Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The wounded poet

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It was the summer either of 1998 or the year after and I was in Alai Valley hoping to trek up the valley into Chor and then over a high pass to Kaghan. Just three days before me, the valley had been swept by a storm that had caused much damage to the forest and the villages.

As my guide and I were slogging up the low Ajri Kandao (Pass) that connects Alai and Chor, we came upon a solitary man sitting under a pine tree whittling away on a piece of wood. He had an unkempt beard; a tousle of dark hair spilling from under the rim of his Chitrali cap, his grey kameez was unbuttoned to show a lean chest. My guide Taj Mohammad hailed him; the man looked up abstractedly, shook our hands and returned to his work. He said he was preparing a needle to apply antimony to his eyes.

Other than that, he refused to speak with us. As we walked away, Taj said this was the poet Wazir Mohammad who went by the nom de plume of Zakhmi — Wounded. He had, so said Taj, two cupboards full of books in his home in the village of Rashung and was always found reading or writing. Over the pass on the other side we paused for tea at the solitary inn. The innkeeper was the chatty kind and we lingered until lunch. That was when Wazir Mohammad Zakhmi overtook us.

He came with the same vacant look in his eyes, sat in a corner and was soon cradling the cup of tea offered him. Taj Mohammad had to coax him into talking. Wazir Mohammad did not know when he was born, but in 1959 when his 'beard had not yet sprouted', he travelled to Karachi with an uncle to seek his fortune.

Finding work in a textile mill, he worked by day and went to a religious seminary in North Naziabad in the evening. There he learned the hadith and the Quran; the latter not just with perfect Arabic recitation, but also in translation. But he did not become a mullah. Instead, in 1963 he began to write Pashto poetry and the year after in Urdu as well. So prolific was his work that by the beginning of 1965, he had a hefty manuscript. This work, largely of a religious tone, was subsequently lost.

In 1965 or the year after, love entered the life of Wazir Mohammad. That was when he first set eyes upon Fauzia. A pharmacist by training, she was the daughter of a prominent lawyer of Naziabad and therefore difficult for a lovelorn, poetry-writing mill worker to approach. And so for eleven long years Wazir Mohammad daily stood by the way Fauzia passed on her way to work with a government laboratory. He says Fauzia became aware of his presence. They exchanged glances, but the poet never had the courage to approach her and speak with her. For eleven years, from 1965 to 1976, this went on every workday. His poetry was transformed: from addressing matters religious, our poet began to write for the love of his life.

Who knows how long the mute romance would have gone on if Fauzia's family had not sold their home and moved away? Frantically, Wazir Mohammad tried to find their new domicile, but to no avail. Who knows if the family had discovered this silent infatuation and decided to rid themselves of it? Or even if Fauzia had reported it to her family. But they quietly faded out of his life, 'wounding' our poet.

This great catastrophe destroyed him. He turned into a malang, wandering the streets of Karachi, searching, forever searching for his unrequited love. He never found her. Turning reclusive, he slowly retreated from the company even of friends who he found increasingly oppressive. At last, heart-broken and bearing the great wound that became his name, he left the city that had brought love to his life only to take away, and returned to his native Rashung in Alai. Once again, he does not remember the year, but it was very likely 1978.

When I met him, he had been writing for thirty-five years and had accumulated no fewer than one hundred and twenty-four manuscripts. A Karachi-based publishing house had brought out some of his Urdu poetry and some Pashto work was published by one in Peshawar. There was still a huge body of work waiting to receive the attention of the publishing world. Wazir Mohammad Zakhmi, who had never received any institutional support, did not care if his remaining work did not see the light of day. But he was certain that one day when he will be no more, someone will discover his work and make it available to the reading public.

From wandering the streets of Karachi, Zakhmi was drifting through Alai Valley — a ghost with vacant eyes who was always somewhere else. There was a tangible sense of sadness about this man who never married and who so few have seen smiling. He was bearing the burden of an unattainable passion that the passage of nearly a quarter of century had not lightened.

Zakhmi said he was travelling around Alai to assess the damage done by the storm that had preceded me. In the absence of an agency that kept a record of such occurrences and because there were no local newspapers to preserve the event, Zakhmi was taking stock to record everything in his poetry. 'I now write about everything between the earth and the sky,' he had said.

Before taking leave, I requested Zakhmi to recite some of his Urdu couplets and I could help being impressed by his command over the language. He said he was illiterate in Persian, yet he quoted freely from Hafiz Shirazi: for a man who had only two years of formal schooling, Zakhmi was remarkable. That he had also become learned in theology and yet kept himself from descending into the depravity of intolerant fundamentalism was a measure of his intellect.

As a parting gift, Zakhmi recited a Pashto poem for us. His mournful voice made this ode to Fauzia almost a dirge and I even perceived a tear in his already sad eyes. My Pashto being as basic as it is, I could scarcely judge the merit of the poetry. But if his Urdu couplets were anything to go by, this too could only have been good.

Wazir Mohammad Zakhmi, who said he was a Yusufzai, was a truly extraordinary man. Born in a poor family, with very basic education, he had yet made himself a poet of some standing. But ten years ago, he had not still received the attention he deserved.

In October 2005, about ten days after the earthquake, hoping to be of help I was up in Alai again. Wazir Mohammad Zakhmi, I was told, had died when the house collapsed where he had those cupboards full of books. I had no way of confirming this sad news, so I took it at face value. The man whose intellect should have made Pashto speakers rightfully proud was gone. But the greater tragedy was that he went unsung.

Odysseus Lahori one year ago: Oh, Pushkalavati!

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 31 October 2014 at 04:03, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a sad and beautiful story. Thank you for this dedication. I love the photo.

At 31 October 2014 at 09:46, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you very much for the appreciation.

At 2 November 2014 at 03:32, Blogger omarali50 said...

Zakhmi's love for Fauzia bears more than a little resemblance to Dante's love for Beatrice. Unfortunately, it seems that our local Dante's work has been lost...

At 3 November 2014 at 09:30, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Omar. my lament always has been how we have ignored such men, our greatest heroes. It's such a sordid shame.


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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days