His appearance has nothing to do with beauty or ugliness. Instead it conforms to a colour scheme that makes him look more like a cheerful painting than a man of flesh and blood. A chiselled face, twisted nose, sharp teeth like those of a rat, deep set brown eyes, thin lips bending in like a bow, cheeks marked by dissolving smallpox scars invisible from a distance, flowing hair, and a conical beard with the colour of dusty dried out blood.
When I first saw him, he was strolling about McLeod Road wearing a blue suit and a blue hat with a bluish-black walking stick in his hand. Since I didn’t know he was Zaheer Kashmiri, I took him to be a magician who would soon perform a marvellous trick. But to my utter disappointment, he passed me by without doing any such thing.
Zaheer’s primary purpose in life is to impress and surprise people with his tricks. He teaches Marxism to hotel waiters, trains intellectuals in the art of preparing a paan, explains philosophical concepts to women, and informs street eunuchs of rates charged by kathak dancers. He is a master of all trades.
Born into a family of pirs whose ancestors were sweepers at the shrine of Saboor Shahwali, Zaheer was very docile in his childhood. His father worked in the Central Investigation Department and had access to high offices, which made him a rich and feared man in his neighbourhood. Now that Zaheer is grown up, his father has retired and sells vegetable oil on Beadon Road and lives a pious life.
Zaheer’s mother, however, was always a pious woman. From very early on, she taught him how to offer his prayers, helped him memorise Dua-e-Qanoot and explained to him the benefits of offering Tahajjud prayers. Zaheer used to maintain his ablutions through all hours of the day and solemnly followed his mother’s guidance.
Once he woke his mother up at midnight. His heart was beating fast, his forehead sweating and his demeanour shaken. He told his mother, “Ma, I have seen a dream.”
“What did you see, my son?” She asked.
“It was a strange dream. I saw a beautiful garden. I was sitting there and a lot of other people were sitting there as well. A cool breeze was blowing. Then an old man came to me and I stood up. He said to me, ‘Do you know what this place is? Sitting among the people here is the Prophet of the entire universe,’ and then he kissed my forehead…. I am scared, Ma,” Zaheer said and embraced his mother, who did not say anything but thought in her heart that one day her son would become a powerful saint.
[quote]He befriended the Sikh and had long conversations with him without ever seeing his face[/quote]
Things like these endeared him to his mother more than his other siblings, which in turn was why his father, when he returned home from work in the evening, beat him more than he did his siblings if they misbehaved on any count.
Zaheer accepted these beatings as God’s will, until one day, when he woke up to offer his Tahajjud prayers, he accidently kicked and broke his father’s glass inkpot. Convinced that this was also God’s will, he calmly went on to offer his prayers. His father, however, did not react quite as calmly when he saw the broken inkpot in the morning. He beat Zaheer so heartlessly that his mind was forced to think more boldly about God. And soon he reached the conclusion that either God was heartless and ungrateful or He was helpless before his father.
The breaking of the inkpot opened up Zaheer’s mind to all sorts of possibilities. He wrapped up the prayer mat and became a rebel against his father at home and his teachers at school, and stayed so no matter how much he was punished for his behaviour.
He beat up his younger brothers and sisters to avenge the beatings he received from his father and teachers. But he was not physically strong enough to beat up his companions in the neighbourhood and at school. For them, he had awesome dialogues and dramatic performances based on the detective novels he had started reading.
By the time he reached the ninth class, he had read all the second-hand detective novels he could find in the Mughal Bazaar. Behraam ka Hunter urf Qatil Haseena and Jasoos Daku urf Hawabaz Bandar were two of his favourite novels at the time. But now he needed a new trick to impress his companions. So he disappeared from the street for a few days and came back brandishing the manuscript of his own detective novel, described on the first page as:
A novel to destroy your night’s sleep
Author: Pirzada Ghulam Dastgir Kashmiri
After this manuscript, which has remained unpublished to this day, he started writing long romantic poems and, in the twelfth class, under the influence of communist books he had started reading, he wrote a play called Tameer-o-Takhreeb inspired by the Russian Revolution.
[quote]Zaheer reached the conclusion that either God was heartless and ungrateful or He was helpless before his father[/quote]
By this time the Progressive Movement had begun in India. Zaheer joined the movement to personally resolve the question of the class system in India and became the vice president of the All Punjab Students Federation when he was in his third year at college.
When the War started, he called a conference in which he made a fiery speech against the British. He was arrested as soon as he came off the stage. This is how it came to be that he was in jail when he heard the result of his BA exams.
He was kept in a solitary confinement cell. Locked in the adjacent cell was a Sikh accused of murder. Zaheer befriended the Sikh and had long conversations with him without ever seeing his face. Zaheer asked him, “Do you know, Varyam Singh, why I am locked in?” “Why, Jaheer Sahibji?” Singh replied. “Because I stop the government from oppressing the poor.” “Really?” Singh said with surprise and anger.
One day an angry Varyam Singh struck the deputy jailer with his heavy hand-cuffed hand and bloodied his entire face. A little investigation revealed that this was the influence of Jaheer Sahibji’s teachings. Consequently, Zaheer was transferred to another jail.
During his ten months in confinement, he was moved to five different jails. Wherever he went, he would become the prisoners’ leader and incite them to revolt.
He became a pacca revolutionary in jail. Upon his release, he became the secretary general of Amritsar District Trade Union. His activities attracted CID officials who started following him around like his shadow.
When the strikes became widespread in factories and the owners started suffering losses, the CID prepared a treason case against Zaheer and secured a warrant for his arrest. But Zaheer somehow learnt of the warrant as soon as it was issued and went into hiding.
He did not say where he was going nor did he stay in touch with anyone. He disappeared from Amritsar as completely as if he had died. But he was in fact roaming around Bihar and Bengal, observing the suffering of their peasants and writing poetry about the long hair and black eyes of their women. He was alive.
He came back to Amritsar after a year convinced that the arrest warrant against him had been filed away. Indeed, nobody took notice of his return, not even the Trade Union Congress.
He had by now become famous across India thanks to his poems that quietly made their way into the offices of various magazines and got published. He started working in Amritsar with a new vigour. He had already become very assertive, and now he bullied his old comrades into reorganising the Trade Union Congress. It was during this period that he organised a raid upon the bungalow of Amritsar’s deputy commissioner. He often boasts about this raid even to this day.
One of Zaheer’s closest companions in Trade Union Congress was Gopal Das Sehgal. Being a man of influence in Maheshwari Pictures, Sehgal got Zaheer the job of lyricist for the movie Raagni. This job changed the course of Zaheer’s life. He left Amritsar and settled in Lahore where there were so many movie songs at the time that cries of labourers and peasants died out before reaching Zaheer’s ears.
The focus of Zaheer’s actions now shifted to perfumed ladies and scotch whiskey. British tyranny was still present in India but Zaheer was practically cut off from labourers and peasants. He only did literary work in this period.
He earned a lot of money working in the movies so he drank a lot as well. Now he has less money, so he drinks less. If you ask him, he would say he drinks less because he is a reasonable man and can control himself. But this is a lie; even now when he starts drinking, he hands himself over to the drink.
[quote]On the road, at the hotel, or the paan shop, he starts singing if the mood takes him[/quote]
Alcohol is now banned in Punjab but Zaheer knows many people who regularly supply him illegally brewed alcohol. He has a private bar in one of the buildings on McLeod Road. He drinks there without fear or restraint and then ventures out for a walk to relish the twin joys of intoxication and flouting the law.
Drinking also inspires him to sing. He usually starts off with the light Pilu raga and eventually reaches the powerful Pahari. Sometimes he veers off the tune as well but soon comes back to it. On the road, at the hotel, or the paan shop, he starts singing if the mood takes him wherever he might be.
In addition to drinking and classical ragas, Zaheer is also fond of chasing women, though he would never confess to it. If you sit with him for a while in a public place, you’d notice him mentally ranking the derrieres of women passing by and sometimes following one of them to a distance. However, no woman can settle down with Zaheer, nor Zaheer can become slave to a particular derriere.
Twice did a woman enter Zaheer’s life. The first one died and the second ran away.
The first woman was related to Zaheer. After going through the stage of waving handkerchiefs, gesturing and sighing from a distance, he decided to marry her. But an elder in the family stepped in and she was married elsewhere. Not long after, she contracted tuberculosis and passed away. Zaheer still mentions her with tearful eyes because he believes it was love for him and not tuberculosis that killed her.
The second woman was a dancer at the theatre where Zaheer was the writer. He didn’t initially care much for her because he was focused on making the theatre a success. However, the theatre tanked and a disappointed Zaheer fell in love with the dancer. Zaheer always claims to have planned his every move, but this time he fell face down, and all his trickery vanished into thin air.
On the road, at the hotel, or the paan shop, he starts singing if the mood takes him
For several months, he was at her feet, writing songs for her which she accepted with the grace of a goddess. Zaheer didn’t even mind, if she so asked, going out to the tea shop and personally carrying the tray back to her. Zaheer served her as a worshipper, patron, lover and waiter, but she was no goddess. And although Zaheer’s love awoke the dormant woman in her, who worshipped Zaheer in return, he was no god either.
Zaheer is a pure materialist. He believes that whatever he accepts to be true, science does as well. He acknowledges life only as a particular stage in biological evolution. He studies philosophies, emotions and revolutions from this perspective, and then puts himself on top of them all. He relishes blaspheming against God, proclaims the miracles of prophets to be mere illusions and then goes on to talk about himself, as if saying:
“Listen, O people! I, too, am privy to the future. Listen to my message. There is nothing in the skies but darkness and nothing on this earth but I.”