It is hard to analyse or theorise anything about Zahid Dar, his persona or his work. Things too intimate can only be told as anecdotes. I met him only a few times — for I spent most of my early years in Karachi and then later lived in Islamabad — but his name would appear in every other literary conversation one would have, from London to Lahore.

He was like the city he had made his home — affectionate and elusive at the same time. Perhaps that’s what erudition brings you. Like a higher form of spiritual experience, you become detached from the mundane but, at the same time, you revel in detail. The contradictions are palpable. That was Zahid Dar — a voracious reader and avant-garde poet, who passed away two weeks ago at the age of 84.

It was a clear day in Lahore. A kind of interlude between the incessant haze that captures the city day in and day out during winters. There were not more than 10 people from the community of writers and artists, and an equal number of other fans and neighbours, who had gathered to pay their last respects to Dar.

I wanted to feel optimistic and thought that more people had not turned up because of the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. Anyway, Dar was not a firebrand cleric who could whip up emotions and compel people to die for abstract notions or ideologies, and whose funeral would be attended by tens of thousands of disciples. Dar wanted people to read and think. He wanted them to be liberated, emotionally and intellectually. For he himself did nothing else in his life except read, write and think.

My late father was an avid reader. Growing up, I never saw him sitting idle, without a book in his hands. He hogged the written word and wouldn’t even spare the candy wrappers. We would laugh when he also read the full descriptions in fine print that come with medicines. There were others like him in that generation, whose interests were diverse and thirst for knowledge was insatiable. But my father once told me that there was someone younger than him in Lahore, called Zahid Dar, whose penchant for reading was legendary and whose knowledge of literature, criticism, history and philosophy was incomparable.

On his way to the seafront, he found a bookshop. Instinctively, he entered and picked up a book by Jean Paul Sartre. “He thought he should finish the book first before committing suicide. The suicide was postponed.”

Dar was born in Ludhiana, now Indian Punjab. He was in class six when the family migrated to Lahore after Partition in 1947. An interesting incident from his childhood is when he ran away from home and went back to Ludhiana to avoid appearing in his matriculation exams. He went straight to his friend Balraj Manra’s place. Manra’s father convinced him to return to Pakistan.

Upon his return, Dar was held in custody at the border by Pakistani authorities, suspecting that he was a spy. It took his family a lot of effort to get him released. Finally, he matriculated in 1952 and enrolled at Government College, Lahore. He attended college for four years, but refused to sit exams. He stopped going to college after his friends graduated and found an odd job in Muzaffargarh. As expected, he lost interest very soon and moved to Karachi, where he had found a job with a pharmaceutical company.

Dar’s close friend Gulnar tells me that, during his short stay in Karachi, Dar felt bored to death by his existence. He was earning three rupees a day, eating naan kebab for both lunch and dinner and sleeping in a carpet shop owned by a friend. He also fell at a bus stand once and hurt himself. That was when he decided to commit suicide.

On his way to the seafront, he found a bookshop. Instinctively, he entered and picked up a book by Jean Paul Sartre. “He thought he should finish the book first before committing suicide. The suicide was postponed,” Gulnar laughs.

In December 1958, Dar returned to Lahore. He had decided that he would not do anything from then on but read literature. Here, one must acknowledge the material and moral support provided to him by his siblings who had by then understood Dar’s passion for reading literature. He just couldn’t do anything else.

Once, in an interview with journalist Farah Zia, he said, “A girl became my friend. She asked me to quit smoking. I said I’ll only do so if a girl held my hand. She did and, in five minutes, she let go of my hand. I immediately lit another cigarette. She asked me why I did that. I replied, ‘because you let go of my hand.’ She said, ‘you’ll drive me mad’ and went away.” Dar remained single all his life. In his later years, besides some other fans and friends, it was a friend, Abdullah, who took pains to take care of him.

Dar was a permanent fixture at the Pak Tea House — the historic café in Lahore where the literati and artists converged. Besides other conversations and events, the renowned literary association Halqa-i-Arbab-i-Zauq had its meetings at the café. Dar had a galaxy of friends of notable writers, from Intizar Husain and Masood Asher to Anis Nagi and Saleem Shahid. However, he was choosy in making friends and would distance himself from those he disliked.

He started writing poems under the pen name ‘Madhu’. After some time, people came to know that it was Dar who was writing these striking poems with a fresh idiom and sensibility. He published three collections of verse and a selection published in India: Dard Ka Shehr [The City of Pain], Mohabbat Aur Mayoosi Ki Nazmein [Poems of Love and Disappointment], Tanhai [Loneliness] and Aankh Mein Samandar [Sea in the Eye]. He had written journals since and also some poems which remain unpublished.

On Feb 13, 2021, we buried a grand library in a small grave.

The columnist 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, February 28th, 2021


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