Saturday, January 14, 2006

Witness to persecution

KHUSHWANT SINGHAn interesting contrast between Indians and their rulers and Pakistanis and their dictators is the way they treat their creative artists — painters, poets, novelists and thinkers. In India, successive governments have been liberal in their attitude towards men and women of letters, the public, in general, has not.

It is the other way round in Pakistan: successive rulers have been harsh towards their literary men while the common people have supported them. In India, a few books have been banned because government minions felt they would offend people’s religious susceptibilities. They include Agehenanda Bharati’s The Ochre Robe. Aubrey Menon’s Rama Retold and Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.

The government has left painters like M.F. Husain untouched and cleared film scripts which were not allowed to be shot. The rabble led by goons of the Shiv Sena and the Bajrang Dal not only ransacked and burnt a section of the Bhandarkar Institute archives but also vandalised Husain’s paintings and frustrated Mira Nair’s attempts to shoot films.

In Pakistan, there have been no cases of destroying archival material or paintings but the government has a black record of persecuting poets who raised their voices against dictatorial regimes. Faiz Ahmed Faiz was imprisoned a few times, as was Punjabi poet Ustad Daman. Ahmed Faraz left the country a few times to avoid arrest and prosecution. So did Fahmida Riyaz. Much the worst case was that of Habib Jalib who was jailed many times. In answer to a question he said, “Don’t ask me which government did not put me in jail: The only one which did not was Benazir Bhutto’s and that only because she was too busy fighting for her survival as a leader”. Nevertheless, it has to be conceded that in every case the people of Pakistan stood behind their poets.

Of the most persecuted of Pakistani poets, the least known in India, was Habib Jalib. He was born in Hoshiarpur, educated in the Anglo-Arabic school in Delhi and migrated to Pakistan after Partition in 1947. He got a poorly paid job as proof-reader of Imroze published from Karachi. He shifted to Lahore there till his death except for the time he spent in different jails. Despite living in abject poverty, his spirit remained defiant to the end. I quote the first two verses from his best known Dastoor (Rule):

Deep jis ka mehlaat hee mein jaley

Chand logon kee khushion ko lay kar chaley

Voh jo savay mein har muslihat kay chaley

Aisey dastoor ko subha-e-beynoor ko

Main nahin maanta, main nahin jaanta

(A lamp only in palaces lit

Shed light for a chosen few

Shade in which one has to fit

Such rites and lightless dawns

I will not accept: I refuse to know.)

Main bhee khauf naheen takhtaa-e-dar say

Main bhee Mansoor hoom keh do Aghyaar say

Zulm kee baat ko, jail kee raat ko

Main nahin maanta, main nahin jaanta

(Of the scaffold I have no fear,

I am like Mansoor, let everyone know

Why do prison walls make you quail?

Why cringe before cruelty and lonely nights in jail?

I will not accept, I refuse to know.)

Kamla Chaudhary

Different people came into my life at different times and in different ways. The strangest was the way in which I got to know sociologist Kamla Chaudhary who died on January 4. I had appeared as defence counsel for the man who had murdered her husband.

It goes back to the early 1940s. I was a briefless lawyer practising in the Lahore High Court trying to get some briefs my way. I got my name put on a panel of lawyers who had to appear as defence counsels in appeals against death sentences passed by Sessions Courts when the appellant could not afford to pay a fee. Among the earliest of such cases that came my way was one of a fanatical tribesman from the NWFP. On a Divali night, he shot a young Hindu ICS officer sleeping in the dak bungalow garden alongside his bride. The fellow had no motive to commit the crime besides taking the life of a Kafir who had done him no harm. Since it was Divali and crackers bursting in Hindu mohallas in the town, the wife did not wake up with the shot fired by her husband’s killer. It was much later when the night became chilly and she decided to cover herself and her husband with a blanket that she realised he was dead.

For many months, the police did not have a clue about the killer or the motive for the crime. Then, by chance, the man was captured with a gang of tribesmen. When interrogated, the fellow thought he was being questioned about his role in the murder of the young Hindu officer. He confessed to the crime and was sentenced to death. There was nothing I could say in his defence. The sentence of death was confirmed and he was hanged in Lahore Central Jail. I got a fee of Rs 16.

Later, in Lahore, I got to know her sister who married Arjan Singh, my classmate in college. After Partition, I met her parents who were living in Sir Shri Ram’s house, now the Hindustan Times office. Kamla was living in Ahmedabad and had a teaching job with the Sarabhais. She was said to be very close to Vikram Sarabhai who had made his name as a scientist. She had become a close companion and replaced his wife Mrinalini who was busy dancing round the world. After Vikram died, Kamla moved to Delhi. She was an attractive woman with a sad, winsome smile, which won over many men’s hearts, including those of P.L. Tandon (author of Punjabi Century) and my close friend Prem Kirpal. She was often abroad on teaching assignments and was, for some years, with the Ford Foundation. I saw quite a bit of her in Kirpal’s house. He had her and I elected to the governing body of Delhi Public Schools. She picked me from my home to take me to DPS meetings. My wife and I were often invited to dinner to her house as she was to mine.

Another link between us was provided by her nephew, eminent psychiatrist Sudhir Kakkar who I vastly admired. Throughout these years of friendship I could not bring myself to tell her that I had once defended her husband’s murderer.

Question time

Question: Why are fashions like human beings?

Answer: When they come in, nobody knows:

Why, when or how they go out, also nobody knows.

(Contributed by KJS Ahluwalia, Amritsar)