THE WAY IT WAS: Of sun, birds and a friendly spy —Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

Since the dawn of civilisation teaching lessons has been a prized pursuit of tyrants and bigots. Alexander burnt Persipolis in order to teach the Persians a lesson. The atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to teach the Japanese a lesson. Sharon is constantly teaching Palestinians a lesson. Bush wants to teach the ‘bad’ Muslims a lesson. Mush wants to teach the nation a lesson

He was incarcerated, ruthlessly tortured and finally put to death by the Gestapo. Julius Fuchik — secretary general of the communist party of Czechoslovakia — during his incarceration wrote down his observations and reflections on scraps of paper. The pencilled notes were smuggled out by a sympathetic prison guard and later published as Notes from the Gallows. His wife was also arrested but confined at another facility. Both were unaware of what the other was going through.

It has been said that in his book Fuchik comes out not merely as a victim but also an accuser, judge and moral conqueror of fascism. He never wavered in his belief in the better future of humanity and did not for a moment surrender to the Nazis. “Oh, what a crop will rise one day from that frightful seeding”, he exclaims.

Shakir Ali, one of the pioneers of modern painting in Pakistan, was greatly inspired by Fuchik and his writing. He writes, “Its author even in his most difficult moments — when threatened with sentence of death — was able to write about the sun, flowers and birds”. Depicting the pain and trials of a people is not easy but cheering them when they are shackled in darkness and strengthening their resolve by singing about the sun and birds flying in azure skies is even more difficult.

In the early fifties when Shakir Ali was at the Slade school in London he volunteered to be part of an international brigade of students that travelled to Czechoslovakia to help clear the rubble of the town of Lidice destroyed by the Germans during the War. His large painting, The Flight, that symbolically presents a flight of birds rising from darkness towards the sun, was donated to Czechoslovakia government in the late sixties and hangs in the Lidice Museum built to honour those who perished. The terrible rain of German bombs on this city that did not harbour any military installations, industry or troops was meant to teach the Czech and their allies a lesson.

Ever since the dawn of civilisation teaching lessons has been a prized pursuit of tyrants and bigots. Alexander burnt Persipolis in order to teach the Persians a lesson. The atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to teach the Japanese a lesson. Sharon is constantly teaching Palestinians a lesson. Bush wants to teach the ‘bad’ Muslims a lesson. Mush wants to teach the nation a lesson. The reader can surely add many more names to the short list of teachers determined to teach men and humanity a lessons. But, Sultan Mehmood plundered the famous temple of Somnath not as it has been claimed, to teach the Hindus a lesson but to plunder it for its gold. It must be admitted that the Americans have not invaded Iraq for what they call its black gold but to introduce democracy. May God bless Iraq!

On completion of his studies in London and later at Prague, Shakir Ali returned to Pakistan and settled in Lahore. As a teacher at the Mayo School of Arts and Crafts (now the National College of Arts) he was constantly hounded by intelligence personnel on suspicion of being a communist. The local spies in those days took their job rather seriously. They were usually dressed in white salwar-qamees and a shabby black Jinnah Cap pressed hard onto their head lest it should fly off by a dusty gust generated by a passing vehicles. I suppose they were dressed in this manner to make it a trifle easier for their superiors to monitor them in performance of their duties.

Mian Iftikhar ud Din, a rich landowner and a raees of Lahore, who lived in one of the largest bungalows at 21 Aikman Road in the GOR, was also considered a threat by the state — as were his two sons. Arif and Sohail spoke impeccable English and never wore anything not cut by the best English tailors. They were both tireless readers which made them naturally suspect. Sohail was additionally a lover of music and South Asian painting. He preferred Rajput paintings to the Mughal. That must have angered the ‘patriotic’ Agencies and further aggravated the situation for him. He liked the unabashed Rajput use of colour and carefree delineation of form. He did not much care for the objectivity of the Mughal brush and found the paintings cluttered with detail. He admired the feminine type conceived by the Basholi and Guler painters of the Punjab hill states and had a few copied by Sheikh Shujaullah of the National College, who had succeeded Ustad Haji Shareef. I also recall the portrait of a fair lady with huge eyes and elongated features from the Rajasthan state of Kishangarh in his possession — also copied by the same artist.

Sohail, in spite of the fact that he had his early schooling in Cheltenham in England, greatly admired South Asian culture and believed in promoting religious and ethnic unity. He idealised the romance of Rupmati and Bazbahadur in that it symbolised and expressed what he himself believed in. Had Sohail come across a Rupmati in his life he would perhaps not have so casually moved on to unknown pastures at the prime of his life.

The state of Pakistan was convinced that Sohail Iftikhar was a threat to our national security and had him followed wherever he went. I remember one particular occasion when at the behest of Habibullah Tarar we proceeded to Sargodha on occasion of its annual mela that was in those days considered second only to the National Horse and Cattle Show. My dear friend Habib had studied English at GC and then at Leeds and never recovered from it. At Leeds he was greatly inspired by G Wilson Knight in first person. The Wheel of Fire — not the Chariots of Fire that was the famous film — had moved us all at GCC English Department including Afzal Kahut and other luminaries like Pervez Masood. The rhetorical tenor of Mr Knight enabled them all to ascend to high positions in government. Those who went to Cambridge to study English got into trouble for having known Mr Knight.

Cambridge stood no nonsense and insisted that a student must stay close to the text; no farfetched poetic interpretations — even analogies were frowned upon. The price Cambridge paid, as Mr Tarar may put it, for IA Richards and FR Leavis. Here we have in Pakistan, not to speak of literary critics, art critics who quote off their cuff verse from Rumi and Tennyson to pontificate about painting. Cambridge dons conspired to get Leavis out of the Downing College because he was too big for their boots. The only link we Pakistanis have with the Downing College now after FR Leavis is our own Aitzaz Ahsan who apparently studied law instead of literature and is undoubtedly making a splendid job of it. When anyone on feeling uncomfortable with excellence tampers with things, rivers change their course. Was it nice to have Abdus Salam out of the way on the plea that he was not a Kosher Muslim? By promoting science and rational thought in our country would he not have diminished believers in prejudice and ignorance? Believe me, I have seen some of my countrymen refusing to eat with indigenous Christians and not hesitating to accept biscuits spurned by pedigreed dogs owned by the rich gora Christian from abroad.

Sohail, in spite of his sensitive predilection for music, painting and literature as recorded earlier, was considered high risk for the fragile porcelain urn called National Security. He was followed, wherever he went, by intelligence men disguised in their ‘uniform’ riding old bicycles mostly without mudguards. The one who was deputed to keep an eye on Sohail on our visit to Sargodha conveniently posted himself in the heat of summer under a shade-less acacia growing at the entrance to the bungalow where we were staying. We were guests of Chaudhry Bashir Tarar, a retired deputy commissioner, who was maternal uncle of Habibullah Tarar. Chaudhry Sahib supported an incredible table strewn at mealtimes with sumptuous dishes, cooked with traditional recipes supported with an array of homemade pickles.

Uncle Bashir Tarar had noticed the presence of an alien at the gate the moment he had arrived and like a good country gentleman took care to send him customary food and refreshments. Frankly we had no knowledge of his presence. We soon also came to know of him and discovered that the poor fellow had to file a report each day. Shortly afterwards we befriended him and sympathised with him for the dirty work he had to do for the state. The day we were leaving in the evening we informed him after breakfast of our intentions and persuaded him to take an early rest and go back to his family. They say man proposes, God disposes. Ten miles out of Sargodha while we were overtaking a truck at good speed it sent a small stone flying in our direction. The missile was big enough to smash our windscreen and we had to repair our way back to Sargodha. On reaching our destination our principal concern was not to with sherbat but to contact our friend, the spy. It was impossible to ascertain his whereabouts. We were sure that he must have sent his report to the authorities by now. I wonder what became of him. He was such a nice guy.

Prof Ijaz Ul Hassan is a painter, author and political activist