Last Sunday as we gathered in a corner of the Nairang Gallery we now consider our hangout – we being some of the old timers at Tea House – and learnt about the details of the outrage that had happened here the question that confronted us was whether or not this was the proverbial first rain drop.
But first there was a ‘what if?’ What if the incident had happened on a Sunday evening; would we not have been in the line of fire? What if it had been the Sunday when several of the city’s elite intellectuals are present and the conversation is not held down to a formal agenda but everybody has to agree in the end with Dr Mubashir Hassan?
Nairang is no longer just an art gallery showcasing paintings. It is also a place for intellectual dialogue. Hali had complained of rare wares and largely ignorant customers. Gradually that has changed; the customers are more aware and appreciative of Nairang’s versatile fare. You can benefit from the insights of intellectuals like Dr Mubashir Hassan, IA Rehman, Dr Mubarik Ali and Hussain Naqi. You might even hear some forgotten melody from the subcontinent’s rich musical heritage or a verse, even a ghazal.
The discussion this Sunday eventually came to the inevitable question: should this be seen as the first such incident?
I was reminded of the Tea House that was witness to four dictators. By the fourth time, let me concede, it was already worn out. But it handled the first three dictators rather well, never compromising its dignity.
The day the country’s first martial law was proclaimed, visitors to the coffee house noticed a plaque close to the entrance that carried the inscription: “No political discussions please”. The Tea House had no such plaque. And yet people were apprehensive. For quite some time everybody sipped their tea in silence. If somebody talked it was in a whisper. Then a voice became heated and louder. Another showed more daring and his voice grew even louder. By 11 pm, when the Tea House closed, a discussion on martial law was raging.
In the years that followed a lot went on on The Mall – protest rallies, shouted slogans, teargas and brickbats. Many would dodge the pursuing riot police and take refuge at the Tea House, wipe the teargas tears, wash their face and sit down to tea. The police, even if they chased them right up to the Tea House door, never entered the place.
But then, a poet called Saleem Shahid came up with a haunting line: trust the one at the door to (eventually) step in. Well, the fact is, it did not; not during Ayub Khan’s martial law, not even in Zia’s days despite the Peoples Party jiyalas hanging out at the Tea House.
I happened for some reason to visit Delhi in those days. Somebody told me they too had a Tea House. I visited it and it was indeed quite like our own. When I visited Delhi again it was in the times of Indira Gandhi’s emergency. I learnt that the Tea House had been closed down. I wanted to know why and was told that somebody had told Mrs Gandhi that many of its patrons spoke ill of the emergency. That was the end of the Tea House. I find it amazing, I said, dear friends, that your Tea House did not survive a mere ‘emergency’. Look at our Tea House and how well it has dealt with several martial laws, perennial ill-speak against dictators notwithstanding. None of our dictators has touched the Tea House, unlike your democracy’s darling Indira Ji.
Now I wonder who I can taunt about the threshold not crossed during martial laws but under our much awaited democratic dispensation.
Translated from Urdu*