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Illustration by Abro
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

Comments (61) Closed

Red Dawn Jun 08, 2014 07:25am

The story broke my heart!

AbbasToronto Jun 08, 2014 07:43am

if you succeed in life you write history, if not poetry.

L Ahmad Jun 08, 2014 07:50am

I knew the talented poet in his later days and often shared a smoke or two with him in the town that had abandoned him. Wasted talent.

Tahir A Jun 08, 2014 08:14am

Again a very beautifully put together account of someone whose name and genius I never knew at all.

It is a pity how gifted people are often born eccentrics and eventually become castaways to the extent that they prefer to live a hobo

SHOAIB KAHUT Jun 08, 2014 08:39am

''Ameer e Shehr ney Tuhmat lagai hey Saaghar per Yeh Shakhs Dard ki dolat ko Aaam karta hey '' Saaghar Siddiqui, a true legend of Urdu Poetry .. Unfortunately no one recognized the mettle of that fine Poet .. Rest in Peace the addicted Soul !!

ThisIsMe Jun 08, 2014 08:56am

tragic, dispirited poor poet with a loyal dog

Stark Jun 08, 2014 09:01am

The last part was realy a tear jerker..A movie on such a personality by a genius like shoaib mansoor would be good commemoration of his efforts in Urdu well as I recommend a statue of Sagahr Siddiqui sb to be placed in some prominent place in Lahore

Rabia Anjum Jun 08, 2014 10:39am

Last week you reminded us of the brilliant Noon Meem Rashid in your unique anecdotal and surreal style, this week you bring the tragic Saghar to life. Thanks once again NFP.

MN Jun 08, 2014 10:47am

I have seen Saghar Siddiqui late 60s wandering Lahore streets. He used to get in trouble by writing lyrics like:

Jis A'had Mein Lut Ja'ae Faqiron Key Kamai Us A'had Kay Sultan Say Kuchh Bhool Hui Hai.

(Can someone translate this, please?)

He wrote this when Ayub was the President of Pakistan. He was great poet.

Bazir khan Jun 08, 2014 11:09am

I am speechless. Love you Nadeem

Anjum Jun 08, 2014 11:38am

Another good piece, Paracha. Btw Saghar did not die of the cold. He died of severe illness and maybe morphine overdose. The dog died almost exactly one year after Saghar died and at the same spot.

Anjum Altaf Jun 08, 2014 11:52am

The Frenchman Julien Columeau has written a novelette titled Saghar (in Urdu) loosely based on the life of Saghar Siddiqui. Whatever detail is known of the poet's life is to be found in there. It is included in the volume (teen novelette) published by City Press in 2013. Details can be found by Googling the author.

Murtaza Ali Jun 08, 2014 12:20pm

Thank you NFP for bringing such unsung, yet true heroes, in to the deserved limelight.

jre Jun 08, 2014 12:26pm

Saghar's story reminds me the great film 'pyasaa' by Gurudutt and songs written by the great shyayar 'Sahir Ludhianvi'.

Student of Law Jun 08, 2014 12:59pm

@MN I read somewhere that Ayub asked him to come to visit him but he refused to go with personals sent by then president and gave this Shair to them. He was a under-privilideged but very talented person so he actually is lamenting on state of affair in the state where pressed people are being pressed more and the authorities are not paying any heed to this tragic situation.

Hussain Ali Jun 08, 2014 01:28pm

and then they built a beautiful mausoleum for him... :)

Red Dawn Jun 08, 2014 01:35pm

@Stark: No man, statues of missiles and mehmood ghaznavi are all e seen to want now, or tanks or planes....

Black Jun 08, 2014 01:59pm

Hashar ma kon dega meri gawahi saghir:

Sab tumharay hi taraf-daar nazar aatay ha!

Syed Shah Hasan Jun 08, 2014 02:00pm

Amazing poet. One of his outstanding work has been sung by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Sahib called "mei talkhay hayat se ghabra k pee gaya" , reading this article has given me a much deeper and comprehensive outlook to the ghazal.

Ahsan Jun 08, 2014 03:12pm

The only good thing that he found a loyal friend - his dog

Aamir Jun 08, 2014 03:17pm

Heart breaking. Sad to know this is what happens to our talent

common man Jun 08, 2014 04:01pm

"Teri mehfel ka bharam rakhtay hain so jaatay(fall asleep) hain - warna ye log to baidaar nazar aatay hain"

He was a genius.

Danish Ali Bhutto Jun 08, 2014 04:38pm

A touching tale of 'glory' that ended up in 'rags'.

ahmed Jun 08, 2014 04:44pm

Aap aik sajda karein aalam-e-bay hoshi mein Kehtay hain Saghar ko khuda yaad nahi

Owais Azher Jun 08, 2014 06:50pm

"At times he would write brilliant poems, read them out loudly with a vacant look in his eyes, then tear the papers he

Ace Jun 08, 2014 06:53pm

Excellent write up.

Jaj Jun 08, 2014 07:02pm

@Stark That is a great idea. It will be nice if we have statues of Saghar and his dog at the same place where they left this world..
I wish we as a nation were a bit more caring and conscious of our surroundings. Historically poverty has been a hallmark of poets and most of the famous ones are known to have had very miserable lives. No doubt humanity as a whole was poor but these eccentric souls did not know a better way of earning money and unfortunately money was never a priority for them. All they needed was for bare survival. Habib Jalib is another example. He died in poverty and sickness and his family is suffering to this day. What about those who were not famous and met the same fate? Past cannot be undone but we must individually and collectively look after our shinning stars in a befitting manner while they are alive

Goga Nalaik Jun 08, 2014 07:12pm

Though I knew his story, I've read your article with tears in my eyes.

Thanks for your nice work

Your fan

rashid siddiqui Jun 08, 2014 07:18pm

Nadeem's piracha's writing is now acquiring maturity, versatility and depth. He is becoming a powerful scribe.

Vivek M Jun 08, 2014 08:16pm

Brought tears in my eyes.

NFP it's one more masterpiece, one more feather in your crown. Long live man..!

Khudadad Jun 08, 2014 08:19pm

Saghar wasn't numbed, he was voicing the numbness and dumbness around him that were paining him. He may had addicted to bear those pains :(

TooTrue Jun 08, 2014 08:25pm

The John Clare of Pakistan.

A Subhan Jun 08, 2014 09:36pm

What a great story... NFP!!! I just searched Saaghar's work and found out these two worth mentioning lines that he wrote during the time of President Ayub Khan:

  1. Jis ah'ad mein lut ja'ay, faqiron ki kama'ee, Us ah'ad ke sultan se koi bhool hui hai.
  2. Kiya hai sabr jo hum ne, hamain Ayub mila

Ruthless commercialism in print media is to be blamed for his miseries.

ahmed Jun 08, 2014 11:17pm

@ahmed sorry guys its Aao and not aap The wretched auto correct!!

Dipak Jun 08, 2014 11:46pm

Nadeem, no one in the world, especially in India and Pakistan, can tell a fantastic story and tribute like you. I read all your columns and feel proud. I still miss Mr. Cowasjee.

Usman Jun 09, 2014 01:51am

There exists a painting of Saghir Siddiqui at Lahore museum.Saghir is shown squatting on a pavement with some matches and packs of some cheap cigarettes scattered around him.The background is an absolute lifeless desolate place....a desert! It is a remarkable painting and a must have for every remaining lover of his poetry.Lahore museum did offer digital prints once of paintings offered on display.

TKhan Jun 09, 2014 03:54am

NFP, take a break, don't write anything for few weeks. Let me cry till I have no tears left. I am not ready to read anything for a while.

Najam Jun 09, 2014 04:28am

Someone should bring his life on TV. A while ago, Ali Sardar Jaffery Sahib in India had produced TV series on life of great Urdu poets. The name of the series was Kahkashan and it was most inspiring.

Nadeem, I think you should take this task and bring to fruition.

arshad Jun 09, 2014 07:42am

My grandfather went to him just days before his son's wedding and ask him to write Sehra .He obliged my grandfather with beautiful verses of Sehra ,When asked now what should I give you in return he replied, one cup of tea.

DJ Jun 09, 2014 07:54am

@Dipak Yes, I love Nadeem's writings. I am a fan of his work . He is educating both Pakistanis and Indians about the real meat of history in simple terms.

May more and more Pakistanis read and understand how their distorted history that divide it's people and inculcates hate in them. May the better senses prevail so the gross root Pakistanis come to terms with their real true history so that they can fix their system the right way.

Suresh Nayak Jun 09, 2014 08:08am

@TKhan Very aptly said, I could not stop crying.

Taha Ceen Jun 09, 2014 10:51am

@MN You asked for the translation here is a small attempt:

In times where earnings of a beggar are looted King of those times is surely mistaken

Imran Jun 09, 2014 02:16pm

I feel numb after reading this piece. I am simply at a loss for words.

A. Latif Chandio Jun 09, 2014 02:46pm

Thanks to Mr Nadeem Paracha for writing on great & genius poet's fate who remained unknown to many people before the publishing of this article.

Ashok Pandey Jun 09, 2014 04:34pm

Very touching ............... Sad that such a big artist/poet met this end.

S. A. Khan Jun 09, 2014 07:11pm

You're doing a great job NFP by bringing such forgotten souls to life and at the same time educating us with such geniuses! Thanks.

syed hassan haseeb Jun 09, 2014 07:22pm

very sad but this is Pakistani society and this happens to creative and intlegent people

Tariq K Sami Jun 10, 2014 03:12am

The story broke my heart I wept for his dog.

Meesaq Zaidi Jun 10, 2014 05:19am

CONGRATULATIONS Paracha. I also know Saghar. I met him half a dozen time. I heard him reciting his poems. Blanket around and pushing long hair to shoulders. 60's was rich in class poets & good poetry.
There are some people still living. I suggest that a mechanism be evolved to discover these people in Lahore & Rawalpindi and ask them to write what they know about the poet. Nadeem Paracha is the right man to do this great job. May Saghar's soul rest in peace.

Shaukat Basit Jun 10, 2014 06:03am

What a beautiful article , thanks to Nadeem Paracha Sahib,all those goneby memories of yester years came back with a jolt. I am blessed to know Sagar Sahib,he used to live near our neigherhood in Bagwan Bazar,Gawalmandi,Lahore.I and my cousin late Waheed Qadri sometime use to buy him tea and cigaretts just to listen his poems while sitting on a Charpai,he never ask for any money just cigaretts and tea,at that time I was so naive did not know he was what a clossal of a poet. Left Lahore for United Stats in late 60tees and one day I was listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan , a Ghazal which was so familiar which I use to listen from the creator himself of his master peice "Mai Talkhea Hayat say Ghabra k Pee Gaya" if any publishing company published his collection ,I will very much appriciate the detail via my email which is Thanks

Napier Mole Jun 10, 2014 12:38pm

Cultural history at its most evocative. Great work, NFP. Perhaps in a future article, you can investigate Ustad Qamar Jalalvi - his works and his times.

Syed Makki Shah Jun 10, 2014 02:00pm

These men and women, these wonderful men and women of literature are our true inheritance that is now being played and claimed by others. we as a Nation really need to start seeing the wood for the trees. we discard whats importance only ape the insignificant.

HS Jun 11, 2014 10:26am

the saying that goes like "the power of the pen is mightier than the sword" holds true for you man.

salar Ali Jun 11, 2014 12:50pm

Dedicated to Saghar Saddiqui

" fun ko mere sarahtay kaisay..

Sheher mn sb k sb thay nabina"

salar Ali Jun 11, 2014 12:53pm

Dedicated to saghar Saidiqui;

Fun ko mere sarahtay kaisay...... shher mn sb k sb thay nabina...

naveed Jun 11, 2014 02:22pm

@Tahir A , would like to know more about.I am in london.can we talk.

ny Jun 12, 2014 03:47pm

heart touching...

helaku Khan Jun 12, 2014 11:23pm

A well written I am curious to know which of the two characters in this passage personifies that of the common Pakistani...

Hassan Jun 12, 2014 11:56pm

Oh, my eyes are welling

Pat Jun 13, 2014 02:29am

So sad. I never read even heard Saghar's name yet I feel sadness in my heart. God bless his soul.

Mr.T Jun 13, 2014 11:19am

Aay mairay dil kahi or chal, gham ke dunya dil bhar gaya dhood lai ab koi ghar naya...