Ardeshir Cowasjee's Tribute

'Chariya' Zahoor by Ardeshir Cowasjee

ONE night in Lahore, in 1973, after having not touched base with the Alams of 90 Upper Mall for several years, I barged into their home and invited myself to dinner. Over chicken and chapatis I enquired after the health and welfare of Sheherezade, the daughter. Parents Mahmood and Surayya adopted funereal expressions. She has gone and got married, said Mahmood gloomily.

Surely that would make for joy and jubilation, why the gloom and doom? She has married an artist, answered Surayya, Zahoor-ul-Akhlaq by name. That makes it even better, I said, it adds another 'character' to the family. That may be so, responded Mahmood, but wait until you meet him. Shades of the Neanderthal Man!

I didn't have to wait long. As I drove out, the gate was blocked by a rickshaw, with a jeans-clad hirsute young man stooping by its side, his hands diving alternately into his right and left pockets. Drawing up, I enquired whether I could help. He thanked me, mumbled 'Theek ho jaiga,' and continued to fumble until he had gathered sufficient change to satisfy the rickshawalla. The son-in-law? I wondered. I asked him to get into my car. Without hesitation, without asking me who I was, why I had asked him to get in, where I wanted to take him, he silently settled himself in.

We drove to my hotel and talked through most of the night. In his own way, he made a lot of sense, on his own and on many another subject. There was little he did not know about art and graphic design. Though I had established his identity, he never even bothered to ask me who I was. When the bottles were empty he rose to go, but as steadily as he walked I thought it prudent to drive him back. When we met again, Zahoor had no recollection of that night.

I assured the Alams that Sheherezade was married to a man who, though he did not have many letters trailing after his name, was a profoundly educated man, a decent human being, more decent than most, and though she may have to accustom herself to his drinking habits, their daughter would never starve. Zahoor was a talented man, with great potential. He could go far, he could achieve much. The Alam family has to be described to be understood. The head of the family at that time was grandfather Mehboob Alam, captain of the Aligarh hockey team from 1914-1918. A handsome man who had maintained his sportsman's build, he puffed incessantly on a hookah loaded with his own special brew. His young contemporary, chemist Professor Saleemuzzaman Siddiqui, the first of our two Fellows of the Royal Society (the other being Abdus Salam, largely ignored as being a citizen of this country), was wont to refer to Mehboob as "a beautiful animal."

Son Mahmood had played tennis for Pakistan at Wimbledon in 1948, at Roland Garros, and at the Davis Cup matches. In 1964, he captained the Pakistan team which won the Shahinshah Cup at Tehran and in 1965 the team won it again in Beirut. To this day he dons his white flannels and is a regular spectator at the tennis courts of the Lahore Gymkhana.

Mahmood's wife, Surayya, is the strength and steady provider of the family. Since 1953, she has run a nursery school through which some 5,000 children have passed. Many have turned out to be fine and worthwhile citizens, but she is often greatly dismayed when she recognizes the names of the once innocent toddlers as hulks who have landed up in our various parliaments and governments.

Mahmood's eldest son Asad was head boy and tennis champion of Aitcheson, and is perfectly equipped to survive in Pakistan. He now spends a lot of his time in Karachi's High Court fighting a land case against the PWD, filed in 1996 which has so far been fixed 51 times, heard 23 times, and adjourned 28 times. His barrister, Mohammed Gilbert Naim-ur-Rahman, presses on relentlessly.

Sheherazade, the only daughter, is a highly talented potter who learnt at Lahore's National College of Arts. She has lost her husband, Zahoor, and her eldest daughter, Jehanara, a gifted classical dancer, both irreplaceable. We grieve with her.

Shaban, the youngest son, is a finance man, a Princeton graduate with an MBA from Stanford. One good friend he made at Stanford was Steve Ballmer, now president of Bill Gates's Microsoft. Shaban, was called back to this land of opportunity, having worked with Solomon Brothers in the US, and is now a master-cutter. Horrified to observe the majority of Pakistani males eternally clad in their nightsuits, he decided to try to do something about persuading them to get dressed. As Shahbaz Sharif's cutter, he has helped transform his province's chief minister.

Over the years, Zahoor, son-in-law, brother-in-law and husband, a man of few words, pacifist non-pareil, the gentlest man imaginable who could probably not even swat a fly, became my close and most reliably unreliable friend. He would telephone to announce his arrival for lunch one day and turn up a month later. Zahoor studied at the Lahore art school known as the Mayo College of Arts, founded in 1875 by John Lockwood Kipling, Rudyard's father, curator of the Central Museum of Lahore, who was also the Mayo's first principal. Sadly, the college was governmentalized in 1958 and renamed the National College of Arts. Zahoor later taught there and from 1976 to 1987 held the post of Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts. He won many scholarships, one being the 1987 Fulbright Scholarship which took him out of Pakistan for a year.

Before he left, his friends got together to bid him au revoir. People were invited to meet him "... subject to the appearance of ZuA," to view Zahoor's magnificent triptych, his vision of Jinnah and those who he knew and worked with. The dress was "summer festive," decorations to be worn were to be "awarded, applied for and obtained, stolen or purchased," the card was transferable "to gunmen-non-escorted, non-moaner-groaners, and non-whiner-wailers." It was to be a fun affair. Zahoor's attached curriculum vitae, inter alia, informed everyone that he was born an Aquarian on February 4 1941, had done his postgraduate studies at Hornsey College of Arts, London and at the Royal College of Arts, had had his works exhibited in Pakistan, Bangladesh, the US, Japan, Brazil, Italy, France, Iran, Ceylon and Canada, with his works hanging in galleries and private collections in as many countries. It also described his "Experience" : "1976 - Jailed without trial (with other NCA professors) on the orders of the then minister of education and culture (now himself in jail - 'The mills of God....) for the alleged gangrape of a woman in Lahore whilst he was actually physically in Islamabad. He was duly dubbed 'Jinsy Billa' (sexy tomcat) by one of our leading Urdu newspapers. He and the others were tried and honourably acquitted by the Lahore High Court in 1979."

Asad rang in the afternoon of January 18, the eve of Eid-ul-Fitr, to tell me that Zahoor and his daughter Jehanara had been inexplicably shot, for no imaginable reason, and were both dead. Though not a great weeper and wailer, no great mourner, I decided to get to Lahore as soon as I could, PIA and the CAA notwithstanding. Thanks to the in-fighting of the Abbasi duo, head-honchos of our disgraceful national airline, my journey to Lahore took eighteen hours.

On arrival at the Alam's house, I was met by a stunned Bashir Ahmad, miniature painter and Zahoor's loyal assistant. To see Zahoor and Bashir together was to conjure up visions of the Sorcerer and his Apprentice. Bashir had always prepared Zahoor's canvases. Now his task was to give him his last bath, and to carry him to his grave. Hundreds had congregated to see off Zahoor and Jehanara. It was one of those rare occasions when the grief was genuine in the utmost. None had turned up merely to 'be seen.'

The murderer was a guest at Zahoor's flat. A disciple and a frequent visitor at the shrine of Shah Jamal, he himself can find no reason for what he did. When asked why, after having shot four and killed two, he did not feel that he should turn his gun upon himself, his answer was that the tenets of his religion may not prevent him from killing others but they do prevent him from killing himself.

How our leaders and preachers have brutalized society, and warped the minds of our youth, all in the name of religion. I can almost hear my 'chariya' friend mumbling, "Theek ho jaiga."

Back to in memoriam page