Over the past many years in Lahore, be it at a book launch or any other political, social, cultural or literary event, people would inevitably notice a unique man entering the venue, clad in a plain, loose and flowing shalwar qameez.

Perhaps due to the cool weather of late winter or early spring, he looked a wee bit more formal during the Lahore Literary Festival and the Faiz Festival, however, with his shalwar qameez a little stiffer and a pullover covering the qameez. This tall, lanky man walked with a slight limp and usually carried a bunch of books in his hands and he always sported an innocent smile. The smile was carefully guarded by a broad, long and thick grey moustache.

It is incredible that while we shook hands on many occasions, exchanged smiles, nodded at each other when we agreed upon something that was being said by someone that we were both listening to, and kept in constant touch with each other through Facebook, we never ever had a proper, separate, one-to-one conversation.

I cannot think of any other such example from my life where I felt so close to someone but did not feel the need to speak to him. Between Irshad Ameen and I, it was all said and settled without speech coming in between.

In the first week of November this year, the news of Ameen’s death arrived. It was somewhat sudden and doubled the grief. Just a few weeks earlier, I had lost another dear friend, a teacher to so many of us, and a compassionate soul, Dr Pervez Tahir. Tahir had enriched our understanding of political economy and society like few others had.

After moving to Lahore some 30 years ago, he established a publishing house which produced fiction and poetry books, including a collection of Farid. From time to time when young, he would live and work in Saudi Arabia to earn money, and then return to spend it on his progressive cultural and political causes in Pakistan.

Even in times of peace, as you grow old, death becomes an ordinary incident, a regular part of your life. But its irrevocability continues to numb you. I felt numbed when I heard that Ameen was no more. He had passed away in Multan and was brought to his family in Lahore for burial.The news had reached me late. The only thing I found myself doing that day was scrolling up and down Ameen’s Facebook timeline and looking at his pictures and posts for a long time.

Ameen was born in Chacharan Sharif, a historic town in Rahim Yar Khan, which is the southernmost district of Punjab and borders the province of Sindh. Chacharan Sharif has a special place in people’s imagination, because Khwaja Ghulam Farid, one of our most celebrated and legendary poets from the 19th century, was born in this town. Ameen became a man of leftist leanings from a young age but was equally inspired by the lessons of mysticism and humanity that Farid had stood for in his poetry.

Ameen took to writing and journalism and started contributing to local and national newspapers — a practice he continued all his life. He promoted the rights of the excluded and marginalised, critiqued the nature of the oppressive state and the intolerant society in which we live and heralded a cultural and linguistic rights movement in his region.

Besides writing for the Urdu press regularly as a correspondent and columnist, he brought out a Seraiki daily newspaper from Multan, which remained short-lived because of financial constraints.

After moving to Lahore some 30 years ago, he established a publishing house which produced fiction and poetry books, including a collection of Farid. From time to time when young, he would live and work in Saudi Arabia to earn money, and then return to spend it on his progressive cultural and political causes in Pakistan.

Journalist Rana Abrar in his powerful obituary of Ameen, published in the online platform Hum Sub, relates an interesting incident from Ameen’s youth. As a young, cash-strapped person who happened to be a voracious reader, he would wait for the progressive weekly and fortnightly magazines to arrive, from Karachi, at the only book stall in Chacharan Sharif.

The owner of that book stall was a member of a right-wing political party and, although he sold all types of magazines, he would neither loan them in lieu of future payment nor offer his customers any discount. But with Ameen he had struck a deal. Ameen would finish reading a magazine overnight, return it to the stall owner and would get half of its price back. The owner would then sell the same copy of the magazine at full price to another customer.

When even that arrangement of getting magazines at half the price on the condition of returning them the next morning became difficult for Ameen, he borrowed money from a wealthier relative to establish his own bookstall. He offered all kinds of discounts, put two long benches by the stall for people to sit on and browse through different publications, besides offering them tea. One can imagine what would have happened to his competition.

There are two types of linguistic and national rights activists across the world — those whose activism is based on humanism, the pinnacle of which is that of Nelson Mandela, and others whose activism is based on bigotry, the epitome of which is that of Adolf Hitler.

Ameen came from the first kind. He was too tall to have been raised on our shoulders but what a jolly good fellow he was.

The writer is a poet and essayist. He has recently edited Pakistan Here and Now: Insights Into Society, Culture, Identity, and Diaspora. His latest collection of verse is Hairaa’n Sar-i-Bazaar.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 3rd, 2022

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