Remembering theater activist Shahid Anwar ( 20th Sep-1965- 1st March 2016)
Death is like a sudden chill. It freezes liquid life into a block of ice. Memories, conversations, email messages become hard like rock, like frozen sculptures. When this rock is the life of a person like Shahid Anwar, it will be a long time before it begins to melt.
I knew Shahid initially as the colleague of a common friend. I never saw any of his plays although he talked to me about some of them. He went on to become a friend whom I met sporadically, but we developed a deep bond over time. I lived in Gurgaon and visited him, sometimes at his Sainik Samachar office in North Block — our first meeting and conversation was on an autumn evening under the shade of the trees on North Avenue. Later I met him a number of times at his house in RK Puram and then in Vasant Vihar.
We had long conversations. He would talk about plays, I, about Latin American literature in which he evinced a deep interest. Our longest and best conversations were, however, about Urdu poetry — Ghalib, Iqbal and Faiz. I would show him my reviews and articles I wrote on Urdu poetry before sending them for publication. He seldom corrected anything, but usually refined what I had to say. One of the high points in my life remains being introduced to his friends as a person whose knowledge of Urdu poetry was very deep, despite not knowing the language. I implored him to teach me Urdu. He replied with a guffaw that tried to hide his somberness: Arre bhai hume Urdu padh likh kar kya mil gaya jo tum Urdu seekhogey. I myself now have to write in Hindi to get acceptance, he confided dejectedly. Nevertheless, I felt, and to this day, feel disappointed and saddened at his response.
I disappointed him too — he asked me to bring the two volumes of Dario Fo’s plays when I went for a three-month assignment to the US. I remembered his request a few days before my return, and though I scoured the bookstores in Dayton, I couldn’t find the books. He was disappointed when I met him after my return. That was in the 1990s, and Amazon and online stores were still not in existence.
These incidents did impact our relationship — they perhaps deepened it with mutual feelings of having let down the other. I got to know his wife Poonam and their lovely little bundle of joy, Kaasni. He told me he had picked her name from one of Faiz’s nazms (one of my own favourites) and many of those who had the privilege of knowing him would like to say to him today:
Tum mere paas raho,
Mere qatil, mere dildaar, mere paas raho,
Jab siyah raat chale,
Aasmanon ka lahu pi ke siyah raat chale,
Marham-e-mushk liye, nashtar-e-almas liye,
Bayn karti hui, hasti hui, gaati nikle,
Dard ke kaasni pajeb bajati nikle
One of my last meetings with him was about seven years ago. He recounted how Habib Tanveer, a few days before he passed away, had visited him and how energized he felt after listening to him. The unaffordable house prices worried him. He wondered where he would live after retirement. He rued that the theatre had become a training ground for TV actors. He understood how vulnerable I had felt when I was slapped with a court case for writing a review of a book on the RSS.
All this somber chatter was constantly interrupted with hilarity and laughter. We recounted how a policeman had visited his flat on the second floor in R.K. Puram. It was the mid-1990s and a policeman who noticed my car with a Punjab license plate, parked on the street in front of Shahid’s flat, came up to confirm his suspicions. It was past mid-night and a shroud of fog blurred the winter night. The man probably did not expect that a party of sorts would be going on in the house. Shahid noticed his bewilderment and invited him for a drink. The man smiled in relief and left. We joked if the poor man was still wondering if any conspiracies were being hatched between a Muslim and a Sikh, both communities seen at one time of the other, of inciting terrorism.
Shahid attested the photo I had to include in my marriage application. He was one of the five friends I had invited for the wedding- he was the only one who did not turn up. I was saddened by this fact and met him less frequently after that. A few months later I moved back to the US.
On my trips to India I would call him and ask: “Ticket bik rahe hain?” in lieu of “How are things going?” There’s a story behind that. He had once invited me to the play Swadesh Deepak’s play Court Martial in Mandi House, and when I reached there I found him at the ticket counter, enthusiastically handing out tickets. It became a code word between us for getting on with life, taking in its harshness and bitterness and the unfairness of it all.
Yesterday, Shahid stopped selling tickets. There was no dearth of those of us lining up before him to hand us the tickets — of his writings, plays, conversations, mirth, guffaws — not realizing that the arteries of his heart had given away.
His had been, perhaps, too large a heart for them to sustain.