Dancing with wolves: Ahmad Bashir (1923-2004)

Raza Naeem remembers an uncompromising opponent of orthodoxies, whose work was deeply influenced by the horror of Partition

Dancing with wolves: Ahmad Bashir (1923-2004)
I met Ahmad Bashir, born 96 years ago on the 24th of March last week, only once. I had just returned from my postgraduate education in Leeds in 2002 as a young, somewhat idealistic Marxist aiming to change the world. I had begun a project with a well-known British-Pakistani academic on the contributions of the Railway Workers Union to the cause of democractic struggles in Lahore; and as such, had begun contacting activists and academics who had had some association with the Left in Pakistan, and it was in this context that I called up the late Begum Tahira Mazhar Ali Khan, who mentioned Ahmad Bashir amongst a number of people that I ought to see.

I had first heard of Ahmad Bashir while reading an interview of him in the Herald - it must have been the late 1990s or early 2000s - where he came across as a fearless maverick, unafraid to challenge orthodoxy, whether of the Left or the Right. In that interview he also mentioned his struggles with various Pakistani regimes, as well as the fact that he was almost perpetually out of work. So with this hazy background in mind, I called him and immediately received an invitation to come and see him. I went to see him at the Gulberg residence of his son-in-law where he was putting up. I immediately recognized him as a fellow participant of many seminars and conferences concerning the Left or social justice, where he almost always gave me the impression of being perpetually angry or upset with something, dressed in his signature kurta shalvar, and never conversing in a language other than his beloved Punjabi. It occurred to me much later that perhaps he really had much to be angry about, or perhaps it was his struggle with his debilitating cancer.

Ahmad Bashir and Mehmooda

That morning when I went to meet him, after introducing myself, I began the interview in Urdu, but he cut me short and insisted that I speak Punjabi; to which I responded that Urdu rather than Punjabi was my mother tongue, hence my preference for the former. Upon hearing this, he became more agitated, and I, already intimidated, was about to pack up and leave, having concluded this to be a lost cause, when he mellowed down and agreed to give the interview in Urdu. I don’t actually remember quite a lot of what followed for the next hour, but I do remember two things which he had said on the occasion and which I committed to my subsequent memory and practice - not even tomes by Marx, Lenin or Gramsci could have taught me that. One was that Pakistan did not have a bourgeoisie to speak of; and secondly that every person, consciously or unconsciously, speaks of their own class.

Following this one meeting, I forgot about Ahmad Bashir and moved on with life until coming across a superlative sketch of him titled Comrade in Irfan Javed’s book Darvaaze (published by Sang-e-Meel Publications, 2017). Javed’s book also alerted me to Bashir’s lesser-known collection of research articles in English, Dancing with Wolves. But more on that later.

Bashir was part of an especially-gifted generation of poets, writers and journalists that included the likes of Safdar Mir, Hameed Akhtar, Muhammad Khalid Akhtar, Sobho Gianchandani, Abdullah Malik, Shaukat Siddiqui, Ibne Insha, Habib Jalib, Khalique Ibrahim Khalique and A. Hameed. Many of these, like Bashir himself, have made an indelible impact on Pakistani culture, politics and society but were denied the recognition due to them in their lifetime. For some reason - and purists are welcome to disagree - I keep returning to a comparison of Bashir with that other non-conformist maverick Saadat Hasan Manto and the Islamic socialist Maulana Hasrat Mohani.

There are many astonishing similarities between both Bashir and Manto.

Both were non-conformist leftist Punjabis who did not join any party or movement, but remained Progressives and socialists to the end of their lives.

Both writers were also shaped by their 1947 Partition experiences. Manto’s Partition stories and sketches (titled Siyah Hashiye) achieved greater fame; however Ahmad Bashir also emerged with his own harrowing account of Partition in Khoon ki Lakeer (The Blood Line), which forms part of the book compiled by his daughter Neelum Ahmad Bashir on both her parents’ memoirs, published as Do Tehreeren (Sang-e-Meel Publications, 2016). Bashir’s account is a snapshot of how Partition affected his native town of Eminabad and how a strong sense of entitlement and self-righteousness was characteristic of the new arrivals to the area, who were intent on keeping the property and the women of the fleeing Hindu and Sikh inhabitants. In his own words:

“The population of Mozang was Muslim and here people would smoke the hookah and gossipped in the bazaar. I had to visit the home of the poet Ehsan Danish. When I passed by it, the route was closed. The place was awarming with people. In the middle on the big charpoy were sitting heavy-set wrestler-like men. A fifteen-year old boy was being beaten squatting like a rooster in front of them. Shoes were raining on his hips and he was pleading by sobbing. I watched the spectacle for some time. I felt great pity for the boy. I asked the person next to me, “Why are they beating this boy?”

“He’s such a mother[******] ji. You have no idea.”

The wrestler sitting on the charpoy too heard this. He said, “Baoo! Come let me tell what offence this mother[******] has committed. Whenever this son of a bitch kills a kafir, he leaves the knife inside the stomach. I explained to him so many times to do the work with finesse and pull back the knife but this evil seed gets confused after doing the work and tries to escape after leaving the knife then and there. Hit him Cheeme, make sure his hips are well-exposed.”

I said, “Now leave it ustad, he won’t do it again.”

He replied, “No ji, he won’t understand. A good knife costs 1.5 rupees these days. What use is it if left in the kafir’s stomach. I have asked him to have his mother’s nikah solemnized with a blacksmith.”

In one of his letters to his adopted son Majeed, Bashir mentions that he sent 200 pages of his eyewitness account of the Partition for a book Gulzar was compiling on the same. His daughter Neelum now tells me all attempts to repatriate those precious pages to Pakistan have so far come to nought.

Both Manto and Bashir traced their descent to Kashmiri Pundits. Amritsar had a great influence in the former’s life; while Srinagar was seminal for the latter, who has devoted great portions of his autobiographical novel Dil Bhatke Ga (The Restless Heart) to his childhood in Kashmir.

Both writers often ran afoul of the government and both miraculously managed to stay out of jail. Both also worked in the film industry, Manto far more successful than Bashir, whose sole foray into filmmaking yielded a commercial disaster in the form of Neela Parbat (Blue Mountain), an experimental film too far ahead of its time for popular appeal and which bankrupted Bashir and made him nearly lose his mind.

Both Manto and Ahmad Bashir were also astonishing sketch-writers, Manto giving us the acidity of his Ganje Farishte while Bashir achieved notoriety with his acerbic Jo Mile The Raaste Men (My Fellow Travelers).

Both spoke for the marginalized classes and were the voice of the voiceless. Both writers would certainly have been killed had they lived on in Naya Pakistan!

However here the differences end, for it was due to alcohol that Manto departed from us rather early; while it was because of his blatantly honest account of his drinking binge (with his mentor Maulana Chiragh Hasan Hasrat) which led to a fatwa on Bashir.

Manto had three daughters and a son, who died in infancy; while Bashir had four daughters (or ‘four moons’ as Neelum described them) and a son Humayun, who is now settled in the United States.

Manto died young, but achieved everlasting fame - now both Pakistan and India have even made their own versions of film on him. Ahmad Bashir, on the other hand, passed away after living a full life, but the question is: when will a film be made on the life and times of Ahmad Bashir? Like the 20th century was the century of Manto, the 21st century will be the century of Ahmad Bashir. If we look at his life, it reads like the reel of a film.

I am not sure if Bashir actually met Manto, but surely it would have made for a very interesting encounter had they done so, and yielded a rich harvest of sketches on either side!

Ahmad Bashir introduced two trends in Pakistani journalism: feature-writing while working for the daily Imroze and research journalism. This latter is best exemplified in his aforementioned sketches and his aforementioned book in English Dancing with Wolves.

Towards the beginning of Jo Mile The Raaste Men, Ahmad Bashir writes in a section titled Why I Write:

Had I been asked “Why I Don’t Write”, that would have been a different matter. In response I could have written a lot, for example I don’t write since I have become very slow and lazy. I abstain from hard work, those who want me to write don’t pay for it; if they do, they do it as if they owe my father and grandfather a favour, make me do the rounds (of their offices); avoid me like the plague; delay it by laughing it off. They promise (to pay) by next Thursday or dismiss me by inviting me to fish kebabs and cold lassi from the shop outside the Lahori Gate; or treat me with such kindness and love that I dare not even have the strength to talk about payment.

Another reason for not writing is why should I write at all? I do not have wish to serve the cause of knowledge or literature. My wife is only concerned with my regular salary, whether I work in a newspaper, or as an editor of a magazine, or as a water-carrier in Karachi, she just wants the salary on the 1st of every month. She has not read a single article of mine. She reads ‘Shama’ and ‘Director’, which are read in every decent household in Pakistan and India; and unfortunately none of my articles are publised in these journals. Meaning that when my articles are not read in the decent homes of Pakistan and India, why should I write, if at all?

But the greatest reason in my not writing is that I do not trust my writing! Despite that, I do write off and on and I don’t know why. Just know that I write, because others write; because I do not like the discipline of the world...because of the fact that I used to write once!

He himself used to say, “When I take up the pen, I am at war.”

His collection of essays in English lays bare little-known, often unrecorded facts from our history. For example in the essay Kingdom of Chach Brahmin, he punctures the myth surrounding the conquest of Sindh; in Story of the Punjab Partition he tells us about the Shakespearean but true story of Giyani Hari Singh who opted for Pakistan and ran afoul of the Sikh khalsa in doing so - losing 128 of his relatives in the Partition riots. This latter story cannot be found even in the works of such meticulous scholars of Partition like Ayesha Jalal and Ishtiaq Ahmed.

Other essays in the collection like Muslim League Manifesto of 1945 and Two Pages that Damned Hindustan are also interesting. In the concluding essay of the volume, ‘Fatwa for My Beheading’, he says:

The society has not been spoiled by me. If the consumption of liquor has increased and corruption, violent crime, and lawlessness have become the order of the day, it is because the ulema do not allow the people civil liberties and governments are blackmailed. They want my blood because since the Quaid-e-Azam’s times, I have been fighting against obscurantism, hypocrisy and mullaism, and writing about the revolutionary character of Islam. I believe that religion is a matter between man and God and that the ulema have no right to enforce their brand of Islam. If Pakistan wants American dollars (and the ulema have never objected to it), beggars, break-dancers, Pepsi Colas, social violence, alienation, increased consumption of liquor and free sex will follow. My assassination will not stop the flow.

His novel Dil Bhatke Ga took twenty years to write and is an under-rated and unacknowledged classic of the twentieth century in league with that other literary behemoth, Abdullah Hussein’s Naadaar Log. It deserves a separate detailed essay.

I find myself wondering: if Ahmad Bashir were amongst us today, which group or party would he support? The conscience-selling religious authorities who swear by the sacredness of private property and advocate feudalism and capitalism, or the socialists who fight for the rights of workers?

This crusading man never weighed his conduct in the scales of profit and loss; nor reconciled the voice of his conscience with the compromises of time. He neither had a house nor car, neither shares in factories nor shops and permits. His pocket was empty but his heart was generous. He was the Hasrat Mohani of the 20th century, and obviously could never have been a eulogist of Ayub and Yahya.

Note: All translations from the Urdu are the writer’s own, unless otherwise stated. Photos courtesy Neelum Ahmad Bashir.

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and translator based in Lahore. He is the President of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore. He can be reached at: razanaeem@hotmail.com

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached via email: razanaeem@hotmail.com and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979