One more tribute to my mentor on my 70th birthday

BDC News

By Ali Peter John
I often wonder, shudder and sometimes even wake up in the middle of many nights to think if my life would be what it has been if an extraordinarily great man like Khwaja Ahmad Abbas had not come into my life. Even the way he allowed me to see a new life, turn my life upside down is an unbelievable story by itself.
I had just finished my M A exams and was busy wondering what to do with my life. My college was always very kind to me. It gave me an entirely free education. I did not have to pay any fees at any time. I did not have to pay for my books or my lunch. They even offered me what they called a prayer scholarship (just imagine being paid to pray). They wanted to continue being kind and offered me the job of an English tutor which was the first step to becoming a lecturer and then a professor. I refused. I did not want the job because I did not want to do injustice to the college which had done so much for me. I knew I was a very good learner but I could never think of teaching. I had tried giving tuitions to little children at Rs. 5 a month when I was literally starving but I still gave up because I just didnt have the inclination or the patience to teach. I was now wondering whether I should become a Roman Catholic priest which was my ambition when I passed out of school, a bus conductor which was my passion, a poet, a new kind of beggar, singing with my friends in public places and in trains. I decided to give myself sometime before taking a decision. Then one morning while I was having my royal breakfast in a hotel whose manager, Shantaram gave me credit in the hope that I would pay him one day. He always asked me to come for breakfast or lunch before the owner of the hotel reached and took his seat. That morning I saw a copy of Blitz in the hands of a man, a tabloid which was very powerful and popular and which I loved only because of one column written by a certain writer called K A Abbas. All I knew was that he was the same writer who wrote films like Awara, Shree 420, Mera Naam Joker and Bobby for Raj Kapoor. I was on fire after seeing what he wrote in his column which I knew had the power to give the jitters and the shakes to the high and the mighty. That morning he had written something about how corruption was becoming a way of life in independent India for who hundreds and thousands of Indians had laid down their lives. I did not know what to do with myself, I couldnt control the fire that was raging within me. I rushed to the counter where Shantaram sat, Shantaram my manager, well wisher and annadata (the man who kept me away from hunger). I asked him for ten naya paise because I did not have any money on me. I rushed to the nearby panwala shop and bought a post card. I rushed back to Shantarams Rajnish Hotel, borrowed a pen from Shantaram, ordered a steaming hot glass of tea and wrote my first ever fan letter to this certain K A Abbas who I never knew and could never imagine I would ever know. I told him how much that column had fired my thoughts and how it had almost set me on fire. In the end I told him how happy I would be to see him just once. I still dont know what made me give him my unknown address. I sent the post card addressed to the Blitz office and forgot all about it.

Five days later I was down with flu. I had no money to buy poison, how could I think of seeing a doctor? I was lying in an old bed left as a heritage to me by my late father when there was a flutter in the slum where I lived. The postman had come to our slum for the first time ever and was asking for me. He had a letter in my name and was finding it difficult to find M. Ali House, the name I had proudly given to my hole which was built by my mother in whose name I dedicated her house. My friends were very excited and led the postman to my house. He was treated like a VIP and offered cups of tea by everyone in the neighbourhood. The letter sent to me became an event in the slum. A crowd gathered me as I tried to open the envelope when my feverish eyes fell on the cover. The name K A Abbas was imprinted on it. My heart started beating faster. What could this be? Had I done something wrong? My mind was full of questions till I opened the envelope. Inside was a stark white sheet of paper with something typed on it. I read it and then read it again and again. That man, K A Abbas had written to me! He had thanked me for my postcard and my reactions to his column. It was the last three lines that shook me up with excitement. He had asked me to come and see him in his office in Juhu whenever I had the time. It took me time to understand what had happened. It took me three more days to recover. The letter had a soothing effect on me and a pride of place in my house. I decided to go and see him. I went back to Shantaram, borrowed one rupee from him and set out on my journey to Juhu, a place I had visited only once when my mother had taken us (me and my two brothers) for a picnic on the beach known as Juhu beach. It took me hours to find where this man, K A Abbas lived and worked. His office was on the fifth floor of one of the first few buildings in Juhu and there was no elevator. It was 3 p.m. I was walking in the sun all morning trying to find his office. I was panting, gasping for breath. I had not eaten anything since morning. I rang the door bell. A voice which sounded like the roar of a tiger screamed Yes. I walked in hesitantly with his letter in my hand. There was an aging bald man sitting in only his banyan, sitting before a huge wooden table and busy scribbling on paper. I felt he must be the servant of that man called K A Abbas. In a very feeble voice I told the man I had received a letter from K A Abbas who had asked me to see him. I showed him the letter for proof. That was roared again. I am Abbas, he said and I could feel the ground swallowing me up. Sit down he roared again. What have you done till now? he asked. I said that I had just finished my M A in English literature. Good he said, his voice growing mellow. But still a scream. What do you plan to do now? he asked now getting kinder. I want to write poetry I told him. You already look famished and starved, do you want to die of starvation? Poetry is a great art of expression but it can never guarantee you your daily bread. You cannot make poetry your profession or a way of making a life that can be anywhere even meeting your daily necessities, he said and I didnt know what to say next. He roared again, I think you have an urge to write. Have you written anything else besides writing poetry? he asked. I dont know what had guided me to carry my college magazines of which I was the editor thrice and showed him some of my writings. Good, good you must have some tea, he said and asked a man called Jabbar to get two cups of tea with a banana and some khaari biscuits. I found what was on the table a feast and swallowed the tea, the banana and the biscuits all at the same time even as he kept watching me with feelings I could never easily understand. I then showed him the campus magazine in which I had done an interview with the well known Urdu writer, Rajinder Singh Bedi and also written some angry pieces against the outdated systems the university was following. Yes, there is something in you. You have the fire. You must let that fire grow because India needs young people who are angry and are willing to fight for change and progress, he said in a very stern voice. Do you know any one in the film industry? I mentioned the name of a neighbour who told us, children, stories about what a great writer he was and who had the knack of throwing big names around to impress us innocent children and people living almost far away from civilization. You seem to know all the rogues in the industry he said. I was taken aback. He shocked me when he told me how the man whose name I had mentioned had defrauded Rajinder Singh Bedi of Rs. 8 lakhs. I was shocked, zapped and silenced for the next few minutes. He finished his cup of tea, looked me in my eyes and asked me if I would like to work with him and before I could think or open my mouth, he said, I will pay you Rs. 100 a month and there will be times when I will not be able to pay you even that. You can take your time and give me your answer in the next three day. I did not want to wait. I just said Yest and he gave me Rs. 50 as an advance to look after my traveling and other expenses. My college was still willing to pay me Rs. 400 but I dont know how or why I turned down the offer again and again and agreed to work with this man who I had seen, met and talked to for the first time.

What followed was one long experience of never ending process of learning. It was during my stay with a man I called Abbas Sahab that I saw him firing the day lights out of the greatest showman, Raj Kapoor for coming drunk to his office. It was here that I saw Raj Kapoor sick but climbing all the five floors only to handover the keys of a brand new Ambassador car as a token of his appreciation for giving him a big hit like Bobby at a time when he was almost facing bankruptcy after the disaster of his magnum opus Mera Naam Joker and making Abbas Sahab promise him that he would not sell the car under any circumstances. Raj Kapoor knew how Abbas Sahab put all the money he made out of his writing articles, short stories, books and scripts into the making of his own brand of films, most of which only ended up making him lose money but he never gave up making them even when he knew he was dying. It was during my stay with him that I realized what dedication and discipline to work was. He worked 18 hours a day even after having a major heart attack. It was while I was working with him that I realized how he was respected by all the leading literary giants of the times like Balraj Sahni, Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Ali Sardar Jafri, Kaifi Azmi, Kishan Chander, Ismat Chugtai, Inder Raj Anand and every other literary giants. They all assembled in his office whenever they had something important to discuss, especially in a time of crisis. He was their monitor. They all listened to him and no one had the courage to challenge him whenever he took a decision or passed an order. It was in this office where I heard some of the greatest leaders calling him up and pleading with him not to be so cruel to them. It was at this office that I saw the kind of books which I had never seen in my life time. It was in this office that I saw Raj Kapoor being taken down the stairs by Abbas Sahab and left in his car whenever he found him in a state which he didnt want him to see. It was in this office that I saw some of the most promising artistes, writers and directors walk in and walk out for breaks and advice. It was in this office that I learned what I had never in all my years of slogging it out in college and at the university. If it was not this, University of Abbas Sahab I dont know what or where I would be. I always remember Abbas Sahab and in the same breath I remember Shantaram who I still owe Rs.11.45 paise which I have promised him I will never return because it will always remind me of that postcard and that one rupee he gave me which changed my life and what a way it changed my life. It was this very office in which he changed the life of one of the icons of our times who I will talk about in my next column because I had the privilege of being the only witness when Abbas Sahab worked that one great miracle of our times.

He started life as a journalist Bombay Chronicle, one of the oldest papers in pre-independence India
He first wrote The Last Page, his personal column in Bombay Chronicle and then for Blitz where he wrote the same column in Hindi, English and Urdu for more than 45 years without a break and till the time he went into a coma from which he never came back
He had a regular working schedule. He had his breakfast which consisted of two bananas and a cup of tea and then started writing at 8.30 a.m sharp and wrote till 1 p.m. then he went down for his lunch to his house from where he returned at 2.30 p.m. after a short siesta and worked non stop till 10 p.m. He lived in a house called Philomina Cottage in a room for which he paid a royal sum of Rs. 100 all through his house.
His house was a simple apartment with only the necessities of life. He was most comfortable traveling by buses even after Raj Kapoor presented him with a car with the salary of the driver, Ashfaque (who worked with Abbas Sahab till his end) and the money spent on petrol paid for by RK films
He was a prolific writer but he was also a passionate reader. There were times when he together with his friend Inder Raj Anand (the actor Tinnu Anands father who was the highest paid writer of the time) had reading session which went on all through the night.
He never smoked or drank but he never ordered any one not to because he was a firm believer in the freedom of choice
He was an ardent admirer of Jawaharlal Nehru and could not take any criticism of him, not even from his best friend Inder Raj Anand who was a hard hitting critic of Nehru.
He was a VIP in Soviet Russia where President Nikita Khruschev and Prime Minister Alexeikosygin and the first astronaut, Yuri Gagrin were his personal friend. He was responsible in making Raj Kapoor a craze in Russia which he is till this day through his films Awara and Shree 420. The Kapoor family has a special place in Russia and other communist countries, all thanks to him
Raj Kapoor called him his soul and his conscience. He had a faithful secretary in Abdul Rehman who could have found the best jobs anywhere but preferred to be with Abbas Sahab till the very end and was the only man who knew all his strengths and weaknesses
He was the only filmmaker who fought against the outdated guidelines of the censors and his fight in the supreme court which he won has been responsible in making censorship as lenient as it is today
His will power and his determination to do things were proved when he was dubbing for his last film, Ek Aadmi which was an autobiographical film and he continued dubbing even though he had a major heart attack while he was still sitting in projection room. He was lying in a very critical stage in hospital but when he realized he was the golden jubilee celebration of IMPPA (the association of producers) he made sure and appealed to the doctors to take him to the venue and his wish was granted. He was taken all the way to Colaba on a stretcher with a ventilator supporting all the time. Some time before he had his series of attacks a trolley being drawn by a woman at the Rome airport crushed his right foot. The Russian government tried its best to set his foot right but nothing worked and yet he could never be stopped from doing what he wanted to
His last will was to have no religious ceremonies at his funeral and that his body only be placed before the statue of Mahatma Gandhi at Juhu and then be buried in the qabrastan where the poorest of the poor were buried
And the man who always gave more than he deserved and received was finally betrayed and cheated by his own nephew, Anwar who he brought up as his own son. This nephew who was a pilot sold off the room in which Abbas Sahab lived to the landlord for Rs. 5 lakh, sold off all the books which were worth more than any treasure in the world and even all his many many awards from the different parts of the countries, gold medals and platinum medals and even his Padmashri award in the Chor Bazar and fled to Pakistan overnight. That is the gratitude the man, who thousands of people owed all their gratitude, received for the life he had lived and dedicated to make others live a better life. This life of my Guru reminds me of some heart rending lines written by my friend Manohar Iyer and the lines put Abbas Sahab in the perspective he must and should and will be remembered for all times. Manohars lines go :
Tere bholepan ke parde ki us balaa se main anjaan raha,
Tujhe apne dil mein basaake main, apne hi ghar mehmaan raha;
Teri har adaa ne sikhlaayi ehsasn-faramoshi kya hai,
Ehsaan mere tujhe yaad na ho, par mujhpe tera ehsaan raha.
(I was blissfully unaware of your scheming and vicious mind beneath the mask of your innocence
I held you very close to me and gave you a special place in my bruised heart
and distanced me from my own self
Every act, every gesture of yours taught me, an innocent what betrayal was
And I will remain eternally grateful to you for what you gave me in return
even though you may have forgotten what I gave to you)

(This story has not been edited by BDC staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed from IANS.)
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