Log uske husn ka jadu samajhte hain jise
Woh to hai meri nigahon ka asar kahna usse
(That which people think is magic of her beauty
Tell her that it is because of the way I look at her)
I never thought Urdu poet Abdul Ahad Saaz (1950–2020) would go like this. Forced to stay indoors due to the deadly coronavirus scare, most of Saaz’s friends, including yours truly, couldn’t attend his funeral yesterday. A shy, quiet man, Saaz said goodbye to us on the day when the only sound we heard was of silence. It was the day we in India observed “Janata Curfew”. One of Saaz’s collections is called “Khamoshi Bol Uthi (Silence Spoke Out).” Life couldn’t have imitated poetry in a more mournful, melancholic way.
Death is a big leveller. It also provides opportunities to recall and reflect. I don’t remember when I met him first but one episode is clearly etched in my mind. In the early 2000s we had begun a series called “rediscoveries” in Mumbai edition of The Indian Express. Every week we would take a famous personality from his field and take him/her to his famous haunt in the city. The celebrity would recall the time he or she spent there and talk about people they met, the events they witnessed. I “rediscovered” many places in the city with several well-known personalities. So I took Shobhaa De to Chor Bazaar, filmmaker Prakash Jha to Film City, Dalit poet–politician Namdeo Dhasal to Arab Gully in Mumbai Central where he had spent his childhood. And so many others.
Abdul Ahad Saaz had won the Maharashtra Urdu Academy Award and I requested him to suggest a place where I could take him to for this column. He suggested Maktaba Jamia’s bookstore at Mohammed Ali Road.
I reached there a few minutes before the fixed time. Clad in half-sleeved shirt and trousers, the bespectacled Saaz who was a bit stooped walked in, smiling. The book store is a branch of Maktaba Jamia, a publication division of Jamia Millia Islamic University, Delhi. A brainchild of Dr Zakir Hussain, Maktaba has played a stellar role in preserving and propagating Urdu language and literature. During Jamia’s then VC Mushirul Hassan’s reign a rumour had it that Jamia had planned to shut the Maktaba’s Mumbai branch. Some of we young journalists took upon ourselves the task to stop this “murder” of one of the famous landmarks and institutions of Mumbai. We invited noted film lyricist and Urdu columnist Hasan Kamal to the Maktaba to speak about its importance. Kamal sahab recalled how the likes of Ali Sardar Jafri, Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri and Sahir Ludgianvi would visit it. Over endless cups of tea, these literary legends would discuss life and letters. Our stories of Maktaba’s imminent death in some of leading Urdu and English newspapers sent Jamia administration into a tizzy. Rakhshanda Jalil, who briefly taught me English at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), was heading the Media and Communications department of Jamia then. The next day she issued a clarification, in Urdu and English, that Jamia had no plans to close any of Maktaba’s branches. On the contrary, there was a plan to improve them. Maktaba is alive and kicking.
Like Hassan Kamal, Saaz had fond memories of Maktaba. He had met many famous Urdu poets and writers here. He told me how he would spend hours here, browsing through the pages of poetry books. He had the advantage of walking at any time because he then lived and worked in the book store’s vicinity.
Poetry was his passion, not necessarily his source of living. He earned his bread through a Clothshop he ran in partnership with a Gujarati Hindu. He once told me that his business partner was quite cooperative as he allowed him to remain absent from the shop often to attend mushairas in India and abroad.
Once Saaz’s family and friends held a function in his honour at a school in Bandra. Javed Akhtar was the chief guest and he spoke glowingly about Saaz and his poetry. Many years ago the Sahitya Akademi, Delhi, held a poetry festival in Mumbai. Poets of different Indian languages were invited. The festival fell in Ramzan. I saw many Muslims among those who had queued up at the lunch counter. Saaz quipped: “Aaj kaun kaun rozedar hai uska hisaab ho jayega (Today it will be decided who all are fasting). Though progressive in thought, Saaz was a devout Muslim.
When Urdu Markaz, headed by Advocate Zubair Azmi, was established and it ran initially from two rooms at a Municipal school, opposite Mugha Masjid in Dongri, some of us celebrated it. Sadly the BMC has got the rooms vacated and Azmi had to take it to his tiny office at one of the congested, narrow streets in Madanpura. Saaz was among regular visitors to Urdu Markaz at Dongri. The Markaz had even held a couple of editions of annual Bhendi Bazaar literary festivals which showcased the cultural ethos Bhendi Bazaar represents. Azmi was building up a library too. I don’t know what happened to that project.
Once I saw Saaz visiting Urdu Markaz with a satchet full of books. “Bhai Zubair, yeh chand kitabein hain. Apni library mein rakh lo (Brother Zubair, these are some books for your library).
This was the season of mangoes. Saaz said the poet Mirza Ghalib was very fond of mangoes. His disciples would send Ghalib mangoes and there is an apocryphal story that some would even send bottles of sharab hiding them inside mango baskets. “I don’t have mangoes to give. I have books,” said Saaz.
Once Saaz took some of us to give a treat of naaz-chop at an eatery at Bhendi Bazaar. When he called me inviting for this special treat, I didn’t say no.
I didn’t say no because one of the regrets of my life is that the great artist M F Husain had invited me for paya and naan several times to a Colaba restaurant and I kept postponing. The fanatics forced our Picasso to live abroad in exile where he died.
I honoured Saaz’s request and accompanied him to the tiny eatery. Fresh from tandoor, the naan-chicken chop, along with slices of onion and chutney, tasted awesome. I will never get another chance to accompany Saaz to the bookstore or the naan-chop shop.
Saaz valiantly fought diabetes for decades. He finally bowed out. Rest in peace, Saaz bhai.
Maut se kisko rushtgari hai
Aaj woh kal hamari baari hai
(Who is exempted from death
Today it is he, tomorrow it will be we)
Mohammed Wajihuddin, a senior journalist, is associated with The Times of India, Mumbai. This piece has been picked up from his blog.