecturer, Ali Zaheer Minhas.
In a mushaira at Radio Pakistan, Faraz had read his poetry, which annoyed General Mujib-ur-Rehman, the Minister of Information and chief guest. Faraz was sacked by the military regime

When Faraz arrived, there was commotion. Certain political cadres were not pleased. Someone in the audience booed and made a jeering remark. Faraz in his deepest baritone said that he would start with a eulogy to the Prophet (PBUH), the same poem that he had read in Islamabad.

He thus read one of the most emotive na’ats in Urdu literature which concluded as follows (translated):

The cleric, the priest, the sheriff and the judge,

know only how to pull the levers of power

They brazenly sell the name of God

but never heed to the cries of man

I wear neither perfume nor adornment nor kohl,

I walk with the weary, the wretched of the earth

The man at the pulpit is bitter with my speech

and the preacher of the city is livid with rage

I never forgave Cain, for shedding the first blood

I can’t be at peace with these latter-day killers

I am a poet of little worth, but with your grace, O Prophet (PBUH),

I am more esteemed today than the holy and the mighty.

Coming at the heels of the Bhutto execution, it was the second last couplet that had set the cat among the martial law pigeons.

Faraz read many more of his ghazals and romantic poems and it turned out to be a great afternoon.

The response of the authorities was quick and ruthless. They did not take kindly to the college kids thumbing their nose at the might of the establishment. The principal was asked to explain why he had allowed the Reading Room to be made available for the gathering. Ali Zaheer Minhas was transferred to the Government College Baghbanpura. The Adabi Majlis was banned from using any rooms or offices and from then on, held its meetings in the canteen.

The Adabi Majlis published a collection of poetry, titled ‘From Ghalib to Faraz’, an anthology of a selection of a hundred years of poetry. Inevitably, it contained poetry from Nadeem Khan, Shahid Bhatti and Ali Zheer Minhas, encouraging the first-year students to believe that they belonged in the league of the giants of Urdu poetry!

Ali Zaheer Minhas paid the biggest price for this escapade. He spent many years in professional wilderness, without getting the promotions that were his due and had to file a writ petition to the court in 2006.

Shahid Bhatti went on to study law and is currently active in the Bar Association in Lahore. Nadeem Khan is a Professor of Economics in West Virginia.

Athar Ahmed Saeed is a physician and lives in Durham, United Kingdom. Send him an e-mail: