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February 17, 2020

A ‘people’s history’ and its sources


February 17, 2020

A major source of a people’s history is the narration of people about their own lives. Such narrations can be found in their personal accounts, and the biographies, diaries, interviews, oral histories, and sketches that other people write about them. This is a tricky area and the reader must critically analyze these narrations before reaching a conclusion.

Normally people are prone to exaggeration and tend to project their own selves in a positive light and expose others’ insignificant errors as major weaknesses. But there are exceptions. Aslam Gurdaspuri’s autobiography, ‘Tujhe Ae Zindagi Laoon Kahan Se’ (O’ life, where do I seek you?) is one such account that gives you an idea about how a genuine political worker devotes his life to politics, reading, and writing; and how his life’s trajectory progresses in his peculiar social context.

We get to know about life in Punjab from the mid-20th century to the beginning of the 21st century. We hear him speak about the education system of rural Punjab, the lives of common people, the love for folk literature, and how ‘Heer Waris Shah’ was both admired and abhorred by certain segments of society.

Aslam was one of eleven siblings at home; his grandfather was in love with Heer Waris Shah and recited it in his mellifluous voice. Near Batala there was a mystical gathering where Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, all congregated to recite from the Bible, Geeta, Guru Granth, Mahabharata, Quran, Ramayana, and the Vedas. They sang poetry by Amir Khusro, Baba Fareed, Sultan Bahu, Bulleh Shah, Kabeer, Muhammad Bukhsh, Shah Hussain, and many other poets who preached harmony and peace in society. But all was not well; Aslam’s family elders didn’t like it, and as sectarianism spread they attacked that peaceful gathering and dispersed it.

The result was the disappearance of Aslam’s grandfather who left home and returned after fifty years. After Partition, most migrants settled in the inner or walled city of Lahore, where Aslam’s father invited musicians and singers such as Fateh Ali, Mubarak Ali, Barray Ghulam Ali, Barkat Ali, as well as female singers including Edan Bai, Malika Pukhraj, and even Nur Jehan. The school Aslam attended had neither furniture nor a ceiling overhead; it even lacked rugs to sit on. Corporal punishment to children, with specially crafted wooden sticks, was a daily routine. This shows how an overall peaceful pre-Partition society was gradually transformed into a brutal and violent community.

But Aslam’s love for ‘Heer Waris Shah’ was inherent in his genes, so he memorized major portions of it and recited them with relish. Interestingly, one teacher who identified as Wahabi hated the Heer and strictly forbade any recital in or around the school premises. Aslam’s elder brother was called to school and asked to get rid of the book. Aslam narrates how he was severely beaten up by his own brother and the book was torn up. One can only wonder how in Pakistani Punjab children were forced to move away from their own folk heritage of language and literature.

Aslam Gurdaspuri laments that during the past 70 years, education in Pakistan has become a torture for both children and their parents. He gives an interesting suggestion that when children start school, in the first year they should be taught just for one hour; then every year one hour should be increased for a maximum of five hours of teaching in the fifth grade. He strongly advocates that we not deprive our children of their childhood by forcing them to study too much, while they should be enjoying games and playing sports.

Aslam writes: “When we insult our underperforming children, they feel degraded and become obstinate; they lose their power to think and understand…the government should provide lunch to children at school. There should be plenty of opportunities to play games so that school becomes a pleasant place. Now, our schools resemble a police station or a prison. Schools should treat children with dignity and respect…male teachers should teach only at higher classes and at primary level all teachers should be women.” These are golden suggestions, only if our education administrators and managers act on them.

Aslam did his high school in Dera Ghazi Khan where his widowed sister lived. This was much better than his primary school, with ample sports and debates. But he was expelled just because once he returned late from Lahore. Aslam was encouraged to study privately and he loved it; passed his matriculation privately, and had plenty of time to read a lot of books. Then in Government College DG Khan, he often recited poetry and became a star debater. He narrates an interesting episode in which his college principal tried to admit girls too because there was no girls’ college in DG Khan.

The worst resistance to co-education came from the Mazaris, Legharis, Gurchanis, Khosas, all led by activists from the Jamaat-e-Islami. Prayer leaders started issuing fatwas against co-education and termed it a den of vice. Still in the first attempt, five girls enrolled in the boys’ college.

Aslam Gurdaspuri also recounts his multiple visits to Multan to watch movies, where films such as Dev Das of Dilip Kumar and Anarkali, Shirin Farhad, and Intizar, elicited cries and sobs from the women spectators. All this presents a picture of a relatively liberal and permissive society at least in cities such as Multan that has now become highly illiberal and restrictive.

With nearly no entertainment opportunities for the common people, even the number of affordable cinemas has dwindled or simply disappeared. Aslam also talks about some communist friends who according to him were totally out of touch with reality and unnecessarily attacked religion in a society that was overwhelmingly becoming even more religious. “I interacted with many communists who lacked an understanding of the intricacies of objective conditions in the country; neither were they considerate of people’s feelings and mental status. Most of them presented socialism not as an economic programme but as an ideology that was inherently anti-religion. They had made socialism an ideology of extremism.” (Page 60)

One may disagree with his observations, and consult some other sources about communist politics in Punjab. There were many communists who didn’t commit the mistakes enumerated by Aslam, but that is the beauty of a people’s history, you end up with multiple narratives and then you make up your own mind, and develop your own understanding of events, ideas, and people. This kind of people’s history is against considering any one version as the sole truth; it encourages disagreement and fosters comprehension through analysis rather than accepting narratives at their face value.

After discussing his college life, Aslam talks about his abortive efforts to become an actor. He describes the dearth of good talent in Lahore after the departure of many creative people from the film industry who migrated to India. He observes that by the mid-1960s many film directors in Lahore were illiterate and uncouth. Degrading and insulting junior talents was the name of the game, as witnessed by Aslam Gurdaspuri. After a couple of roles as an extra, Aslam bid farewell to the film industry and to his aspirations to become an actor.

But one great achievement of Aslam from his stint in the film industry was his association with Zaheer Kashmiri who was an activist, director, intellectual, poet and revolutionary. The book by Aslam Gurdaspuri has a detailed chapter on Zaheer Kashmiri and gives us valuable insights about this great personality. There is no space here to cover Aslam’s forays into politics with Z A Bhutto, and how ultimately he became disgruntled with politics itself, but the book is an ideal example of a good source of a people’s history.

To be continued

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]