Roundabout: Legend of Shah Hussain retold in fiction with finesse

Shah Hussain (1538–1599) is the original Sufi pir-faqir Lahore whose times coincided with the reign of Akbar. He was born in the walled city of Lahore and belonged to the Dhudi Rajput clan, who were weavers by profession. In other words, the patron Sufi saint of Lahore and there the murshid (spiritual guide) lies buried and next to his grave is that of his mureed (disciple) Madho Lal.

A miniature painting of Madho Lal and Shah Husain. (Photo: Imran Mani)

Now, he is considered as one of the major Sufi poets, next only to Sheikh Baba Fareed.

Hussain is considered the master of the Kafi poetic form in Punjabi, which originated in Arabia. In the subcontinent, it lent itself to an intense devotional genre of singing with a couple of lines repeated as refrain. Many of his kafis speak of folk heroine Heer yearning for beloved Ranjha: “Sajjan bin raatan hoiyan whadiyan”.

“Ranjha jogi, main jogiani, kamli kar kar sadiyaan ( The nights are long without my beloved, .Since Ranjha became a jogi, I am not the same, people call me mad).”

It was the intensity of his poetry that drew Boston-based musician and writer well-known and appreciated for his book of stories from the Raaj of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, “The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia” and “The Story of the Sikhs” besides his singing of the bani of the Gurus.

Talking of the journey that led him willy-nilly to Lahore’s Peer-faqir, he says, “The intensity of his verses was such that I could not but set them to music I will ever remain grateful to Mohan Singh Diwana for his pioneering work on Shah Hussain which inspired my journey”.

In January 2020, he was invited to Lahore for a conference on his stories from the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. It was there that he went to meet Khaqan Haider Ghazi, a scholar who had done intensive work on Shah Hussain, who goaded him to seek the Pir’s blessings, when he visited the dargah, to write a novel on his life and times.

Before one recounts Sarabpreet’s experience in the dargah in Baghbanpura near the Shalimar Gardens of Lahore, just a little more from about the fascinating life of the Sufi leading the way.

Interestingly, the liberal people of Lahore refer to Shah Husain as Madho Lal Husain. As the old tale goes, there was a vast difference of age between the two. As Shah Husain grew older, the insecurity of Madho increased and he told his master what would become of him after his famous Murshid passed away. “You are famous and everyone loves you, but no one even knows my name!” That instant Shah Hussain changed his name to Madho Lal Hussain. The conservatives reject this and feel that these are made-up stories because they like to believe in them, yet they have remained a part of oral history for hundreds of years. Even if it is a belief, it is indeed a beautiful one for it erases all man-made differences of religion, caste and creed as love triumphs.

The journey through love and longing

Sarabpreet recounts reaching the Dargah on a cold and rainy evening. He was a trifle disappointed to see the place deserted. Nevertheless, he sat down in the open verandah bordering the Dargah. Then taking out the tambura app he started singing “Dard Vichhode Da” by Shah Hussain, a favourite of his.

As he was singing with his eyes closed, he felt that something was resting on his shoulders. He says, “When I opened my eyes, I saw that the custodians of the dargah had placed a ceremonial chadar of the kind that is offered at Sufi shrines, over my shoulders. They also gave him a small, worn towel that was used to clean the Mazar. These gestures were a reassurance and he felt that the permission he had gone to seek was granted.

In hand, we have this remarkable novel which not only recreates the mediaeval era of the lost Punjab with authenticity, but also tells a tender story of love and longing in which the intensity is such that the lover and the loved become one.

Commenting on the novel, Lahore’s storyteller and academic Zubair Ahmad says, “Inspired by the life and poetry of Shah Hussain, Sarabpreet Singh has written a miraculous, spell-binding novel which digs deep into the oral history of an amazing poet whose writings simmer with the pain of separation, and intense love”.

The novel published by Speaking Tiger Books, Delhi, will be launched at the Punjab Arts Council at Sector 16, Chandigarh, by celebrated Punjabi poet Surjit Patar on September 1.

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