In the 1990s, experienced social worker Sadiqa Salahuddin began working in the villages outside of Khairpur Mirs in Sindh. She found a young, enterprising girl committed to serving her community in education, women’s entrepreneurship, and health.

The girl belonged to a small town called Kumb. After working in the field for some time, Salahuddin convinced the girl’s mother to allow her daughter to attend a community worker training program outside of Pakistan.

This girl had never been outside of Khairpur, let alone traveled abroad. She first went to Karachi and spent some time there. She later traveled to Thailand with a group of other women to participate in this somewhat advanced training program. Upon her return, she was asked by Salahuddin which place she likes best after being in Karachi and visiting some places in Thailand. The girl replied: “Madam, all the places are fine, but there is no opponent for Kumb.”

Likewise, I was told by my friends that when the poet Ahmad Rahi drew his last breath in Lahore, a nurse was standing by his bedside. Rahi mumbled something. After his death, people asked the nurse about Rahi’s last words. She said: “Baba kehnda si, ‘Mainoo Ambarsar laey chal’ [The old man was saying, ‘Take me to Amritsar’].” Rahi’s case also played a role in the suffering inflicted on people as a result of the division.

There are many who champion a deep sense of belonging and retain a passion for the town, community or village where they were either born or have long lived. But there are few who translate that love into a solid commitment to contribute to the physical or spiritual well-being of their city and its residents. When they choose to write, they make a bigger contribution and reach people everywhere.

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Mudassir Bashir is one of those few. He has enriched Punjabi and Urdu readers with his passion for chronicling and documenting the history, people and places of old and new Lahore – the city his heart belongs to. His other passion is promoting Punjabi language and literature.

In a country like ours, it is even more important that people’s stories are recorded and published

Bashir is a prolific writer. He has written long and short fiction, travelogues, poetry and a number of books on the history and culture of Lahore. He has compiled collections of folk tales and poetry by Maulvi Sirajuddin and Qazi Allahdin Kashish. Some of Bashir’s works in Punjabi’s Persian script have been transliterated into the Gurmukhi script and his fiction has been translated into Urdu and Hindi. Some of his books on certain aspects of Lahore history were also originally written in Urdu.

Once I asked him: “Mudassir, you are not that old yet. You write and publish at a very fast pace. Don’t you think it’s a good idea to delay the release of your work?” He looked me in the eye and said, “Well, we don’t know how much time we all have. I want to do as much as possible for my city and my language.”

Later I thought how stupid I was for asking that question. Bashir – who is calm and collected, kind and gentle in his demeanor – has a fire burning inside. He wants to put things on record and write as much as possible. His main commitment is his city and his language.

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In a country like ours, where it is becoming even more important that people’s stories are recorded and published, Bashir has done just that with his latest book of 15 interviews, Dharti Te Heeray Laal Jarrti [The Earth Begets Diamonds and Rubies] – an expression from the holy book of Sikhism, the Guru Granth Sahib.

In his preface to the book, after quoting from the verses of Shah Hussain, Bashir argues why it is important to interview and write about ordinary people, their lives, struggles, hopes, dreams, misery and happiness.

One reason is that it is conquerors who write the history of the vanquished; The second is that it is the rulers and powerful whose history is both written and taught.

Ranging from poets to teachers and ordinary workers to cultural icons such as Colonel Nadir Ali, the 15 interviews bring out not only the lives but also the ideas of these women and men.

Bashir writes an introduction to each interview, explaining the importance of the person being interviewed, and also sharing the time, place, and his companions. He generously thanked his friends and acquaintances who helped him.

All interviews are in chaste Punjabi except that of Amma Hafeezaan which is mostly in a specific Urdu dialect. Hafeezaan is an old woman whose working-class family migrated from Agra to Lahore in 1947.

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In these interviews – by Master Altaf Hussain, Abdur Rehman Diwana, Abdul Raheem Bhola, Mohammed Din Numberdar, Shahid Shaidai and others – there is a constellation of interesting characters who talk about different aspects of life, about politics, art, culture and habitat.

Bashir starts by asking her about her family history and then flawlessly proceeds to get her to unravel her life stories and thoughts. Together these interviews chronicle the happenings and happenings in people’s lives over the last 75 years in Lahore in particular and Punjab in general.

It also reflects on how life has changed over these years and how the dreams of those who wanted to make Pakistan a prosperous and people-friendly country have been continually shattered. At the same time, there is an innate desire in many to see a society in which art, literature, music and culture have their rightful place to combat growing extremism and intolerance.

However, Bashir does not give in to the temptation to put his own words in anyone’s mouth. It is clear that he treated the text honestly. Dharti Te Heeray Laal Jarrti captures the story of the people in a compelling way.

The columnist is a poet and essayist. He recently edited Pakistan Here and Now: Insights into Society, Culture, Identity and Diaspora. His latest poetry collection is Hairaan Sar-i-Bazaar

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 9, 2022

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