Homage To Ahmad Saleem - Luminary In Urdu And Punjabi Literature

I am glad the SDPI cherished him to the end of his days and I thank Dr Abid Suleri, its director, for having written about his memory

Homage To Ahmad Saleem - Luminary In Urdu And Punjabi Literature

The news about the passing away of Ahmad Saleem reached me when, having had cataract surgery, I could not read and write without eye-fatigue. But Ahmad Saleem was a phenomenon, an individual so different from the run-of-the-mill comfortable English-speaking liberal with a British accent, that I had to pay my respect to his memory.

I remember that I met him before he had joined the SDPI. He had read my book Language and Politics in Pakistan (1996) so it must have been in 1997. I did not know him very well but I had heard of him from people I had met in Lahore who were active in preserving and using Punjabi in schools and other domains of power. He had read the book and was quite surprised to find out that I was not actually either a mother-tongue speaker of any of the languages I had written with so much empathy about. We started on a wrong note since I emphasised my objectivity. Finding out that I was comfortable only in English (even Urdu, though a mother-tongue, was a language I started using formally in academic settings much later), he observed that I was like an English scholar as far as the indigenous languages of Pakistan were concerned. He added that he understood why I could be so objective since I was not really concerned deeply about any indigenous language. Then he told me a lot which I had not known since it was internal politics of the activists of Punjabi.

As we kept meeting, we kept finding out more about each other in the context of the 1971 war. He was most appreciative of the fact that I condemned the military action in Bangladesh in 1971 and that I wanted Pakistan to apologise officially for it and other violations of human rights. I, in turn, was full of praise for the fact that he had written a poem using the word Bangladesh in it and was actually jailed for it. I have written about this in one of my books so I will not repeat the details but they are impressive. He then invited me to speak for an audio archive he was preparing about memories of 1971. I did speak for it but I pointed out to several interviewers that I was no hero since I was more naïve than heroic. Ahmad Saleem, on the other hand, was heroic since he knew the risks involved whereas I did not.

Later, Ahmad Saleem quite rightly got awarded by the Bangladesh government for his courage and concern about human rights and I applauded him both personally and in the press. I too, incidentally, got this award but, in my view, I had done nothing to deserve it compared to people like Ahmad Saleem.

My more frequent interaction with Ahmad Saleem began when he was hired in the SDPI (by Dr Tariq Banuri I am sure) to write the Urdu version of things which were originally written in English. These were reports and initiatives on climate change, discrimination against women, food scarcity and issues of language and ethnicity.

As luck would have it, I was given the charge of being the honourary chief editor of both the English and the Urdu sections. I came only on one day since I worked at QAU but on this day I arranged for the work of the whole week and laid down the norms and parameters of our work in both Urdu and English. The English section was headed by D Shah Khan and the Urdu one by Ahmad Saleem and we did not have anything structured like a meeting with someone taking notes and so on. All we did was to have tea together and talk about the work and somehow, both being very competent people, the work was done as if we all rubbed Alladin’s lamps and genies did it for us. Ahmad Saleem, who always had other work on the sidelines too, told me that he was going for reports or at least news items about our work in Pashto and Punjabi too. So, the work went on like a house on fire.

One day, Ahmad Saleem confronted me with a translation of my own chapter on Sindhi or Pashto which, he said, he would publish as an SDPI report or working paper. I was much flattered and thanked him. But that was only the beginning. He actually went on to translate what is probably the only translation (though incomplete) in Urdu of my book Language and Politics in Pakistan. He kept doing it in his spare time and I was always surprised that he never complained, never got tired and just worked on and on. As he wrote in Urdu, his work never got the recognition which it should have. But such are the realities of the power of languages in our country and the world.

Ahmad Saleem was part of the group, of which I too was a member, which visited India under the leadership of Dr Mubarak Ali (I forget the year). I was surprised to observe that Ahmad Saleem ran around to acquire old newspapers, gazettes and other such material. He then told me that he had made a private archive which I later visited and also wrote an article about it. In fact, I myself also used it since material not available otherwise was to be found in it. This archive was one of Saleem’s major gifts to researchers and I hope someone preserves it.

Ahmad Saleem’s basic decency impressed me when I visited his house. He lived alone in a room of his archive on the first floor of a house in Islamabad. The ground floor was occupied by a Christian family. They told me that Ahmad Saleem had said once that he would welcome people of diverse faiths to live with him (at that time Christians and others of diverse minority faiths were not safe in Pakistan) and they had asked him whether he would actually rent the house to them. Ahmad Saleem agreed at once and this family stayed with him till they found asylum in Britain. This was a personal matter of having the courage to live by his principles and I was most impressed by Ahmad Saleem who took such a risk (this family was probably in some special danger but I do not know what it was).

Now that he is no more, I am sure his legacy of raising his voice for those who are on the margins of society, those who are in endangered minorities, those who are under-privileged and voiceless will be cherished at least by some people. I am glad the SDPI cherished him to the end of his days and I thank Dr Abid Suleri, its director, for having written about his memory. I end by saying that people like Ahmad Saleem are not born every day and if we pay them homage it redeems us partially. They are people whom we did not honour as they deserved during their lifetimes. Let us, at least, honour them now in their death.