As many of our readers know by now, I am Nadir Ali’s son, so this is not an unbiased post 🙂
Nadir Ali (1936-2020) was a well-respected Punjabi poet and fiction writer. Hero and Other Stories is a collection of selected short stories translated from the Punjabi. It was published in 2022 by Weavers Press. The originals are in Punjabi and translation always loses a lot of what was in the original, but people who cannot read or understand Punjabi will still find them interesting. His stories are snapshots of a vanished or vanishing Punjab, but also an attempt to keep it alive. They are usually inspired by real characters that he had met or real events that he had witnessed, so in that sense they are also deeply personal. His politics were mostly left wing but these politics are rarely explicit in his stories; A lingering suspicion that modern life, whether Right wing or Left wing, is fundamentally anti-human, is a more prominent theme, but even that takes second place to accurate portrayal of the life and times his characters. Whatever the topic, the characters are always realistic and their culture is portrayed as it was, not how a political or ideological preference would like it to be. These are the lives of peasants, landlords, lovers, dacoits, wrestlers, murderers and heroes. All except one have been translated by Amna Ali and Moazzam Sheikh (I translated one). The Punjabi language is itself a character in his stories, so translation can never do them full justice, but the husband and wife team has done an admirable job and manage to convey much even in translation. But anyone who can read Punjabi should check out the originals. I hope someday we can also produce audio versions in the original punjabi, as many in Pakistani Punjab cannot read Punjabi with any fluency. I am posting excerpts from Moazzam Sheikh’s introduction to the book as well as one story. This particular story is fiction, but it is inspired by a real character, the saint of the crows (pir Kaawan aala), who lived (stark naked) in Gujrat in my grandfather’s time and whose shrine still exists there.
Excerpt from Moazzam Sheikh’s Introduction to Hero and Other Stories
It’s widely agreed that all creative work is a result of the creator’s unconscious mind – what and when the unconscious mind unlocks, no one fully understands – but poetry and revelation are like twins. His stories, short in length barring a few exceptions, came to him as a revelation as if he was receiving a poem via two fundamental sources: Dreams and actual people. One could call them prose poems, but that would be missing the point. He was not the kind of a writer, for example, that I am, though I did learn from him a lot. His stories, by and large, did not come to him because – generally speaking – an idea suddenly seized him, though ideas are part of his stories. The point I am trying to convey here, based on countless discussions with him on the art and craft of short story writing, is that he didn’t believe in creating or crafting a story. It often came to him in a dream; and other times, it came to him through a real person, who would embody an idea and become a central character in the story. Just as not every dream turned into a story, a person whose appearance triggered the story must’ve also struck an uncanny note. And the dreams which yielded to stories were always fundamentally about people, but as opposed to the stories directly inspired by the people on the street or family, the dreams evoked memories.
Despite being in love with life, Nadir Ali came to writing as a broken, haunted man. A man whose mind could not stop wondering why things went wrong. Partly because he lived in a society where at the time certain questions could not be raised loudly and partly because of his complete break- down after the 1971 war, he found an outlet in his stories, but before that could happen, he had to rediscover his deep love for the Punjabi language. His emotional trauma, it seems, could not be expressed in his poems and he found that the short story format was more suited to what his heart wanted unleashed. His stories attempt to fathom man’s moral breakdown while they also hope to make sense of the complexities of life from the point of view of a child and adolescent, then as a young and old man. First, there’s the bloody partition, then Bangladesh’s War of Independence, and finally the breakdown of traditions, values, society’s moral compass, loss of touch with nature. It is safe to say that though he left his village, his village never left him. The village of his childhood was a place where a human being learned to strike a respectful balance with other humans, animals and nature. And that desire to achieve inner harmony kept a leash on a person’s greed, selfishness and narcissism, one of the recurrent motifs in his stories. Circumstances beyond his control disrupted his inner harmony and things began to fall apart. In my opinion, his stories Saint of the Sparrows and Qissa Shah Husain are his attempts to go back in time to the roots of his literary culture and analyze the forces which disturb and disrupt a place’s political and emotional life, and also what tools a society employs to maintain its sanity and dignity.
Saint of the Sparrows –
Nurpur is now a city and no longer the small town that once hosted grand fairs. Shah Seyku’s fair took place on the eastern edge of the town and Saint of the Sparrows’ near the foothills. Shah Seyku’s tomb now falls within the city limits and the fair has ceased. The heat of June’s first Thursday feels intolerable and the village bigwigs have set up their mansions at the exact spot where the theater and circus once camped. A new police station has been erected where a book bazaar earlier made its home. No surprise when you realize that no one knows who Shah Seyku was. Village bumpkins like me would point out that in peak summer he indulged in soaking up the sun and lighting a fire; and if he took a fancy to throwing ash in your direction or cussing at you, your wishes came true. Come summer, the fair brimmed with people, smearing their sores with ash or taking it home to use all year long. The exact bustling point has given way to a health center. No drums were played nor did the fair take place last June. Sheikh Miraj Din, the historian of the city, tells us that Shah Sheikhu in fact was buried here, temporarily, while he was returning from Kashmir, before being shifted to Sheikhupura.
Our beloved Saint of the Sparrows died in 1925. The fair in his name still attracts quite a lot of energy on the third Sunday of the month of Sawan. From the southern end of the city, his ghroli is carried out by his devotees, one of whom is currently an MPA and the Minister of Food. A large dancing crowd leads the procession. People make a ceremonial offering of fine cloth and distribute drinks sweetened with jaggery. There’s a tiny jungle near the hillocks. The first rain of the month of Sawan is also counted among his miracles. The Saint himself is evergreen and he keeps Nurpur verdant too. There hangs his photo with sparrows at the shrine. He sits smoking a hookah in the photo, sparrows surrounding him and sitting on his shoulders. He used to feed them rice, millet, breadcrumbs. He lived on millet bread and drank goat milk most of his life; never ate meat. Cooked meat was not allowed at the fair either. Perhaps the town had a lot of Hindu residents. Meat seemed to be nonexistent in Nurpur. Even nowadays meat is not cooked in the houses of strict devotees.
The Saint of the Sparrows was one of a kind. The bread he ate was made from the flour of millet he grew in a little field. The milk he drank came from the goats he raised. Rain or shine, he wore the same loincloth, which he spun himself from the cotton he grew with his own hands.
People share a peculiar story about him. Supposedly he hailed from a large city, but barely uttered a word, except to little children and goats and sparrows. Among his devotees are the headmen of the area. Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs visited him and continued to visit his shrine after he passed away. Womenfolk from lower castes and beyond would come by, though it was a rare sight to spot someone within close proximity of him. He would head towards the hills upon seeing people approach. Sitting, waiting, the supplicants would weep. Gradually a tradition evolved requiring people to sit far away, behind a cluster of berry trees later to be known as the Jungle of the Saint, the same spot where his shrine was built. There’s a saying in our town: If the sparrow, by flying away, makes the Saint downhearted, there will be no rain! People sing it as they dance the jhumar or drum on a small pitcher. Another saying carries the same ring: The sparrow man laughed when the rain came down, allowing Nurpur to breathe! All his symbols were soft and gentle.
The fair truly comes alive on the second day; no fights erupt throughout. A huge kaudi game takes place there and if it weren’t for the blessings of the Saint of the Sparrows there would be bloodshed. His disciples, too, are blessed that way. Their family members also don’t put on airs, even after becoming assembly members and ministers. When all is said and done, the inside story turns out to be quite different. During the fair at his shrine I heard the following from the twittering sparrows:
He was the king of beauty and the Alexander the Great of conversation. He came from a poor household, but his temperament was that of a completely contented person. The headman of the city was much older than him, but he was the shining moon of his gatherings. He felt blessed and happy in many ways because of him, a natural settler of disputes, winning over both parties by telling right from wrong. Although the real power no doubt remained with the feudal lord Jalal Khan, the beauty and elegance of the Saint of the Sparrows held sway. In order to deflect the evil eye, his parents named him Rura. Instead of being a heap of rubbish, he turned out to be as dazzling as rubies. Intelligent and warm, his laughter and speech exuded beauty. Anyone who shook his hand would recover from a cold or fever.
Chance itself waited for the beautiful one! The lone daughter of Sardar Jalal fell in love with him, who was more like a family member to Sardar; but then he could enter any house as if he were family. Zeenat saw him drawing water from a well and seized the bucket from him. He drank from it, washing his face afterwards. Sardar witnessed the exchange from the upper window, which he faced, while Zeenat had her back to her father. His daughter seemed to be floating in a different world. She picked up the saint’s slippers and brought them over and while he watched, she touched his feet. He was a mountain untroubled by wind or storm. He put on his slippers and on approaching Sardar he touched his feet and said, “Today I have come with a special plea. Accept me as your son!” We don’t know who actually witnessed this spectacle, but Sardar was nothing if not a snake, his entire being turned into venom, banishing his sleep. His eyes red, inflamed, he kept the matter locked in his heart until he could strike at an opportune moment.
A gathering took place at the mansion. A few attendees broached the subject of Sardar’s mood. Some enquired after his well-being, others indulged in flattery. The scene in the room foreshadowed a calamity. The Saint of the Sparrows stood up. “Sit down, Rura!” thundered Sardar. No one even remembered the name Rura. He used that name only when instructing others to let someone know that Rura had visited, but Sardar Jalal always addressed him as Lalu or Lal ji. People also chose to call him Lal saab or occasionally Lat saab out of love. “Oye, who picked you from the rubbish and turned you into Lat saab?” “God did make me Rura while the name Lat saab was chosen by you. I ask God’s forgiveness because of that name,” said the saint. Sardar leapt like an eagle and snatched the saint’s dhoti, casting it away. “This too I gave you to wear and now I take it away!” God knows what else took place in that meeting, but not a bird chirped. The saint’s forehead sweated and turned red as a beet. Sardar got scared when he saw him raise his hands as if about to strike him, but he grabbed his tunic and tore it before tossing it to the floor. He strode through the city naked. People couldn’t muster the courage to look at him twice. The whole city grew obscured. He left, completely freed of clothes. People say it poured for three days and nights. The city sunk into waist-deep water, raising fears it would drown completely. The wall around the women’s quarters of the mansion crumbled. As soon as the rain stopped, diseases spread everywhere. Sardar’s daughter took off her clothes to jump into the well, the very spot where she had touched her spiritual husband’s feet. Wails erupted throughout the mansion and rumors spread about Sardar’s daughter having left to search for Lalu. The body didn’t float up for several hours. Curtains were erected around the well. Carrying a sheet, Sardar himself climbed down the well with the help of a rope. Ten men pulled on the rope, but the wheel wouldn’t turn. It took twenty men to do the job. The whole city cried up a storm when the funeral took place. She had shed all worldly attire before taking her life.
He was found asleep, unburdened by clothes, a hundred miles away in the servants’ millet field; the servants informed the owners. People tried to speak with him. Some of them offered to lend him a sheet. He would not utter a single word. People tried every method to coax him out of his silence. He sat with his head between his knees. He lay down once the people left him alone. Someone from the servants’ home left bread and a pitcher of water near him. He chewed on plain bread. Drinking a handful of water, he proceeded to sleep in the corner. The servants left the pitcher there. Next day, the people found the pitcher smashed, and him gone. Yet the servants were fated to serve him. Searching, they went to the foothills and found him near the stream, asleep next to scattered jaman seeds. Jaman is found everywhere in the city and it grows wild in the jungle nearby. One of the servants fell in love with his face. When he returned the next day he fell at his feet, weeping with abandon. “The palanquin has left, never to return, despite your weeping,” The servant Khadim Husain wrote that in a state of trance. Now the whole world knows of Khadim Husain’s Punjabi poetry, but it was actually a gift from the saint. Khadim pleaded and kissed his feet, and that led to his eyes filling with tears. He patted his head gently and Khadim grew radiant. The saint asked feebly, “Do you need a naked servant?”
“Look at the lucky Sohni who found a beautiful friend,” are the words from Khadim Husain’s kaafi created in such a mental state.
A cave near the stream became his abode. A throne of marble now sits there. The saint would till the land with a spade all night long. He grew millet and tobacco. He was self-sufficient in his needs, including his own hookah and fire. Yet he remained in the same state and no words came from his mouth. He plowed for four hours every night. Come day, he withdrew inside the cave to sleep. His hair and beard grew long. He became slim as a straw. “But how can you plead with someone who’s never upset with anyone,” asks Khadim Husain in another kaafi. Finally Khadim Husain begged him to put on clothes because women also came by to behold him while remaining obscured from his view; it’s immodest. Only then the saint grew his own cotton to later pluck it and weave his own langoti, which appears in the photo.
(Translated by Moazzam Sheikh)