On a recent Sunday evening, Punjabi writers and aficionados gathered at the Punjab Institute of Language and Culture (PILAC) near Gaddafi Stadium in Gulberg. The occasion was the launch of not one but two books. One was Manzoor Ejaz’s autobiography Jindriyye, Tunn Desaan Tera Taana (Oh life, I weave you as I like). It was sub-titled “Burjwala tu Washington” (from Burjwala to Washington). The second one was Punjabi Darshan te Eik Jhaat (Punjabi Philosophy and a View) by Jaspal Singh.
Both the authors are left-leaning and so are their books and friends. Not surprisingly, then, the discussion often came down to leftist movements, achievements, and philosophy.
Manzur Ejaz is one of the best known Punjabi authors in the country. But then he is a philosopher who holds a doctorate in Economics from Howard University in Washington, someone with decades of leftist activism behind him and a polio survivor from Sahiwal with some remarkable grit. Ejaz is bound to a wheelchair now but dedicated to the written word nevertheless.
Ejaz finished his class eighth in his village near Sahiwal and then moved to the town itself to study more. He became the editor of his college magazine before joining the Punjab University’s Philosophy Department. Eventually, he became a Maoist.
He founded the National Students Organisation (NSO) in PU and the Punjabi Adabi Markaz at Mozang, Lahore. He also started the well-known Punjabi magazine Rut Lekha. He has penned books on his own life, Punjab, poetry and Waris Shah Nama – an interpretation and appreciation of his favourite poet. He moved to the states during the oppressive regime of General Zia-ul-Haq. The hall was full of mostly his friends and fans, thanks to his exceptionally amicable nature.
Many big names associated with Punjabi literature, political workers and leaders were there to support the authors.
Author Samina Asma recited the poetry of Mian Muhammad Baksh and praised Ejaz’s life for being so wholesome and adventurous.
Mazhar Tirmazi, the Punjabi poet who wrote the song Umraan Langian Pabbaan Paar, is also a Sahiwal native and an old friend of the writer. The two poets used to frequent Urdu mushairas in their youth and had become popular in the local circles. “Asi mushaira lut laye da si”(we used to win the poetry sessions) he recalls.
Sometimes, back in those days, angry rivals also threatened them to stay on the stage or risk a beating! One day he and Ejaz were looking for attaching a verse with “phool se khushbo juda karte rehe” but couldn’t find one until they ran into Majeed Anwar. He then suggested the following alteration:
“Ittar kash kitne iziat kesh the,
Phool se khushbu juda karte rehe.”
The two friends ended up winning a lot of accolades in the mushaira and the verses struck a chord with the viewers in the hall once again.
Tirmazi joined the Young People’s Front with Ejaz where he met Dr Aziz Ul Haq and Hardyal Singh Bains. Eventually, this organization arranged conferences in SOAS in London and this is where they all met Jaspal Singh, the author of the second book.
Asad Mufti also spoke on the occasion, as did some others.
Aamir Riaz Tutu briefly examined Manzur Ejaz’s journey from Sahiwal to a big city. He added that the author mused on the evolution of Punjab from a predominantly rural to a more urbanized region.He said that Ejaz also tried to understand this change through the prism of Marxism from 1965 to 1971 when the left in Pakistan formed an organized front against dictatorships.
Ejaz still questions what could have been done and what wasn’t. He believes that the left ended before Zia’s arrival and was actually revived again, later. Lastly, the book also examines Punjab’s attitude to gender – the girls who are killed before being born – and how we reached this point in the evolution of lands.
Rashid Rahman, the former editor of Daily Times, stated that he had been nervous about reading and speaking on a Punjabi book after such a long time. Rahman lucidly explained that the writer has traced the history of the leftist movement in Pakistan and how its challenges and achievements form the backdrop of Ejaz’s autobiography.
Every speaker lauded this autobiography for being candid, honest, brief (just 200 pages) and lucidly written in easy Punjabi.
Jaspal Singh is a philosophy professor based in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the US. He was born in Jagraon in Ludhiana but grew up in a village called Jhanda Bagga Purana near Firozpur. Singh completed his basic education from the Doon school. He then studied Philosophy at Harvard and Yale and taught it at schools like MIT before becoming a banker. He joined the book launch through a phone call. He had been ill with a kidney problem and therefore could not make it to the launch but was deeply pleased that his work had made it to Lahore. He acknowledged Lahore’s great cultural heritage and thanked everyone for coming. There is no consolidated study on the philosophy emerging from Punjab and in the Punjabi language. Singh said that he had been reluctant to write this book because of Imposter Syndrome but his friends insisted that he ought to. He has put his foot in the door and begun the conversation about Punjabi philosophy. Everyone in the hall cheered for his seminal work in field that has not been formally recognize so far.
Tipu Salman Makhdoom explained that Jaspal Singh discusses nationalism in Punjab beyond religions and castes. The book begins from the word “Rabba” and ends at the recent census in Pakistan. The book is in Punjabi, which is appreciable, but so are all the sources. He addresses all the main questions of philosophy and includes beautiful quotes from classical Punjabi poets.
Kazi Javed, the well-known columnist and writer commented on the book. He said that now, books written originally in Gurmukhi should not be transcribed in Shahmukhi but sometimes also translated because the vocabulary and expressions are now very different.
Nain Sukh, an accomplished writer himself, said that there are very deep issues like feminism, peace, war, language, and other issues without seeking help from the English language.
Pervaiz Rashid, the former Information Minister of Pakistan, was the guest of honour. He gave an amusing but succinct speech. He shared his experiences with the author, who is a friend as well as his teacher. Rashid said that Ejaz used to take a class everywhere and once he did so on a boat as well. He also joked that Ejaz hides the fact that he is his student. The hall was in stitches throughout this speech.
Professor Azizudin Ahmad spoke at the end. He traced the history of the left in Punjab, how Manzur Ejaz contributed to it, but also how the left was the first one to focus on mother language, federalism, diversity and opposing the mainstream obsession with Islam and authoritarian unity. He added that journalists and politicians focused on “oneness” and suppressed any cultural or linguistic activity that they perceived as a threat, including the idea of Punjabi nationalism.
A very confident cat was prowling the stage and continued to rub against the speakers’ legs till it was shoed away.
The director of PILAC, Dr Sughra Sadaf, was also there and greeting guests warmly. She also said some encouraging words about the authors and the new books. Zubair Ahmad, a Punjabi writer and academic himself, presided over the launch. Ahmad knew the guests and the authors for years. He did not allow the proceedings to become tedious or sloppy. However, every now and then, there was a joke or a funny anecdote. Sometimes a joke or two (the famed Punjabi juggat) came from the audience as well and the hall exploded with laughter.
PILAC is one of Lahore’s best-kept secrets. You can follow its page on Facebook or visit the red brick building which has many large, modernly equipped halls. The books are very fairly priced. Wichaar Publications has published the books and both the books are available at Book Home on Temple Road. Wichaar also has a very vibrant website with the same name which should be explored.
The writer is based in Lahore and tweets as @ammarawrites. Her work can be found on www.ammaraahmad.com