Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Lovelorn Poet

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We met him on our way up the Ajri Kandao. He sat by the path whittling away on a tiny piece of wood with an ungainly adze. Taj Mohammed said he was making a needle to apply antimony to the eyes and paused to greet him. The man looked up abstractedly, shook hands, mumbled a few words in Pukhtu and returned to his work. The faraway almost vacant look in his eyes gave the unmistakable impression that he was mentally deficient, but as we walked away, Taj Mohammed said, the man had ‘two cupboards full of books’ in his home in village Rashung. He was also a poet, he added.

As we lounged over tea in the little inn below Ajri Kandao, the poet caught up with us again. The haunting, faraway look was still there as he quietly came in and sat to one side of the single room inn. Wordlessly cradling his cup of tea in both hands he started to sip without looking up at anyone. Wazir Mohammed who sports the nom de plume of Sha’ir Wazir Mohammed Zakhmi, had to be coaxed into speaking.

He did not know when he was born, but in 1959 when his ‘beard had not yet sprouted’ and with just two years of schooling 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 Nazimabad by evening. Under an able master he learnt the hadith and the Quran. He read the Book in translation and also perfected his Arabic recitation so that he could recite the complete Quran in just over seven hours.

In 1963 he started to write poetry in Pukhtu, and a year later in Urdu as well. So prolific was his Urdu work that by the beginning of 1965 he was the master of a hefty manuscript. This work which was largely of a religious tone with a sprinkling of philosophy was unfortunately lost. Then love entered the life of Wazir Mohammed when, purely by chance, he set eyes upon Fauzia. A pharmacist by training, she was the daughter of a reasonably successful lawyer of Nazimabad. It was difficult for a mill working lovelorn poet to approach a middle-class educated girl. And so for eleven long years Wazir Mohammed daily stood by the way Fauzia passed on her way to work with a government laboratory.

By his own account, Fauzia became aware of his presence. They exchanged glances, but he never spoke to her; never was he able to tell her how besotted he was. For eleven long years from 1965 to 1976 this went on every workday. His poetry underwent a transformation. From addressing his God and the Prophet, Wazir Mohammed wrote mostly for the love of his life. Then one day the worst happened: Fauzia’s family sold their house and moved away. Frantically the young lovelorn mill worker from distant Alai Valley tried to find their new place of residence. But he failed.

Though he seemed reluctant to admit, it may be that the lawyer’s family had discovered this vain infatuation – as it may have seemed to them. Perhaps Fauzia herself reported the daily wordless encounter to her family. There might even have been a confrontation between Wazir Mohammed and the men of Fauzia’s family. But the poet did not speak of all this. For him, the love of his life had suddenly vanished from his world. Though he knew where she worked and could have sought her there, Wazir Mohammed was reluctant to talk about any such endeavour that he might or might not have made.

This great catastrophe, he said, changed everything for him. It made him a malang. He wandered the streets of Karachi, searching, searching, searching. But it was all in vain: he never found the one he sought. It got more and more difficult for him to work. He became reclusive, crowds disturbed him, even the company of friends was oppression. The poet became Wazir Mohammed Zakhmi (Wounded). At last, broken-hearted and in utter despair he left the city that had brought love to his life only to take it away and returned to his native Rashung in Alai.

In the course of these past thirty-five years or so, he has accumulated a total of one hundred and twenty-four hefty manuscripts, four of these have been published. The ones in Urdu were published by a firm in Karachi while the Pukhtu collection has come out from Peshawar. But Wazir Mohammed Zakhmi who has never received any institutional support does not care if his remaining work ever sees the light of day or not. He is certain that one day, when he is no more, it will all be published.

From wandering the streets of Karachi, Wazir Mohammed drifts through the Alai Valley, a ghost with vacant eyes who is always somewhere else. There is a tangible sadness about this man who never married and whom few have seen smiling. He carries the burden of an unattainable passion that the passage of almost a quarter century has not lightened.

He was travelling around Alai to assess the damage done by the violent storm of only three days before in order to record it in his poetry. There being no newspapers or other record in Alai, he hoped his poems would preserve for posterity the memory of this dreadful storm that many had thought was the precursor of the end of the world. ‘I now write about everything between the earth and the sky,’ he said.

Wazir Mohammed recited some of his Urdu couplets for me and I was impressed by his command over the language. It was as if he had a more than fair knowledge of Persian. Though he confessed he did not, he quoted freely from Hafiz Shirazi as well. For a man who had only two years of formal schooling he was unique. That he had gone on to become learned in theology yet keeping himself from descending into the depravity of intolerant fundamentalism is a measure of his intellect. An even greater measure of this mind from remote Rashung is the collection of some hundred books that fill the cupboards of his mud, stone and timber house.

On request he recited a Pukhtu poem (lobha) for us. His mournful voice made this ode to Fauzia almost a dirge, and I thought I even perceived a tear in his eyes. My Pukhtu being extremely basic, I was unable to judge the merit of the poetry. But if one were to go by his Urdu work and the fact that he has four published books, there surely is something to be said for his work. If nothing else, here is an extraordinary person born in a poor house with but two years of formal schooling who, when he is not roving God’s earth, spends time with books. Will Sha’ir Wazir Mohammed Zakhmi then die uncelebrated, barely known outside his native Alai?

Related: Philosopher Poet of Vehowa, 'The Professor

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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

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