Salahudin Mahmood (1934-1998) was a prominent Urdu poet, a man of letters, connoisseur, and an active figure in Lahore’s literary circles. He also remained the editor of prestigious Urdu magazine Saverah. In the age of modest access to anything foreign – books, movies, music, and magazines in the 1980’s and 90’s – Mahmood had a rich resource of all. He always reminded one of what was once called the Ashraf class of the colonial era in the subcontinent – be it his language, education, dress or mannerism. A graduate of Aligarh University, Mahmood was always clad in spotless white starched cotton kurta and white pajama with a handkerchief in his side pocket. In winters, the cotton top was replaced with khadar.
Mahmood was a friend of my father Mustansar Hussain Tarar. Mahmood’s love for books was exceptional. I always enjoyed visiting his library when I accompanied my father to Mahmood’s home close to Gulberg’s Mini Market, where he converted one of the outer rotunda rooms to a library. Of course no room was large enough for his meticulously kept collection which included manuscripts, cricket score records, and even Hollywood movie scripts. He kept track of different editions, purchasing them and having them bound by an expert book binder from Anarkali, Lahore. Book binding is a fleeting art and tradition. He would spend his last rupee on a book – and they were literally his best friend.
A signature feature of his personality was the clearing of his throat with what is called a “khangoora” in Punjabi before entering a room or when arriving at a mahfil to recite his poetry
Never without a book, he would even start reading one on a red traffic light. With the advent of Pakistani Suzuki FX800 cars in Pakistan, many of us graduated to smaller but newer cars. Mahmood was a six-foot-tall well-built person and seeing him settle down his huge frame in a Suzuki was a sight. I recall coming across him on Gulberg’s Main Market red light crossing and seeing him read a book at traffic crossings – of course a rare sight then and probably even now.
Cultural centers of different countries; British Council on Mozang Road, American Centre on Fatima Jinnah Road, Goethe Institut and French Centre in Gulberg with their libraries and different events were active haunts of people seeking exposure or to enjoy foreign movies, arts and books. The American centre with its big cinema screen regularly played Hollywood classics and sometimes relatively newer movies. That is where I would mostly meet Mahmood with his children especially his two daughters who would accompany him to all the movies. He loved to explain to us the context of movies being played. I remember first time watching Steve Mcqueen’s The Great Escape, Gene Kelly’s Singing in the Rain, Charlie Chaplain classics, and Jimmy Dean’s Rebel without a cause, and of course some very boring movies too at the American Centre.
He had a special relationship with his children and would call their names in a thick accent with much love and respect – his younger son Nauherwan, was always called as Nausherwan Mian and daughter Amina was called Amina Khatoon.
One of his writings that I liked and recall is a booklet he did on the zeal and fervour with which the Ottomans undertook construction of the Prophet’s (May Peace be Upon Him) Mosque in Madinah. He passionately researched for the booklet and was able to get permission from Saudi authorities to travel a part of the route of the Prophet (Pbuh)’s Hijrah to Madina. Visiting the Holly Places during endless construction one cannot imagine a time as narrated by Mahmood when the Ottomans made the masons go a certain distance from the Masjid-i-Nabwi (May Peace be Upon Him) so as the noise arising from breaking bricks did not reach the Roza-e-Mubarak.
Another signature feature of his personality was the clearing of his throat with what is called a “khangoora” in Punjabi before entering a room or mahfil when reciting his poetry. Like most Pakistanis, cricket was a passion for him. His library included cricket histories and biographies of cricketers. A prized possession was the signed book of legendary cricketer Don Bradman.
He wrote his poetry in a beautiful slanted writing. Before the convenience of computer printing he would share his hand-written photocopied poetry draft collections with his friends including my father, which were a reflection of his high level of erudition and finesse. He appreciated books for all ages: so as children, we received one of the best ever collection of world fairy tales from him, which is still part of our family library.
It was customary for all writers, poets and intellectuals to have their portraits made from legendary painter Saeed Akhtar. His portrait by Saeed Akhtar has a bird on his shoulder. The bird is a symbol in Mahmood’s poetry and he specially requested Saeed Akhtar to paint one in his portrait.
Birds remained a source of inspiration for him. Mahmood had planted some trees outside his study and would sit underneath the shade to read and write in the afternoons. One of his poems recalls both:
O Blind bird, please
Till yesterday, the moon failed to recognise me
And the Tree
The tree, that I planted a sapling
Tree, that is now taller than I
That has been lost
I had no other possession but that tree
And now that the tree has been lost
You are my only possession
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