I was in Lucknow when Sarabjit Singh died in Lahore. My purpose in visiting the city of my childhood was to address a much milder agenda: to attend a seminar organised by the local Urdu Media Guild on May Day. Since May Day this year coincided with celebration of Prophet Mohammad's daughter Fatima Zehra's birthday, the organisers made this coincidence the theme of the seminar.
Trust Lucknow to have preserved in its nooks and corners, here and there, a little bit of the cultural togetherness which was once the dominant feature of its social attractions.
Despite all my efforts at accommodating change, I have often despaired at standards of political demonstration organised, for example by Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati against each other. Mayawati's was "dhikkar" (damn) rally some years ago, which Mulayam Singh reciprocated with a "thu, thu" (spit on you) rally.
That is why it was such a relief to be at the seminar searching for common ground between workers' Day and dignity of labour enunciated by founders of Islam. Earliest Islam had itself attempted to build on a "respect for the poor" available in the Bible, even though the likes of Bernard Shaw aptly rebutted romanticisation of poverty: "Modern poverty is not the poverty that was blest in the Sermon on the Mount."
There was, however, no ambiguity in the minds of the organizers. The seminar dwelt on the example set by the prophet and his daughter in maintaining an exemplary simplicity in their own lives. Even though Fatima's mother, Khadija, was one of the richest women in Arabia, Fatima worked out a unique division of labour with Fizza who shared her household chores: they rested on alternate days. Daily chores in those days included grinding grain for dough.
In these days of creeping intolerance, citing parts of history from the religious domain could well be misunderstood but not in some enlightened arenas of Lucknow.
What I found particularly enchanting was the poetry on the family of the Prophet, linking it to Workers Day. This was composed and recited by Sanjay Mishra "Shauq". An Urdu poet with a name like Mishra still reaching across religious boundaries? I rubbed my eyes with disbelief. Sad to reflect, how Sanjay Mishra "Shauq's" literary ancestors from Chunni Lal Dilgir in the 19th century right upto Krishen Behari "Noor" only decades ago, writing on themes of the Prophet and Karbala, have become part of our collective amnesia. Abdul Rahim Khane Khana, Maulana Hasrat Mohani and Qazi Nazrul Islam have, in our minds likewise, been separated from compositions on Lord Rama, Krishna, Shiva and Shakti.
The next morning, just when my mother, now 94, brother and others in the family were talking about the previous evening's seminar, I received a message on my mobile from a friend in Delhi: "Switch on the TV because Sarabjit Singh has died."
We looked at each other with sadness, of course, but it was tinged with a sense of foreboding. We did not have to exchange a word to realize that the same thought crossed our minds when the TV came alive in a menacing sort of way. The anchor with angry, threatening faces in the five windows on the screen, demanded action, sought vengeance and generally mobilized political leaders on an ultra hardline platform towards an indefinable end. Were they inducing a societal, nervous breakdown for TRP ratings?
Political leaders on the eve of a make-or-break election, out of touch with the people, are liable to mistake a noisy media for public opinion. Therefore, on cue, came BJP president Rajnath Singh. "We should call back our High Commissioner from Islamabad" he thundered. Not to be left behind, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh lamented Pakistani leaders not having listened to "our pleas" to save the "brave son of India". No one thought of placing in perspective a simple fact: Sarabjit's conviction and sentence are a 23-year-old story which has been invested with so much media attention only recently.
Into this generally torrid atmosphere jumps Yasin Malik demanding the remains of Afzal Guru hanged and buried in Tihar jail. He is taken into "preventive custody", even as agitations gather momentum in New Delhi and Punjab against the court verdict on the 1984 anti Sikh riots.
To take the sting out of this agitation which cannot but have a potent anti-Congress thrust, Amrinder Singh, former Congress chief minister of Punjab, raises the pitch: Sarabjit's death is "officially decreed, cold blooded murder" by Pakistan.
In the midst of this singular lack of balance does Sanjay Mishra "Shauq", come across as escapism? Are there others like him ploughing a lonely furrow in their enclaves and who deserve to be identified and linked to a bigger grid?