Daily Times: Sunday, April 01, 2007

Lahore Lahore Aye: Memories of Ibne Insha’s Lahore

By A Hamid

While I was friends with all writers, regardless of whether they were from the Progressive group or not, I was the closest to Ibne Insha. Whenever I published a new book, the publisher would gift me fifteen or twenty copies, some of which I would present to my friends, but the remainder Ibne Insha and I would sell to the Lahore railway station bookstall at fifty percent discount. The average price of a book in those days was three rupees and eight annas, no more.

After selling the books, we would make straight for Mumtaz Hotel in Anarkali, where we would drink tea and gorge ourselves on its bakery’s delightful cakes and tarts. On occasions when we had more money because Insha or I had received a higher than usual recompense, we would go watch an English language movie playing at Regal or Plaza. This was the height of our idea of a “good time.” One day Insha said to me, “Ya Sheikh, we should pay serious thought to the advancement of our economic fortunes.” When I looked at him with incomprehensibility writ large on my face, he asked me if I had ever seen the backroom at the office of the journal Adab-e-Latif. I had and I knew that it was used to store Indian and Pakistani magazines and journals. Right there was a chance to make a buck, according to Insha.

A day or two later Insha and I arrived at the Adab-e-Latif office where we were received cordially by its most affable editor, Mirza Adeeb. It was Insha who opened the conversation, “Mirza sahib, it has occurred to the two of us that we should go through those magazines piled up in that backroom of yours and come up with a selection of the best literature of the previous year that Maktaba-e-Urdu could publish as an anthology.” Mirza Adeeb was delighted with the suggestion and assured us that he would have a word with Chaudhry Barkat Ali. In fact, he got up immediately to go and see Chaudhry Barkat Ali and seek his approval to our idea. The two of us stepped into the backroom to take stock of the situation. Insha picked up four or five magazines, weighed them on his hand and said, “These literary treasures are indeed weighty.” Mirza Adeeb came back to inform us that Chaudhry Barkat Ali was delighted with the suggestion and we now had his go-ahead.

We proposed that it would be best if we took the magazines from the backroom home where we would make our selections in peace and quiet. He was happy with our suggestion and so I went out, hailed a tonga and the two of us carried the junk, armful after armful, to the waiting tonga. Mirza Adeeb’s parting advice was, “This is a laborious task but I would urge you to complete it speedily.” We assured him that he should have no worry on that count because we would work day and night to complete the assignment.

The Adab-e-Lateef office was located outside Lohari Gate, while inside the Gate, there was a row of shops that dealt in waste paper. A huge weighing machine stood outside one of them, which became our first port of call. We asked the tonga to stop and I stepped out to inquire from the owner what the going price of waste paper was. There was some quick bargaining and a price of eight annas per kilo was agreed upon. Our net take was the princely sum of twenty-five rupees. As was our wont when we were in funds, we made a beeline for our favourite Mumtaz Hotel in Anarkali with its delectable confectionary of such exquisite quality that I can still feel its taste on my tongue. Naturally, we made it a point to stay away from the Adab-e-Lateef office, and even that general area. One day Insha said to me, “Ya Sheikh, such indifference is most unbecoming. We should at least show our faces to Mirza Adeeb once in a while.” As we entered his room, the first thing he asked was, “How much of the work have you completed?” I replied, “It is hard work but we are at it and doing our best to complete it as speedily as we can.” We decided after this visit that it would be wise to entirely stay away from both Mirza Adeeb and Adab-e-Lateef.

However, one day we ran into Mirza Adeeb at a literary event. When he asked about the project he had assigned to us, Insha made a face and replied, “Mirza sahib, this is work of great responsibility and we are making it a point to read everything more than once to be quite sure that we are making the right selection. Obviously, it is going to take some time.” We promised various dates of delivery to Mirza Adeeb and once the date we gave him was so far into the future that after some time he forgot about the assignment altogether. Our finances in the meanwhile had improved considerably as our books were beginning to sell and we were earning from other sources as well, such as magazines and radio. We had stopped hawking our books to the Lahore railway station bookstall. Insha, however, remained sure that I would eventually revert to my old ways.

When his book Urdu ki Aakhri Kitab was published in 1971, he inscribed in the copy he gave me, “Dear A Hamid, for you.” On the next page, he scribbled, “This book is not for sale.” His translations of Chinese poems he presented to me with the loving admonition, “Dear A Hamid, don’t sell it.” Sometimes we would pretend when loafing around the streets of Lahore that we were in old Baghdad. As we would be passing through a dimly lit, covered street in the old quarter, Insha would stop and say, “Ya Sheikh, once upon a time, Khalifa Haroon-ur-Rashid used to walk though these streets in disguise to see how his people were doing.” Some of the streets in the old city are cul-de-sacs. I remember walking into one and running into someone’s courtyard, which was where that mysterious street ended. A woman was baking flat bread and next to her sat a man in an easy chair blissfully puffing at his huqqa. “Whom do you wish to see?” he asked. While Insha did not know what to say, I replied, “We came to see Munawwar sahib. Is this where he lives?” “I am Munawwar and I live here,” the man answered calmly. “Actually, we wanted to meet Mirza Munawwar Qureshi,” I said without batting an eye. “I am Mirza Munawwar Qureshi,” he replied.

What happened after that, I leave to the imagination of the reader.

A Hamid, the distinguished Urdu novelist and short story writer, writes a column every week based on his memories of old Lahore. Translated from the Urdu by Khalid Hasan

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