The way it was: Chughtai in the woods —Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

Moeen Afzal is the undisputed captain of the Mandarins for life on the strength of being affectionate and officious, and for his talent for bringing together a motley crowd of disorderly characters

Arif, son of Abdur Rehman Chughtai remembers Bano as a “very beautiful woman with big black eyes, wearing a green sari”. He was obviously vanquished by her charms. This happened when he accompanied his illustrious father to East Pakistan, now Sonar Bangladesh. Saleh Bano Panni, better known as Bano, was a regular visitor to Bengal’s greatest living folk poet, Kibria Jasimuddin. Bano told me that while she used to sing, Kibria would recite poems.

That was where Bano met the Chughtais. Since then four decades have elapsed, in the batting of an eyelid. She still retains her features, a spotless fair complexion and of course the deep dark eyes and a deep voice, which even now arrests one’s attention. She was not wearing green when I met her a few days back.

Bano recalls that it was past lunch when Abdur Rehman Chughtai arrived at Kibria’s house. Chughtai who, as we all know, had a keen eye for feminine beauty, immediately asked for a large sheet of paper to make Bano’s portrait. Kibria wandered about the house but could not find one, at which Chughtai tauntingly remarked, “You are a poet and you don’t have a sheet of paper”. Bano reports that Chughtai then disappeared and returned after a while with a sketch, which she till recently believed, was hers. The ‘sketch’ was in fact an etching — an exquisite one. A likeness of youthful Krishna rendered with impeccable deftness.

The features have a faint resemblance with Bano. Varying pressure on the line delineates it. Krishna’s flowing hairs are soft and individually rendered, each flowing down from the head, along the soft full cheeks down over and behind the round shoulders. It boggles the mind how they were done. The answer to that is “Chughtai did it”. Before I forget, the etching is titled ‘sunder’. How appropriate for a gift for Bano. Krishna is holding a flute in his hand, with the gopis huddled together in the background. Unfortunately Chughtai deceived our lady in green, for she either believed or was given the impression that it was a portrait of hers.

Bano kept the etching for years believing that it was her likeness imaginatively sketched in pencil by Chughtai. The plate had been etched, according to Arif, in 1952, and printed along with a few other etchings by Chughtai for his trip to Dacca in 1963.

Bano recalls that after Chughtai had gifted her the etching he requested her to sing. The enchantress that Bano must have been, first sang two Tagore songs, and then followed them up with, as Bano put it, with a chaloo ghazal of Faiz, Mujh se pehli si mohabbat mere mehboob na mang (My love don’t ask for my old love for you). Who was seducing whom, one can never know, but Chughtai seems to have come out of the woods without a fatal injury. The second occasion Chughtai nearly got lost in the woods was three decades later.

Mitchell’s Fruit Farms cheerfully stretches along the Lower Bari Doab Canal for miles along the GT road and the railway track. Mitchell’s has been famous for its squashes since British times. Today Mitchell’s also serves pickles and preserves beside the squashes. Syed Mohsin Ali Shah of Mitchell’s had challenged the Mandarins to a cricket match. Little did we know then that Shah Sahib had recruited a few Yazids from Okara to bowl beamers and bouncers to us on the day of the match. Everything at Mitchell’s is extremely proper. They have a proper oval cricket field, a proper pavilion, and even a pair of proper tennis courts. We didn’t even mind a bit of cheating at the cricket match because it was so English.

Moeen Afzal is the undisputed captain of the Mandarins for life on the strength of being affectionate and officious, and for his talent for bringing together a motley crowd of disorderly characters. Moeen had proposed that instead of undertaking a long tiring journey early in the morning from Lahore, we should spend the night at Changa Manga, from where we could casually proceed after breakfast to Renala. It seemed like a splendid idea so we agreed.

Even if it had not been such a good idea, we would have agreed. Moeen doesn’t like any one disagreeing with him. Actually I had never stayed overnight in the woods before. I remember the occasion very clearly as we were ushered into our respective bedrooms.

It was when our luggage was being brought in and Musarrat my wife was directing the bearer where it should be placed that I noticed something very familiar resting on top of the fireplace. It was a damp, cold evening but the firewood had not yet been lighted. I couldn’t believe my eyes. They couldn’t be real. Must be reproductions, I thought. I walked up for a closer scrutiny and discovered that they were actually quite real. Not one, but two Chughtai’s.

There was an aquatint with a pair of two frightened nightingales holding on to the delicate branches of a bush lashing in the wind. The etching expressed a pensive romantic mood, an unusual sense of movement and a feeling of chill lightly touched your face. The second etching was less spontaneous and a trifle studied. There were deer awkwardly stranded in the foreground and a caravan proceeding westwards in the background. The lady riding a camel ensconced in a canopy was obviously Sassi, the popular romantic heroin who had fallen for Punnu.

The story goes that Sassi on the eve of their betrothal fell asleep. The heartless Baloch tribesman lurking in the darkness had no patience for platonic trivialities and took advantage of the opportunity and kidnapped Punnu, who I believe must have got himself stupidly doped earlier in the evening. The thankless Punnu did not appreciate the help extended to retrieve him from Sassi. Betraying the confidence of his benefactors Punnu slipped away. In the meantime when Sassi woke up from her sleep, she found Punnu gone. She raved and ranted but to no avail. The deed had been done. A poet has recently castigated Sassi for her lack of vigilance. Poor thing. She goes looking for Punnu. Both in the end recover their love in death.

Fortunately Moeen Afzal, who has always managed to be in enviable jobs, was there, along with a mutual friend Kamal, who besides being a banker likes to paint. Incidentally Kamal was the villain of the defeat the following day. He squandered away over after over, playing elegantly with a dead straight bat — showing off to his wife. The late Rab sahib, our cricket coach at Aitchison insisted that a batsman should always use the bat as a mirror for the bowler to see his face in. I’m sure it is the right thing to do in Test cricket but not when quick runs are needed in a match with fixed number of overs.

You must have seen tale-enders score more runs with snicks than showing the mirror to the bowler. In any case being a martial race, it is not proper for us to address the ball by keeping our head down. We should never keep our eyes on the ball, but always look straight into the eyes of the bowler.

Moeen Afzal after he had worked out the strategy for stealing victory over Syed Mohsin — not knowing that he had an Achilles heal in the form of Kamal Hayat — imperiously summoned whoever was in charge of the forest rest house. The functionary presented himself and seemed amazed that we were anxious about mere pictures. On finding that nothing serious was amiss, he explained that the two black and whites were put there because the new building was being refurbished. In the meantime I turned the Chughtai’s around and discovered that they had been acquired in 1952 for a paltry sum of two hundred rupees each. The etchings are now in the relative safety of Quaid-e-Azam Library at Lahore. Actually they were better off where they were. That is where they belonged. But how could one risk having Chughtai lost in the woods.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and a political activist