Memories of Azad



The Poet of 'Azad' Boundaries

July 4, 2001, was a hot, muggy day filled with disquiet. The hollow, dark hole of ignorance was gaping at me. I did not know enough about Jagan Nath Azad, the man I was to interview that afternoon.

Azad, the doyen of Urdu literature and a distinguished authority on the poet and political thinker Dr. Muhammad Iqbal, had seventy books to his credit. I had not read even one; I did not even know written Urdu, the language of his scholarship. Except for Iqbal’s ode to Hindustan, 'sare jahan se achha' learned in school and the dozen odd couplets of Ghalib memorized in college, I was abysmally informed about Urdu literature. I felt small and uneducated.

But there was no excuse to avoid the appointment because I had courted the challenge myself at the Hindustan Times office in Jammu, where I worked as a city reporter. I had pitched the idea of interviewing 83-year-old Azad in the run-up to Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf’s talks with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the Agra Summit, slated for mid-July. It seemed important to know how a scholar on Iqbal’s works, and possibly an examiner of his mind, looked at the summit.

After all, Iqbal was the major ideologue of the Two Nation Theory that led to the creation of Pakistan and the 1947 Partition and an unending belligerence between the two states. People of Indian Jammu and Kashmir had been caught in a spiral of violence, the seeds of which were sown in the Partition. Kashmir's Hindu minority community, of which I was a part, had been violently evicted from the valley in 1990, by the armed supporters of 'Pakistan se rishta kya, la ilah il Allah' and the unfinished business of Partition. An interview with him, I thought, could be insightful in view of the possible path-breaking resolution over Kashmir that seemed imminent between India and Pakistan at the time.

Nervously, I boarded a crowded minibus, got down at my stop on the main road, walked two broad streets to the office, marked my presence and then, with a notepad and a pen, rushed to Azad's government-allotted house, four streets away in the same area. I wiped my sweat and rang the doorbell.

A tall, immaculately and formally dressed, curly gray-haired, spectacled frail gentleman opened the door. I introduced myself, shook his wrinkled hand and followed him as he walked slowly and cautiously to his library. My nervousness must have been palpable or probably Azad, the educationalist, had a knack to make a young ignorant pupil feel comfortable. He started with a light chatter, complaining about himself and how clumsy his library and the desk were. Azad sat in his chair and began meticulously piling up sheets of paper, pamphlets and manuscripts to organize his desk that was stacked with books from each side. He offered a seat across from his and we began traveling down his memory lane under a sluggishly-moving fan.

Soon, I discovered that Azad, a Lahore based Hindu, had written Pakistan's first national anthem at the founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah's request just five days before its creation in August 1947. He had been honoured with one of the most important assignments in the history of Pakistan because of Jinnah's insistence that he wanted an Urdu-knowing Hindu to write a Muslim nation's anthem. The song, ‘Aey sarzameen-i-Pak, zarrey tere hain aaj sitaron sey tabnak/ Roshan heh kehkashan sey, kahin aaj teri khak’(O land of Pure, your each speck is today illuminated by stars/ Even your dust is bright like a rainbow) was, however, discarded by Pakistan after Jinnah died and replaced with poet Hafeez Jalandhari’s song.

Recalling his life in Pakistan, Azad spoke fondly of his birth place Isakhel and the Lahore of the 1930s and 40s, his schooling in Rawalpindi and his graduation from Gordon College, lecturer’s job in DAV College and part-time work with The Tribune Lahore and Jai Hind, an Urdu daily. “You see, I didn’t want to leave my home! How could I?” Azad asked clearing his throat.

Even though all his relations had left for India, Azad stayed back in Lahore, Pakistan in August 1947. That is when the anthem was written. But as the rioting and violence worsened across Punjab, his Muslim friends and neighbours advised him to migrate to India. A year later, when he went to visit his friends in Pakistan from Delhi, he sung for them, “Tumhare vaste ae dosto main aur kya lata/Watan ki subeh tak shaamey gareeban leke aaya hoon…”

Azad was so attached to his soil and home that he kept returning to Pakistan, even during the hostile period of Indo-Pak relations. General Zia-ul-Haq, he recalled, had made arrangements for his visit in 1980. The red carpet welcome and warmth showered by his friends, he said, was still fresh in his mind. During Ayub Khan and Nawaz Sharif’s rule too, Azad was a literary guest of honour in Pakistan.

The Agra summit, therefore, was something he looked forward to and had high hopes from. Given the media hype around the summit, Azad had bought the line that India and Pakistan realized their economic compulsions and needed peace desperately. "It seems something positive and pragmatic will come out of this summit," he said.

We talked almost for an hour about his work on Iqbal, his visits to Pakistan and the relations between the two countries. He spoke with great admiration and love for Iqbal's poetic genius, of which I understood very little. As he kept pulling out of a hat Iqbal’s couplets, one after another, I struggled with my own dilemma. I didn’t know how to broach the subject of Iqbal's contentious politics without offending such a brilliant scholar.

Finally, towards the end of the conversation, I asked him what he thought about Iqbal's Two Nation Theory. Without running down his poetic ideal, Azad said, a bit assertively and yet gently, "States should not be formed on religious lines. It is fatal to the fraternity of writers and artists."

Before I left, he gifted me one of his Urdu books on Iqbal's poetry. Unfortunately, I still can’t read it.

Aarti Tikoo Singh

Created on 29 July 2016
Layout, design & revision © 2006 Pammi Taylor