Vaguely I remember our late evening strolls in Saddar, breathless with hopes and dreams about our future. Once, we made this idiosyncratic resolve that “let’s us all become great people – and keep it a secret”. Another quirky suggestion was that we write our autobiographies in advance and live our lives accordingly.
This, of course, was a very long time ago. I am struggling to summon up that time in late fifties in Karachi when we began our journey as conscious adults. ‘We’ here is an allusion to a very small group of close friends, initially a nucleus of four, who, in a poetic sense, set out to change the world. What is remarkable is that throughout this journey of more than half a century, our intimate friendship and our youthful aspiration to change the world survived in a world of savage uncertainties.
It survived until Tuesday when Syed Mumtaz Saeed, our Shamman, died after being critically unwell for more than two weeks. Eliot had said that “in every parting, there is an image of death”. In this case, death figures as more than an image. It becomes a reality and close friends of Shamman who are tied together by memories of more than half a century can almost feel its breath on their neck. And how it concentrates your mind.
This, I should concede, is not the space suitable for projecting a personal loss. At the same time, I am conscious of the literary device of interpreting collective sorrows in the lives of particular individuals. Besides, the lives that we – our small group of friends – have lived since the early years of Pakistan do have some resonance in the overall affairs of the country. Our group was always intellectually alive to social and political developments. Shamman was more of a thinker than the rest of us and ultimately more of a doer because of what he was able to achieve as a teacher, an expert in administrative sciences and as a writer.
As I have said, this is not the occasion to illuminate the life of a friend, though he richly deserves a proper obituary. Coincidentally, Dr Mohammad Sarwar, a dear family friend, also died on Tuesday. The two funerals were taken out at the same time and they were buried in the same section of the vast Defence graveyard, partly sharing their mourners. Now, Dr Sarwar was the leader of the 1953 students’ movement in Karachi, a watershed event in some respects. His contribution to the initial stirrings of the democratic left is substantial.
My memories of Shamman and of Dr Sarwar converge in that somewhat inspirational period when so many young people were infused with social and political commitment and were willing to organise themselves and come out to agitate in defence of their socialistic ideas. I can recall the Karachi of the late fifties and then of the martial law of Ayub Khan. College and university students of Lahore, I am sure, had their share of similar awakening. The point to stress is that the progressive movement of students at that time had its intellectual underpinning.
We now know what has come out of those passionate beginnings. But when I think, in the immediate context, of Shamman and Dr Sarwar, I feel rather redeemed by the fact that most of those early warriors for social change remained faithful to their ideas and to their values. There are many, many names. To quote just one name, Dr Adibul Hasan Rizvi was a prominent leader in that left-wing students’ movement. Here was a band of social activists that later made some significant contributions to our society without forsaking ethical and intellectual values. This is eminently so about our small group and the bondage extends to our wives and to our children.
As an aside, I also think of how Karachi has changed during all these years. In sixties, Shamman and the rest of us were brought up on books that we read in and borrowed from the British Council and on Hollywood movies that we watched in Saddar cinemas. We were not able to go to the coffee house as frequently as we wanted, because of financial constraints, but we did cherish the evenings we were able to spend in that literary environment.
My regret is that the living memories of that period when we were young and contending with our many deprivations are slipping into oblivion. Yes, this is how it has always been. But nostalgia becomes a constant companion of ageing people like us and when we juxtapose our foggy remembrance of the past with the coarse realities of the present, it is hard not to “pine for what is not”.
Indeed, the ideas and the ideals that were nurtured by the young campaigners of those early years did not finally prevail, though the movement that was led by Bhutto in late sixties was very inspiring in its time. What has prevailed is now all around us. Just look at what is happening in not just the Malakand division but also in Lahore and in Peshawar. As I said last week, we cannot yet foresee the probable consequences of the humanitarian crisis of the internally displaced persons.
This week’s bomb blasts in Lahore and Peshawar have further underlined the rising threat to our society. A war is raging within our own boundaries, with heavy casualties. It was against this flaming backdrop that the anniversary of our nuclear explosion was celebrated on Thursday by a number of organisations. Apparently, the circumstances in which these celebrations were held have not chastened the very large number of patriots who see the nuclear device as the ultimate guarantee for our survival.
Our problem, perhaps, has always been our inability to be rational and realistic when it comes to defining our national security ideas. What our ruling ideas, a total negation of the aspirations of the committed youth of those early years, have wrought is exploding in our face. While crisis management is imperative, the time has come for our rulers to seriously rethink their fundamental policies. In this respect, one surely assumes that they are fully cognisant of the critical situation that exists on the ground.
To conclude, I have attempted to show how personal grief of a certain kind can blend into the tapestry of our collective involvements. In the January of 1960, more than forty-nine years ago, Shamman gave me a book, Boccaccio’s ‘Tales from the Decameron’ with this inscription: “Ghazi! Today you were born; and with you was born one of the finest of all universes. Give this universe of yours beauty and immortality; that demon TIME threatens. And if you are afraid of time, call me from the other universe which is Shamman”.