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August - September 2004
Down Memory Lane: Abdul the Bulbul
Abdul Majeed, though somewhat thick in the head - a blockhead you could say - was, nevertheless, a likeable lad and kind too; he would often give half of his Roti to a stray dog he came across in his hometown Mianwali on the banks of the River Indus in Punjab, India. It was May 1947, the final year of the British Raj in India.
As a school kid I had visited Mianwali and stayed with relatives. Life in this small town, as compared to Lahore, was spartan and slow-moving - and very conservative. When the first automobile to come to Mianwali (a blue Benteley owned by my grandfather Rai Sahib Pundit Karam Chand Dutt) made its spectacular appearance in the sleepy little town in the early Thirties, almost the entire population had turned out to gape in amazement at this new mode of transportation.Born in a mud hut of a father who spent more time in jail than at home, and a mother certified as 65% insane, Abdul was gifted since childhood with a remarkable voice. Barely 14, he was much sought-after at local Mushairas and loved by the local inhabitants, both Muslim and Hindu.
The songs he sang, in Punjabi and Urdu, of love, devotion and friendship, with a sweet lilting voice , soon earned Abdul the popular nickname of Bulbul, the songbird with a melodious chirp so much eulogized in Urdu poetry. Abdul, an ardent fan of the great singer Kundan Lal Sehgal who excelled in Ghazals, was able to recite with perfection Sehgal's immortal Rowoon maen Sagar kay kinnaray
That. Abdul also had a philosophical and secular bent of mind was clearly revealed when he recited - to the utter disapproval of the local Mullahs - an Urdu couplet Maen na Hindu hoon na Mussalmaan, siraf hoon ek Insaan! (I am neither a Hindu nor a Muslim, am just a human being).
In the run-up to the country's partition in August that year, the Muslim-majority sreas were soon engulfed by an extremist Islamic fervour which did not bode well for the non-Muslim communities.
Shrill cries of Allahu-Akbar and Pakistan Zindabaad were becoming more and more audible and frequent in Mianwali and other towns in the Western sector of Punjab where Hindus and Muslims had lived side by side in harmony for centuries. The local Hindus and Sikhs for the first time felt threatened and unsafe in their own homes.
And in this topsyturvy scenario Abdul was caught up involuntarily in a religious frenzy which was both frightening and saddening, and which would inevitably lead to widespread communal riots and terrible bloodshed, and mass migration of millions across the newly-created Indo/Pak border.
Hey, Abdul Majeed, true son of Islam and obedient servant of Allah, called out the Imam of the local Jama Masjid (mosque), I have a divine message for YOU! Divine message, thought Abdul for a moment, what message? However, Abdul, whom no one in the local community took seriously, was pleased to gain some recognition from the widely respected and all-powerful Imam Sahib
The bearded cleric towered over Abdul as they stood under a Neem tree. to gain temporary solace from the intense heat of the blazing sun - though there was no respite whatsoever from the swirling dust and swarming flies. With anger in his heart and hatred in his eyes - and a Tasbih prayer beads in one hand - the Moulvi lambasted 'the evil Kaffirs from Bartania and Hindustan' for their 'conspiracy to harm the Muslim people and berate Islam.' By his volatile rhetoric the Imam seemed to mesmerize diminutive Abdul Majeed.
At that moment the Muezin's call to the faithful for the afternoon Namaaz from a loudspeaker hung up high in the minaret of ther mosque reverberated across the dusty narrow streets, open drains and nondescript hamlets of Mianwali. We need - Islam needs - young dynamic men like you to take up arms as a true Mujahid to wage a holy war, Jehad, against the crafty Infidels who are out to destroy us, cried out the Moulvi in rage as he patted Abdul on his shoulder.
Baytay, bun jao Islam kay Sipahi! Commanded the cleric to his one-man audience. A soldier of Islam, mused Abdul for a moment, that was great! He was truly and squarely hooked by the wily cleric. Abdul was hypnotized. He bent low and humbly touched the Imam's feet in total subjugation. Then galvanized into action, like a toy that had been wound up and sprung into a fast movement, Abdul was transformed into a Mujahid! With his pigeon chest puffed out with renewed pride, thin arms flailing wildly, and spindly legs doing an impromptu war dance, Abdul struck the pose of a gallant warrior ready to do battle in the name of Jehad.
The Moulvi spoke again. Any devout Mussalmaan who is ready to sacrifice his life as a Shaheed(martyr) for Islam will go straight to Junnut(Paradise) where 32 Hoors(nubile virgins) will be eagerly waiting to obey his every command and fulfill his every wish Oh boy, what a tantalizing pro[position! And scenes from the popular Hindustani movie Baghdad-ki-Hoor Abdul had seen as a child also seemed to whet his appetite for the eternal adventure.
The thought of having so many delectable females at his beck and call was too overwhelming for Abdul. He sprang into the air with exuberant cries of Allahu-Akbar and shouted hysterically, I will take up the sword and kill the Kaffirs! The Imam was very pleased and gave Abdul a nod of approval.
A hard slap on his face sent Abdul reeling to the ground and brought him down to earth. Bewildered, he looked around and caught sight of his Uncle, a well-respected Soofi from the Niazi clan with Peshawari chappal in hand. You idiot, you talk of killing people who have never harmed you, hollered his Uncle in obvious disgust and anger. The Imam was nowhere to be seen! A stray dog howled as if to concur with the Soofi's contention.
Pulling Abdul up
by his ear, the Uncle shouted, Did you know that when I was once incarcerated
in the filthy police lock-up on a false charge, not a single Muslim
came to my aid except Lala Mohan Dass, my Hindu friend. He, and he
alone, got me released by putting up the bail money.