At the age of 81, Abdulla Malik published an account of the first twenty-seven years of his life. In a brief foreword to the book, Purani Mehfilain Yaad aa Ra’hi Ain , he wrote, “I am eighty-one years old now and I can declare with pride that I have spent my entire life wedded to the same commitment, the same set of beliefs, namely the establishment one day of a socialist Pakistan. It will not come as the negation of any religion or faith, nor a revolt against God. In fact, it will be a message of love for mankind, a message that transcends all religions, faiths and creeds.”
The most fascinating part of Abdulla Malik’s autobiography, which holds little back, are his early memories of the old city of Lahore. He writes, “I was born in the last years of the second decade of the 20th century, on 20 October 1920 in Lahore’s Koocha Chabukswaran, which was located in the heart of the city. Relying on my earliest memories, I can say that all the streets around ours, and in fact our immediate neighbourhood, the area bazars, the mosques, the takiyas, the public baths, were part of Haveli Mian Khan. This Haveli was built in Emperor Shahjahan’s reign by his Prime Minister Nawab Saadullah Khan, but it was completed during the time of Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir by the Nawab’s son, Mian Khan, governor of Lahore. This grand edifice was spread over an area of several miles and it was divided into three sections: the women’s quarter, the men’s quarter which was called Rang Mahal, and the Qalai Khana, whose walls touched those of Masjid Chinyaanwali.”
After the British occupation of Punjab, the first mission school in the city was established by a clergyman named Farmson. That school came to be known far and wide as the Rang Mahal Mission School. In front of the school stood the mosque named after Muhammad Hafeez Chabukswar. Since the mosque was situated in the Rang Mahal area, it became popularly known as Masjid Rang Mahal. Koocha Chabukswaran, where Abdulla Malik was born, took its name from the Chabukswar family, who were professional horse traders and who belonged to the Pakhtun Kakezai tribe that originally migrated from Afghanistan.
Abdulla Malik writes, “It is hard to outsmart a Kakezai. The story goes that a crow once spotted a Kakezai sleeping flat on his back on a cot in his courtyard with his eyes open. The crow thinking the man was dead, decided to feast on him. Swooping down, he landed on his face. The Kakezai opened his mouth and one of the crow’s claws slipped into the Kakezai’s mouth which the man immediately closed, clenching the claw between his teeth. Realising that he was trapped, the crow thought of a stratagem. He asked the man what his caste was. The idea was that the moment he opened his mouth with an answer, it would free the crow’s claw and he would fly away. ‘Kakezai,’ the man muttered.” The crow remained trapped because you can pronounce the word Kakezai without unlocking your teeth. Anyone who does not believe it is welcome to try.
Abdulla Malik recalls that the street next to Dabbi Bazar was called Ghaggar Galli, most of whose residents were Hindu. It was called Ghaggar Galli because the loose lower garment worn by its Hindu women was called ghaggra . There were also a few families of Kashmiri Pandits who lived there and Abdullah Malik’s grandfather, to whom he was far closer than he was to his father, had the most friendly relations with them. On the occasion of the festivals of Diwali and Dusehra, the Hindu families would send their Muslim neighbours gifts of sweetmeats, a gesture that was reciprocated by the Muslims when Eid came around.
In 1925, Abdulla Malik writes, Justice Shadi Lal became the Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court. It was the same year in which Maulana Abu Muhammad Syed Deedar Ali Shah, the Khatib of Masjid Wazir Khan, declared Allama Iqbal a kafir and outside the pale of Islam. The Allama had earned the ire of the clerics because he had advised them not to interfere in the internal politics of Saudi Arabia. Maulana Suleman Nadvi declared the fatwa an edict born out of ignorance. This only shows how the mullah’s mind works. The mullahs of today are far more dangerous than the mullahs of eighty years ago because the mullahs of today are armed with deadly weapons and command suicide bombers. Abdulla Malik recalls that Lahore was plunged into turbulence when the British principal of the Mughalpura Engineering College was accused of having insulted the Prophet (PBUH). Syed Ataullah Shah Bukhari spoke all night at a protest meeting held outside Modhi Gate and when it ended in the early hours of the morning, so emotionally charged had become the crowd that it started marching towards Mughalpura to settle scores with the principal. Later it turned out that the only reason this fabricated charge had been made against the Englishman was his refusal to grant admission to a number of undeserving students.
Abdulla Malik remembers a memorable visit to Lahore by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru for the annual session of the All India Congress, which was held on the banks of the Ravi. He writes, “When Nehru arrived at the Lahore railway station, he was received by milling crowds. Among those who were there to welcome Nehru, were men like Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew, Maulana Zafar Ali Khan, Abdul Qadir Kasuri, Chaudhri Afzal and Dr Satya Pal. Nehru was put on a shimmering white horse and taken in a grand procession along Circular Road and into the old city through Dehli Darwaza, Chowk Wazir Khan, Kashmiri Bazar, Sunehri Masjid, Dabbi Bazar, Bowli Bazar, and then into Anarkali via Rang Mahal and Machhi Hatta. Nehru was presented with a bag of money in Anarkali. According to another chronicler and lover of old Lahore, Pran Nevile, this bag of money – a theli – was presented by the owner of the famous Bhalla Shoe Company. Justice Shadi Lal was also seen among those out to greet Nehru. Next day when his presence was reported in the press, he issued a statement saying he had nothing to do with those who had received Nehru. The next day, the Sikh leader Baba Kharrak Singh, was taken through the streets of Lahore on an elephant flanked by dancing Sikhs waving unsheathed kirpans. That was the way things were in those days.
Abdullah Malik’s book is a moveable feast and I am unable to convey its sweep and its nostalgia in a brief column. So let me end it with another of his reminiscences. “The first film that I saw was Alam Ara (the first Indian talkie) at Regent Cinema with my father. After that I saw the drama Laila Majnun presented by Maiden Theatre Company. Majnun was played by Master Nisar and Laila by Kajjan. Some time later, the Maiden Theatre Company went into film-making and its first presentation was Laila Majnun, with Master Nisar and Kajjan in the lead roles. The movie was a sensation across India. However, after my father’s death, I lost interest in both the theatre and the movies. Much of my attention was now devoted to political and religious movements and public meetings whose political theatricality impressed me deeply.”
Abdulla Malik was a one-man movement of action and ideas. There was no one quite like him – and those who knew him would confirm that it was so.