Even as the space for serious writing in Urdu shrinks because of English consistently edging away our own languages by dominating the contemporary intellectual landscape, Ahmed Saleem stands out, along with very few others.
Saleem is no ordinary man. His writings, compilations, translations and research have enriched our body of knowledge for decades unending. Something to the tune of 200 books in Urdu, Punjabi and English is a remarkable feat, not counting essays and articles spread over different periodicals. Themes that caught his imagination the most include the Partition, the dismemberment of Pakistan in 1971, the ebbs and flows of progressive politics in the chequered history of this country, and the creative diversity offered by South Asia’s multilingual literary heritage. Saleem has explored, investigated, analysed and commented on the subjects close to his heart through a people’s lens. There is an underlying commitment in all his work to highlight the suffering of common folk, conscientious artists and writers, and ordinary political workers at the hands of an oppressive economic order and violent political upheavals. He has a wide embrace, which only a few writers in any generation have enjoyed, and is also a poet of certain merit in the Punjabi language.
The latest in Saleem’s repertoire is Jab Aankh Hi Se Na Tapka [If It Doesn’t Drip from the Eye], a biography of Saif Khalid. The title is taken from a verse by Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib which says that blood that keeps flowing through the veins means little until it drips from the eye as tears. This appropriately defines the lifelong struggle of Khalid, who contributed significantly to the shaping of people-centred politics and enlightened social discourse in Pakistan.
In the 18th century, Khalid’s ancestors migrated from Rajasthan to what is now Indian Punjab and settled in the region comprising the native states of Jind, Nabha and Patiala. In 1929, Khalid was born in Nabha and received his early education in Nabha and Sangrur. He was named Saif after a renowned leader of the Indian independence movement of the times, Saifuddin Kitchlew, who was particularly celebrated for his opposition to the draconian Rowlatt Act, promulgated by the British in 1919.
Being named after a courageous freedom fighter had a definite impact on Khalid’s character, life and struggle. In 1946, his father settled in Lyallpur (now Faisalabad). That is the city where Khalid rose up in the ranks of the communist and, later on, the democratic movement. For decades, he worked his way through a hostile political and social environment to strengthen the political organisations and trade unions which advocated the rights of the underprivileged nations, nationalities and working classes across the country. Initially, he took to the legal profession and became a successful lawyer. But he left his legal practice as the political struggle he waged began to consume him. He attempted to establish businesses, but could not live up to their aggressive demands and left them to his wife and a friend to run.
During his active political career, Saif Khalid was imprisoned multiple times
When progressive political workers and writers continued to be persecuted by the Pakistani state, some members of the Communist Party and similar groups not only sought refuge in the National Awami Party (NAP), but became active within its ranks. NAP was founded in 1957 on the heels of the banning of the Communist Party and other left-wing organisations. Khalid became one of the most prominent leaders of NAP in Punjab.
Over the years, he developed comradeship and personal friendships across Pakistan, from Karachi to Peshawar. He fought against the martial rules of Gens Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan. During his active political career, he was imprisoned multiple times, besides staying underground on a number of occasions to ward off state repression.
After the creation of Bangladesh, the civilian government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in what was left of Pakistan, went after NAP with fervour equal to that of its martial predecessors. Ironically, the reasons were different, but the interests of Bhutto and the state establishment converged in decimating NAP. Bhutto wanted to eliminate any alternative that could not only share his political rhetoric, but had bigger and more credible progressive credentials.
The military establishment — aligned with the Americans during the Cold War — was wary of NAP’s insistence on empowered federating units vis-à-vis a strong centre, socialist ideals and leanings towards the then Soviet Union. After NAP was proscribed, the National Democratic Party (NDP) was formed. Khalid joined NDP and worked closely with labour, peasants and students across Pakistan. It was impossible for him to ever give up. Khalid fell ill after some time, but kept raising his voice against yet another martial rule imposed by Gen Ziaul Haq in 1977. He had lived in Karachi earlier, but later spent some time in Lahore before finally moving back to Karachi to live with his son. That is where he breathed his last in 1988.
Khalid had a fondness for literature and culture. He was an avid reader and contributed enormously to invigorating the cultural scene by actively promoting literary events and exhibitions of films. He cultivated and nurtured a large number of youngsters in whichever cities he lived. From Habib Jalib and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, to Professor Amin Mughal and I.A. Rehman, he cherished personal friendships with leading writers and public intellectuals. His son, Nadeem Khalid, reminisces from his childhood in the preface to this book: “Once the police wanted to seal our house and confiscate [my father]’s books. Then they realised that the police station had no space to store the large collection and decided that making a list of titles should suffice.”
Khalid’s biography is not limited to his personal life. It chronicles a major part of the history of resistance to political oppression in Pakistan. Milan Kundera says: “The story of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Jab Aankh Hi Se Na Tapka is yet another chapter added to that story.
The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad. His latest book is a collection of verse No Fortunes to Tell
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 25th, 2020