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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 11, March 16, 2024

Ahmad Salim - a Punjabi poet who became a pul (bridge) between three Punjabs | Pritam Singh with Nuzhat Abbas

Friday 15 March 2024, by Pritam Singh



The life story of Ahmad Salim, who died in December last year, is of a boy born in a West Punjabi village in 1945 who rose to be an eminent poet, writer, researcher, scholar-activist, translator, archivist and above all, a socialist of exceptional qualities who waged a life long fight for truth, justice, peace, and rights of workers, peasants, religious and linguistic minorities (especially of women in these identities) not only in Pakistan but in the whole of South Asia and even beyond.

Nuzhat met him when she was just fourteen when he came to her parents’ house to encourage her poetry after he had already published two of her poems in a magazine Jafakush (meaning Mazdoor) edited by him.

I met him twenty-five years ago. Nuzhat and Mohammad Abbas had moved to Oxford and during one of Ahmad Salim’s visits to the UK, they arranged for us to meet each other one evening for a meal. What an evening it was! It went on till the early hours of the next day. He shared an incredible and very painful story of his early childhood which has stayed with me forever both as a micro reflection of a larger historical tragedy as well as a rare insight into the making of what Ahmad Salim became.

During the 1947 partition violence, Ahmad Salim’s grandfather gave shelter to a Sikh family who had been their close and dear neighbours. When his grandfather sensed a danger that the violent mobs in the area, who had come to know about the sheltered family, might attack the house and the sheltered family, he advised them to escape in the cover of darkness at night. Next morning, all members of the escaping family were found murdered in the nearby fields. The two-year-old Ahmad Salim was crying uncontrollably especially seeing the murdered woman as he had felt a special bond with her. His grandfather then disclosed to him that the woman had breastfed him to life as his own mother had died at his birth. Ahmad Salim was in tears when he shared this trauma of his life and said that since that day, he has felt that the partition had killed his mother.

The deep emotional bond built by the sharing of that personal trauma coupled with a shared political vision of socialism made us close friends for the rest of his life. We never missed meeting each other whenever he visited the UK, and I visited Pakistan.

I invited him to present his research on mine workers in Pakistan at one of the biannual conferences of Punjab Research Group (UK) that promotes research into three Punjabs — East/Indian Punjab, West/Pakistani Punjab, and the global Punjabi diaspora. That led to not only several more of his conference visits but also of many younger Pakistani scholars he encouraged to engage with the PRG.

What Ahmad Salim accomplished seems unbelievable that it can be done in one life span. He wrote 175 books, 24 of them in English and rest in Punjabi and Urdu. He translated Shah Hussain poetry from Punjabi into Sindhi and the Sindhi poetry of Shaikh Ayaz and Shah Abdul Bhittai into Punjabi.

His life-long devotion to promoting Punjabi as a mother tongue in multi-dimensional ways- popularising it through his beautiful poetry and campaigning for its teaching in schools- was legendary. He was one of the few Punjabi writers in Pakistan who, in order to read and engage with Punjabi literature produced in East Punjab, learnt Gurmukhi script. His grasp of the Gurmukhi script was so advanced that he translated Amrita Pritam’s poetry into Shahmukhi script of Punjabi used in Pakistan. Through his contributions to Punjabi literature, especially poetry, he is as well known in East Punjab and the global Punjabi diaspora as he is in West Punjab. His death sent shock waves in the literary and progressive political world in East Punjab and Punjabi diaspora, and almost every Punjabi newspaper has carried obituaries and remembrances of him. He has often been portrayed in these tributes as a pul (bridge) between the three Punjabs.

He had a keen sense of observing and noting social and cultural processes which were not part of wider knowledge but had larger significance. He told me something about Guru Nanak that is almost unknown in India and largely unnoticed in Pakistan that Guru Nanak was so widely revered in Pakistan Punjab and Sindh that many Muslims, especially in rural arears, believed that Guru Baba Nanak (as known in Pakistan) was a Muslim sufi saint. His information that a chapter on Guru Nanak was a part of school-level textbooks in Pakistan was of huge significance in reflecting the depth of reverence for Guru Nanak in Pakistan. We thought of organising an international conference on ‘Guru Nanak As Seen in Pakistan.’ His mind worked fast when he was fired by an idea. He immediately thought of a Sindhi businessman in Dubai who was a devotee of Guru Nanak, and who, he thought, would be incredibly pleased to sponsor such a conference. We even thought of bringing out subsequently a book on the same subject in English, Urdu, Punjabi, and Sindhi. Though the conference and book projects could not be taken up due to other developments and engagements but the potential benefit from pursuing those ideas remains even now though he has gone.

His love for Punjabi language was part of a larger historical vision. He believed, very correctly, that to organise oppressed people to bring about progressive social change, the promotion of their mother tongues was a revolutionary intervention.

His defence of his mother tongue led him to the very principled act of defending the Bangladesh struggle for liberation. He wrote a poem in defence of Bengali people’s right to their language and homeland. It requires an exceptional degree of moral bravery to criticise the military of one’s own country especially when the military is engaged in armed conflict. This bravery cost him imprisonment. This imprisonment raised his moral stature and, later, recognition and award by the Bangladesh government.

He also took upon the task of co-writing (with Nuzhat Abbas) the biography of Jam Saki, a leading Sindhi and Pakistani communist leader which is based upon several months of recorded interviews with Jam Saki. This biography (in Urdu) turned out to be a history of the ups and downs of the communist movement in Pakistan. They managed to present this history/biography to the ailing leader in 2017 shortly before his death in 2018.

Ahmad Salim’s passion and dedication to research was shaped by his vision that it is only through robust research that truth can be established, falsehood defeated, and that truth is revolutionary. Guru Nanak said: koor nikhute nanaka, ork sach rahi (Nanak, falsehood is eventually defeated, and truth survives for ever). Antonio Gramsci, the Italian thinker and revolutionary, had said: truth is revolutionary. Ahmad Salim was seeker and defender of truth. His scholarly and literary work, and the research resources and institutions he created, will remain his legacy in support of truth.

In his own self-view, he was, above all, a shiar (poet). He shared his last wish with Nuzhat and other close friends that after his death, he would like to be remembered as a Punjabi shiar (poet). This year’s annual Mother Tongue Day celebrations event in Oxford on February 24 was dedicated to the celebration of Ahmad Salim’s contributions to Punjabi language and literature. This great Punjabi shair would also be remembered as an exceptional human being who despite his monumental literary, research, archival and political achievements, remained very modest in his lifestyle and self-view.

(Authors: Pritam Singh is Professor Emeritus, Oxford Brookes University and Director of Punjab Research Group (UK). Nuzhat Abbas is an Oxford-based Punjabi poet, short story writer and singer)

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