The article was originally published on Dawn Blogs
The hustle and bustle of Karachi often overshadows its historical significance, but amidst its smog-filled dingy streets and crumbling edifices lies a city full of intriguing stories.
The construction of a port and other infrastructure fueled Karachi’s growth, which attracted not only businessmen but scholars, artists and educationists, who found it an ideal setting to pursue their dreams.
Some of them moved on, while some stayed back and were buried in its sandy soil, but not before leaving their mark on the city’s landscape.
Sometimes, street names, plaques and nameplates are the only reminder of the acts they did for the city and its denizens.
Finding Maulvi Abdul Haq’s eternal abode
The big black gate was shut. The grim afternoon heat was unforgiving and I was drowning in my own sweat. My friend told me that the gatekeeper might have gone for afternoon prayers and suggested that we take refuge under a nearby tree.
A few people were already sitting there on a bench. A mechanic was taking dents out of a vintage jeep. I took a tissue paper out of my pocket and wiped the sweat off my forehead.
“So is this where Maulvi Abdul Haq lived and was buried?” I asked.
“Yes. I was brought up in this area and have been seeing his grave and this building since forever,” my friend told me.
I found it very intriguing that Maulvi Abdul Haq, popularly known as Baba-e-Urdu, was buried in the same compound where he lived and worked after migrating to Karachi. Therefore, when I had heard of it, I instantly arranged for a visit.
We saw the gatekeeper slowly moving towards the gate. We exchanged greetings and he happily let us inside. Over the entrance of the building hung a board that said, ‘Anjuman-e-Taraqi-e-Urdu’.
At once, I spotted the grave on my left and walked towards it to offer fateha. The gravestone read: Baba-e-Urdu, born on 20th August 1870, died 6th August 1961.
A couple of plaques were lying by the entrance of the building, one a replica of the gravestone and another one which bore Hindi inscription and looked much older. I asked the gatekeeper what was written on the second tablet, but he was unaware.
After taking a few photos, I asked him if I could go upstairs, but he said it was locked and asked me to come back another day.
The temple of the goddess of wisdom
The next day, I showed a photo of the second plaque to a friend who could read the Hindi script. He started reading it slowly:
“Shri Bharat Sarswata Mandir ki yeh Adharshila (Foundation Stone) Poj. Mahatma Mohan Das Karm Chand Gandhi ke pawitar kar kamloon duara…”
“Gandhi? Did you just say Mohan Das Karm Chand Gandhi?” I inquired.
“Yes, it clearly states that but I can’t read the dates,” my friend replied.
As it turned out later, that very building was a Gujarati school founded in 1921 by Mahatama Gandhi himself. The school was named after Shri Sharda Devi Mata, the goddess of wisdom in Hindu mythology. Jamshedji Mehta, the founder of modern Karachi and its mayor, was chosen as president of the school.
Gradually, the school turned into one of the finest institutions not only in Karachi but the entire region. Mahatma Gandhi had laid the foundation stone of the school and also took a keen interest in its management, visiting whenever he came to Karachi.
Other notables visiting the institute included Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel. There were around 1200 students in the school at the time of the partition. After the great divide, the school management decided to shift their focus towards India, and the first school was founded near Mangrol (in the Junagadh district of Gujarat).
Molvi Abdul Haq and Anjuman-e-Taraqi-e-Urdu
The next day, a political party had called a strike and the city was shut. So it was the day after that I drove to the building again, where a different caretaker was waiting for me. He opened the gate and we stepped in. Both plaques were lying near the door, relics from a different time – a story left untold due to sheer negligence.
The caretaker was rather young and had never met Baba-e-Urdu in his lifetime, but spoke affectionately of him, almost as if he were a dear family member.
Molvi Abdul Haq was born on November 16, 1872 in Uttar Pradesh in India. He was a graduate of the famous Aligarh University, where he spent time in the company of imminent scholars, but it was in Hyderabad where he earned his merit as the foremost scholar of Urdu language.
He served as a translator at the Home Department, Provincial Inspector and was also elected as Secretary, Department for the Promotion of Urdu at the Delhi All-India Muslim Educational Conference.
He founded the Anjuman Taraqi-e-Urdu in Aligarh in 1903 and later became the Principal of Osmania College Aurangabad, from where he retired in 1930. His later achievements included the compilation of a comprehensive English-Urdu dictionary.
He championed Urdu’s cause and resisted the Indian Nationalist Campaign for making Hindi the national language of undivided India.
In 1947, he migrated to Karachi and was allotted the school building which had been abandoned by then. Working from this building, Haq spearheaded Urdu’s cause as a lingua franca, launching several literary magazines, publishing books and establishing libraries. Although most of his personal collection was left behind in India, several manuscripts found refuge in the Urdu Dictionary Board and Anjuman’s archives. On August 16, 1961, Maulvi Abdul Haq passed away after prolonged illness in Karachi.
According to Jamiluddin Aali, whom Haq donned the responsibility of Anjuman’s affairs on his deathbed, he did not leave behind any will. Jamiluddin Aali sahab found it befitting to bury him on the same premises.
It was not considered legal and even the property was not transferred in his name. A large crowd gathered for the funeral and despite resistance from the then commissioner, Maulvi Abdul Haq was buried under the shadow of the building of Anjuman which he nurtured with undying passion.
The gatekeeper told me that the first floor was used by the office bearers of Anjuman but have been closed for a long time now. The second floor was used as storage space. The rest of the Anjuman’s operations had been shifted to a new facility in Gulshan-e-Iqbal, but they still used it as a storage space. A small bookshop had also been setup inside the building, which made it easier for bookshops across the city to procure books published by Anjuman.
We strolled through the first and second floor. I saw the name plates of Jameel Jalbi, Noorul Hassan and Jameeluddin Aali’s offices, which were closed. In a large hall on the second floor, dozens of books were lying on the floor. The ceilings were high and the corridors were airy. We walked outside through the same staircase.
The caretaker also told me that the compound used to have a few trees planted there by Gandhi, Nehru and other dignitaries, which could not survive the brunt of times.
Perhaps, the building, completely neglected by the government and in dire need of restoration, will join the fate of the trees once planted here by Gandhi and Nehru.