Translator’s note: July 10 marked the tenth anniversary of the passing away of Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, one of Pakistan’s greatest writers and poets. 2016 is also being celebrated as the birth centenary of the legendary writer. With a view to understanding Qasmi’s relationship to his home, his literary life there, the salient events that happened there, whether or not they influenced his writing and so on, I sat down with his daughter Dr Naheed Qasmi, who is also a critic and poet in her own right. This essay is based on her own narrative about her father and thus sheds light on more personal and little known – hence interesting – aspects of Qasmi’s long life.
‘That Nadeem is not just my pen-name, Verily my character and name is one’
Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi’s ancestral home is in Anga, a mountainous village in the Soan-Sakesar valley of Khushab district. This was a small, very plain mud-brick house in a wide courtyard, with the furniture also similarly plain. There was a large, sheltering berry tree in the courtyard. Nadeem was born in this house on November 20, 1916. He spent his childhood there. He would frequently mention the door of the bigger room (on which both the brothers, from the days of their childhood to their youth, had inscribed various designs, birds, flowers, etc with a knife); the small kothri (which served as a kitchen and warm room during extreme winter and rains); and the berry tree and its large juicy fruit. He also liked to mention every little detail of his maternal grandparents’ home, which was located nearby. In 1924, when Nadeem was eight years old, his father (Pir Ghulam Nabi, also known as Nabi Chann) passed away. His religious education though had already begun, but he also took admission in primary school following his paternal uncle’s advice. After the death of his father, this uncle – an officer – took Nadeem to his house in Campbellpore. The uncle had a huge house, full of the best furnishings, complemented by a whole row of servants. Initially for transport, there was an exquisite tonga available and later there came a car. In this manner, Nadeem experienced living in a plain village house and walking on lanes full of stones, as well as inhabiting a large modern bungalow with proper floors, in the city. The love of his mother and paternal aunt, and the training and affection of his older brother and uncle gave a civilisation and balance to his character. He also lived with his uncle in a large official house in Sheikhupura and did his Matriculation from there. Then he lived in the hostel of the Sadiq Egerton College in Bahawalpur (because his uncle had to move here following retirement). During his third year, his uncle suddenly passed away. He completed his B.A. education with great difficulty. He did a few odd jobs in various cities in his struggle for finding employment. Then he became an Excise Inspector in Multan and lived there in a rented house. But he was dissatisfied with this job. One of his teacher-guides, Abdul Majid Salik – who had a discriminating sense with respect to a knowledge of leaning and literature and respected Nadeem’s abilities – persuaded him to come to Lahore and arranged for him to take up the editorship of the children’s magazine Phool (Flowers) and the women’s magazine Tehzeeb-e-Niswan (Feminine Culture) under the aegis of Imtiaz Ali Taj. He was also the editor of the literary magazine Adab-e-Latif.
Nadeem remained in his house in Allama Iqbal Town until the end – in his locality with scarce resources
Nadeem fell in love with an educated girl belonging to a respectable family of Lahore but his economic circumstances created a hurdle. Nadeem remembered this love all his life. He also remained in Peshawar for two-and-a-half to three years while being associated with Radio Peshawar. Then he started many magazines upon his return to Lahore. He remained the editor of Daily Imroze for seven years and wrote columns for several years (he used to write a daily column for one newspaper and a weekly and monthly column for others) and ran the household in this manner. In 1963, he launched his eminent journal Funoon (The Arts). To support it financially, he took part in mushairas (poetry recitals). He had married in 1948 into close relatives. Initially, his wife lived in the village with her mother-in-law. His three children (two daughters and one son) were born in the village. She eventually came to Lahore after fourteen years. Nadeem lived in Lahore with his family, renting various houses. His wife was prudent and gradually some money was saved. In 1968, following her strong insistence, he purchased a relatively cheap ten-marla plot in an uninhabited locality of Samanabad, ‘Pakki Thatthi’. Actually, (the famous poet) Qateel Shifai’s daughter had bought a plot here and she asked her father’s friends to do likewise. His other friends successfully built their own houses, but Nadeem’s plot remained as it was. At last, once again at the request of our mother, father had the house built by taking loans from the House Building Finance Corporation and a few friends. Afterwards, he paid the loan through regular repayments by writing columns. He moved into this house in 1973. Initially, since the intention was to build only one floor due to paucity of resources, he could not have the map made according to his wishes. He had to be content with the existing arrangements. Afterwards, due to the growing needs of the children, he also had the second floor constructed. Slowly the area began to be inhabited.
Allama Iqbal Town emerged from among the farms spread far and wide. Nadeem Shaheed Road became overcrowded with the rise in population. Nadeem’s friends settled in other localities, and asked him to do the same, but Nadeem remained in this house until the end – in this neighbourhood and this locality with scarce resources. The house was clean. It was small but nice. His wife was an organised, wise woman. She took good care of the house, our father and us. This house became a place of peace for our father. The house maintained a beautiful amalgamation of the rural and urban way of life. We were villagers as well as citizens. Father would bring home every new and useful thing. Mother, despite her rural mannerisms, would quickly adopt the new things. Nadeem was satisfied with this home and the household in general. He lived with great peace and contentment for many years in this house. In 1974, he was selected as the director of the Majlis Taraqqi-e-Adab (Assembly for the Development of Literature) Lahore and he remained here until (his death in) 2006.
When he came here, he was 57 years old. He lived here for 33 years, and arranged for the children to complete their education, get them married, and play with all of his grandchildren – and train them. The household consisted of father, mother, their son, daughter-in-law and a servant. The daughters left the parental home after their marriages. His wife Rabia died in 1992. After she passed away, Nadeem’s everyday routine changed. He would now eat his lunch at his office instead of his home. Nevertheless, at night, the whole family would eat dinner together. Father was a man of very organised and cultured traits. The beauty of morals had totally subsumed inside him. His voice was booming but he would never thunder with rage. He was very active but would not create chaos. There was a restrained manner to his movement. He would arrange his related things himself by duly keeping them clean and tidy. You would never find his clothes and things scattered here and there. He remained very busy. His activities were multidimensional and varied, but he would negotiate them with a reasonable degree of balance. Before we got married, whenever he was home, he would spare even his evening time for us. There used to be laughter and banter. He would play different games with us. Even during playtime, he would keep imparting to us useful and practical information. He would take us out for recreation – historical places, gardens, museums, cinemas and other places in Lahore; to meet his close friends. He would devote to us his entire evenings. His conversation was so elegant that many hours would pass without us knowing. While at it, he would share his memories in a highly entertaining manner. He would narrate the events occurring at office functions. Sometimes it also happened that while we were busy playing or reading, and mother was busy doing a household chore, father would go into a deep reflection as if visualising something very far away somewhere.
He had little mental harmony with his wife
He had little mental harmony with his wife. Sometimes both would argue a lot, which if it went on longer, would scare us children. Then father, with great care, would divert our attention to some interesting issue or thing and we would forget all (our) worries. Despite this, both cared a lot for each other for a long period of time; kept each other satisfied. They would decide the matters of home and family by mutual consent.
Father would write mostly at night, and sometimes during the day. During the day, if he was at home writing or reading, mother would keep us from making any noise. She would preserve every one of father’s papers. Whichever house we lived in, father’s room would totally fill up with books, magazines, newspapers, post and papers in just a few days. Space was left only for him to sit. And he was happiest sitting amongst all of them. In this home of his, in the upper portion, he had his library. In the smaller room, there were magazines while in the bigger one there were books, files, post, diaries and other materials. There were huge shelves from the floor to the roof where his books and other articles of use were kept. He would read and write here, with his back resting against a gao takiya (bolster pillow). Gradually his bed would also fill up with books and there would be no empty space left. Then he began to write, sitting on the table and chair in his bedroom below, and used it until the end. Here, too, the books began to fill up, as before. His son Noman would frequently move these to the library above. Before he passed away, he gave away a lot of his magazines and books to different institutions, despite which many books remained. Nadeem had great skill in dividing his time according to his own convenience and the comfort of others. He would read, routinely watch a bit of television (especially important matches of hockey, cricket, football and other sports, as well as important talk shows and some dramas and any nice musical broadcast). He would converse with people of the household according to their disposition: with children according to the topics of their interest; on other topics with wife and daughter-in-law; and still others with his son and daughters, sons-in-law and friends. No one could be bored in his presence, whether they were a child or a sage. I have also heard him converse in such a way with the labourers who came home that they looked very happy. He would make humorous conversation with friends and serious learned conversation with older people, but at every moment he would be Nadeem and Nadeem only – sincere, sympathetic and wise. He did not possess hypocrisy and artificiality. I felt that I had a great understanding with Father, that he would always understand the thing in my heart without my saying so. In short, while he was at home, no one would be bored for even a moment. He would always either be engaged, or kept others engaged, in something interesting.
He was enlightened and broad-minded, giving due space to everyone. Although there was a certain permanence to his disposition, he welcomed suitable changes. His routine changed very little with time. Nevertheless he would take a walk in Samanabad ground after waking up in the morning. In his later years, he began to take a walk inside the home. His food intake remained at a minimum. He ate less, but of a refined taste. He would regularly consume milk mixed with Ovaltine and a half-boiled egg for breakfast. Then he would read newspapers for a long time, taking important notes. He would sometimes also complete his columns in the morning. Then he would bathe, shave and change into a tidy dress. He would never wear un-ironed clothes. Every kind of dress suited him. Whether it was the large tehband peculiar to his own village, the kurtas and pagri (generally white in colour); or the urban pyjama and kurta, shalwar kameez with waistcoat; or three-piece suit of a modern shape and fashion, he looked fetching in all of them. He was famous for his good dressing. Even at the age of 70-75, he would go to the office in the morning and return at noon and after having lunch at home he would sleep for a little while and then again go to the office or a literary engagement in the evening. Despite his attachment with the Majlis Taraqqi-e-Adab, he maintained this routine: Club Road in the morning, at home in the afternoon and at the Funoon office in Anarkali in the evening.
Then his children got married. The daughters left home and the son settled with his wife in the upper portion.
Raza Naeem is an academic and translator based in Lahore. The translations from the Urdu are his own
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He is currently working on a book, Sahir Ludhianvi’s Lahore, Lahore’s Sahir Ludhianvi, forthcoming in 2022. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979