From K.K. Aziz’s Coffee House: Visiting a 4-Anna Film Stall at Bhati Gate with Zaheer Kashmiri

Posted on November 20, 2010
Filed Under >Adil Najam, Books, Economy & Development, History, People, Society
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Adil Najam

This installment of excerpts from K.K. Aziz’s The Coffee House of Lahore (read book review by Raza Rumi, here) presents a portion of his profile of Zaheer Kashmiri (photo on right).  The book is organized as a series of these portraits of what Aziz calls the ‘habitués’ of the Lahore Coffee House. Earlier in passage K.K. Aziz describes Zaheer Kashmiri as

“a flamboyant personality, consciously outrageous, bent upon having his say on the subject of his choice, and colourful in his deportment and dress. but all this served as an outer cover (perhaps a disguise) for a heart palpitating on the plight of the oppressed and a soul full of fellowship in sorrow… As an Urdu poet his reputation stands high. Unlike other ‘progressive’ and leftist poets he did not allow his political commitment to make a preacher out of him. The romantic element in his poetry shrugs off the pedantic and the didactic.

… He could be reticent when he was thinking or was uninterested in the subject under discussion. But when he was moved or wanted to make a point his passion rose like a glittering sun emerging out of a grey cloud. Then nothing could stop him. Quoting poets and philosophers he would build his case brick by brick, mortaring every joint, strengthening his argument, and not letting his critics interrupt his foaming flood of words. He spoke often in Punjabi and sometimes in Urdu, but when he wanted to overawe the company he switched to English in which he was unexpectedly fluent and accurate. For a boy who emerged from a lower-middle class background and grew in the lanes of Amritsar in vernacular company and attended a local Muslim college his command of spoken English surprised his friends. He found no difficulty in understanding and digesting obtuse and difficult texts like Hegel and Spengler. I once asked him how he had managed to tackle the Decline of the West. ‘By reading the entire text five times with concentrated attention,’ he replied.”

For ease of reading, as before, we will not indent the selected excerpt as quoted text; everything beyond these lines is in K.K. Aziz’s words (as are the two paragraphs above).

One day in 1946 [Zaheer Kashmiri] met me in the Coffee House and asked me casually, “Have you ever watched a film from the 4-anna stalls?”

Let me first describe the hierarchy of seating arrangements in Lahore’s cinemas of those days. The screen end of the hall has pits with hard uncomfortable chairs and each seat cost 4 annas (25 paisas of today). After that was the second class, the largest in the hall, with reasonable chairs with arms, the seats costing one ruppee and two annas each. Above it at the back was the first class, with soft cushioned chairs, and here the fare was two ruppees and four annas. The hall ended here. But above the first class was the balcony where the seats were luxurious and the price three ruppees and six annas. College students with identity cards enjoyed the concession, applicable to all classes except the pits, of paying half the ordinary price of a seat. In other words, they paid 9 annas for the second class, one ruppee and two annas for the balcony. As a student of Government College with a generous pocket allowance and with the half-price concession, I had never contemplated watching a film in the pits.

I replied to Zaheer’s inquiry in the negative, and when he proposed that I should accompany him to a Bhati Gate cinema to watch a film along with the ‘sweating humanity’ (his words) I did not protest.

We met at 5.45 P.M. outside the Gate, he bought two 4-anna tickets, and we entered the hall. Everything inside disgusted me. The benches were of hard wood without a back so that I could not lean back. There were few fans and the place was airless. The audience around me consisted of labourers, street vendors, tonga drivers and the louts of the locality, who talked loudly, often lacing their sentences with obscene but biologically accurate Punjabi abuses, which were so explicit that nothing was left to imagination. Most of them smelt and I felt nauseated. Had Zaheer not been chaperoning me I would have left.

I can’t recall which film it was, but it was an English movie. Whenever a woman appeared on the screen the 4-anna audience squirmed in their seats and passed lewd remarks. When the hero kissed the heroine in a close-up shot there was bedlam around me with catcalls, whistlings and saucy comments like “Oé” and “Haé” and “Mauj Kar gya.” The crowd was exclusively male. Even if I could ignore these problems and concentrate on the film I found that I could not see the figures moving on the screen. Sitting so close to the screen my eyes failed to adjust to the short distance between the viewer and the viewed. What was visible to me was huge men, women horse and wagons (it was probably a Western film) whose abnormal size distorted the picture. Every close-up shot filled the whole screen. There was a disturbing contrast between visual distortion and audio clarity. The picture was enormous and blurred, the dialogue was clear and distinct. I sat through the performance not as a pleasure but as a painful novelty.

When we came out Zaheer insisted that we visit a nearby tea stall, which we did. But it added to my loathing. The shop was filthy, the tables and chairs dirty and rough, and the few customers were brethren of the cinema crowd. After a boy in soiled clothes had slammed two ready-made cups of tea before us with a bang and we had lit our cigarettes, Zaheer immediately embarked upon a lecture on our experience of watching a film in teh pits. He talked in English for about ten minutes. I can’t recall at this interval of time his words or the order in which he piled one argument upon another. But I remember the gist of what he said because it affected me deeply.

“I know how uncomfortable you felt there. New surroundings. Strange people. Yes, strange, because they were not the people you meet or talk to. How surprising that you have till today not met these people. They are the unwashed whom you have never met. They are the people for whose freedom the Congress, your Muslim League and my [Communist] Party are struggling. And you have never before met these people whom the whole problem is about. You talk about the independence and the future of the country, but you don’t know the people who live in the country. They smell, but they are the salt of the earth. I am not asking you to mix with them, but at least to be aware of them. I am not asking you to join the Communist Party. I am not a preacher. I demand your sympathy and compassion for these people. They deserve that and as a human being this is the least you can do for them. And I brought you to this apology for a tea house with that purpose in view. I know you don’t like the ambience, the milieu, the quality of the tea, the demeanour of the waiter, the condition of the furniture, the noise and the bustle of the bazaar. But that is where and how people live. Don’t share this condition with them, but be cognizant of it.”

… I often heard my Leftist friends in the Coffee House talking about the poor but their emphasis was political rather than economic and social. Their vocabulary was full of “Marx says,” “the proletariat,” “the economic theory of history,” “exploitation by the rich,” “trade unionism” and such words, but they hardly mentioned the poor, the individual who suffered, the amelioration which was needed, the practical steps which were required. The “socialist revolution” monopolized their debates, not the realities and practical details of raising the level of the poor. They sold Soviet tracts and pamphlets and regurgitated Marx and Lenin. They did not expound the creed of human sympathy and the dogma of natural compassion.

That is why Zaheer’s words struck to my mind and I can reproduce them today, after 61 years. It was a welcome reminder of what I had felt when my consciousness was still an infant.

Also see:
K.K. Aziz (1927-2009): History Shall Miss Him
Books: K.K. Aziz’s The Coffee House of Lahore
From K.K. Aziz’s Coffee House: Lahore as it Used To Be

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18 responses to “From K.K. Aziz’s Coffee House: Visiting a 4-Anna Film Stall at Bhati Gate with Zaheer Kashmiri”

  1. T.S. Bokhari says:

    What amazing were the days when we used to sit with Zaheer Kashmiri on the ground in the weekly meetings of the Progressive Writers held in front of the office of the Association. What a lovable personality he was!

    And about seeing a film in the 4-anna stall in a cinema on McLeod Road!

    One day a friend and a class-fellow of mine (I could not recall his name) in the K.C. College suggested seeing a film in a cinema. I begged him to be excused as I was out of pocket. But he insisted and said, “Come on dear! Our Baba will provide us the ticket”. I could not understand what he meant but he virtually dragged me to a nearby cinema on the Mcleod Road, called Sanober then. There he went straight to a small ‘mazaar’ of some baba by the side of the cinema. He lifted the locked ‘nazrana-box’ placed on the mazaar and turning it over started maneuvering it with a straw through its slit to draw out some money. Soon he got an 8-Anna piece which, according to him, was a loan by baba for purchasing two-tickets for the pit.

    Thus I enjoyed watching a film in the 4-Anna pit so much that I adopted it as a routine.

  2. hello says:

    Nawaz Sharif pays only Rs. 5000 tax, Gilani pays nothing, Hafiz Sheikh and Hina Rabbani Khar also pay zilch, and most of the parliamentarians either pay nothing or pay peanuts in taxes. Also there is huge tax relief for the military officers and the bureaucrats in the name of researcher rebate and such. Journalists and the media groups along with the judiciary also enjoy tax relief schema.

    Industrialists and the mill owners also know thousand ways to evade the taxes. In Pakistan, only 1 lac 60 thousands shop keepers pay the tax, while millions of other shop keepers are not even registered in the tax net. From the bulging population of 170 million, less than two percent of Pakistanis pay the tax. The elite of Pakistan simply don’t pay it. So every time government put more pressure in form of new taxes on the already existing tax net.

    I am a salaried person. The income tax already gets deducted from my pay. I cannot do anything about it. I already pay GST and other taxes on the utilities and the commodities. I also run a small business as part time earning niche, and I haven’t registered it and don’t pay tax on it, because that is in my control. I don’t feel guilty about it, because I know that my tax will be abused to provide subsidy to the elite and would be used to maintain their luxury.

    I am sad that I am robbed of my hard-earned money in the form of taxes automatically from my salary and the utilities.

    (ref:Tazeen)

  3. Sana Saleem says:

    Great ! I feel refreshed after reading this piece. And I agree with the thing that if you are struggling for anyone’s rights, you should also know him. Its hard to achieve goals if you are not aware of the facts.

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