Remembering the last Bohemian and beat poet of Lahore
If I were to tell Zahid Dar I didn’t want to write his obituary, he would understand. He understood the value of not writing if one didn’t want to. Or not speaking every time one was asked to; or becoming aloof while sitting in a crowd; or not existing to work or working to exist as everyone else did.
But he is dead and here we are. Left with memories of a life that must be recalled, celebrated, what else. Intizar Husain took no chances: Dar could outlive him and not give him the opportunity to write a befitting tribute, so he wrote a sketch, Faltu Admi. First published in 1996 in the literary magazine, Mu’aasir, that sketch is exhaustive. It is so well-written that there’s nothing left to add.
On Intizar Husain’s passing, in 2016, I met Zahid Dar at Nairang Gallery. I expected him to be in a somber setting but there he was, in the company of beautiful young women. These were fresh university graduates, one of them a poet I learnt later. I was to get his impressions for the newspaper feature. The girls gave us space to converse but Dar sahib declared he won’t talk about Intizar. Someone quipped that he hadn’t said a word at the memorial meeting in Nairang that day or at his reference a day before. I kept the conversation going. Soon, he began talking about the man who had meant everything to him.
I was exceptionally lucky that way. To me, he always warmed up and talked. He gave me two interviews, fourteen years apart, one when I was a novice in journalism. There is no explanation for why he agreed after some initial reluctance.
I had become interested in him when I went to do a feature on Pak Tea House in 1992, and everyone talked about Zahid Dar. I hadn’t heard the name before. They said he was the most regular customer of the tea house whose only occupation in life was reading books. They did mention him being a poet too. Looking back, I think the 1994 interview was quite a shoddy job; but I was forgiven.
The interview from 2008 has been read more widely but now, having read perhaps the only other interview of him by Altaf Ahmed Qureshi, included in his book Adabi Mukalmay (1986, available at Rekhta), I feel that my second interview too barely touched his life. Qureshi’s interview on the other hand, again granted with great reluctance, is a treat to read. Apart from talking about his early life and his interest in poetry, it contains in great detail the famous illegal border crossing to India that he made in early 1950s. His grasp of literature and how it connects with life, the connection between one’s reading and choice of form, and the assessment of poets and creative writers around him was incredibly mature.
What strikes you throughout the interview is the self-effacement that defined him. A part of the interview was conducted at Intizar Husain’s house, and while Zahid Dar refused to acknowledge himself as a poet, the consensus had been that he was at best a “diarist”. Safdar Mir discovered the poems in his diary entries from the 1950s and published them without his knowledge, with the pseudonym Madho.
The dream of going back to India stayed with him. After Intizar sahib’s death, the bookshop Readings offered him a place to sit, have tea and read. In the ‘No-smoking’ world he had come to inhabit, he had to step out of the coffee shop to take a puff. That is where we kept meeting off and on. Through Dar sahib, we met interesting people and made new friends. We took photos with him and flaunted them on social media as a matter of special privilege. Sometimes, the staff would inform us of his hospitalisation, leaving us worried sick.
Some people think that the fact that Zahid Dar was able to live life on his own terms, “the last Bohemian and beat poet of Lahore” as a friend described him, is owed to the city of Lahore. It could happen only in a city like Lahore, they say. The city did care for him, took him in its fold, accepted his inaction as a value worth keeping, and turned him into a man of mythical proportions… I also feel the city owes him more. A Lahore where Zahid Dar lived was richer as a city.
I particularly enjoyed our conversation from that one May evening in 2017, of which I also took notes in a diary once I was back home. The real conversation had started as I got up to leave and he said he wanted to go into space and disappear. I sat back in the chair and he started expressing a desire to go to ‘Hindustan’ — Amritsar, Ludhiana (where he was born) and also Dilli. We made a plan to go together. He recalled the 1954 border crossing with much relish, and how memories of Lahore had started haunting him in Ludhiana. He then remembered The Mall of 1947 and later. It was a small road, surrounded by grass and trees, and he would walk from the Mayo School till Charring Cross. The road was dotted with tea houses and bars and he would spend time there till late at night.
In Ludhiana, post crossing the border, he had ended up at a close school friend Manmohan Singh’s house. He told me that in the 1980s, when his friend Manmohan Singh had become joint secretary in India’s Ministry of Culture, he had a chance to come to Lahore. Having located him, Manmohan Singh, flanked by big cars, came to Pak Tea House to meet Zahid Dar. Kishwar Naheed invited Singh over and poet M Athar Tahir befriended him. Dar sahib said: “Manmohan Singh would have thought that I too must have reached somewhere, maybe I had become a civil servant. I had been a studious child after all.”
I must admit that I came to his poems rather late and found them haunting, talking of banality, meaninglessness and ennui, as well as of love. Because he was Zahid Dar, he stopped writing them and turned to reading. Then came a point where he even stopped reading, offering bad eyesight as an excuse. Was he a mad man or a sage among the mad?
They said he was a diarist. At one time, he left his Krishan Nagar residence and rented a hostel room close to Intizar Husain’s Jail Road house, and may have left his diaries in that house. Now I hear that a professor of Urdu literature at Dyal Singh College Lahore, Baqir Ali Shah, has managed to get hold of his diaries, about 35 of them, written between 1965 and 1988, from an old books shop. Apparently, they are in good hands and soon we may see them in published form.
Some people think that the fact that Zahid Dar was able to live life on his own terms, “the last Bohemian and beat poet of Lahore” as a friend described him, is owed to the city of Lahore. It could happen only in a city like Lahore, they say. The city did care for him, took him in its fold, accepted his inaction as a value worth keeping, and turned him into a man of mythical proportions.
Did he enjoy the cult status of a faltu admi? At times I felt he did. I also feel the city owes him more. A Lahore where Zahid Dar lived was richer as a city. He stood his ground and impacted lives subtly. Categorizing him as a man of inaction only draws attention to the apathy and brutality of the action-filled world.
He argued for a free world, for people and for the literature and art they create or choose not to. He lived and died a free man and showed us that it was still possible.
The writer is a senior journalist and the director of HRCP