THE WAY IT WAS: Forging a myth —Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

Myths cannot be destroyed by brute power unless they rest on lies or are rejected by the people who believe in them. For those who abhor his legacy, the myth escapes comprehension

He stood out among his cabinet colleagues. Always impeccably dressed, ‘suited-booted’, as some would say, flaunting a silk handkerchief in his pocket. Others have faded from public memory, but not him. He lives on, in the hearts and minds of people, and as a lingering, bitter memory for his enemies. What would his enemies not do to have him erased from public mind? Had they known the memory would outlive his temporal existence, they would never have killed him. The murder elevated the hero to a martyr and martyrdom transformed him into a myth.

I saw him for the first time at the Lahore Arts Council in the fifties. He was addressing an audience at the opening of an exhibition. He wore a light-grey summer suit with trendy drainpipe trousers. Most of us at Aitchison in those days wore trousers with our flaps twenty-one inches wide. By the time I joined Government College Lahore the width had come down to seventeen inches. Salman Taseer was the only student who went about the college in drainpipes. I never once had a trouser tailored in that fashion and felt considerably relieved when bell-bottoms replaced drainpipes.

I have no hesitation in confessing that some people looked rather nice and elegant in drainpipes. Getting into drainpipes in the fifties required courage, demonstrated by spirited individuals who liked to be different, liked to lead rather than be led.

He was popular with people not merely because of his flamboyant demeanour and manners but because he also made it a point to mingle with them on festive occasions. He would casually walk into a crowd as though he was part of it. In the months when he was briefly released, to be imprisoned again, to everyone’s surprise he sauntered into the Gaddafi Stadium where a cricket match was being played. It created a stir; he was cheered like mad by the crowd. The pack of policemen who followed him to protect our ‘national security’ — more sensitive than our hind — were loudly booed and attacked with orange peels and peanut shells.

Those were the days when politics was still non-violent. If issues are not addressed politically the people inevitably respond through non-political means. If recourse to justice is blocked then people react in ways that are often not very pleasant. When the citizens’ legal and constitutional rights were usurped through brute force by a tyrant, sporting a dangling moustache, all faith in state institutions was destroyed. That period has let loose the furies that have plagued us to this day.

These days, people don’t heckle and boo; they quietly throw bombs. This is the political legacy of dictators who lost half the country, shook the very foundations of the Quaid’s federation, and destroyed state institutions and people’s faith in them.

A brief pause for a story I heard lately. This is how it goes:

It was getting cold. In the evening the north autumn wind was becoming increasingly biting. The nights were getting chilly and huddling together in thickly foliated leaves no longer helped. One frosty morning the Tota (parrot) lovingly touching the beautiful vermilion beak of his Totee says, “Dear, winter is on us, it’s time we returned to our garden in the plains.” They had spent a good part of the summer on the green slopes, away from the scorching plains, cracking nut and nibbling berries, which were in natural abundance in the hills where they had sojourned for the summer.

There was no other choice but to go. It may start snowing at any time. The next morning they spent a leisurely extra hour foraging for a hearty morning breakfast. They checked if all their feathers were in good shape, had a pensive last look at their haunt and without a whistle took off for the plains. Parrots are fast flyers. But once they were at a lower altitude the Totee thought that there was no need to hurry home. Without warning she would descend towards a ravine or take off for an orchard or a grove. The Totee liked to enter into ceaseless chatter with local birds of feather. The Tota loved his Totee dearly but sometimes he would really get angry with her for being light-hearted. “Darling, don’t be such a grouch,” the Totee would say to cheer him up and then sidle up to endear him. The Tota would pretend to be indifferent but in his heart he would be pacified.

Finally, when the parrots reached their garden, they couldn’t believe what they saw. The fragrant herbs, the flowering bushes, the trees all appeared to be dead. There were no birds, butterflies or bees to be seen. There wasn’t even a blade of grass or a wild plant in sight. There was no water in the pond and even the well was dry. How could all this have happened? They were still in a daze when they were startled by an ugly dark owl arrogantly perched on a denuded branch of the tallest tree in the withered garden. The Tota instantly took to wings, followed by his Totee, towards the owl. He feared that the owl must have had something to do with it. “Have you done this to our beautiful garden?” the Tota asked. “Yes!” was the cocky reply. What could a pair of parrots do? The owl was armed with formidable talons. They reprimanded the owl for the heinous offence and then decided to retreat from his odious presence.

Just when they were about to take off the dark ugly owl shouted at the parrot, “Stop! Where do you think you are taking my Totee?” The Tota was confounded at the owl’s audacity and raising his voice in anger to full whistle asked, “Your Totee?” The owl coolly but firmly replied, “Yes, my Totee!” “You ulloo (owl) can’t you see that she is mine?” replied the Parrot again, but the owl insisted she was his. Finally, when the parrot lost his temper completely and was about to pounce on the owl, the owl suggested that the dispute be referred to the wise and honourable owl that resided on an ornate tree in the centre of the garden. The innocent Parrot fearing no foul play agreed. The case was presented to the honourable owl with an inscrutable face framed in silver feathers. The honourable owl listened to the parrot’s plea with visible sympathy. He also listened to the owl’s complaint with patience. After both the complainants had rested the case before him, he readily announced his judgement: “In spite of the fact that the Tota and Totee are birds of the same feather and claim to be joined in union, the Totee belongs to the owl.”

The Tota couldn’t believe his ears. There was nowhere else to go and he was left with no other option but to leave and come back to fight another day. The dark ugly owl looked the Parrot in the eye and smirked, “I might have destroyed the garden, but I couldn’t have done it without help from him.”

Tota kahani, like many other popular tales, is a narrative put together to explain in simple and engaging form events of weighty significance. Myths are different. The smart man with drainpipes I saw in school, and subsequently saw again and again at different times, cannot be delineated with words, nor the events of his life narrated. The memory of his life and events can only be seized in a myth that lives in popular imagination.

He died with courage and honour for what he believed, and for all those who believed in him. And the poor of his country forged a myth. Myths cannot be destroyed by brute power unless they rest on lies or are rejected by the people who believe in them. For those who abhor his legacy, the myth escapes comprehension. Myths are amorphous like the wind. They cannot be caught in a fist or put in a prison. And yet they have the power to inspire men and women, move people and events, and at times shake mountains.

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