by Samia Altaf
In October of 2014, a bunch of young men and women did their university proud. A couple of engineers, two finance graduates, a biology major, some finishing accounting and business degrees, and a clutch from the school of humanities and social sciences; Muslims mostly, two Christians, a lone Hindu, one Buddhist wannabe, and two oblivious to religion though aware of its place in other folks’ lives. They came together from Sahiwal, Karachi, Gilgit, Swat, Peshawar, Gujranwala, one from Quetta (non-Baluchi), and two from Delhi via the University of Texas. Though the majority of students and faculty stayed away, these young men and women with similar features and skin tones, in colorful flowing kurtas, chooridars, skinny jeans, funky T-shirts, and hijabs, got together to celebrate Diwali, a festival that celebrates Ram’s return from exile.
Diwali, along with Holi, if not officially banned, have been marginalized in Pakistan as “Hindu” festivals although in the multi-religious society of the colonial period they were celebrated with as much enthusiasm as Eid and Christmas. The largest Diwali celebration in Lahore was held at the famous Laxmi Chowk, home to the Laxmi building, a marvel of Indo-European architecture and once the throbbing heart of the local film industry. All citizens, men, women, children, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, and Parsis gathered to celebrate the return of Ram to Ayodhya at Chowk with the adjoining building lit bright with lamps.
Almost seventy years on, these young people united in defiance to mark this heritage of their plural past. Ignoring looks of puzzlement and disapproval, they lighted the little lamps—diyas—fired with mustard oil as in the past, each lighted lovingly, one at a time, coaxing the hand-rolled cotton wick to sputter and then hold its own—quite like the event—knowing in their hearts that nurturing the flame symbolized a larger, more tenuous, goal. So they celebrated Diwali, and, I suppose, their own lives for the evening was mellow and they are young and alive and still hopeful. (Wordsworth: what a joy it was to be alive). They shared Mithai, music, poetry, thoughts, laughter, tears, and hopes and dreams for this land and its people wondering about their own place in it. They worried about the shape of tomorrow’s world and asked what they could do to make it better. It was a celebration of hope and harmony arrayed against a background of doom and despair—would there really be a return from the long exile?
Kabir sang, dressed in red silk kurta and white pajama, a dress familiar from Calcutta to Peshawar, from Karachi to Kochi, and spoke in the universal language of music recognizable to all inhabitants of the subcontinent. Plopped on the grass by the tennis courts, his harmonium secure in his hands, surrounded by friends from all over who sang along tunelessly but enthusiastically when they could, bhajans, shabds, folk songs, kafis, ghazals, the multi-national, multi-religious musical repertoire of our ancient civilization. and of the multi-religious heritage of this vast and varied land of our forefathers.
From Bhagat Kabir came mujh ko kahan dhundhey re bandey main to terey paas huun and na madir mein na masjid mein na kaashi kailash mein. From Shah Hussian, maye ni main kinnu aakhan dard vichorey da haal ni. From Bulleh Shah, Bullah kii jaanan mein kaun. From Mirabai, pag ghunghru bandh Mira naachii re. There was Faiz with his poetry of resistance—Dhaka se waapsii per resonated specially with the group—hum key thehrey ajnabii kitni mulaaqaton ke baad. There were romantic ghazals, Faraz’s immortal ranjish hii sahii, the favorite of all the young with broken hearts. And the climax, not surprisingly, was the thundering hum dekhen ge in the incomparable voice of the late Iqbal Bano—may her soul rest in peace.
The mix of joy and melancholy wafted gently across the tennis courts intriguing passersby who turned back to look. It rippled over, lifting itself over the tall steel fence, settling softly on the shoulders of the security officer with a racket in his hand, the one who had been adamantly against the event calling it a “provocation.” It moved past as he hit a mediocre forehand and kissed his down-turned mouth as he double-faulted on his serve and lost the game. The conscientious officer, who, in his infinite wisdom and pathological attachment to “national duty”—he was a soldier after all—had, at the last minute informed these students that their event could not be allowed in the University Square where it had been scheduled because it was a “security risk.” Risk of what? Infecting them with the virus of inclusion and harmony? Much protest had yielded grudging permission to relocate to an obscure dark corner behind the tennis courts as long as they did not do this or that. They complied with all the Soviet-like restrictions and yet put on a show worthy of their university while many of their peers milling in the Square remained safe and uncontaminated.
All this is part of a land rent with hatred and divided by many borders ,of religion, sect, province, ethnicity, gender, and language. Who would know it better than these students, many of whom have had to cross many such borders even to get to the university. The tremulous young man from Chitral barely speaking Urdu or English, the first in his family to attend college, leaving his village for the first time in his young life. The slender young women in a Hijab, bright and curious, who had to entreat her father to let her go, “like squeezing water from a stone,” she said. And here they were, hanging on by the skin of their teeth to this little patch of grass by the tennis court and a flickering hope as fragile as the new moon above.
Jalva-gah-e-visaal ki sham.en, voh bujha bhi chuke agar to kya,
chaand ko gul karen to ham janen.
The words of Faiz Ahmed Faiz suffused the air as they too burned bright that night. Ah, how they shone and made themselves seen and heard, with dignity and grace and good cheer, heads held high and smiles on lips as they faced every obstacle and jumped every hurdle. Diyas in one hand, mithai in the other, songs on lips, bells on feet, and hopes in hearts. This was the security risk. No faculty member participated, none stopped by to lend a hand. A professor loud on harmony walked briskly towards us but turned right at the edge of the gym and disappeared down the tracks.
What do we want students to learn? To be honest, courageous, inclusive, generous, responsive, harmonious, open; to be aware of their place in society and to be part of the solution. Whether engineers or accountants or historians, we want them to be thinking human beings. Universities seek ways to teach this skill. If they fail, there are always some who pick them up on their own. All the more credit to these young ones, generous in thought and spirit, with courage to face adversity, moving forward with determination and dignity, looking beyond the slights, knowing how to forgive.
It is a lasting tribute to this pioneering group that Diwali is now an annual event at the university.