General Zia ul-Haq had taken over Pakistan. Piety filled the air; there was much talk of religion: praying, fasting. The General threw a party to break the Ramadan fast at the house of his figurehead Prime Minister, Muhammad Khan Junejo. I was among the writers and journalists invited. We had broken the fast, were eating, when the muezzin gave the call to prayer. The General rose hastily, leaving his food, and walked off to the prayer room. Most of the invitees followed. I seemed to be the only one left behind. I looked around and found Ahmed Ali Khan, a newspaper editor, sitting under a tree in a far corner of the lawn. A few others joined us, while the pious dictator and his guests prayed.
The next evening we were back at the Prime Minister’s house. Junejo had thrown his own fast-breaking party. The same crowd filled the lawns, all except the General. The muezzin gave the call for prayer. The Prime Minister promptly rose from his plate and left for the prayer room. I looked around: a few followed him but the majority stayed by their plates. Prayer is an obligation for Muslims, but it seemed who invited you to pray made a difference.
The General’s call to Islam had the strongest effect. Before him, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had attempted to raise the banner of Islam in Pakistan, but without much success. He decreed the Ahmadiyya sect non-Muslim, made Friday a public holiday, banned horse racing and alcohol. Bhutto wasn’t a praying, fasting man, and his flirtations with Islamism remained suspect.
General Zia aggressively nourished the Islamism Bhutto had midwifed. Overnight, bureaucrats began showing up in mosques and rows of the faithful became a feature of the offices. At my newspaper, Mashriq (the East), there were a few devout men. The moment the call for afternoon prayer sounded, their pens would stop and they would leave for the nearby mosque. And now, the moment the editor appointed by the General stepped out of his cubicle, every reporter and editor would rise from his seat and head for the mosque. The madman stood with a razor on our necks. Rumour had it that two lists were being made: those who prayed regularly would be considered for promotion; those who didn’t . . .
The Arts Council of Lahore promoted theatre, painting, music and dance. Maharaj Ghulam Hussain, a maestro of the classical dance, Kathak, would waltz into the Arts Council building every evening, casually waving his stick. He would sit cross-legged in a small room, chew betel-nut leaf, and lord it over his small class of dancers.
News came that the dance class had been banned. The Islamists had been attacking the Arts Council. I was on the board and we had a meeting that week. ‘Why have you banned the dance class?’ I asked the chairman. ‘We haven’t banned it,’ he said. ‘We have moved the class to the basement, away from peering eyes.’ The chairman paused. ‘Don’t write about that in your column. That would make us cancel the class.’
The General issued a proclamation: the word alcohol shall not be mentioned on the radio or the television. I was a regular on literary and cultural shows on Radio Pakistan. One day, as we were about to record a literary discussion, the producer, Shakoor Bedil, instructed, ‘Please don’t read any poem that refers to liquor.’
Liquor makes frequent appearances in Urdu poetry in the context of romantic love and longing. But intoxication refers often to the love of God and love of the Prophet in the Sufi tradition of Islam. The great Urdu poet-philosopher Sir Muhammad Iqbal, who is also Pakistan’s national poet, has written extensively in that vein, including a stirring poem, ‘Saaqi Nama’ (‘The Book of the Cupbearer’), which speaks about the transformative wine of political and social consciousness that makes the young lead the old.
I wanted to have a little fun. ‘Can we speak about the wine of mysticism?’ I asked the producer. He was in deep thought. ‘Can you avoid it?’ he pleaded. The subject demanded that I refer to Iqbal’s ‘Saaqi Naama’. ‘Would that be all right?’ I asked. The producer was torn between the General’s orders and the moral authority of the national poet-philosopher, who had come up with the idea of a separate homeland for India’s Muslims which eventually became Pakistan in 1947. The producer rose from his seat, brought his hands together desperately and cried, ‘Have pity on me! I will lose my job.’
Along with religion, an unthinking nationalism had become the other god of Pakistan. I was back at Radio Pakistan to record a discussion on Islamic cultural heritage. At some point I referred to the Taj Mahal as one of the highest points in Islamic architecture. The producer was overcome by a bout of anxiety. He stopped the recording. ‘Leave the Taj Mahal out! The authorities will object,’ he said.