Illustration by Abro
About three years ago, while aiding a young cousin in her thesis on the origins of the Pakistan national anthem, I noticed the name Saghar Siddiqui in the footnotes of one of many books that I was scouring to piece together a more elaborate historical and political background of the anthem.
The anthem’s music was composed in 1949, two years after the creation of Pakistan. The lyrics however did not come till 1952, written by poet Hafeez Jalandhri. This anthem was finally adopted by the state and government of Pakistan in 1954.
The book in which one of the footnotes mentioned Saghar Siddiqui, was simply skimming across the fact that many men and women had attempted to author the anthem between 1947 and 1954. But why I got interested in Saghar’s name in this respect was because I knew him to be a famous Urdu poet who died in poverty.
That’s all I knew about the man, apart from a few verses from the poems that he wrote and that, over the years, were shared with me by some college friends more than two decades ago.
Despair drove Saghar Siddiqui, an unsung genius of his time, to seek solace in drink and drugs.
After coming across his name in the book, I did manage to recall some verses of his, especially this one: “Dil mila aur gham shanaas mila/phool ko aag ka libas mila/ Har shanaawar bhanwar main dooba tha/Jo sitara mila udaas mila” (Bestowed with a heart that is conversant with misery/a flower got a garment of fire/Every swimmer was shackled and drowned by the whirlpool/ Every star that I met was sad ...).
This amateurish English translation does not do any justice to the melancholic imagery present in these lines, but what really got me thinking was: what was a poet known for his bleak imagery and utter heartbreak doing by once wanting to write the national anthem of a country where he eventually died in poverty?
Though Sagar’s work is now easily available, there is precious little information about the man himself, apart from some old newspaper clippings about his demise in 1974.
Interestingly in 2012 when I was in Islamabad for a media conference, I was introduced to a gentleman who I was told was the son of a cousin of Saghar’s. The gentleman was a retired bureaucrat but was well versed in Urdu poetry.
I almost immediately asked him about Saghar’s ambition to author the anthem. According to the gentleman, Saghar came from a well-to-do middle-class family in the Indian town of Ambala.
He was a prodigious lad who began writing poetry as a child. He was 19 when he migrated to Pakistan (in 1947) and settled in Lahore.
The sensitive and gifted teenager was excited by the prospect of becoming a citizen of a newly created country and at once got down to writing a national anthem for it.
Though he failed to get his version of the anthem accepted by the government, he moved on to publish a well-received literary magazine.
The magazine was a critical success but did not sell well. Disappointed, Saghar closed it down.
Unlike most people who had migrated to Pakistan from India, Saghar did not ask the government to settle him on the properties left behind by the Hindus and the Sikhs.
Instead he preferred to stay in cheap hotels. He paid his rent from the meagre amounts of money that he received from magazines for the poems that he wrote for them.
But within a decade his early, youthful enthusiasm for Pakistan had eroded as he saw corruption, nepotism and mediocrity being rewarded at the expense of genuine talent.
”The sensitive and gifted teenager was excited by the prospect of becoming a citizen of a newly created country and at once got down to writing a national anthem for it.”
Broke in more ways than one and at a stage where even the fast-acting cheap whisky of Lahore failed to keep his crumbling self numb, Saghar discovered morphine.
He bought his daily dose from corrupt janitors at various hospitals of Lahore.
What’s more, when some contemporary poets used to find this thin, shaking addict outside their homes asking for money, they would give him a few rupees but only after he had written a poem or two for them.
These poets would then sell the poems to the magazines for a lot more money and some even went to the extent of getting them published in their own names!
With friends and strangers alike exploiting his genius of writing the most evocative Urdu ghazals to meet their own greedy needs, Saghar plunged even deeper into a state of despair.
Soon he was turned out by the cheap hotels he was living in and ended up walking the streets of Lahore.
A fan of his once wrote how (in 1966) while he was driving down Lahore’s Circuit Road, the radio in his car began to play a ghazal written by Saghar.
As the fan was quietly revelling in the power of Saghar’s words, his eyes caught a fleeting glimpse of a thin man with unkempt long hair and in tattered clothes walking aimlessly on the side of the road. It was Saghar.
As the world abandoned this genius, Saghar abandoned the world.
For years he could be seen walking and sleeping on the streets of Lahore, living on the food given to him by those who took him to be a beggar or a fakir.
Amazingly, he continued to write powerful poetry in spite of the fact that he could hardly utter a single coherent sentence anymore.
At times he would write brilliant poems, read them out loudly with a vacant look in his eyes, then tear the papers he’d scribbled these poems on, make a heap and set the heap on fire.
Over the years he befriended a stray dog whom he shared whatever food that was handed to him by the shopkeepers. The dog would follow him and sleep beside him on any street corner Saghar would choose to sleep on.
After 15 years of morphine addiction, depression and living on the streets, in early 1974 Saghar was found dead in one such street corner of Lahore. Exposed to the cold winter of the city, he passed away in his sleep. He was just 46.
The dog who was with him for more than six years never left the spot where Saghar died. Finally, one year after Saghar’s death, the dog too died — almost exactly at the same spot where Saghar did.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 8th, 2014