Legendry aristocratic Sahiban defying patriarchy and forced marriage elopes with Mirza. Both are eventually captured in the wild of Sandal Bar by a large contingent of formidable men of her clan endowed with immeasurable ferocity. Mirza is brutally murdered. His dismembered body is set ablaze in the jungle. Sahiban argues with the men of her family but her brothers, outraged by her unthinkable action, decide to hang her from a tree for, what they say, ‘painting them black in the world’. The whole macabre scene is witnessed by jungle’s creatures under the shaking shadows of trees. A crow that has witnessed seven ages requests Sahiban to give it her last message.

“My compassionate confidant, go and tell them (those who can understand) to spread the word in the world about what happened to me.” The wise crow flies straight to the region of Dhan (it rhymes with pun) and after a long tiring journey delivers the message to the aged poet by the name of Pilu who directs the crow to go back to poet Hafiz Barkhurdar with the express instruction to compose the tale of Sahiban as he (Pilu) has become a recluse after renouncing the earthly paradise.

This is the mythopoeic account of why and how the seventeenth century poet Hafiz Barkhurdar composed this tale. This little story on the one hand pays profuse tribute to Pilu, Hafiz’s predecessor, who first penned the legend, and on the other provides him with a poetic justification for retelling the tale. I was always fascinated by this story within a story about Pilu. In late 1990s, Pilu’s village and his grave were exposed in one of the episodes of Pakistan Television series “Lok Reet” scripted by late indefatigable Shafqat Tanvir Mirza. The programme guide was always ready to help researcher Iqbal Qaiser. I was the executive producer of the series.

In the first week of March, I visited the Dhan region. It comprises the city of Chakwal and eighty-four villages around it. Hence it is traditionally called Dhan Churasi (Dhan 84). Within the overall cultural matrix of the Punjab, Dhan has its distinct sub-identity in terms of its dialect (called Dhanni), terrain and cultural practices. The lay of land over there is intriguingly attractive, consisting of plateau, hills, lakes and fertile flatland. Young friend Nabeel Anwar Dhaku, a journalist, scholar and grower, was my informed guide. In order to visit the Pilu’s grave we hit the road that connected Chakwal and Neela Dulha.

About 15km from Chakwal, we reached Mehro Pilu. Mehro and Pilu are in fact two villages named after Mehro and Pilu. They are like twins. Some say Mehro was Pilu’s sister but others think she was his wife. On reaching there we asked several individuals, ranging from young to aged, the way to the Pilu’s grave. Every one of them knew the way and would say; ’you mean Baba Pilu, the poet’. Driving through gently undulating fields we reached what was called ‘Dheri,’ which had multiple meanings; a mound, a village, a pile and a ruin. On the mound, we noticed two graves with a gap of several steps between them. The first grave on a raised platform is that of Pilu with the tombstone “Darbar Baba Pilu (The Shrine of Pilu, the elder). It was loosely surrounded by Karinh bushes and Phulaah trees. What kept softly wafting through them was an eerily fading birdsong reminding us of ephemerality of life. Dust unto dust is our end however exalted we might be.

The next grave without headstone is said to be that of Mehro, the sister or wife of Pilu. To the back of the grave lie ruins of what is supposed to be the village Pilu lived in. To borrow words from another poet, of these cities would remain what swept through them, the wind.

As we were stunned into silence by the desolation caused by movement of time, a motorcyclist stopped by, and realizing that we were visitors, said hello. Nabeel chatted with him and dug out some connection being the resident of the same area. He asked the local guy whether there were some wise men or local historians who could tell us about Pilu. He said yes, there was a man by the name of Nawaz Nai (Nawaz, the barber) who knew the story of Pilu. There were two notables senior to him but they were all senile, he said with a chuckle. He took us back to the village whose streets and alleys were as narrow and mysterious as those of Lahore walled city or interior of Multan city. We parked the car and treaded ahead on foot till we hit the Nawaz Nai’s door. His was a large house that expressed a measure of prosperity unusual for a barber in a caste-ridden social hierarchy. The old man stood up from his charpoy to receive us. After the introduction and pleasantries, he started off: “Pilu was a physician and a poet in the eleventh century of Islamic calendar (17th century). His poetry is readily available, popular poetry indeed. Wherever he went he would utter verses if he observed something worthwhile. I have heard from the people of the previous generation that once Pilu went to the town of Bhera. In it he found a mosque that wasn’t functional. In those times ordinary travelers would stay in mosque. Mosque was a blessed place. There would be a mattress in it made of grass called Babhbur. The traveler lying in it would feel as if it was a bed. Pilu was in the mosque and it started to rain. He got up in the morning and men gathered. Pilu said; ‘Na vut Bhera avana, na avan di neet / thulon larran keerian, uton choye maseet (I won’t come to Bhera again, have no such plan in future / the ants bit me from below and the mosque leaked from above).” Pilu could be both sombre and witty. — soofi01@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, March 20th, 2023

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