republished to commemorate the poets death anniversary on the 25th of August
My Encounter with Ahmed Faraz
I didn’t know Ahmed Faraz personally. But as students at Peshawar we often saw Faraz on the university campus. He taught Urdu. He was a noted poet even then, but among students he was known equally, if not more, for his bohemian lifestyle.
Peshawar University, built at the foot of the Khyber hills, was then 5 miles away from Peshawar city with almost nothing in between except the old Tehkal village on one side of the road and the new and elegantly built University Town on the other. Double decker G.T.S buses ran back and forth at regular intervals ferrying students between the city and the campus. Today, it’s hard to tell where the city ends and the campus begins. The urban sprawl has spread like a cobweb on both sides of the road
Saddar was the happening part of the city. In the evenings, the students would descend upon Saddar to watch movies, to gossip in the cafés, or to simply walk up and down the short stretches of the main Saddar Road and Arbab Road watching people. The Capital and Falak Sair were the two cinemas that showed English movies; Silver Star and Café Alig were popular cafés; The Green Hotel, located at the end of the bazaar also served Murree beer in a bar tucked upstairs. (Prohibition came later, in 1972, when JUI’s government came into power with Mufti Mahmood as the chief minister.) A few hundred yards down the road, the upscale Dean's Hotel retained its quaint colonial architecture and continued to serve mulligatawny soup and caramel custard and, of course, beer and other drinks, in a more formal setting.
London Book Depot was the big bookshop; Bandbox was the drycleaner; Medicose was the chemist; Rathore was the men’s tailor, who not only spoke English in British accent with his clients but also asked a puzzling question, when taking measurements of the trousers, which side do you keep the ‘dressing’?”
Not far from these places, on the main Saddar Road, across the bus stop, was this little paan-and-cigarette shop that did brisk business. Faraz often stopped at this shop. He would come on his noisy motorbike, stop in front of the shop and, without switching off the engine or getting off the bike, buy his cigarettes and paan and breeze away. The alacrity with which the vendor stepped out of his stall to serve Faraz suggested that Faraz had either a running account with the vendor or perhaps he was an ardent fan of the poet – or both.
I clearly remember watching Faraz stop at the paan shop one evening when I was waiting for my bus at the bus stop across the street. He stopped his motorbike without switching off the engine, with his one foot against the curb and the other still on the footrest of the bike, both his hands clutching the bike handles, revving the engine up and down as if he were in a bike race ready to take off. The vendor, familiar with Faraz's routine, quickly prepared a paan and, instead of handing it to him, slipped it in Faraz's mouth, like a mother would a piece of food in a toddler's mouth. Faraz bolted into the dusk. He seemed to be in such a hurry. Probably, he had promises to keep.
Several years later, I encountered Faraz in a different setting. Faraz, already a teacher with some seniority (I don't remember his exact academic rank), was appearing in an exam in a different subject at the examination center at the Forest College hall. I happened to be the "examiner"!
Having returned from the US, I had just started teaching at Peshawar University. One of the jobs that university teachers did – and probably still do -- during the summer holidays, for extra money, of course, was to act as superintendents and invigilators at different examination centers. I happened to be the superintendent that summer at the Forest College hall.
A superintendent was responsible for the overall conduct of the examination while a number of invigilators assisted him in supervising specific rows of examinees in the hall. At a typical examination center, there would be 60 to 100 examinees in different subjects. A few minutes before the examination started, all the doors of the hall were closed, the superintendent read aloud the rules of the exam, the question papers distributed, and the examination would start at the dot of the hour, in total silence. The silence was broken only by the whirring of the ceiling fans and the shuffling of the pages of answer-books -– and clearing of throat by the nervous examinees when they were running out of time.
There was a long list of rules that governed the conduct in the examination hall, but the three cardinal rules were: No cheating! No noise! No smoking! If anyone broke any of the rules, the superintendent was required to terminate his exam and send him out of the hall.
Fifteen or twenty minutes into the exam that morning, when the usual hush descended on the hall, I smelled cigarette smoke. I looked around and noticed Faraz puffing on a cigarette and a pack of Three Castles lying on his table. The invigilator of the row politely requested Faraz to put out the cigarette but Faraz paid no heed to him. Much to my discomfort, the smoking ball landed in my court.
I approached Faraz gingerly and reminded him of the no-smoking rule. He looked genuinely puzzled as if wondering why were we making such a fuss about something so frivolous. He said he could not “do the paper” without smoking. In other words, he wanted us to make an allowance for his handicap and possibly, we thought, for his seniority and status. I told him the rules didn’t allow that. Realizing that we wouldn’t bend the rules for his rank or renown, Faraz did not argue further. He put out his cigarette and proceeded to write the paper with increased frenzy to make up for the time he had lost in the argument.
I do not know how well did he do in that particular exam, but down the years when Faraz's fame soared and I, too, began to appreciate his poetry, I felt a bit of remorse in denying Faraz his fix when he needed it most. But I would console myself by saying that I was simply applying the rules, and that I denied him something that was not good for him, anyway.
Fast forward to 2005-06. The venue: the picturesque PAF club at the foot of the Margalla hills, Islamabad. The club premises look organized and clinically clean. About 30 odd guests, men and women, are gathered at an afternoon reception organized by the PAF Finishing School for women, where they teach a variety of subjects ranging from culture, communication to culinary skills, and from literature to landscaping. The only thing common among the people gathered in that room is that they have lectured, at one time or another, at the Finishing School or are involved with its administration. The new director of the school is introducing herself and explaining the program for the new semester. Everyone is politely listening to the speech.
A few minutes into the speech, the smell of cigarette smoke wafts in the clean air of the room. Everyone in the room senses it but ignores it. I turn around to see the source of the smoke. It was none other but Ahmed Faraz puffing away at his cigarette, oblivious to the non-smoking environment.
After the speech, while everyone was having tea, I approached Faraz, introduced myself and, pointing to his cigarette, jokingly reminded him of the incident in the Forest College hall many years ago. I don't know if he remembered it, but he laughed and gave the impression that he did, and said, "Main do cheezain nahin chorr sakta. Ek cigarette aur doosra darrhi." I cannot do two things: Give up cigarettes or grow a beard.
The last time I saw Faraz was in the summer of 2008, at a mushaira at the annual gathering of Pakistani-American doctors (APPNA), at the Marriot Hotel in Washington, DC. Faraz shared the stage with Aitzaz Ahsan, Gopi Chand Narang and few other intellectuals and poets. He looked in good health. The mushaira lasted late into the night. Faraz sat there, without smoking. He knew the rules here. He occasionally sipped from what looked like a glass of water. When his turn came, he recited several poems in his deep, resonant voice, mostly from memory, to a thunderous applause from the audience and requests for more.
When the mushaira ended, Faraz hurriedly walked to what he thought was his room. But his key wouldn’t work on the lock. Thinking that it was the wrong door, he tried the key on the adjacent rooms, but they wouldn’t open either. Finally, with the help of the organizers, it was found that Faraz had checked in at a different hotel across the street, but had totally forgotten about it.
Faraz was a restless soul. May he rest in peace!
A variation of this piece was published in The News in 2008.