It is, indeed, very difficult and painful to write about a dear friend and icon of Punjabi, with whom one has an association spanning more than five decades.
In the early sixties, in the previous century, we used to sit on the roof top of Irum Hotel, Ghanta Ghar, Lyallpur. One evening, a smart, lean and tall person whose right hand was in his pocket, arrived with his friends and somebody pointed out: “He is Afzal Ahsan Randhawa, a Punjabi writer.”
That was the beginning of our acquaintance and when we became colleagues at the bar it turned into friendship with the passage of time. We would spend many an evening together.
He was not only a Punjabi writer but a conscious political being – a left-leaning, progressive writer. In 1970 he was the Vice President of the District Bar Association when Zulifqar Ali Bhutto was invited to address the Lyallpur Bar. The President of the Bar chickened out at the last moment and so Randhawa was to preside over that meeting.
He was elected to the national assembly on a PPP ticket in 1972 at the seat which was vacated by Mukhtar Rana.
During General Zia-ul-Haq’s martial law he was disqualified by Kangaroo military courts for “living beyond his means.”
He described his epic poem Chekarli Cheekh as a sort of ‘death cry’ of Punjab
Randhawa was pioneer of the Punjabi novel. He started writing at a very early age in school. He passed the first essay competition held for the editorship of the school magazine. He also edited Murray and Law College magazines His writing used to be published in Imroze and Lail o Nihar, as a student.
Randhawa started writing in Punjabi, to buy ‘drinks’ for Munir Niazi, so he had to translate his own Urdu short story into Punjabi.
His first novel Deeva Tey Darya (written in just 20 days!) was the first book by a Pakistani to be published in India. The novel was also awarded the prestigious Adamjee Prize, which he refused to accept to protest the shoddy treatment meted out to Punjabi writers by the Writers Guild.
He was a voracious reader. He would like to read all the worthwhile literature of the world and liked to share it with Punjabi readers.
He translated into Punjabi Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; The Man Who Read Love Stories by Luis Sepulveda, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and Interview with History by Oriana Fallaci. He translated African poetry and more than 100 short stories from different languages.
His more important works included Deva Tey Darya; Doaaba; Suraj Grahan; Pandh; Run, Talwar Tey Ghora; Muna Koh Lhore; Elahi Mohr (fiction); Shesha Ek Lashkaray Doa; Rut Day Chaar Saffar; Punjab Dee Var; Miti Dee Mehek; Chaawaan Darya; Pitali Wich Asman (poetry) and Chekarli Cheekh.
He also wrote plays for TV and radio.
As mentioned earlier, he wrote his first novel in twenty days on the request of Asif Khan – but it took him twenty years to write his second novel Doaba! His characters and the general milieu that he depicted were set in a Punjabi village but in his novel Suraj Grahan he departed from rural Punjab to the West: an exchange of love letters between a Swiss girl and a Punjabi boy. This diction was the first such experiment in Punjabi.
He described his epic poem Chekarli Cheekh (Last Cry) as a sort of ‘death cry’ of Punjab. It was an SOS message from a Punjab which was drowning and seeking help from someone or anyone – the world community at large. The poem exudes a certain kind of Punjabi nationalism and laments the dying Punjabi culture.
He represented Pakistan at many international literary conferences. He was a great crusader of Punjabi but he was not an idealist. He would say “Why should anybody want to learn a language unless it can ensure them a livelihood?”
He was very active in his life. A few people know that he faced a significant challenge, having lost his right hand in his childhood. In spite of that handicap, he learned to write with his left hand and could even drive his car.
Every morning, he would go to the District Bar, where he would sit in a particular room on a particular chair for a specific length of time. He would regularly share his activities with his Facebook friends.
For the last few months before his death, he would share his old poetry – which clearly indicated that he was conscious of his impending, eternal departure. In fact, the untimely, tragic death of his young son Khurrum and, later on, his wife Prof. Ayesha, had broken his heart. He simply lost the will to survive. A couple of days before his death, he visited the graves of his son and wife.
He was a strong follower of Sufism and longed for the mystical state of ‘reunion’ and ‘oneness’ with the Divine.
He told me that the Randhawas are Bhatti Rajputs and that they migrated from Rajputana.’
He was a contented person who lived a very simple life.
His marriage with Ayesha was what we call in Pakistan a love marriage.
Aitzaz Ahsan in his book The Indus Saga quoted his verses to depict what he calls the ‘Indus Man’:
“Mein Darywaan Daa Haani See,
Tairnay Paigay Khaal nee Main”
He was an ardent supporter of the militant Sikh cause in India, and he wrote a poem “Nava Ghalughara” (The Last Holocaust) on June 09, 1984, after the Indian military operation at the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar.
He had a fine taste in clothing and his trademark style was to always cover his head with a beret. He would go on evening walks with his pet dog, a German Shepherd.
Incidentally, he arranged for Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s last visit to his native village and remained with him on that trip.
The Punjabi language has lost a great writer who was recognised all over the world. His writings have been translated into many languages. They are particularly important in eastern Punjab, in India, where he is part of the curriculum. One hopes students of Punjabi literature would go on to base at least some of their research on his works.
One hopes also that the Academy of Letters, Pakistan Folk Lore, Punjabi Academy and PILAC would dedicate some space in recognition of Randhawa’s contribution for Punjabi.
Here I reproduce a poem which would depict Randhawa’s philosophy and general outlook.