Farewell Ahmad Salim, the Contrary Traveller

The creative and research-based dimensions of Salim were so diverse that it is not easy to cover them at a time.

7 min read
Hindi Female

Main maut noon jiveya

Te hayati tikar aagaya vaan

Ae kavitaavaan likhde hoe

Mein maut vich muskuraya, par hayaati mere val hath vadhaa ditta

Te aakheya

Aseen kadon mile saan yaar?

Aseen Kadon Mile Saan?

(I lived death

Then came towards life

While writing these poems

I smiled in death, but life extended its hand towards me

And said

When did we ever meet friend?)

When Did We Ever Meet?

Little did I know while working on a centenary piece on the great Pakistani poet Shaikh Ayaz for this newspaper, that the great Punjabi poet, historian, compiler and archivist Ahmad Salim, who had brought Ayaz to a Punjabi audience decades ago, would join the latter in eternity in the wee hours of 11 December at the age of 78 last week in Islamabad.

Salim – with whom I had an academic and personal association of over two decades – was the name of not a personality, but an era within which the drowning, emerging society of his memories, the change in the changing currents of history and geographical lines can be seen everywhere. It is necessary to peep into the window of the past where this genius was born in order to understand his art and ideas. The sorrows scattered in his poetry can be easily searched in the memories, streets and quarters of his childhood, within lost relations. The twists and turns of his life were the same as the trails of his village. Where the blooming mustard flowers too showed off their beauty and in a few places some thorn or stone on the way, gave a clue to his sorrows and pain.

The creative and research-based dimensions of Salim were so diverse that it is not easy to cover them at a time.

His autobiography was actually a story about others. Thus every person’s life is very much connected with his society but Salim’s matter was different. Not only was his era one of the separation of India and Pakistan, or the dirge for the separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan, rather with his foresight, the child hidden inside him too had started hearing the footfalls of those celebrities who had turned new pages of history. Among them was the hero of the streets of Peshawar, Bacha Khan, who gave the first opinion regarding making Salim’s thoughts informed by political consciousness. Ahmad Salim went nearer to Faiz Ahmad Faiz by making the thoughts of Bacha Khan’s Khudai Khidmatgar movement a foundation of his personality.

This was the very time when Ahmad Salim was also influenced by the poetry of Sahir Ludhianvi, Fikr Taunsvi, and Ibrahim Habib. In Karachi, his earliest contacts were with Sahar Ansari, Anwar Maqsood, Syed Muhammad Taqi and Rais Amrohvi. An important event of that time was the Faiz Number of the Monthly Afkaar, in which Ahmad Salim had the opportunity to publish his writing as a first-year student and not only that, rather Afkaar also decided to award his poem.

In Abdullah Haroon College, he obtained the company of Faiz Ahmad Faiz when the latter became so enamoured of his ideas and art that he spent a great part of his life his life with him until after the establishment of Lok Virsa. Salim participated in the students’ wing of the Communist Party of Pakistan in Abdullah Haroon College. His poem Sada Jeeve Bangladesh (Long Live Bangladesh) was published in the Monthly Avaami Aavaaz in Karachi at a time when there was a restriction on freedom of expression in the country, but the man whose political education reflected the ideas of Bacha Khan and Faiz Ahmad Faiz, how could he have stopped his pen amid the night of 25 and 26 March 1971.

Ahmad Salim’s political consciousness took him repeatedly towards a quest for the dynamics and reasons for the historical and geographical changes in the country, beneath which the borderline makes humans strangers for each other. According to him, national issues could be solved by creating an atmosphere of peace via interfaith harmony. Standing before palaces with folded hands and obtaining benefits was never worthy of Ahmad Salim. He observed the tumultuous events of the dissolution and creation of assemblies fearlessly with great sagacity, rather narrated them too in a very logical manner.

The second creative aspect of Ahmad Salim was the preservation of folk literature and its transfer to new generations. During his work with Faiz Ahmad Faiz at Lok Virsa he not only preserved the vanishing tunes on tape recorders by travelling to far-off areas but also made them immortal forever by recording them in his books.


Ahmad Salim compiled local war-stories under the title of Lok Vaaraan (Folk Ballads). In the same manner, he not only acknowledged the literary services of Afzal Parvez and Farigh Bukhari but also paid a tribute to his affectionate relations with them by compiling a beautiful book on them. The publication of the folk songs of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa too is very much an important literary achievement of his. During his days of illness, his compilation of Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s services for Lok Virsa, report on culture and speeches were compiled in Urdu and English by Dr Humaira Ishfaq. In addition, a detailed account of his meeting with Ustad Daman in Lahore and his company and relationship with Shaikh Ayaz in Karachi are also found in his recently published autobiography.

The creative and research-based dimensions of Ahmad Salim were so diverse that it is not easy to cover them at a time. His poetic identity could not dominate his prose identity. His novellas can be presented as examples of fine creative works of art. His Punjabi novella Naal Mere Koi Challe (Someone To Accompany Me) presented the social attitudes and issues in the rural areas of Punjab in fictionalised form with great subtlety and excellence. This story made the events of partition to be beyond faith and sects; in which accepting humanity as the biggest faith the writer had made the story effective via the characters and impressive dialogues with great excellence.

Salim’s volume of Punjabi short-stories Prem Katha (Love Story) too presents the problems of life spread near him. The topics of his stories are humans divided by caste and tribe, groups inciting riots in the name of religion and individuals struggling for peace.

Generally Ahmad Salim’s fame was greater due to Punjabi poetry but if one observes minutely then his Urdu poetry too carried a prominent place among contemporaries. His volume of prose poetry Jab Dost Nahi Hota (When the Friend is Not There) is a lifelike proof of very unique and powerful creative expression concerning topics. In his poetry, the expression of such a writer, uniting the anguish of a woman with her existence and spirit contrary to the traditional landscape of Urdu literature, by making her a friend instead of a beloved, brought the image of the equality of female and male to the front. The people reviled by society were the topic of his writings. Along with raising the flag of revolt against this exploitation, he also felt their sorrows, rather transferred their pain to paper.


His mother tongue was Punjabi and the words which had been presented with their beauty in his expression in the mother tongue were also unprecedented. His attachment to Punjabi poetry was a gift of mystic poetry and in modern poetry, that of the company of Amrita Pritam. His Punjabi verses were praised around the world. His topics were such which made him embrace the current sensibility, but the selection of words and cultural consciousness took him closer to Punjabi classics too.

Ghadi Di Tik-Tik (Tick-Tock of the Clock) was a rare Punjabi poetic collection of Ahmad Salim; in which the writer brought those issues a little above social issues under discussion which make Man helpless before nature. His poems were noteworthy concerning political, social, societal and psychological references. Recently his Punjabi poetry had been brought together in Kulliyat-e-Ahmad Salim published by Sang-e-Meel Publication, which this scribe reviewed last year on Salim’s 77th birthday.

Another achievement of his which is a very great resource and a prominent work is his personal library which contains rare books and journals. Ahmad Salim’s heart and the doors of his library always remained open for scholars.

My last meeting with him was in Lahore earlier this year in March when he especially travelled to Lahore from Islamabad for the launch of his autobiography Meri Dharti, Mere Log (My Land, My People) at the Pak Tea House organized by the Progressive Writers Association, despite his paralysis which was quite painful to behold for his admirers and friends, including myself.

At that event, I had titled my essay to be read on the book in calling Salim Baad-e-Mukhaalif Ka Musafir (Traveler of the Contrary Wind) which was also to have been the title of my review of the book for this space. Little did I know then that, rather than write that review for this classic autobiography – perhaps Ahmad Salim’s crowning achievement – I would be writing his obituary next in this same space a mere ten months later.

Salim leaves behind a treasure trove of books and poetry that will be cherished for generations to come. But his larger-than-life presence and his limitless compassion for the oppressed all across the world will be sorely missed.

Note: All translations from Punjabi are by the writer.

(Raza Naeem is an award-winning Pakistani researcher and translator based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He tweets @raza_naeem1979. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Obituary 

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