If you shop frequently at Readings, a popular bookstore on Main Blvd, Gulberg, chances are you know “Rafique bhai.” And, in all possibility, Rafique bhai knows you, too.
“I’ve always strived to treat people the way I’d like to be treated myself,” says the 30-year-old man from a small village near Okara. “That is perhaps why I know all these people and they know me.”
If you are a regular customer at the little coffee shop located at the rear end of Readings, you’d know that hardly a person can walk by without Rafique Qamar greeting them by name; which is exactly the sort of personal rapport that makes him so loved by the regulars at the place.
It may be mentioned here that Readings was one of the first few bookstores in Lahore that started their own coffee shops. That people could just sit there and talk about literature and art at length, was what initially attracted Rafique to the coffee shop. “The literary environment and the enlightening discussions that people indulge in over here are some of the reasons why I think places like this should be appreciated,” he says.
Rafique thinks that it is almost impossible to come across well-read people easily, to get a chance to actually converse with them and learn from their experiences: “To me it is priceless. I think I just got immensely lucky.”
His enduring enthusiasm to learn was the driving force behind his decision to move to Lahore some eight years ago.
He says he was inclined towards art ever since he was a child, but was discouraged from pursuing it in school and later by his family on grounds of art being an “immoral activity.” That, however, didn’t deter him, and he went on to draw sketches on his school books, random newspapers, in fact any piece of paper he could lay his hands on.
Rafique has a soft spot for Lahore. He says that it gave him the strength to become who he was always meant to be. When he first came to the city, he was so smitten by the art galleries here that he would sit outside one of them for hours on end “just staring at the paintings.”
His love affair with art was also one of the reasons why he chose to work at Readings. “I love looking at art, and this place is full of art books!” he chuckles.
This fascination was eventually picked up by visitors at the café, who then helped Rafique pursue his passion in every manner possible. He then started working during and after work hours which was never discouraged by the owners. He sold his first painting for Rs500, but never cared about the scanty price. He currently works at Framers after work hours and takes painting/calligraphy orders from the same gallery that he couldn’t even enter before. “Everything is just smoothly going in my favour,” he says, “I can’t be thankful enough.”
Things were not completely hunky dory for him when he first set foot in Lahore. He was ridiculed for not being able to lift heavy cartons; that was required of his initial job as a carton box lifter. “Those cartons used to be full of heavy books, which would get extremely difficult for me to lift. They used to make fun of me, call me effeminate. It hurt me, deeply. So much so that I had to cry myself to sleep at times,” he says. He was eventually fired on the same grounds, but that never dampened his affection for Lahore and its people. “I’ve been mistaken for a woman here at Readings as well, but never in a disrespectful manner. The good thing is, once they realise their mistake, they just politely apologise.” These are the kind of people that he calls “truly educated.”
With a job at the Readings’ café, Rafique feels he has finally arrived at where he always wanted to be: “I am just a chai wala here but people have accepted me as one of their own. When you come across such people in life, you aspire to become a better version of yourself — and improve I did, in more ways than one.
“I would never want to leave this place,” he adds, admiringly glancing at the café and his customers. “I believe I would never be able to settle anywhere else now.”
The love he has for his customers is shared by them as well. Amna, an art history student who frequents the café, says she has been in awe of Rafique’s work ever since she first laid her eyes on it, especially the whirling dervishes. “He has amazing observation skills and is eager to learn, two things that are imperative for good art,” she says.
“He just needs to develop his unique style in order to flourish. His work is still heavily influenced by other artists, though the good thing about him is his ability to amalgamate all these multiple influences and turn them into something completely unique,” she concludes.
“I found Rafique to be a very enthusiastic artist when I came across him probably five years ago,” says Umair Ghani, a freelance photographer and writer. “His art was very basic but what really excited us frequent visitors was that he was learning everything completely on his own.”
He too thinks that Rafique needs time to develop his own distinct style: “I believe that young artists, particularly the self-taught ones, struggle to find their niche somewhere. However, it important to look at their consistent ambition despite their struggles.”
According to Ghani, the most admirable thing about Rafique is his ability to learn and take criticism. “What he has produced so far is significant as a self-taught artist to whom every possible door of learning art in this country is unfortunately closed.”
Despite such support and encouragement from people around him, Rafique is not too keen on pursuing art commercially. His dream is to just earn enough to be able to help the poor, homeless children that he comes across everyday.
“I don’t know what the future holds for me, I just want to do the present moment right and take one step at a time,” he smiles.
But he is content with what he has right now since he is blessed with a place to live, people who love him, and his art — mostly his art.
“The solutions to all of my problems, answers to all my questions lie in art, in colours. My
whole life revolves around this. And I know that if I have my art, I have everything,” he concludes.