Probably the greatest Punjabi poet of Lahore who epitomised the defiant spirit of this ancient city was Ustad Daman. Simple and proud of his heritage, he was a man for whom even Faiz Ahmed Faiz would not sit till the great ‘ustad’ sat down. The last time I saw him was at the funeral of Faiz Ahmed Faiz at the Model Town ‘G-Block’ cemetery. As Faiz was about to be laid in his grave, a rickshaw stopped at the cemetary gate. Out came Ustad Daman and he shouted across the graves: “Faiz, you cannot go before me, for I am about to join you”.

Two persons helped a very weak Daman to the grave. He threw in some dust and cried: “You are leaving behind people scared to speak their minds”. He was a skeleton to what I had known when I visited his room stacked with books, allegedly the same room in which the great Shah Hussain lived in Taxali Gate. In the same spirit of that great poet, almost 400 years later, lived Daman, for he walked the same streets, in the same Lahore, with the same defiance.

The story of Ustad Daman must be told again and again, especially to those born after he died on the 3rd of December, 1984, exactly three weeks after Faiz passed away. With them gone Lahore has since been the poorer. But then new poets and writers do emerge, such is the thrust of history. In his lifetime he opposed, through his poems, the colonial British authorities, then the various military dictators of Pakistan, then also Z.A. Bhutto’s draconian methods of dealing with the opposition. All of them saw him in jail for the most bizarre reasons. The last time a shocked Faiz went to ZA Bhutto to demand the release of Ustad Daman for having written his famous poem ‘Ke kari jana, ke kari jana, kadi cheen janay ay, kadi russe jaina, phair bann kay jasoos Amrica challi janay aye’ – (What are you doing, what are you doing, sometimes you set off for China, then you go to Russia, and then as a spy you leave for America). Bhutto relented.

The last time he was jailed was over his poem ‘Pakistan dey wich maujan ee maujan, jidhar vekho faujan ee faujan’ (Pakistan has become a happy place, for everywhere you look there are soldiers). But through all the hardships and scorn by the powerful and rich never for a moment was Ustad Daman depressed. If anything he showed the way forward, a spirit that one finds missing today. That is why his story must be retold time and again, for he was Lahore’s greatest Punjabi language poet.

Born in Lahore on the 4th of September, 1911, with the given name of Chiragh Deen, his father was a tailor and his mother a washer woman. He went to school and matriculated with very high marks. At home and at his father’s shop he learnt the tailoring trade, and was much later to undertake a course on tailoring from an institute. In a Radio Pakistan interview with the famous writer Munnoo Bhai, which can be heard on the internet, he commented on his bread-earning profession: “I am the proud son of a proud hardworking father and mother, and to my dying day will remain proud of it”. The very comment tells us of his commitment to the poor of the city, who through his poems he depicted as the oppressed. It was this streak that brought him to the attention of Mian Iftikharuddin, later to be the owner of ‘The Pakistan Times’ of Lahore, when he visited his tailoring shop in 1930.

Mian Iftikharuddin invited Ustad Daman to recite his revolutionary poems at a Congress National Party public meeting at Mochi Gate in Lahore, and he was an instant hit. Pandit Nehru declared him the ‘Poet of Freedom’. After that he became popular for his stirring anti-imperialistic revolutionary poems in almost all political public meetings in Lahore. He stood for a secular free sub-continent and opposed all who spoke in communal terms. He believed in Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus living in harmony for all of them belonged to this soil. But when the soil was ignored and beliefs became the basis of national ownership, he went relatively silent.

During the 1947 Partition riots a huge crowd surrounded his house inside the walled city and burnt it, killing his wife and daughter in the process. But that instead of dampening his spirit lifted it to a new high. His view was that now “that the evil had been committed”, all Pakistanis must oppose all forms of corruption and all forms of dictatorships. He was to say: “Humans are born free of any corruption, and that is their natural state. Dictatorship is an ugly form of corruption”.

His poetry was printed after his death by his admirers in a compilation titled ‘Daman dey Moti’. His original poetic name was ‘Hamdam’ which changed to Daman, with the title ‘ustad’ being a traditional term of respect. He perfected his poetry in the gardens of Lahore, which is where ‘bathiks’ of the people took place. In his lifetime he learnt a number of languages, including English, French, Russian, German and most sub-continental languages. His post-Partition poetry concentrated more on the state of various forms of corruption that Pakistan fell into.

When I visited him as a young journalist after ZA Bhutto had been hanged, he was depressed. He held no grudge against the man who had jailed him without reason and over a simple honest poem. When I questioned him about his depression, he said: “He (ZAB) put Pakistan on a communal future and he paid the price. The man who hanged him will one day pay a bigger price. If Pakistan continues to remain communal one day it will pay the ultimate price”. That remark shook me then. Sadly, I was then not in a position to write the true essence of his feelings and way of thinking.

So it was that the finest Punjabi poet of the 20th century lived his life. He opposed oppression in all its forms, be it colonialism, imperialism or capitalism. He opposed all beliefs that discriminated against any human right. As a young journalist I was then bold enough to query what he thought about Shah Hussain and his love for Madho Lal. “It is natural to love any form of life, its gender is not important. Do you love a male dog more than a female, or one beautiful plant over another”?

Here was a man much before his time just as Shah Hussain and Madho Lal were. It was this set of beliefs that he fought for till his dying days when he shouted at a dead Faiz: “You are leaving behind people scared to speak their minds”. He passed away, aged 73, on Dec 3, 1984, and was buried in the cemetery where lie Madho Lal and his Shah Hussain.

Published in Dawn, January 7th, 2018