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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 16, April 11, 2015

The Women Prisoners sang Bulleh Shah

Sunday 12 April 2015

by Jawed Naqvi

“BY then, I had befriended all the women from the so-called criminal cell,” Tahira Mazhar Ali smiled, her tone toggling between impishness and conspiracy. She was sharing with me one of her many unrecorded stories about the ups and downs in a long revolutionary career. It all came to a slow-motion end on March 23 after a long battle with a stroke. Her work had spanned over seven decades—hectic, chaotic, confusing, rewarding, frustrating and painfully disheartening decades, more or less in that order. I believe she eventually succumbed to sheer weariness, choosing to go on a day the Generals were celebrating Pakistan’s military prowess.

“They were lovely women,” she continued about that stint in the Lahore prison, one of several she underwent. “They were unlettered but emancipated women, and mostly victims of their circumstances. They openly admitted to killing a husband or some other relative or a neighbour and said they would do it again to defend themselves from their savagery. One early morning we [the female political prisoners] woke up to a lot of wailing from the other cells. Bhutto my son, Bhutto my brother, Bhutto my father, they were screaming. Shouts in rustic Punjabi of ‘Long Live Bhutto’ rent the prison walls. They were all acutely political women in their own way.”

The description of the inmates conjured images of women who could wring the neck of any honour-killer or break the legs of any hudood law-vendor. Khushwant Singh commented about the lovely Pakistani women swarming Gaddafi Stadium when India-Pakistan cricket ties were restored. Tahira Mazhar Ali would have smiled. “No woman was in a burqa except one. It was Irfan Pathan’s mother,” Khushwant noted.

Tahira Apa’s sense of humour and in your face sense of the absurd foiled the single-minded rabble-rouser in her. One day, when she decided to read out a poem on Bhutto that Faiz had sent her, the inmates thought it was a letter from home. “They all clapped indulgently at every line I read.”

A pause ushered the punch line. “These women had never heard of Faiz, nor did they care for his poetry,” she chortled. “They merely cheered me because they thought it was a letter from home and I was feeling lonely. And yet there was never a night when we did not hear them sing Bulleh Shah in their prison cells. They sang him and wept copiously as they sang for so many days during my incarceration. When I told Faiz how the women inmates preferred Bulleh Shah to him, he had a hearty laugh and asked me to write about it. Now that was a tall order. I don’t like to write.”

That’s not completely true, though. In May 2008, shortly after one of my meetings with her at her home of books and mango trees, I found a letter she wrote quite spontaneously to this newspaper. It was a simple, old-fashioned Communist’s outrage at the way things had turned out against the people. She felt let down by those she had expected better from. Punjab that had fed the rest of Pakistan was going hungry, farmers were committing suicide, she protested. Her anger flowed from decades of engagement with the peasants’ movements, of grassroots work for educating women and fighting for their elusive political and social rights.

In August 1997 when I first met her at her Lahore home for a TV documentary, she ushered me to an airy room with old books and pictures of her family she doted on. This was where she spoke of the need for India and Pakistan to jointly improve the condition of their impoverished people.

This was also the room where she had comforted Benazir Bhutto when her father was going to be hanged. “When she drove up, I saw two other cars following her. I said to myself, this girl is in trouble. They were police cars. During lunch I held her arm and said to her, ‘Benazir, they have come to take you. But you don’t get upset. Just take your time and eat well.’ And she ate very calmly after that.”

After the longish luncheon they headed for the door, Tahira held Benazir’s arm again and whispered words of comfort. “As she sat in her car, I looked at the two cars behind. They remained motionless. After a hundred excited bye-byes, when she finally sped off and disappeared from sight, the two men from the police cars walked up to me. They said politely, ‘Bibi, we have come to take you.’”

When the world grieved over Benazir’s assassination, Tahira Mazhar Ali felt pain as well as anger — pain because she knew Benazir had cared for her people, angry because she saw her straying from the path that took her to the people. “I couldn’t believe that her last speech was entirely addressed to the American patrons. Had she solved the problem of poverty and hunger of the people that she had moved to a new agenda? No. She still needed to fulfil the promises made by her father. Now, after her, there’s no one else who will.”

Tahira Apa’s hurt had perhaps a personal angle. The undivided Communist Party asked young Tahira to convey its support to Jinnah. She rode a bicycle to deliver the news though the Quaid only said a few terse things about Communists.

If Tahira Apa was disappointed with the way Pakistan evolved, her closest comrades in India, including Parvathi Krishnan and Perin Romesh Chandra, also coped with betrayal, not the least when the Babri Masjid came crashing down and mocked the country’s fraying promise of secularism. The women inmates in the Lahore prison had Bulleh Shah to ease their pain. Tahira Mazhar Ali was just as interested in the search for a more durable cure.

(Courtesy: Dawn, March 31, 2015)