Author: Late Ahmed Ghulamali Chagla

This article was first published in The Illustrated Weekly of India on December 5, 1937

SHAH LATEEF: Sind's Poet Saint - His Romance

Shah Abdul Lateef (1690-1752) the great poet-saint of Sind, has immortalised a number of folklore stories and romances throughout "greater Sind", that vast region extending from the deserts of Multan and Jesalmir down to the arid coasts of Cutch, Sind, and Baluchistan.  But the romance of his own life is as  interesting and colourful as any he ever sang in verse.

 The Meeting of Shah Lateef and Mirza Moghul Beg,s Daughter

AS the prefix to the name implies, Shah Lateef was born in a family of Sayyads, who are revered among the Muslims as the descendants of the Prophet Mohamed (PBUH).  His great grandfather was the well-known Shah Abdul Karim of Bulri, who was also a great poet and saint.  Later, his father, Shah Habib, was the eldest in the Sayyad clan and was held in high esteem by the common people as well as by the aristocrats, mostly foreigners who first came to Sind with an invader and settled there.  One of the semi-religious duties of a Sayyad was to offer prayers at the bedside of a suffering person for his recovery.

Once the daughter of the powerful Mirza Moghul Beg fell ill.  The Mirzas belonged to the famous Arghoon clan of the Turks, who traced their ancestry to the mighty Chengiz and had their fortress somewhere near where the descendants of Shah Abdul Karim, their spiritual advisers, lived.  Shah Habib was promptly summoned, but as he was unavoidably prevented from going, he sent Lateef instead.  That was the turning point in the young man's life and the beginning of his romance.

Love At First Sight

THOUGH the women-folk of the Mirzas, as was customary in aristocratic families, were kept in seclusion, the Shahs were treated as a privileged class and were admitted to the inner apartments after the ladies had wrapped themselves up in their mantles.  Mirza Moghul Beg's daughter was known for her extraordinary beauty, and Lateef was just twenty!

The inevitable happened.  The temperamental Lateef so far forgot himself as to hold the little finger of the frail girl in his hand and exclaim in verse:

"She whose finger is in the hands of a Sayyad

need fear no tossing by the waves"

In Sindhi idiom, holding the hand of a girl virtually means calling her one's own!  The Mirzas, the aristocrats among aristocrats, were too well bred to create a scene at the time, but they could not forget what they considered an insult to their gentility.  How could the son of a poor Sayyad, even though he be the descendant of a holy man, aspire to the hand of a child of the glorious house of Chengiz!

The veneration for the Sayyads on the part if the Mirzas gave place to less noble feelings.  Things at last came to such a pass that the Sayyads began to be openly insulted, not only be the Mirzas but by the common people as well.  Ultimately no Sayyad could pass by the House of a Mirza safely, and the poor Shahs were eventually forced to leave the place.  In the interests of peace, they migrated a little northwards and lived a segregated life in a new quarter built by themselves.

Head Over Heels .....

POOR Lateef!  He was twenty - and in love.  This temperamental descendant of the great poet Shah Abdul Karim reacted in his own intensely individual way to the stimulus of his newly found, though hopeless, attachment.  His restless spirit was awakened to an abnormal degree.  He would often spend days together in the surrounding desert and waste lands, with a forlorn look on his handsome face.  He began to compose verses spontaneously, comparing the beauty of his beloved to that of the sun, the moon, and the stars - to their detriment:

Shall I tell you the truth, O Moon, even though you be angry to quarrel with me?

The two eyes and the nose of my beloved are prettier than your features!"

Ultimately his passion became so intense that, it is said, he often swooned away in ecstasy while in the desert.  On one occasion, it is recorded, he remained unconscious for so long that he was almost buried alive under the sand that had collected over his prostrate body during a cyclone!  His father rescued him just in time.

Joins Wandering Fakirs

THE intense yearning gave place, in time, to a state of hopelessness, which began to produce its effect on the sensitive youth.  One day he went to the desert as usual but did not return.  Search parties were sent all around but they could find no trace of him, and subsequently it came to light that he had met a party of wandering Hindu minstrels.  Donning the ochre robes of a mendicant, this son of a Sayyad had joined them!

With these wandering minstrels Lateef visited many places of pilgrimage in the territory surrounding Sind.  He went to Lakhpat, Girnar, Jesalmir, Thar, Lahot, Lamakan, Hinglaj, and Sabar Sakhi.  But wherever he went, whatever he saw, whatever folklore or romantic tale he listened to, it all reminded him of his own beloved.  Lateef also went to Kabul and Kandahar, and on his return re-visited Hinglaj.  Here he seems to have disregarded the observances of the fakirs and sanyasis, as a result of which a disagreement arose and he left the party.  He was now on his own.

Traversing Kech Makran, he came by way of Las Bela to the south-west coast of Sind and lived among the poor fisher folk.  Thence he went to Thatta, which was an important place then, the abode of the Makhdooms who were religious leaders of influence.  On the way to Thatta an interesting incident befell him.

Martyr To Poetry

SHAH LATEEF reciting verses of his own composition to the camel man.  The listener was so overcome with joy that he died.

SOMEWHERE in the hills he heard a voice singing a song and crying in anguish.  He found that the voice came from a cave, and, on going in, imagine his surprise at finding a man in ecstasy singing one of his own verses in that soulful voice!  Saluting him reverently, Lateef asked why he sang that particular line so very passionately and incessantly.

"Because that is the only line I know", replied the man.  He added that he was a camel driver, and while his caravan was passing by Hala (somewhere near the abode of Lateef's people) he had listened to a party of wandering minstrels singing a song.  The first line made such a deep impression on him that, leaving his camels and caravan, he had since been wandering about the desert singing that line.  It was taken from a verse of Lateef's own version of the well-known desert romance of Sasui and Punhoo.  Says Sasui, the seeker: "I shall now go all alone in search of Punhoo, the beloved."

The suffering Lateef could well understand the inner condition of the man, and asked him if he would like to hear the next line of the same verse.  The camel driver showed great eagerness and Lateef continued: "Know, O seeker,

There are difficult mountain passes and precipices sharp as the spear on the path!"

On hearing this the man almost lost consciousness and incoherently begged Lateef to complete the verse.  And Lateef concluded:

"But my sufferings and yearning shall ever be my faithful companions on the long, long, journey in search of the beloved!"

This was more than the man could bear and he fell in a deep swoon.  Startled at the occurrence, Lateef touched the prostrate body, only to find that the spirit had fled!  He buried the corpse at the same spot, and to this day the "grave of the camel man" is pointed out to passing travellers.  In later days Lateef used to say: "I never yet saw a man as true and with such a 'burnt up' heart as this camel driver."

Home to Happiness

IN time, after he had been wandering for three years from home, Lateef reached Thatta, where he was well received by Makhdoom Mueen.  Their acquaintance ripened into friendship.  Makhdoom Mueen knew that Lateef's father had been cut to the quick by his son's sudden disappearance and prayed day and night for his safe return, so he persuaded him to go back.  His ardour had also cooled a little by now and one day, as suddenly as the youth had disappeared, the man returned.  But what a man!

The sequel to the romance of Shah Lateef is as exciting as any that emanated from the brain of a master novelist.  He had not been long with his people when armed robbers attacked the fortress of the rich Mirzas.  The men were absent on an expedition, and the robbers took away almost all the moveable property.  On their return, the infuriated Mirzas formed a reprisal party to attack the robbers in their lair.  Shah Lateef was a different person now.  Forgetting the sufferings of the Sayyads at the hands of the Mirzas, he offered them in their distress the assistance of himself and his clan, but the proud Moghal Beg refused the offer with disdain!

The Mirzas went out alone to battles and suffered a terrible reverse in which almost all of them were killed. Their womenfolk considered this colossal misfortune to be due to the curse of the Sayyads, the descendants of the Holy Prophet, whom the Mirzas had treated so very badly and in reparation they now offered the hand of the daughter of Moghul Beg to Shah Lateef.  Unlike the ending of most eastern romances, the ending of this true tale is happy.  The marriage of Shah Lateef and the beautiful girl he had loved hopelessly so long was duly celebrated, and they lived happily ever after.

CONTEMPLATION - Sindh's poet-saint in a characteristic attitude


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