Years ago, there was no shanty cubicle. The grave looked up to the open sky. The money box was there (what’s a mazaar without that?) and so were the dopey minders. Abbott Road not being my usual beat, I was surprised when a few years later I saw the shanty
Sitting between PTV Lahore Centre and the offices of the DGPR (Director General Public Relations) on Abbott Road, there is a small shanty. Inside is a sarcophagus with all due trappings of the burial of the spiritually gifted: the green sheet of cheap satin inscribed with religious formulae draped over the hump, a few rosaries, burning joss sticks and some flowers. At all times there are one or two dopey hangers on. If you are lucky you will catch a whiff of hashish; luckier still and you might be invited for a puff or two. At night the little cubicle is garishly lit up with fluorescent tube lights.
There are two padlocked money boxes as well. Outside, on the sidewalk, there is a terracotta kunali containing salt. Passers by mouthing the wishes they want fulfilled by whoever is supposed to be buried under the concrete sarcophagus having silently aired their desires take a pinch or two of the salt. The hangers on do not say how the salt helps the wishes on their way or the wisher on his or her, but woe betide the man who suffers from hypertension, believes in this saint and passes by two or three times daily!
The sign says that this is the burial of Pir Ghaib Ali Shah. No date of birth or death is given, nor too is there a list of the miracles this saint may have performed. He is Ghaib (disappeared) Shah because he never disclosed his name. Conversely there is also the vague yarn about someone having dreamed of the saint and built the cubicle. That is the charming euphemism for the total fraud of a saint who never was.
You want to sire a saint? All you have to do is dress yourself in the green cloak of a fakir, dope yourself to the eyeballs with hashish, take over a block of land and declare that a great and famously saintly person whose name was never known indicated his burial to you in a dream. In this case, X also marks the spot and you are ensured an endless supply of money you will never have to lift a finger for.
Years ago, there was no shanty cubicle. The grave looked up to the open sky. The money box was there (what’s a mazaar without that?) and so were the dopey minders. Abbott Road not being my usual beat, I was surprised when a few years later I saw the shanty.
What had always intrigued me were the cement concrete pillars standing in an orderly bunch in the open space behind the tomb. About a year or so ago, these pillars disappeared and the sunken area was filled in to make a nice lawn fronting the DGPR’s office. The pillars were the only memory of one of the most remarkable frauds of our times. It was not remarkable for its magnitude; only for its crudity.
Back in 1973 or the year after, Munnoo Bhai, a respected name among journalists then and now, secured this land by the sanction of Mustafa Khar, then the Punjab chief minister. As president of the Lahore Press Club, Munnoo Bhai was to supervise the building and setting up of the press club which, until then, had no building of its own. At that time this place was the haunt of an unsavoury drug addict. Virtually overnight after the allotment for the press club, there sprang up the grave of Pir Syed Disappeared Ali Shah. The selfsame junky who haunted the plot and was threatened with eviction by the Press Club became the mujavar. A saint was sired.
Mustafa Khar had other interests to take care of and Munnoo Bhai found himself against Lahori idol worshippers’ zeal: Abbott Road had no other mazaar, this one had come up most opportunely and no one was willing to surrender it to the journalist community. There things stood for a few years until another person was elected president of the Lahore Press Club.
With him pledging to raise the building saint or no saint, monies were sanctioned by the government. The figure, it is told, was Rs 400,000. All of it went up in smoke or down in drink, so the allegation goes. The yarn is that a wee bit was also spooned over to the dopey mujavars (whose number had multiplied meanwhile) to stand fast and lie in front of the bulldozers if they ever came. The excuse for not building was that razing the saint’s burial would only earn the journalist community his wrath. Another bit of land was acquired on the flank of Shimla Hill and there the Press Club today stands.
No one asked any questions about the money that was to pay for the building in Abbott Road and the person who embezzled the nearly half million rupees is now dead. All he left behind to show for his ‘rectitude’ was the little clump of concrete pillars which too are now no more. Another few months and no one will remember the lost pillars the same way as no one remembers when Pir Disappeared Ali Shah came on the scene.
The two fat mujavars, both with rotten teeth, say that the saint had always been there. The Punjabi phrase to donate antiquity being ‘Hindustan Pakistan to pehlay da ae.’ But old time employees of DGPR remember seeing the grave sprout up one fine day back in the 1970s when the issue of the Press Club first came up. They swear that until then, there was no grave. There was only one filthy, bug-ridden junky.
Until some years ago, the collection box was ‘owned’ by the mujavars — which explains their pot-bellies. But then it was taken over and a committee appointed to take the proceeds which now go to the Chief Minister’s Earthquake Fund. I am told the monthly average is Rs 60,000. But the funny thing is that superstitious people also stuff the box with their roll numbers and the division they wish to attain in this or that examination. Petitions for sons addressed to Disappeared Ali Shah are stuffed in the box wrapped in currency notes.
Now, suppose the government was to bring the big yellow bulldozer and level this idol-worshippers’ haven, there would be no cadaver underneath. And none that has not decayed because, it is believed, the bodies of holy personages do not rot even after hundreds of years. The mujavars will be at hand to tell all and sundry: ‘Disappeared Ali Shah has actually disappeared because he did not want the unclean eyes of these non-believers to defile his holy body.’ Even without the grave, the cult of Pir Disappeared Ali Shah will continue to live.
Sixty thousand rupees is evidently not attractive enough for misappropriation or the Superstitions Department (incorrectly Auqaf) would long ago have moved in to take over the funds for furthering this idol-worship. But it is only a matter of time when that will come to pass.
An interesting footnote concerns that young employee of DGPR. A staunch believer in all graves, daily before entering the work place he parked his moped and facing the grave prayed to his demi-god. So rapt was he in his worship one morning that he did not realise that Pir Disappeared Ali Shah had made his motorcycle disappear right behind his behind. The name, after all, is not inappropriate.
Salman Rashid is a travel writer and knows Pakistan like the back of his hand. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This piece was first published by the Daily Times.