Some two months ago while driving over the recently erected Clifton Flyover in Karachi, a good part of which runs past the shrine of Sufi saint Abdullah Shah Ghazi, I thought I saw a malang (spiritual vagabond) whom I once knew.
He was lying on the footpath situated on the right of where the flyover ends. I slowed down the car to take a closer look and indeed it was him, even though he must now be in his 70s. I hadn’t seen him for over 23 years, but remembered well his face and, especially, his name: Khassu.
I pulled the car nearer to the footpath on which he was blissfully taking a nap. I rolled down the car window and shouted, ‘Khassu! Khassu!’
But Khassu just wouldn’t respond. I tried to park my car beside the footpath so I could get down, but a stream of vehicles had begun to pile behind my car, with their drivers honking like their lives depended on using their car horns in the most deranged manner possible.
In this city, there are stories hidden in every street corner
I instinctively turned left towards the centre of the road and drove away. A week or so later, I did go looking for Khassu again but he was nowhere to be found.
Until about 1995, there used to be a block of apartments just behind the Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine. The apartments were built in the 1960s and had a huge parking lot. Some friends of mine and I often went to play cricket there. This was between the early 1980s and early 1990s.
The apartments began being torn down after 1995 and today a massive building is being constructed on the plot by real estate tycoon, Malik Riaz.
In the late 1980s my friends and I would frequently visit the Shah Ghazi shrine (mostly out of curiosity), especially on Thursday evenings when a concert of qawwali used to be held there. I wonder if they are still held there now, but till the early 1990s, qawwalis were a regular fixture at the shrine every Thursday evening from 10 pm till midnight.
Here is where we first met Khassu. I think it was some time in 1987. We had just entered our 20s. Khassu was there, always in a green flowing kurta, a multicoloured fakir cap, greying stubble and lots of metallic bangles on his wrists.
He never spoke a word, unless he was at the qawwali (which he usually was). As the music and the chanting would start to reach a swirling climax, Khassu would spring to his bare feet and begin a fascinating, anarchic dance (dhamaal); all the while shouting ‘haq, haq, haq Allah!’ After the qawwali he would immediately retreat back into his forlorn usual state.
One day a friend of mine asked another malang what Khassu’s story was. He told us that Khassu was left at the gate of the shrine when he was a child (that must be some time in the late 1950s). He’d been living here ever since.
The malang told us that Khassu was not always this quiet (or sad). Then a most remarkable story followed. He said, ‘Khassu is waiting.’
Waiting for what? ‘For Cooler Saab …’ he replied. He actually meant Colour Saab.
Who was Cooler Saab? From Urdu, the malang suddenly switched to speaking in Punjabi: ‘Cooler Saab was a dear friend (of the vagabonds of the shrine). Especially of Khassu. Khassu still waits for him.’
Where did Cooler Saab go? ‘To his maker, the Almighty,’ the malang told us.
So why was Khassu still waiting for him? ‘Cooler Saab told him he will be back to finish a draaing (drawing) he was making for Khassu,’ the malang explained. ‘But he never came back. We heard he had died. But Khaasu never believed it. He is still waiting for him.’
Over the next few months we discovered that Cooler Saab was none other than one of Pakistan’s foremost painters, Ahmad Parvez. Parvez had passed away in 1979.
Born in Rawalpindi, Parvez began his career as a painter at the Punjab University. A restless soul, he soon moved to London in 1955.
In the late 1960s he returned to Pakistan and moved to Karachi. Across the 1970s he rose to become one of the country’s premier artists and a huge influence on the then thriving art scene of the city.
In spite of being surrounded by admirers, Parvez remained to be a restive and impatient soul, never satisfied.
His lifestyle became increasingly erratic. Nonchalant about being hailed as a genius by art critics in the UK, US and Pakistan and able to sell his work easily, a contemporary noted that Parvez treated money ‘as if he hated it’.
Art critic Salwat Ali in a profile of Parvez (in Dawn) wrote that Parvez ‘was given to rampages and turbulent interactions.’ Deputy Editor of Global Post and art critic, Mariya Karimjee, informs her readers that ‘in the 1970s, Ahmed Parvez, one of the country’s most revered artists, was a frequent visitor to the Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine, and could often be seen there with a lit blunt (hashish joint) in hand’.
Critics and contemporaries of Parvez suggest that most of the money that he made was spent on alcohol. Sick of the company he was attracting, he began frequenting various Sufi shrines of Karachi. He became a regular visitor at Karachi’s Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine.
Art critic, Zubaida Agha, in an essay on Ahmed Parvez writes that the more fame Parvez gathered, the more erratic and ‘unhealthy’ his lifestyle became.
By the late 1970s he was almost permanently staying on the grounds of the Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine. This is when he must have struck a friendship with Khassu.
A Lahore-based artist, Maqbool Ahmed, who was a student at the Lahore College of Arts in the late 1970s, told me how he came to Karachi to meet his idol, Ahmed Parvez, but was shocked at what he saw: ‘This was 1978. Parvez was a mess. He didn’t even acknowledge my praise and presence. He was an extremely troubled man, but no one seemed to understand why this was.’
Maqbool said Parvez could have made millions (of rupees): ‘He did make some money but it seemed he wasn’t interested. He behaved as if he was selling his soul to people who had no clue what his art was all about.’ Maqbool then wondered, ‘perhaps it was this guilt that drove him into the hands of the homeless malangs?’
Even when the government bestowed upon him the prestigious Pride of Performance Award, Parvez continued with his distressed lifestyle. And then it happened. And no one was surprised.
In 1979, he suddenly collapsed and was found dead in a room that he had rented at the now-defunt Bombay Hotel, near I.I. Chundrigar Road in Karachi.)
Lamenting Parvez’s self-imposed isolation and destructive lifestyle, an art critic writing for Dawn in 1979 added that ‘Ahmed Parvez still had another 20 years of genius left in him. But then perhaps, it was this genius that so tragically sealed his fate as well’.
I now know that his friend, Khassu, at the shrine, is still alive. Though he was asleep when I last saw him, it did seem he was still waiting for Cooler Saab. And for that ‘draaing’ he was promised, now 36 years ago.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 25th, 2015