Khuda ki Basti (Novel)

The partition of India in 1947 was a bloody affair. Thousands of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs lost their lives in the unprecedented riots and clashes that erupted just as the British colonialists recognised the demand of the All India Muslim League to carve out a separate Muslim homeland for the Muslims of the region.

The consequent creation of Pakistan was a stunning example of a nationalist idea being turned into a concrete reality through intellectual and political action. But the idea of a post-colonial India divided into two separate Hindu-majority and Muslim-majority nations was not acceptable to a majority of Hindus and Sikhs.

Deadly riots ensued after millions of Muslims (mainly from North India) began to migrate to Pakistan and within a matter of months thousands of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs were slayed in some of the most maddening orgies of violence witnessed in South Asia.

In Pakistan, most of the refugees entered the new country’s Sindh and Punjab provinces. Most of them were Urdu-speakers and many were also Punjabi from East Punjab (in India).

A majority of the entrants had left behind whatever big or small businesses, properties and other means of income they had in India. Here, they were settled on vast tracts of land (especially in Karachi and Lahore) by a government struggling to address the housing needs of such a mammoth flood of people.

They had come to Pakistan looking for a brand new dream of a Muslim-majority state that had turned the Muslim minority of India into a bulging majority in Pakistan.

Lacking economic resources and populated by millions of Bengali, Sindhi, Punjabi, Baloch and Pukhtun Muslims who were already present in the Muslim-majority regions that became Pakistan, the new country and its first government struggled to accommodate the large numbers of Muslims who continued to pour in on foot, by trains, and in buses.

In Karachi and Lahore the tracts of land where most of the refugees were settled soon turned into ragged shanty towns. Such towns were more common in the sprawling cosmopolitan city of Karachi.

By the early 1950s they had mutated into becoming slums that lacked even basic amenities. Running water was scarce, so was electricity and there was hardly a sewage system in place.

There were no schools here and only a handful of clinics that were usually run by quacks. The people of such towns eked out a living as daily-wage workers, but a majority of them (especially the youth) were unemployed. Crime was rampant.

Progressive novelist, Shaukat Siddiqui, spent some time roaming and observing life in the post-partition shanty towns in Karachi and Lahore and it was in one such town where he based the plot and story of what became one of his most famous and heart-wrenching Urdu novels, Khuda Ki Basti (God’s Colony).

The novel was inspired by a large slum in Karachi that had come up soon after the creation of Pakistan and was largely populated by the common Urdu-speaking refugees who had left behind their homes and means of income in India.

  Shaukat Siddiqui
Shaukat Siddiqui

In his novel, Siddiqui called the slum, ‘Khuda Ki Basti.’ Written in 1957, the novel sees Siddiqui realistically and without any added drama, capture the daily lives and struggles of the people of the colony: Fathers work all day long as labourers, peons, etc.; the mothers travel to the more established areas of the city looking for work as maids.

But there are many parents in the colony who try their best to give their children an education as well in the few schools that are outside the colony. But the number of inexpensive government schools is low and the children have to eventually drop out for various reasons.

Young men spent most of their time gambling in street corners, indulging in petty theft and then to escape the harshness and suffocation of the environment, spent whatever money they have on watching movies in nearby cinemas and drinking cheap whisky at low-priced bars and brothels.

Shaukat’s observations in this respect are all impersonally and objectively expressed, without any moral comment. What really drives Siddiqui’s story instead is his astute observation of what to him was the biggest social and economic ill that plagued the shanty towns of the time: i.e. petty-bourgeoisie capitalism.

As the slums began to grow, a number of petty-bourgeoisie traders set up shop there, providing the residents with high-interest loans and the means to acquire the many basic amenities that the slums lacked.

This gave the traders enough clout and power to lord over the affairs of the residents since there was only minimal writ and influence (or much interest) of the government in the slums.

What Siddiqi’s novel tries to prove is how the petty-bourgeoisie capitalists exploited the poverty and the domestic and social desperation of the residents to make money and retain their socio-political and economic hold in the area.

In fact, as Siddiqui’s story goes on to elaborate, such men would even put in money to actually create economic and social misery and treat this as an investment!

The novel centres around a struggling family in the colony headed by a hard-working mother and her two young sons and a daughter. The father has died. The mother and daughter sew clothes for well-to-do middle-class women who reside far away from the slum, and the teenage son works as an apprentice in a small motor workshop. The youngest son studies at a government school.

The teenag son’s name is Nosha. He spends much of the day working at the workshop but in the evenings he can be seen with his best friend, Raja, a tipsy 20-something lad who has been pushed out by his family and lives in a small hut with a beggar.

Raja makes most of his money by committing petty theft, begging and gambling. He also loves to get high on dope and drink at brothels and cheap bars.

Nosha and Raja are also great movie fans and are always on the lookout of getting enough money to see the latest Urdu films.

 Qazi Wajid (left) and Behroz Sabzwari in the roles of Raja and Nosha in the 1974 TV adaptation of the novel.
Qazi Wajid (left) and Behroz Sabzwari in the roles of Raja and Nosha in the 1974 TV adaptation of the novel.

A middle-aged local trader who has a large pawn shop in the slum and also deals in providing small loans to the residents gets interested in Nosha’s sister. But knowing that Nosha and his mother would never allow him to marry the teenaged sister, the trader constructs an elaborate plan to get his hands on the sister.

The trader also owns the small, run-down house where Nosha’s family lives. He had given the house on rent to the family when Nosha’s father was alive.

The trader decides to exploit the economic concerns of the family as a way to make his entry into the family.

He first threatens Nosha that he would kick out his family from the house if his mother is ever late in paying the rent. Then he softens up and tells him that he (Nosha) should start selling him small motor parts from the workshop he works in. ‘Don’t worry,’ he tells Nosha.

‘A lot of guys from the shop do that. And I will pay you enough money so you can watch as many films at the cinema as you like.’

Nosha starts stealing and selling parts to the trader. The trader knows that it was only a matter of time till Nosha is caught by the owner of the workshop.

Nosha is caught and loses his job. But he has been put on the path of enjoying the idea of making quick money. With Raja, he gets involved with gangs of pickpockets until both are arrested, sentenced and thrown in jail.

This clears the way for the trader to now regularly visit Nosha’s home. He starts exhibiting kindness towards the mother and pretends to help her financially. His kindness draws the mother nearer to him and she agrees when he purposes marriage between the two. He, however, asks the mother to stay at the rented house until the daughter got married.

At the same time, he approaches a quack and pays him to prepare a concoction that (when regularly injected into a person) would slowly kill them.

The trader then begins to inject the concoction into the mother, telling her that it would make her healthier and feel young.

The mother starts to fall ill. When the daughter shows concern, the trader tells her that it was just harmless side-effects of the injection.

The mother eventually dies and the trader tells the daughter that since she and her young brother were now alone, they should move in with him. Helpless, the daughter agrees to marry the trader.

Though the daughter settles down with the trader and he provides his young bride a lavish lifestyle, he secretly forces the brother to run away. He tells the daughter that he will find him, but the brother has apparently quit school and joined wayward men on the streets. He’s never seen again.

Meanwhile, Nosha and Raja are finally released from jail. Nosha has no clue about the fate of his family. He does not go back home immediately. He first tries to tend to his ailing friend Raja who had contracted TB in jail. Raja dies tragically, abandoned on the streets.

When Nosha finally visits the colony, he is shocked to learn that his mother had died, the sister had married the trader and his younger brother had gone missing. He goes into a rage, buys a dagger and at night breaks into the trader’s house and kills him. He is arrested again and this time sentenced to death.

Though the reader does get a sense satisfaction from Nosha’s revengeful act, the truth is, this act eliminated just one paltry element of a much larger economic and social malaise.

A malady of self-serving and exploitative lust that wiped out a whole family.

Nosha killed one element of such a lust because he knew the law wont. Instead, the law killed Nosha.

Maula Jatt (Film)

The fall of the ZA Bhutto regime in July 1977 and the taking over of power by a reactionary military general (Ziaul Haq), brought down the curtain on the era of populist social and political extroversion.

These gave way to a conservative introversion that really had very little to do with reflection, but more with a need to hide one’s political and social self in an era of open religious propagation and reactive legislation that was directly opposed to the 1970s’ populist bearings.

One ground-level cultural symptom of this social roll-back was the sudden collapse of the Pakistani film industry. As if all of a sudden, Urdu films that till 1979 had been doing good business, rapidly started to lose middle-class audiences.

This was also the time when the practice of turning cinemas into “shopping plazas” also kicked in, with Karachi’s famous Naz Cinema becoming the first casualty.

The primary reason for this was, of course, the social and cultural introversion that the country’s urban middle-classes started to subside into ever since the late 1970s; a happening that can also explain the rapid proliferation of the VCR, a machine that kept many Pakistanis, including regular cinema goers, comfortably stationed in their homes and away from the cultural, social and political fall-outs of Ziaul Haq’s many political and cultural curbs.

Another obvious reason for the Pakistani film industry’s growing commercial and creative woes was the implementation of the new censor policy carried over from 1978 and made even stricter by 1980.

Interestingly, though, these policies and restrictions that barred filmmakers from showing “excessive sexual content and violence,” seemed only to have impacted Urdu films because the growth in the numbers of Punjabi and Pushtu films (which started to chew away the market for Urdu films), were studded with sexual raunchiness and anarchic violence.

The rising popularity of Punjabi cinema was also symptomatic of the changing class dynamics of film audiences. Till the late 1970s, the middle-classes constituted a bulk of this audience, but as these started to dramatically recede after 1979, the vacuum was gladly filled by film goers from the urban working classes, and peasants in the semi-rural areas.

For example, even though Punjabi films had always done well in Punjab’s provincial capital, Lahore, they were somewhat a rarity in Karachi cinemas, until the release of Maula Jatt in late 1979.

Directed by Yunus Butt, this film took off from where a raunchy 1975 Urdu film, Dhulan Aik Raat Ki left off. Taking its controversial 1975 predecessor’s formula of using a story of revenge and honour in a rural setting, Jatt was lavishly studded with bawdy female dances and snappy dialogue turning struggling Urdu and Punjabi actor, Sultan Rahi, into a popular mainstay, as he also became Pakistani cinema’s first famous angry man.

Also gaining notoriety and popularity through the film was veteran villain, Mustapha Qureshi, whose role as the violent Noori Nat would see him play Rahi’s nemesis in a number of similar Punjabi films throughout the decade.

The film, largely patronised by a growing new class of cinema goers (urban proletariat and rural peasants), became a massive box office sensation, and its theme of an angry young man in a Punjabi village taking on criminal feudal lords and eventually his main nemesis, the cool, calculated psychopath (Noori Nat), went down well with the particular audiences to whom these villains symbolised the uncaring and exploitative ‘establishment.’

The angry young hero is mostly armed with a long axe (called a gandasa in Punjabi), and there is very little usage of any kind of guns as such in the film, underlining the fact that till 1980 Pakistan’s infamous “Kalashnikov culture” was still some years away in the making.

The anti-hero growls …

The violent film was allowed by the film censor board which, till then, had been concentrating on the much larger Urdu film industry. But when hoards of working-class Pakistanis and peasants started venturing into cinemas to watch the film, the board suddenly stepped in and demanded the director to re-cut certain scenes of violence and sex from the film.

According to the film’s producer, Sarwar Bhatti, the Zia regime that had by then established a working relationship with various anti-Bhutto feudal lords and the landed elite of rural and semi-rural Punjab, was alarmed by the film’s “anti-establishment” tone; or at least this is what the regime thought the film’s audiences believed it to be.

The damsel sings …

The censor board ordered the producer to tone down the film’s content through editing, and which Bhatti did. But a large number of cinema owners still had with them the original cut of the film, and they continued running this cut in spite of the fact that they had been given a new one.

And the tyrant falls …

Maula Jatt eventually ran for more than two years. And what’s more, its mammoth success triggered a series of sequels and Punjabi films based on similar themes and having both Rahi and Qureshi as main leads.

But, by then the practice of using long symbolic dialogues and anti-feudal storylines to express a statement against political tyranny had turned into a shrill, shallow formula that eventually ate itself up.


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