Roundabout: The importance of being Ishtiaq Ahmed in Punjab here and there

ByNirupama Dutt
Jun 04, 2023 02:52 AM IST

The visit of the author, who has chronicled Partition of India and Pakistan with special emphasis on the ethnic cleansing of the once united Punjab, to the city last week was an event that attracted scholars, peaceniks and writers alike

Ever since Salman Rushdie made waves with his novel “Midnight Children” (1981), the title has become very popular not just to describe the innocent little babies born at the stroke of midnight of August 14-15, 1947, from British colonial rule and the great divide of India and Pakistan. Thousands of midnight’s children sprang up and not just those who were born exactly at the stroke of midnight, but all those who were born any time that year.

Ishtiaq Ahmed (HT Photo)
Ishtiaq Ahmed (HT Photo)

One of them was a boy born in Lahore on February 24 and named Ishtiaq, which means “longing” or “craving”. He grew up like any Lahore boy, charmed by his beautiful city, and cycling down the Temple Road where his home was. Looking back at his youth, he says: “I was deeply in love with my city of birth and always thirsted for more knowledge about its past. The bike rides took me inevitably to localities which were once Hindu-Sikh majority areas, but from where virtually all traces of Hindu-Sikh presence were now gone. Even as a teenager, I could figure out that such people would not have left their homes and localities willingly or happily.”

The first encounter with a Muslim who had fled from the other side of Punjab to live in a shack close to his home was an indication to the young Ishtiaq that all had not been well for Muslims too. This was to sow the seeds of his research and writing of his famous book, “Punjab: Boodied, Partitioned and Cleansed”, now viewed as a path-breaking account of Partition with all its paradoxes and meanings. Published in 2011, long years of research went into its writing. By then, he was a professor of political science, a PhD graduate from Stockholm University. The book was no desktop work as he stepped out in the field to interview thousands on both sides of the border to lay bare the human side of the divide.

Feminist author-publisher Urvashi Butalia, who had herself written an acclaimed book on the impact of Partition particularly on women, “The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India”, said thus of Ahmed’s book: “A wealth of material that opens up new ground and shows how much we could still learn about this major moment in history.” And this is precisely what Ahmed’s book did. And not just that, Ahmed has followed it up with passion in personal dialogues, public lectures, interviews, interactions on social media and emerging as a one-person peace army between the two countries and therein rests his importance.

A people’s person with songs of love

In India this summer from Stockholm on the invitation of the Vasant Vyakhyanmala in Nasik, he says it is difficult for a person of Pakistani descent to get a Visa to India unless there is an invitation. Hugely popular on YouTube, he expressed willingness to travel to other places in India for interactions. What followed was a spate of invites also from Chandigarh and Punjab, from both groups and individuals, all eager to interact with him for opening a new hope for peace in the sub-continent. His latest book “Jinnah: His successes, Failures and Role in History”, published by Penguin India, was an added attraction. Incidentally, Ahmed has been a very popular speaker at Literature Festivals in both India and Pakistan.

A question put to him very often is that while he holds Jinnah responsible for Partition, historian Ayesha Jalal also of Pakistani descent puts the blame on Gandhi and Nehru. Ahmed replies: “Ms Jalal says of me, that I am not a historian and thus she will not entertain my book. Well, I don’t claim to be a historian. I am a political scientist and there are documents and evidence provided at each point I make unlike Ms Jalal”.

No one can dispute the intense research that has gone into his works including his lovely book on cinema and music made by Punjabis in undivided Punjab. A cinema buff from his teens, he recalls with fondness how he watched Raj Kapoor’s “Awaara” 25 times: “Those were days in Pakistan when Indian films were still screening. Awaara still remains my favourite film and in one week I saw it every day for seven times. If it wasn’t for my father, I would have been in the arts but he wanted me to be an academic and learned to love my studies too.” One of the special events of his India visit besides inspiring and advocating peace between the countries torn apart by history was the release of his book “Pre-Partition Punjab’s Contribution to Indian Cinema” by Subhash Ghai at his Whistling Woods Institute, Goregaon, Mumbai.

At one of the lectures in the city he charmed the listeners with soulful singing of the Hindi songs of the 40s and 60s. His favourites include Bengali singers like Pankaj Malik and Jagmohan. In his college days, he was an award-winning singer at youth festivals and one particular song by Jagmohan, “Itna hai tum se pyar kyun , yeh na bata sakunga main” was meant for a particular girl. It is this side that makes him so different from a stuffy and pompous professor to a people’s person all the way. Fare well Ishtiaq Sahib, until we meet again in better climes.

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