In March 1971, a young, courageous poet composed and recited a poem, which fuelled rebellious sentiments against the dictatorial regime of Yahya Khan. He was immediately arrested and jailed by the military court for the political crime and was even ordered to be flagellated with lashes. Amongst many conservative circles, the poet was labelled as a traitor to the national interests of Pakistan.
Yet, as he mentions, he feels no regret for standing up against the killing of Bengalis or the injustice perpetuated by the state.
The energetic and daring poet today has aged, yet his courage is not lost — shown by how audaciously he has been fighting liver cancer. His furrowed skin and croaky voice carries with it a wisdom, which this distinguished scholar has accumulated over his lifetime. The poet in question is of course the renowned Ahmad Salim, whose life achievements echo a magnitude of intellectual and literary milestones.
Few of the many roles he has occupied include that of a multilingual (read Urdu and Punjabi) poet, scholar, banker, researcher, political historian, author, writer and a prominent leader in the NGO sector. He has authored well over 150 books and owns possibly the largest archive library in Pakistan.
Born as Muhammad Salim Khawaja in the village of Miana Gondal in district Mandi Bahauddin, he was the fourth among seven siblings. He acquired his early education there and then proceeded to Peshawar for his matriculation. It was first in this city, when his lifelong friend, Shafqat Kakakhel, introduced him to politics and poetry in local languages.
At that time, he had a rather distasteful attitude towards Pakistani languages other than Urdu, being a staunch supporter of the two-nation theory as the ideological fibre of the nation. His best friend insisted that he should meet a prominent Khudai Khidmatgar movement leader, Abdul Ghafar Khan, known as Bacha Khan. Upon meeting him, he was immediately enchanted by his charismatic lure and it also opened his mind to the problems faced by other nationalities in the federation and the class question. This marked the beginning of his enduring relationship with the leftist ideology and the pursuit for an egalitarian society.
He moved to Karachi in 1962 and took admission in the Urdu College for his intermediate studies. While at college, Salim participated in a competition by a literary magazine, Afkar, and his poem on Faiz Ahmad Faiz won the first prize in the competition. Consequently, Faiz Sahib, then the principal of Haji Abdullah Haroon College, Khadda, Lyari, Karachi, asked young Salim to join the college, where he was first introduced to Marxism by the vice principal of the college, M.R. Hassan. Inspired to make a progressive change in society, he joined the Communist Party of Pakistan and its political ally, the National Awami Party. Increasingly active in student politics, he was arrested by Ayub Khan’s police for voicing his support for parliamentary democracy.
Salim has had a devotional relationship with books and literature, evident from his illustrious career where he changed many jobs to fulfil his quest for knowledge and played his part to end the exploitative system which is endangering the interests of the downtrodden masses.
He has been lucky in an important respect as from a very young age, many celebrated personalities have taken him under their tutelage and groomed his innate talent. Thus, from Faiz Sahib to Amrita Pritam to Ghani Khan and Sheikh Ayaz, he has had multifarious opportunities to hone his talent and a chance to learn from these giants.
While flipping through his CV, I was really amazed by the amount of published work Salim has done in his capacity as a writer, researcher, journalist, translator and poet. Above all, the length and breadth of his writings encompasses diverse topics and subjects while doing equal justice to them. He has written from education to curricula, studies on children, labour, partition and minorities, governance and democracy, culture, art and literature, history and politics as well as political history, ethnicity, religion and development, the Bangladesh crisis, PPP and the Bhuttos, and of course, an enormous body of translation. The mere mention of the names of his books will entirely fill up the space of this write-up. It is difficult to fathom how anyone could write so much in a single life span.
Salim has been attached with the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in various capacities since 1996 and worked there till 2007 as a director of Urdu publications. Since 2009, he has been working as a senior research advisor in the same organisation.
The researcher’s other passion is his archives, which he began gathering from 1988 when he was researching for his book on the political history of Pakistan. He encountered considerable impediments in acquiring primary and secondary source materials to complete his research for the book, as the government restricted access of such data to the general public, hence began one of the most Herculean endeavours of his life.
For his own research and those of other people, he began to collect historical data from wherever he could. He would buy old newspapers, magazines, periodicals, and almost any document which reported events during the 20th century. Where such data was unavailable, he would copy or buy off court transcripts and even resort to taking interviews from the elderly who experienced historical events. Eventually, what started off from a mere bookshelf became an archive centre with almost eight rooms of data. After almost 30 years of data gathering, he now owns one of the largest archive centres in Pakistan.
A hurdle now facing Salim is that such a centre necessitates consumption of resources for maintenance which are currently not at his disposal. He is running from pillar to post to save his archives and has also appealed to the government to give him a plot on subsidised rates to help him build a centre where he can preserve his collection for the future generations.
Although some western libraries have offered to purchase his archive centre, he feels that the archives are his legacy and his gift to the people of Pakistan. As such, he would not permit anyone to deprive his fellow countrymen of the knowledge which is contained within these archives.
The poet believes that his archives are really useful to people pursuing their research on Pakistan, and hopes the archives will be helpful in providing an objective historical narrative at a reasonable cost to people who dedicate their lives to the quest for knowledge. To maintain integrity of his archives and provide access to them, Salim created a trust named South Asian Research and Resource Centre (SARRC).
The archivist has been married once and has a daughter who lives in Lahore with her two kids. He is a doting father and grandfather who loves to indulge his grandchildren and travels frequently to the provincial capital to meet them.
Through his research and writings, he has left a memorable footprint on the literary and development sector of Pakistan. His immortal legacy will never fade away and through his writings, poems, archives and causes, he would live on in the hearts and minds of those whose lives he has touched. When asked if there is anything more he wishes from his life at this age and health, he replies that he wants to oversee the development of a facility to preserve archives for the use of the people of Pakistan. It is dreadful that in such ailment, he has to endure such worry, when all he desires is the goodwill and wellbeing of the people who seek knowledge.
This article was originally published at: Dawn
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.