Of Shab-e-Barat fun

Published: July 24, 2011
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Today the Shab-e-Barat characterised by fireworks is no more than a memory. PHOTO: ISRAR UL HAQ

What a blessed festival our Shab-e-Barat is – or was.

Let’s forget the bloodletting going on all around us for a while and the games people play around it and talk about the colourful lights associated with the festival – about its phuljharis (sparklers), mehtabis (flares), anars and patakhas (crackers).

But today the Shab-e-Barat characterised by these fireworks is no more than a memory. It’s a sign of the times that the festivals that used to bring fun and happiness to Pakistani children are now so devoid of joy. What little remains, faces an imminent threat of an edict declaring it an innovation. How poignantly I am reminded of Iqbal’s lament:

The cleric has forbidden even the little that is left of my lyrics.

All our representative festivals – the Eid feasts, Shab-e-Barat, even Ramazan – are primarily about religious observance. But the way they have come to be celebrated has added a dimension to each that holds a peculiar attraction for the young and the old, the male and the female and the poor and the affluent. This is exactly what has transformed them into popular festivals.

Take Ramazan. While fasting is a religious duty, it is the way people traditionally prepare for iftari and sehri that has turned the dry observance into an attractive ritual. The romance of iftari and sehri tempts even quite irreligious people to fast so that they can fully enjoy their iftari.

Fireworks had a similar significance for Shab-e-Barat. There were essentially two kinds: the potash bombs requiring considerable manufacturing skill, for even slight carelessness risked causing the bombs to go off in the revellers’ hand. The workshops making these and the warehouses too were hazardous and frequently shocked people with the damage that sometimes brought down whole buildings.

But there were also the harmless fireworks like the phuljhari, the tatiyya and the chhachhoonder. Then there were innovations like the anar which, once you lighted it, turned into a fountainhead of tiny sparks that entertained the young and the old alike.

The sparks could neither start a fire nor a harmful explosion.

And remember the phuljhari? Praise the Lord, what a delight it was, shedding its brilliant sparks like spring blossoms. The children enjoyed it the most. And mehtabi – which would light up an entire neighbourhood, sometimes changing the colour of light from green to red – was such a spectacle.

The fireworks, if it be fair to call them that, lit up Shab-e-Barat and made it colourful. For the children particularly, they made the festival a brilliant spectacle.

By treating both kinds as one, our clerics managed to garner some appeal for their edict against Shab-e-Barat fireworks. Even before partition they had condemned the ‘innovation’. The populace, however, ignored them so that the festivity was never affected.

In Pakistan, however, Shab-e-Barat was attacked from two sides. On one hand, there were the mullahs; on the other, the police – or let’s say the governments. The maulvis declared the fireworks an innovation; the governments prohibited them.

Today a halwa dish in front of them is fine by the God fearing, but a child holding a sparkler in his hand is judged both sinful and criminal, as are those watching him and clapping in delight. A poor peddler carrying a few sparklers and flares in hopes of supplementing his meagre sales is liable to be fined by the police and his merchandise confiscated.

See how Shab-e-Barat, which evolved into a brilliant festival over centuries, has met its end in Pakistan?

*Translated from Urdu

Published in The Express Tribune.

Intezar Hussain

Intezaar Hussain

An eminent Urdu fiction writer who writes short stories and novels, and also columns for newspapers in English.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.