By Mehboob Qadir
Inevitably, like the king and the fakir, everyone with their riches and rags will descend into oblivion. However, in the final analysis, only goodness and care for fellow beings last, not the awe and majesty of power, imperial courts and treasures.
In the year 1987, while posted in Rawalpindi, I went to Hathi Chowk to buy some sweets a day before Eid. A gusty wind was blowing, kicking up dust and light litter everywhere. As the car parked, I saw a youngish beggar sitting on the filthy steps before a shuttered shop. His unkempt shaggy beard had gathered a lot of dust and appeared unclean. He wore a typical coarse cotton short shirt without sleeves like the ones worn by labourers working on construction sites. His shirt was soiled, sweaty and overused. He took out a dirty cloth and wanted to wipe my car windshield. Instead, I offered to give him some money without him having to do the wiping, which he refused. Leaving some more money with my school going son, I told him to give it to the fellow if he felt up to it. When I returned, the beggar had gone. My son still held that money in his hand.
He was not a beggar. He was a matriculate, young and jobless man doing daily wage work with a local contractor. Because of Eid holidays, there was no work and he had not eaten for the last two days. Gusty wind and my hubris aborted that effort too. He must have walked away exhausted and hungry. A few days earlier, a plane full of free loaders and lackeys had just left for umra (pilgrimage) on state expense, seen off by the president with great show of pious pomp.
Huge shamianas (tents) were being erected in specially enclosed GHQ grounds for Eid prayers. There was another innovation applied by the ever-present ‘innovators’. Against the accepted practice, they had provided VIP entrance through the front, next to where the imam (prayer leader) was supposed to lead. There is no VIP in prayers; traditionally, the privilege of a place in the front rows goes to those who arrive first. Grace and decency were increasingly becoming unfashionable. Disused dignity and self-respect were frequently being consigned to the dustbin.
It was fairly late one night when we walked out of a famous restaurant in Islamabad, having generously partaken of a sizzling barbecue and good company. There was a severe chill outside. Still relishing the taste of delicious food and overflowing mutual goodwill, we merrily sailed into our cars and went our ways home. Just as we slowed down at an intersection, a little distance on, we saw a few dogs and cats scampering to and from a garbage dump. There was also a man scavenging the same dump for bits of food, breadcrumbs and other eatables. With perfect concentration and deep satisfaction, he was eating handfuls of rice discarded there by some vendor. The sight ignited a slow pricking remorse of a kind that accomplices in a crime sometimes feel.
It was 1983. My late father, who used to stay with us in Lahore, decided to visit the shrine of Hazrat Data Sahib. I took my school going son along as well. Outside the mazaar (shrine), the whole area was full of people, of all hues and gender, in the hundreds — devotees, fakirs (beggars), newlyweds, the sick and elderly, women and children and onlookers.
People were buying and distributing meals to the needy from a large number of cauldrons laid along the passage to the gate. Qawals (Sufi singers) were sitting here and there singing praises to the saint while devotees were showering them with money. The passage to the gate was lined on both sides with shops full of flowers, garlands and all kinds of things that could be laid out at the shrine as tokens of devotion. The entire place was brightly lit and looked festive.
At the main gate and beyond was a different world altogether. Barefooted, heads covered and slightly bowed devotees silently moved towards the shrine, quietly praying. There were some overcome with emotion, sobbing softly. Quite a few others either prayed in the adjacent mosque or sat reverently facing the saint’s mazaar. Wafts of incense floated around gently in the pleasant breeze. An overwhelming sense of serenity and respect soaked everyone. For my son, exposure to this was inexplicable and deeply impressive.
A week earlier we had gone around visiting Shalimar Gardens, Shahi Mosque, Lahore Fort and Emperor Jahangir’s royal tomb. At the emperor’s enclosure, the official gatekeeper found it convenient to be absent, leaving the premises unattended. As we entered, a sick old horse limped across to the next poorly kept lawn for greener grass. The whole structure was laid out and constructed in a befittingly royal style: grand, exquisite and spare. Long corridors, rows of royal arches and doorways, marble floors and lavish Mughal artwork — all spoke of the emperor’s majesty and his regal grandeur. As we came closer to the emperor’s grave, a mangy little puppy got up from his noontime nap and lazily made for the next corridor.
The contrast between the two premises was striking. An opportunity had arisen for my young, impressionable son to collect an invaluable piece of the timeless wisdom with which our people are so well endowed. He was very curious to know why there were so many people at Data Sahib. He asked if there was a funfair on.
I explained that Emperor Jahangir was one of the grandest Mughal emperors of India. His army conquered kingdoms and he gave endless riches to hundreds and thousands of men. He held one of the most dazzling courts in the world. Data Sahib was a penniless fakir who wore patchy clothes and remained always short of his next meal. He could give no riches, nothing when alive, let alone provide anything to anybody after death. People still flock to him hundreds of years after his death. They revere him so much even when a mighty emperor lies buried in his grand abode only a mile away as the crow flies. There is no throng of devotees nor does anyone cry there out of emotion. Inevitably, like the king and the fakir, everyone with their riches and rags will descend into oblivion. However, in the final analysis, only goodness and care for fellow beings last, not the awe and majesty of power, imperial courts and treasures.
The writer is a retired brigadier of the Pakistan Army.
Source: The Daily Time, Lahore