April 8, 2018

There is little chance of Satellite Town Rawalpindi finding mention as a centre of art and culture in Pakistan. In the world of the written word, the only bookshop was the Qureshi Second Hand Books & Magazines.  However, if one was charitable and counted school text books as a form of literature then Arshad Book and Stationery could be considered as half a bookshop.  Thus, in the words of my mother, there were “kul total” one and half bookstores in Satellite Town.  Matters got worse when it came to art. The framed pictures of seductive film actresses and prints of the beautiful landscapes of hill stations like Murree and Kashmir were the only concession to imagination, aesthetics, and high art.

It must have been that the creator took pity on the cultural wilderness that was Satellite Town.  One morning as the denizens of Satellite Town walked past the main market a newly opened shop made them stop in their tracks. Sandwiched between Ideal Hairdresser and Mubarak Lemon Soda shops, a colorful signboard written in beautiful calligraphy announced the arrival of “Tajiliat” (Revelations). Not so well versed in high Urdu, many simple folks had no idea what the word meant.  It was then that the all knowing Ideal Hairdresser (no one ever knew his name) explained to those who came for a haircut that Tajaliat referred to the event where the prophet Moses beseeched God to reveal himself.  When God did so, all Musa could see was a huge flash of lightening that struck the mountain in front of him and turned it into a heap of ash. So traumatic was this encounter that Moses fainted.  When he regained consciousness he declared that he needed no further proof of the Almighty’s existence.

The shop was quite appropriately named as it was an art gallery; a kind of establishment hitherto unknown within a ten miles radius of the Satellite Town. A tall thin man, wearing loose fitting western clothes was busy at an easel, painting a picture that seemed liked a depiction of paradise.  Completed art works hung on the walls of the shop.  A small crowd quickly gathered outside but no one dared to enter the gallery.  The artist continued to paint completely indifferent to the gawkers and gapers. Some of the more rude onlookers declared that the owner was “mental”, a term that was in those times the popular coinage for an insane person. The hairdresser revealed that the name of the artist was Mr. Najmi and he had moved from Karachi.

As the news spread more people came to visit the art shop.  A few dared to venture inside the shop, but their jaws dropped when they saw the price tags on the works.  With the framed photos in Shami Glass House as their only reference, the price of these works appeared outrageous. When a brave man asked the serious looking owner/artist, he answered in a gentle voice, “Sir, it is an original painting, not a photograph of a painting”.  Such an explanation did not get much traction with the simple folks of satellite town for whom the only original painting was that of a hoarding advertising a movie.

The business at Tajaliat was slow.  According to Ideal Hairdresser (who kept a close eye on the happenings around him), only one painting was sold in the month following the opening. A second one was sold only to be returned the next day as the wife of the purchaser did not approve of it.  Unfortunately for the artist, the buyer seemed to have used the painting as a tray to serve tea and the fine work was now embellished with tea stains.

Things were bad enough for Mr. Najmi when a new calamity struck. The news of the shop had reached Maulana Sadruddin the formidable Imam of Madni Masjid, that was the most important mosque in the area. The Maulana was a firm believer that painting of human form was the work of devil.  After the Friday prayers he led a group of fifty strong supporters to Tajiliat.  Mr. Najmi, as was his practice, was bent over the easel painting a portrait of some imaginary houri. “I did not see you at the Friday prayers!” thundered the cleric. Startled, Mr. Najmi nearly tripped over the easel. Before he could recover, Sadruddin fired another shot across the bow. “And what is this you are painting?” he glowered, pointing at the canvas on the easel.  “It is a woman, Sir” replied a diffident Najmi.  But Sadruddin, energized by his rousing Friday sermon was taking no prisoners. “You think I am blind?  I can very well that this is a woman, and in a shameless pose!”  The fifty followers were also quite roused by now to root out such vulgarity from the commercial market. The shop was clearly under siege.

“OK, fine, you have made this picture of a woman, now show me if you can bring it to life by blowing the spirit into it!!” challenged the Maulana. The artist was now seriously worried about his safety.

“I am just a human Sir, I can only paint, I cannot bring a painting to life.”

“Exactly, so how dare you paint a human figure!” the Maulana shouted triumphantly, elated that the artist had seen the light.  He ripped the canvas off the easel and tore it to shreds in his large thick hands. At this victory of good over evil, the fifty supporters shouted “Allah u Akbar!”

That ripped canvas was to be last of Mr. Najmi’s creations. That winter evening, as cold winds blew dust and dried horse manure in the streets,  the shutters went down on the sole art gallery of Satellite Town, never to open again.  Some wise men said that the way Moses was unable to confront the vision of God, Satellite Town was not ready for its very own revelations. Some superstitious folks opined that the naming a shop after a religious event was akin to blasphemy and the owner was lucky that the shop did not burn down to ashes like the mountain in front of Moses.

According to the usually unreliable reports Mr. Najmi was last seen in the Saddar area, perched on a tall ladder, painting a huge hoarding for the movie Don’t Bother To Knock (for adults only), playing at the Rose Cinema. The painting of the gorgeous and sultry Marilyn Monroe, the leading lady of the movie, was done with loving attention to detail. The movie was a smashing success and ticket black marketers made good profits on the opening day.

The same unreliable sources also reported that Maulana Sadruddin ranted against the decline in the moral values of the Muslims as he described in great detail the vulgarity in the movie. Such was the power of his oratory, that half the congregation went to see the movie after the prayers ended.





The writer is an engineer by training and a social scientist by inclination.