Madeeha Ali Gohar lost her first battle, the battle against cancer. Aliki, as she was known in her close circles, is a name with Greek origin, meaning honest. Honest to the core, stubborn to the hilt, she was a born rebel, first without a cause in her childhood and as teenaged girl, and in time a champion of women’s rights, regional peace and people’s theatre with a political comment. Who can forget the protest march against General Ziaul Haq’s anti-women ordinances when Madeeha, Asma Jahangir and many others were brutally dealt with by the might of the state. These were the birth pangs of the Woman Action Forum.
I think it was sometime in 1970 when I first saw her. Her mother, Khadijah Gohar, the South Africa-born rights activist and writer, had joined hands with that thorn in the eye of every dictator, Hussain Naqi, to publish the weekly Punjab Punch. I happened to be the editor. We worked in a dungeon-like office in Patiala Ground area. One day she took me home for her famous tea and sandwich afternoons. There I saw this easily excited, livelier than life girl who upon the pronouncement of my name by the mother, took no time to abbreviate it to PT, an identification that I carry to this day. The younger, rather fatty, sister quickly found an unmentionable expression for the abbreviation. “There, you see the difference between the Convent and the American School!” exclaimed the mother.
From then on, these sandwich-tea afternoons became more frequent. At times, a Jirga consisting of Professor Eric Cyprian, Naqi Sahib and myself had to intervene on matters of contention. Aliki joined Kinnaird. The two sisters would hawk Punjab Punch at the gates. Najamuddin Festival initiated her into theatre. By now I was teaching at GC. Aliki started visiting its English Department and found friends in Sarwat Ali and Sajid Qaisrani. GCDC inspired her. Tu Kaun, Sawan ren da suphna, Najam Hussain Syed and Sarmad Sehbai come to mind. She completed masters in English literature and started teaching at a college in Gujranwala. In 1973, she started acting in PTV plays. She lost her job and the PTV appearances when General Zia came down heavy on any hint of dissent from anyone and anywhere. This was the time when she went to London to complete her masters in theatre studies. She met Shahid Nadeem there. The producer-director in her was looking for a writer. Shahid neatly fitted the bill. Ajoka followed and the rest is history known to all with an interest in a theatre with a social conscience.
Aliki belonged to the group of artists who do not see art, culture, society, polity, economy as watertight compartments. A restless soul right from teens, she found in folk theatre a medium to show the ugly face of inequity and convey the message of social change to the wretched of the earth. This she did at a time when political parties had lost their way and fence-sitting was the involuntary or voluntary choice of those of our intellectual elite who had not crossed over the fence. She has left at a time when the seeds sown in the obscurantic eighties have matured into non-state offensives against all that is decent in our art, culture and literature. Peace and harmony in our land is becoming elusive, with a spectre of fear haunting us. Oh! the fearless! Why must you depart? First Asma Jahangir and now Madeeha Gohar. For whom the bell tolls next, one shudders to think of.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 27th, 2018.