Thursday, July 17, 2014

Dina... Waiting for Gulzar

Gulzar at Dina Railway Station. Picture Courtesy: Mirza Baig

About a hundred kilometers from the capital city of Islamabad in Pakistan, by the G.T.Road, in district Jhelum, sits the historic town of Dina.

The same Dina, on whom Gulzar penned his immortal lines:

Zikr Jhelum ka, baat ho Dine ki. 
Chand Pukhraj ka, raat Pashminey ki

Dina is the birthplace of renowned south Asian poet Sampooran Singh Kalra. Popularly known as Gulzar, he was born in Kurla, a village some 3 kilometers away from Dina, on the 18th of August in the year 1936. Gulzar’s father Makkhan Singh, set up his business and home in the main market of Dina and settled here with his family.

The house where Gulzar spent most of his childhood and the shop attached to it still stands as a witness to history. Here in Dina, the square on which Gulzar’s home is located and once called Purana Dakkhana Chowk, is known today as Pakistani Chowk.

The Return Home

Gulzar was born in Dina, of Jhelum, Pakistan

Last year, when Gulzar returned to visit his birthplace, for the first time after the Partition, he could not hold back his tears on seeing the home he had left many years ago, and broke down. The ancestral home of Gulzar now belongs to one Sheikh family and the members of this family say that they were tenants of the Kalra’s before Partition and was allotted the house post Partition.

An elderly member of the Sheikh family, advocate Sheikh Abdul Qayum, who is of the same age as the poet was Gulzar’s childhood friend as well. He reminisces, “our homes stood side by side and we went to the same school”.  Sheikh Abdul Qayum further adds “when Gulzar came down here, I suggested this lane be named as Gulzar Street, to which Gulzar responded that it would be really great if that did happen!”

According to Sheikh Abdul Qayum, this lane has remained unchanged for the last seventy years and a part of the Kalras’ house still remained in its original condition. This is where Gulzar’s father Makkhan Singh had once set up his textile shop.

This is where Gulzar started his primary education. The school has a block named after him too.
The ancestral home is located in a lane about 4 feet wide.  In the other part of this house, new buildings have been constructed. Residents of Dina comment that when Gulzar came visiting, there was a suggestion to buy this building and turn it into a library, but in the long run, nothing could be done about it. However, after his visit, this street is addressed as Gulzar Street nowadays.

The government run high school, where Gulzar received his primary education is located in Miyan Mohallah of Dina. Unfortunately, his classroom no longer exists! Javed Ahmed, the current headmaster of the school informs that the part of the old structure which housed Gulzar’s classroom no longer exists. However, he adds that there is a new school block built on what was earlier(during the time Gulzar studied here) the school playground and has been named Gulzar Kalra Block.

He says “we wish Gulzar to visit again and spend more time with us at the school.” Stating that the school is proud that a student from this institution has won such accolades all over South Asia, Javed goes on to add “the academic records of this school have always been superb but at the same time students from the school have also excelled in the fields of Literature, Art and Sports at the district level.”

The Good Old School Days

This lane, the location of Gulzar’s ancestral home, is now known as Gulzar Street
The Government High School of Dina had initially started off as a primary school in 1921. It was later converted into a middle school in 1941. It was during this time that Gulzar studied here. Finally, in 1989, the school was awarded the status of a high school.

Sheikh Abdul fondly remembers that during his Pakistan Yatra(tour), while Gulzar went visiting his alma mater with some of his friends, he was in very high spirits and led the way. To Abdul Qayum, he seemed almost like a little boy happily trotting off to his school. Qayum quipped “ I told him you forgot to carry something, and when Gulzar asked “what?” I replied “your satchel”, to which he smiled ”

The relation between Gulzar and Dina is a well-known fact today. But it is also equally true that the literary heritage of Dina and the district Jhelum goes a long way back in history. Speaking of the literary scholars, poet Shahzad Qamar from Dina told me that this area had gifted us with some of the most amazingly talented writers and the specialty of these authors lied in the literature of resistance.

The Literature of Resistance

Starting from the revolutionary poet and trade union leader Darshan Singh Awara to contemporary poets like Tanveer Sapra, Iqbal Kausar and other writers, the literary style is that of resistance. Through their works, they had always raised their voices against all forms of injustice.

In Qamar’s view, even today, many a poet and writer from Dina are still related to the literature of resistance. When asked about Gulzar’s popularity in Dina, poet Siddique Suraj replied that though everybody knew about Gulzar, his connection to Dina has came into light only after his recent visit to the town.

In naming a school block and a street after her famous son, Dina and her people express their love for Gulzar. The people of Dina look forward to another trip from the poet, sometime soon. With hope in their hearts and a fervent wish, they eagerly wait for Gulzar!

This article was originally published in  BBC Hindi and BBC Urdu

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Banni Mai Veero and Muhammad Ishaq: “No I don’t want to visit Ambala”

Muhammad Ishaq

The history of Rawalpindi is a scattered one spread across a vast area. To draw a complete picture of our history, one has to collect the scattered pieces and put them together. No doubt it’s quite a difficult task and takes time and patience.

Most of us know that Rawalpindi was used as a convenient route by the invaders coming from North Western regions and later British Army used the city as one of the most important cantonments in North Western region of British India in the days of The Great Game.

Before the Partition, Rawalpindi was an urban center mainly populated with Hindus and Sikhs. Even today, one can see the old remnants of their existence in the old areas of the city in the form of houses, abandoned temples and gurdwaras.

However, during the last 60 years post partition, the city has undergone a lot of changes. The Hindu and Sikh population migrated to India in 1947 and the city provided shelter to the Muslim migrants from Punjab, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.

The city of Rawalpindi, home to several Hindu temples and Sikh Gurdwaras, was also renowned for some other historic landmarks, be a Dhobi Ghaat, a Haveli or a public space. With the passage of time and the increase in population the demography of the city changed gradually. Most of the old and historic places fell victim to the advent of modernization and gave way to countless commercial buildings, markets and concrete matchbox structures.

Mai Veero di Banni (The Abode of Lady Veero) is one such victim.

Video Market where there was a pool.
Video Market where there was a pool
It is said that Mai Veero was an aged Hindu lady, who was saintly in her behavior others and respected among the masses. Banni Mai Veero was built by her, for the benefit of the people where they could bathe, swim and rest and freshen up. It was a sort of a gathering spot, much like the Greek Agora, for the public in the very heart of the city. The water source of the pool was from a clean water stream nearby (an area on the opposite side known as Kartarpura).

Some old residents of Rawalpindi say that the area around Banni Mai Veero was densely populated by Khatri Hindus.

Marks of a stream between Kartarpura and Emanabad Mohallah
While hunting for Banni Mai Veero I managed to reach the exact spot where the pool once had been. Today, it is a market housing video shops. I met the president of the market who, on my request introduced me to the oldest living person of the area.

That is how I met Muhammad Ishaq, popular in the area as Bhiyya ji, a Fruit-Chaat seller in this market.
Born in Ambala Cantonment area (now in Indian Punjab) in 1936, Muahmmad Ishaq migrated to Rawalpindi in 1947 along with his family.

“I remember it very clearly; there was a pool here, I used to take bath and swim in it” says Ishaq.

“When we came from Ambala we lived in Bazaar Talwaraan, near Raja Bazaar” he added. He goes on to further narrate that one of his elder brothers was a government employee working in the Railways and other had a shop of shoes in Ambala.

“I also worked for the Pakistan Railways as porter after partition, for some 20 years” Muhammad Ishaq tells me while showing his old employee’s identity card.

Railways Identity Card of Muhammad Ishaq

Muhammad Ishaq in his good old days
Initially, Ishaq started his Fruit Chaat business in Raja bazaar, as a part time engagement later shifting his shop to the newly built market where the government allotted stalls to the street vendors. This market, he adds, was built in 1980s right on the same spot where the pool of Banni Mai Veero’s once had been.

Needless to say, today there are no traces of any pool anywhere near the market that was built in 1982 and inaugurated on May 5, 1982.  The market has more than one hundred shops, most of them selling CDs and DVDs and a few repairing shops for electronic appliances.

So, what happened to the pool? Muhammad Ishaq recalls confidently that back when the pool did exist, the water had been clean and fresh, there had been stairs on all sides of the pool. People used to take bath and women washed clothes there. There were even fresh water fish in water!

Unfortunately people eventually started polluting it. The link to the stream that was the source of the water to the pool was cut off; new houses were built and the pool slowly dried up. It did not take much time for the locals to turn the place into a garbage dump.

Probably that was how Mai Veero di Banni made a silent exit from the history of Rawalpindi.

Much later, the city district government planned to use this place for commercial purposes and built the market in 1982. But the businesses that initially set up shop here didn’t really flourish. It was only in the late 80’s when the VCR culture was “exported” to Pakistan (mostly by the overseas Pakistanis in Middle East) the market gradually became the hub for VCR and video films, as there was a huge demand for VCR and Indian film VCD rentals.

The main square outside the “video market” still goes by the name of “Banni chowk”, though some people tried their best to change its name to “Sunni Chowk” (Why Sunni Chowk? Because the main procession of Ashura Juloos ends here with Zanjeer-zani: hope you will get the hint).

Banni chowk, Rawalpindi

Flowers shops out side Video Market (or Mai Veero's pool)

Once, there used to be a Tonga stand outside the market at Saidpur Road, which is now turned into a Qingqi (Motorcycle Rickshaw) stand. Added to this crowd are numerous shops selling flowers and materials for wedding decorations. This area is also known for its desi food culture.

Muhammad Ishaq looks back at the past and reminisces that he has seen the changing demographics of the city. “The city wasn’t this noisy, but now it’s traffic and people everywhere”, he almost laments.

When I asked him why his family chose to settle down in Rawalpindi and not in any other city, he replied that they had some relatives in Rawalpindi, so they came here.

“Do you want to see Ambala once again?” I asked him as I was preparing to leave.

No, I don’t want to go to Ambala. Everything has changed. We have some relatives in Delhi and some other cities in India, but the elders have all passed away and their children don’t know us”, he answered ruefully.

“But there would be no Visa issue for you, you know that… “

“I know visa restrictions are relaxed for senior citizens (above 65), but why would I go there? Nobody knows me there. That was in the past and that time has passed” he replied this time, almost matter-of-factly.

Then I hugged and thanked him and walked away, promising to meet him again, very soon. 
Current map: Source Google Maps
Pre-partition map. Source: The Survey of Pakistan

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Punjab, Punjabi and the contradiction within

A rare sight: A shop displays sign board in Punjabi "Billay di Hatti" [Shop of Billa] in Raja Bazaar, Rawalpindi. 

Over the last few weeks, I have been meeting children from different parts of Punjab. They were between 3 to 5 years of age, and included the children of my friends and extended family. I was pleasantly shocked to hear these kids speakin Punjabi.  “Kithay chalay o”, “aa ki aey”, “ki karde paye o” are some of the Punjabi phrases I recall having heard.

Punjabi is the most widely spoken language across Pakistan. However, most of the people in Punjab, especially in urban centers, do not encourage their children to speak their mother tongue, Punjabi.

But “kids will be kids” and they will always find ways to learn new things. So, through methods best known to children, they quickly pick up the language, continuously learning (mimicking to be more precise) from various people around them and their parents, as the adults speak in Punjabi among themselves regularly. The end result is that the children learn Punjabi quite effortlessly; such is the beauty of mother tongue.

Incidentally, in your average Pakistani school, a child goes through the experience of learning two new languages, English and Urdu. As reading Quran and prayers are also considered as mandatory teachings in the Pakistani society, he / she learns Arabic as well. So, a 3-5 year old child in Punjab starts to learn almost four languages at this stage. Other than this, the teaching of all other subjects is also via the medium of Urdu or English.

However, as far as the effectiveness of learning is concerned, it is in the best interest of any child that primary education be imparted in mother tongue. Children learn more efficiently and quickly if he / she start learning various subjects in his / her mother tongue instead of learning a completely new language first. This is the reason when a 3 year old enrolls in a nursery class he / she naturally reads “Meem Kukri” instead of “Meem Murghi” (which is enforced on him / her) because he / she already knows and relates to the picture of a hen as a “Kukri”.

However, in Pakistan, it is a popular practice to label a child as an “illiterate” and “uncivilized” if he / she speaks in Punjabi. This is why parents try their best to refrain from speaking in Punjabi with their kids. Somehow, one cannot blame the parents as the harsh reality is when a 3 or 4 year old kid enrolls in school and begins to speak in Punjabi with the other children or teachers, he / she is promptly tagged as “illiterate”. Needless to say, it’s quite depressing for young minds. Naturally, the parents want to prevent this from happening. Hence, the mother tongue is sacrificed.

In addition to this, there are strong arguments that “talking about ‘people not encouraging their children to speak Punjabi or their mother tongue is like dishonoring their mother’ is just a hollow slogan”. This line of argument strongly believes that it is common knowledge that in real life knowing Punjabi is not of any use and learning Urdu and English are more important for education and a career. When I look at the current scenario, I realize that for all practical purposes this line of thinking is not entirely wrong. One has to get a job after all! Again, Punjabi is forced out.

Frankly speaking, discrimination against the Punjabi language is nothing new in our society. It started during the British period with the end of Sikh rule in Punjab. Later, it was somewhat obtusely assumed that Urdu is the language of Muslims, Hindi,of Hindus and Punjabi, of Sikhs. By this oversimplified formula not only our land divided on the basis of religion but languages were also divided on the same basis. Today, in Indian Punjab one observes the regular usage of Punjabi everywhere – signage on the highways, in schools, colleges, universities and in public offices. This is exactly why Mian Shehbaz Sharif, the Chief Minister of Pakistani Punjab, while visiting the Indian counterpart delivered a speech in Punjabi to win their hearts!

But I am afraid I have rarely heard the Chief Minister of Punjab or any other leaders delivering a speech in Punjabi in Gujranwala, Faisalabad or any other city of the Pakistani Punjab. This is what I call the inferiority complex of us Punjabis in Pakistan.

It is obvious that Punjabis are living in some kind of confusion. It is a bitter truth that Punjabis have gradually destroyed their own language, as we never confidently owned it. Inspite of being the largest spoken language in Pakistan it is not taught in any schools! You wouldn’t find any sign boards in Punjabi anywhere in Punjab (except “Billay di Hatti” shops in various cities).  As I see it, the future of Punjabi in Pakistan is not bright.

Strangely, quite contradictory to this phenomenon of our self-denial, there is this interesting practice of Punjabi being popularized all across, without Punjabis even wanting it to! And the reason behind this is the televised musical program, Coke Studio – Pakistan.

I am sure, you would have heard on countless episodes of Coke Studio, numerous Kalams of Baba Bulleh Shah or Sultan Bahoo being performed by the participants. Be it Bulleh Shah or any other Sufi poet of Punjab, it is becoming quite a fashion to be associated with their music as an enthusiast. Don’t we simply love to listen to them and share Punjabi music by whatever means available to us and feel good that they project the secular and moderate culture of Punjab? Many people were introduced to Baba Bulleh Shah or Punjabi Sufis after the launch of Coke Studio. I feel, it is quite ironic that today we actually rely on a corporate giant and thankful to them for introducing Punjabi to the world because at the same time, we hate this language too!

This contradiction in our behavior baffles me completely.

However, I see rays of hope, coming from completely unexpected quarters though. Recently, a friend who shifted from Karachi to Lahore, complained “why the hell everyone speaks Punjabi here? I spoke to Rickshaw drivers, shopkeepers and a few other people and everyone replied to me in Punjabi!” It was a welcome realization that Punjabis have not completely given up on their mother tongue, at least not yet. It was a relief that at least a visitor to Punjab has realized that Punjabi is the language of Punjab. Deep inside, that made me immensely happy.