Riaz, the typist

June 6, 2021

Dr Ajaz Anwar fondly remembers the ‘typist’ who knew a lot and impressed even the chief secretary with his knowledge

— Image: Supplied

In a previous column I talked about Faridkot House. The Claims’ Office was knocked down without adequately compensating the refugees who had fled leaving their ancestral lands and homes. It was long before the Lahore Conservation Society (LCS) was convened by Khwaja Zaheeruddin. But Riaz continued to work amidst the rubble, typing out various applications for the destitute. Many elderly would come to him with soiled, old files for advice. In the process, he became a pseudo lawyer.

He was the eldest son of my maternal uncle. Whatever little he earned during the day, he would give to his mother. For the sake of his siblings, he never married.

When I was doing my thesis on domes in Lahore, under the supervision of Waliullah Khan, for my master’s degree, Riaz, who was only a matriculate, offered to type it for me. He typed five copies of the thesis, four being carbon copies.

We worked during the night as he had to go to his ‘office’ in the morning to type the various applications. In the evenings he would travel back to his house on Infantry Road on a double decker us, carrying his rented Remington. I would join him by the dusk.

Dictating to him was not much of a problem as he was quite proficient in English. In fact, he would point out my grammatical and spellings mistakes. Those were pre-computer days. Nowadays, all this is not much of a problem, even multiple copies can be obtained in a matter of a click.

By the time everyone went upstairs to sleep, we, sitting on our charpoys in the courtyard, would arrange the handwritten papers, blanks and carbon papers. After finishing each paper, Riaz would clean his hands with a wet towel. Arranging five white papers with four carbon papers, he would insert these in the roller and, securing with a clip, he’d first-read the matter, hold some discussion with me and then start hitting the ‘iron’.

I discovered that he was a real wanderer, as he knew all the historical monuments I had researched. When the tomb of Sheikh Musa Ahangar was discussed, he told me that it was located on McLeod Road and was also called Neela Gumbad and was revered by the blacksmiths of Lahore. He also knew about Dai Anga’s mosque, located on Platform Number 9 of the City railway station. He was critical of the enamel paint used to ‘restore’ its delicate tiles (kashi kaari) and believed that it was wrong to add two minarets to its façade.

I was so impressed by his sense of aesthetics that I even thought of rewriting my thesis under his supervision. He told me that the shape of Mai Lado’s bulbous dome had inspired those of Badshahi Masjid. He was critical of qabza groups who might one day knock down Buddhu’s Awa.

When he saw the accompanying photograph of the curvilinear pyramidal dome of Mian Mir, he asked me for a larger print of it, duly framed. I obliged soon afterwards. At midnight time, we would prepare tea. Sipping the elixir, he would place small pebbles over the papers. Again, he would punish the machine and sometimes when the carbon ribbon got entangled, a quick knock would do. Sometimes his finger would get caught between the keys. To him his instrument was a living being and a pet that he sometimes cursed and occasionally praised.

The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]k

He was mindful of designing each page with right margins and paragraphs. He hoped that better machines would come one day where one would have different fonts and shapes of letters, as we found in books and newspapers.

It must be remembered that in those days words to be printed were composed by fitting together individual letters in lead by ‘lino-operators’ (my maternal grandfather specialised in it when he worked at Viceroy’s press in Simla).

I asked Riaz sometimes to take a break but he insisted on continuing. Every morning, he would carry his darling machine back to the ruins where once stood the palace of the ruler of Faridkot.

Finally, the work was done. I came off first. My class fellow, Imtiaz Ali, who secured second position, had missed by only two marks, but had the grace to felicitate me.

I am sure the credit was due to Riaz. So it was my turn to go to him. I went to see him, accompanied by my mother who tried to give him some money which he refused to accept. After that, Riaz and I went to pay respects to our patron-saint, Mian Mir. What transpired during our absence, my mother never told me nor did Riaz ever get to know about it.

Time is merciless. All the serving people retired, but Riaz kept struggling with his now electronic machine. With the Omnibus closed down to usurp its expensive lands and to facilitate wagons owned by police, he could be seen alighting from one near Tollinton Market. His moustache had grayed, he donned a khaki coat, and carrying a bunch of old files he could be seen marching towards the Sessions Courts. One fine Sunday morning, I took the Asian Study Group, comprising some foreigners, to a guided tour of Mian Mir and Nadira Begum. The chief secretary, too, was among the visitors. It was no mela season and Zafar Saindo must have died long ago. I saw Riaz, standing at a distance. I had to fetch him. His clothes were routine; a bottle of medicine was visible in the front pocket of his shirt. He had grown old and feeble. I introduced him as my eldest cousin. Everybody had a warm handshake with him while the CS stingily only touched his fingers. Standing in the middle of the courtyard, Riaz narrated the history and planning of the complex in chaste, literary English. He also said that the plan had been derived from the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and likewise the mausoleum stands in the middle of the courtyard while the mosque faces Qibla, as is the case with Al-Aqsa Mosque.

I shudder to think what Zionists are doing to the Palestinian children. Mian Mir is greatly revered by the Sikhs because their fifth guru, Guru Arjan, in 1589, had asked him to lay the foundation stone of Akal Takht, or Golden Temple, in Amritsar. This was the spirit of friendship.

The Tomb of Nadira Begum (wife of Dara Shikoh) stood in the centre of a lake and was connected with the land by an arched bridge, like the one we find in Hiran Minar. It was filled with water from the Lower Bari Doab Canal from Mughul era. Of the four-corner pavilions marking the size of the monuments, only one survives, which needs to be restored. Unfortunately, the tank was dug up at some point in history and used for agricultural purposes. According to Riaz, this could be restored at minimal cost. He pointed out a window in the mausoleum that gave a clear view of Nadira Begum’s tomb.

On our return, the CS warmly embraced Riaz. Such is the power of knowledge.

*********

Riaz died years ago. As I took the members of the LCS on our last-Wednesday-of-the-month meeting, we found the view from the window had been obstructed by a public latrine, with the ‘fee’ boldly written on it. The intricately carved marble screens of Mian Mir, too, had been painted over with enamel paint. Nihil nisi bonum (say nothing bad about the dead).

(This dispatch is dedicated to Waliullah Khan)

Riaz, the typist