Encounter with a tormented soul

Parvez Mahmood recalls his encounters with poet Saghar Siddiqui

Encounter with a tormented soul
It was the middle of 1972. I was nineteen and a flight cadet at Pakistan Air Force (PAF) Academy, Risalpur. I was spending my summer break in Lahore with my family. We were residing in a rented apartment at Yadgar Chowk - now renamed Azadi Chowk. The apartment block is opposite Minar-e-Pakistan, across the Old Ravi lake on the corner of Ravi Road. A part of that apartment building has now been demolished to construct a slip road for traffic coming from the River Ravi and turning left for the Circular Road, under the magnificent oval traffic bridge. The lower portion of the building housed the well known ‘Ravi Chargha’.

People familiar with the area would know that the place is at walking distance from the Badshahi Mosque; and that is just what I used to do on most mornings during the holidays. With everyone at my home out for their daily chores, I would walk to the Mosque for my favourite past-time; reading. As I had grown up in the area and had visited the Mosque-Fort complex quite often, I knew about the Ulema Academy there, located between the Mosque and Ranjit Singh’s cremation memorial. The Academy had a well stocked library on the first floor, up a short flight of stairs. When I visited it for the first time on curiosity, I learned that the good Ulema were subscribing to Newsweek and Reader’s Digest, my favourite magazines at that time. Attendance at the library was fairly thin. During the first two or three visits, I did not see anyone reading either of these English magazines.

One of the few images of Saghar, from his better days

One morning when I went to the library, I saw a young but haggard man with deep lined face, wearing dirty dark grey pants and a loose grey shirt, sitting on the floor and reading Newsweek. He had a thick flock of long, greasy, unkempt and unwashed silver-lined, back-combed hair. His feet were bare, dirty and coarse. He had visibly filthy hands with dirty nails. He didn’t seem ‘normal’. He gave a hungry sort of look.  He certainly didn’t seem lunatic, maniacal or insane but his deep-set eyes were lost, sad and haunting.  The only thing that appeared odd to me was that such a ‘paghal’ (mad person), to use the Lahori dialect - who appeared even as if he might resort to some violent episode - was fully absorbed in reading Newsweek. The setting appeared so bizarre and anomalous that even after fifty years, I still remember the man and the event vividly.

I sat on a chair, throwing side glances at the man, trying to take a measure of him. In about half an hour, he got up, put the magazine neatly away and walked out. I picked up the weekly periodical. When I estimated that he must have climbed down on to the road below, I looked outside one of the Mughal-style windows, half expecting him to be cursing or shouting at someone. He was, however, quietly walking away with slow lethargic steps towards the Fort.
The setting appeared so bizarre and anomalous that even after fifty years, I still remember the man and the event vividly

Next day, as I walked past Ranjit Singh’s memorial and turned right towards the mosque and the Academy, I spotted the man again walking ahead of me towards the library in the same attire and appearance. When I went in, I found him sitting on the floor rug at the same spot and reading the same magazine. I took some book from the rack and sat down to read on a chair slightly away from him. Except for the two of us, the library was devoid of readers. I busied myself with some other book, gazing at him with interest and apprehension. As on the previous day, the man kept reading for about half an hour and then quietly walked out.

I think I came across him again once or twice before I went back to Risalpur at the end of my vacations.

I never saw the man again, as I had never seen him previously. However, the experience and the appearance of the man left such an indelible imprint on my mind that I narrated the incident to many of my friends and family members over the next decades.

Saghar's mausoleum

He continued to write poetry on any piece of paper that he found near him. Some of these he used to light up in a fire to ward off cold

Then in Oct 2014, there was a robbery in the Kharadar office of Edhi Centre Karachi. There was an uproar in the newspapers and social media about our most respected charitable organisation being so callously robbed. While replying on Facebook in response to a comment, I recalled and wrote the couplet,

Jis ehed main lut ja’ay ghariboon ki kama’ee

us ehed kay sultan say koi bhool huy’ee hai’.

[When the sustenance of saints is purloined;

the sovereign of the land stands guilty of dereliction of duty]

After posting the comment, I tried but couldn’t recall the name of the poet. I, therefore, Googled the first few words of the first line. As I pressed ‘enter’, the results appeared on the screen and I recognised the same troubled face, the same haunting eyes with long back combed greasy hair. The name of Saghar Siddiqui was everywhere in the search results.

“Oh my God! It was Saghar,” I cried.

Of course I knew Saghar. Being interested in reading poetry since my early teens, I held some of his verses in high esteem. I have always regarded one of his ghazals namely ‘Chiragh e toor jalao’, as being amongst the greatest in Urdu poetry. I have had the privilege of hearing it live, and continue to enjoy it on my PC, rendered in the immortal voice of Mahdi Hassan. My regret is that had I known him by face, maybe I could have struck up a conversation and drawn the great soul into a discussion. But it was not to be. Later when I narrated this to some of my friends and family members in Lahore, I learnt that many of those of my age had seen him on the streets of Lahore and heard him reciting his poetry at impromptu readings on sidewalks and parks. Having joined a boarding school away from Lahore as a pre-teen, I didn’t happen to come across him. The internet is, of course, now full of his life history, his desperation, his dabbling into drugs and his eventual premature death on the roadside. I also read about his dog, though I do not recall noticing it.

Woh jinkay hotay hein khorsheed aasteenon mein

Unhein kaheen se bulao, barra andhera hai!

[“Those who conceal suns under their sleeves;

Fetch them close to lighten our wretchedness.”]

I have had a special affinity for Saghar. Born in Ambala, in the Indian state of Haryana, he grew up in Amritsar, the pre-Partition abode of my ancestors. He roamed in the same streets and bazaars where my father and uncles spent their childhood and youth. He defiantly read his first poem in the city after the Second World War at a reception arranged for three generals of the rebel Azad Hind army at Jallianwala Bagh; the same place where my maternal grandfather defiantly attended - and survived - the fateful political meeting on Baisakhi day of 13 April 1919 that was mowed down by Brig. Gen. Dyer. Like my family, he migrated to Pakistan and settled in Lahore.

Kall jinhein choo nahin sakti thi farishton ki nazar

Aaj woh ronaq-e-bazaar nazar aatay hein

Hashr mein kon gawaahi meri de ga Saghar?

Sab tumharay hee tarafdaar nazar aatay hein

[“Those who remained shrouded even from the eyes of angels;

They are on sale today in the markets

Oh Saghar! Who will vouch for my innocence in the hereafter?

Everyone appears to be your partisan.”]

In reality though, he never settled down anywhere. Saghar was amongst those idealistic, liberal, literary young men who became deeply disappointed and anguished by the turn of events and state of affairs in the newly created Pakistan. These people had high hopes of creating a democratic, egalitarian and just social order in the new country. They had dreamt of and romanticised about a utopia that was not to be. All these people, including Jalib, Manto, Faiz, Nasir Kazmi, Qurratulain Hyder and many others like them became disillusioned as they faced the harsh realities of corruption, brutality, nepotism and bigotry. Some were spiritually broken and gave up early, embracing tragic deaths. Others continued, and faced criticism, imprisonments and exile. Some reconciled with the realities of life, becoming part of the emerging nouveau riche elites. That is the stuff life is made of.

Saghar wrote songs for films and sold poems to literary magazines. He started publishing a magazine himself that was a critical success but a commercial failure. He succumbed to drugs - primarily morphine - and lived on the streets like a beggar. His only constant companion was his dog. He continued to write poetry on any piece of paper that he found near him. Some of these he used to light up in a fire to ward off cold, whilst others were taken away by fellow poets to be published as their own work. He was found dead on 19 July 1974 on the roadside near Alfalah building on the Mall. His dog, which died a year later at the same spot, was found guarding his body. He was only 46.

Some verses by Saghar Siddiqui

Saghar lies buried in Miani Sahib, the central graveyard of Lahore. His admirers have erected a mausoleum over his grave. Though he led a devastated life, his sad verses will keep his name alive. May he rest in peace.

bargashta-e-yazdan se kuchh bhuul hui hai

bhatke hue insan se kuchh bhuul hui hai

ta-hadd-e-nazar shoale hi shoale hain chaman men

phulon ke nigahban se kuchh bhuul hui hai

jis ahdd men lut jaae faqiron ki kamai

us ahd ke sultan se kuchh bhuul hui hai

hanste hain miri surat-e-maftun pe shagufe

mere dil-e-nadan se kuchh bhuul hui hai

huron ki talab aur mai o saghar se hai nafrat

zahid tire irfan se kuchh bhuul hui hai

[Those forsaken by providence must have erred in obeisance; He who strayed from the right path has erred in his conduct.

I see nothing but flames in the meadow; the caretaker of flowers has been delinquent of his duties.

When the sustenance of saints is purloined; the sovereign of the land stands guilty of dereliction of duty.

You are expectant of heavenly maids yet are abhorrent of wine; Oh you ‘ascetic’, your wisdom is impaired.]

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and can be reached at parvezmahmood53@gmail.com

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: parvezmahmood53@gmail.com