A freelance life

Parvez Mahmood paints a portrait of an unlikely but enduring friendship, in writing about poet, collector and lifelong adventurer Orooj Ahmed Ali

A freelance life
We write eloquent obituaries and pay tributes after the death of a loved one. I want to break this tradition and write about a living friend before either of us departs for the eternal abode.

Orooj Ahmed Ali is my classfellow. We were part of a batch of 63 pre-teen boys who joined a boarding institution named the Pakistan Air Force Public School, Sargodha, on the 6th of September 1965 - in class seven. We were barely twelve-and-a-half years old and were to spend the next five years together; residing in four school houses and studying in three educational sections. I was assigned to the Sabre House and he to the Attacker House. I was in section A and he in section B.

Orooj in PAF college Sargodha
Orooj in PAF college Sargodha

His father Ahmed Ali announced the formation of the Progressive Writers' Association in 1933

I stayed in the College until September 1971 to complete my F. Sc. while he left the college a year earlier, of his own volition. I went on to join the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) to pursue a full professional career, while he lived a freelance life, pursuing his passions, whatever they were at any given time. I feel grateful to my prestigious alma mater for having made my life and providing me with the freedom to pursue my interests in life. He resents that ‘good for nothing’ school for having destroyed his life and deprived him of the freedom to pursue his interests. I excelled in studies and literary activities while he enjoyed sports: participating avidly in the swimming, hockey and cricket teams.

I was connected with him in another - somewhat different - way, too. Perhaps alone among my schoolmates, I had read the Urdu translation of the novel Twilight in Delhi much before I knew Orooj or that he was a son of its eminent author, Professor Ahmed Ali. Therefore, before I talk about the life and personality of the idiosyncratic son, allow me to give a brief account of his illustrious father!

A more recent image of the author and Orooj Ahmed Ali
A more recent image of the author and Orooj Ahmed Ali

Ahmed Ali led a purposeful life and accumulated many accomplishments in various fields. As the first Pakistani envoy to the People’s Republic of China, he laid the foundations for a friendship that has survived the test of time and has become a novel relationship - culminating in today’s China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the links that it is establishing between the two neighbours by way of road, rail and pipeline infrastructure.

Ahmed Ali was a top student, fiction writer, poetry translator, editor, literary figure, proficient in multiple languages, Quran translator, diplomat, industrialist and university professor. He followed the call of his heart in pursuit of what appealed to him at any given time in his rich experiences - a trait that has been picked by his son - albeit in his own way.

Some of the inhabitants of his aviary
Some of the inhabitants of his aviary

Soon after completing his studies, including first-class in B.A. Honours and an M.A., the professor, true to his revolutionary zeal, announced the formation of the Progressive Writers’ Association in 1933, in response to banning of the book Angaaray that he had co-authored. The members of this Association over the years would form the who’s who of Urdu and Hindi literature.

After the Partition of India, Ahmed Ali migrated to Pakistan and was appointed the first envoy to China and then to Morocco. He later served as a visiting professor to many universities in the US. One of his landmark literary achievements is his English translation of the Quran.

His children must have found his shoes too big to fill and his legacy too large to carry. Orooj, to date, is in awe of his father and is keen to keep his name alive and relevant. During my school days, I could recognise in my classmate a restless streak, a boundless reservoir of energy and a keen intellect; but, strangely, all this without any concrete aim or purpose ahead of him!

Orooj with his hunting gear
Orooj with his hunting gear

He was having a hell of a time, while we were just toiling away at our life - an extension of our boarding school days

In many ways, as you can imagine already, Orooj and I are quite different. I am self-disciplined, he is rebellious. I am seriously studious, he is assiduously carefree. I respect caution, he throws it to the wind. I can be very patient, he is normally impatient. I am always well-behaved, he can be quite curt. I plan for the future, he lives by the day. That contrast may be the reason that we have remained friends over the last five decades. We may not be the best of friends - no one can be very close to him - but friends enough to be frank and open in each other’s presence: laughing, back-slapping and affectionate whenever we find occasion to be together. Most of my old friends in Karachi have a complaint to make after their casual or short meeting with him because of his ‘eccentricity’. When I meet him for a whole day, I come back invigourated and exhilarated.

I was commissioned in the PAF in January 1974 and was posted to an airbase in Karachi. There were other classfellows also posted to the same base at that time. Orooj would visit us and we would be amused at his new demeanour. With his long flowing hair, wild beard, bead-strings around his neck, wearing long kurtas and sandals, he cut a contrasting figure to the trim, appropriately-attired Air Force officers. His overweight bearing coupled with his roaring laughter was imposing and mesmerising. No wonder his social life was a source of envy to us. He told me that a woman with two kids is the best. I didn’t ask him how he arrived at such a conclusion...

One day, he insisted that we have our drinks not in the lawn but in the bar, though he was not properly attired for the place. Despite our protestations, he walked into the bar-room with us sheepishly in tow. To cap the moment, he set himself heavily amongst the senior officers, roaring his trademark thundering laughter. One of those senior officers took us subalterns out for an impromptu dressing down.

His typical attire from the 1970s
His typical attire from the 1970s


We thought he was having a hell of a time, while we were just toiling away at our life - as an extension of our boarding school days. I still think the same!

One day, Saeed Akhtar Shah - one of our classfellows - and I decided to visit Orooj at his home in Faran Society near the Hill Park. It was a fabulous house built on high ground, with numerous rooms and vast lawns. They even had a zoo where I recall seeing a deer, peacocks and parrots of many varieties. We met his younger brother Deed (now a wildlife biologist) and his much younger sister (now a corporate lawyer) and his very accomplished mother, Bilqees Jehan Begam, who was busy completing a painting - and who had also translated her husband’s book Twilight in Delhi into chaste Urdu. We spent the night at his house and came back the next day. It was a day well spent, although admittedly a number of mosquitoes didn’t permit us to sleep well.

Thereafter, having spent the next decade-and-a-half between the Cherat hills, Sargodha, Dhahran (Saudi Arabia), Kohat and Peshawar, I came across Orooj only occasionally.

In the late seventies, Orooj developed a passion for deep-sea fishing and angling. He would spend days on end in the open sea, casting his lines and pulling in the haul. I think he found it liberating to be away from the noise and complexities of civilisation and the teeming metropolis. I have seen some of his photographs from that time, in which he appears to be at ease with himself and his surroundings at sea. He must have felt like a true master of his domain, savouring the sight of his conquests; the huge black, blue and striped marlins hanging lifeless beside him. In these pictures in his fishing gear, he seems like a character out of a Hemingway novel. He made quite a name for himself, winning many of the angling competitions. He recently told me that he still holds the record for the largest such fish - 396 lbs - caught on a line. PIA printed his exploits in their in-flight magazine to attract tourism. I doubt that he ever applied himself to anything the way he pursued this sport!

His father, Professor Ahmed Ali, was Pakistan's first envoy to the People's Republic of China, in addition to being a prominent man of letters
His father, Professor Ahmed Ali, was Pakistan's first envoy to the People's Republic of China, in addition to being a prominent man of letters

About six years ago I contacted him to inquire if he knew a bookstore where I could buy his father’s book Twilight in Delhi. I could not find it in any of the bookstores in Islamabad for my daughter to read. He said that it was out of print. I also learnt that his father and mother had departed for their heavenly abodes and that he had gotten married.

In September last year, our class fellows arranged celebrations for the Golden Jubilee of our joining PAF College. The old boys came from across the globe; from the US, Canada, UK, Germany, Bangladesh, Dubai and all over Pakistan. I travelled from Australia, where I had gone for a long stay. I expected Orooj to be there too, but unfortunately, he could not come to Sargodha due to his ill health. He posted some of his old photos in which I could recognise the Orooj that I remembered so well from my college and Karachi days.

I resolved then that to see him during my coming visit to Karachi for a longer duration, to catch up on the lost time. On Friday, the 11th of September 2015, I went to his house located in DHA and was immediately delighted for having made the visit. I had planned to spend two hours with him but that stretched on to six hours - and I ended up wanting to stay on for more time. He also gifted me signed copies of a complete set of his father’s books, including Twilight in Delhi and the translation of the Quran. I cherish the gift.
Entering the house gave me the feeling of being in a Florentine villa from the Renaissance

Orooj’s house is a veritable art gallery, a plant nursery as well as an aviary - all three in one. I state this without any exaggeration or hyperbole. As I entered the main gate, I found myself amidst a myriad collection of ornamental plants and birds. There were trees in the lawn, decorative shrubs on the side, creepers along the walls, flowers in the  beds and potted plants hanging from strings, all well watered, fertilised, trimmed and pruned.

Then there were rows of cage upon cage - up to three deep - with various kinds of birds from all continents. There were colourful winged inhabitants of Brazil, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia and many other places. All the birds were well looked-after, healthy, in clean cages and with dedicated keepers, each getting a separate dish of food - like in a well run hotel. It was a pleasant feeling. Orooj said that he planned to make a bigger aviary in his lawn, where he hoped to release the non-competing birds so that they might have a wider, better, healthier and more natural habitat to live in. I spent quite a bit of time looking at the birds, feeling the leaves and smelling the flowers. If I had not gone inside the house, I would have come back impressed - but entering the house gave me the feeling of being in a Florentine villa from the Renaissance.

On entering the house, one gets a foretaste of the delights to come. The entrance is full of paintings, row upon row going up to the ceiling. All paintings are well framed, dusted and neatly aligned. I was wondering why he had put the artwork here and not in the living room or the drawing room. But as I progressed inside, I found that, like a stubborn and vigourous creeper, the frames had crept over the walls of all the rooms and corridors inside the house and had even overflowed into the foyer. I can’t recall all the names but I saw works by Gulgee, Anna Molka, Jamini Roy, Zainul Abedin, Saeed Akhtar, Hajra Masroor, Iqbal Hussain and many others.  There was even a portrait of a young Orooj - by none other than Sadequain himself! To view and appreciate all the paintings in the house, a whole day would be required and that would still leave the viewer hungry for more time.

Some of the plants that he collected
Some of the plants that he collected

He told me that he is dealing in art and doing well. In fact, he said that this was the first vocation that had made him decent money. The multitude of domestiques around him, the general feel of his home and the fact that he could afford very expensive birds and maintain them well: all made it evident to me that he was, indeed, doing well. His name has been included by the magazine Nigah in its list of the fifty most influential persons in Pakistani art. I felt happy for that. He told me that while living with his father in their home, there was a time when he didn’t have a penny in his pocket and had to sell flowers from the jasmine plants of his home for a hundred rupees. Compared with those trying times, he is living enviably well now. He publishes his father’s works and successfully represents him as his international literary agent. The sale of his father’s books earns him a tidy amount annually.

I noticed that he smoked a lot: probably 40 cigarettes a day.

“You didn’t smoke when I saw you last,” I observed.

“I started when I gave up drinking,” he added with a smile, “You have to do something!”

I couldn’t agree more.

I had the pleasure of meeting his charming wife, who was a perfect host. They don’t have any children, which - gladly and true to his nature - is hardly an issue with Orooj. I was served coffee and my favorite dish of prawns in the morning and again for lunch. I bade him farewell at about four o’clock, having resolved to come back when I was in town the next time. He gave me an unforgettable present: a complete set of books authored by his father, and also his superb English translation of the Quran. He handwrote a note for me in every book. I will forever remain grateful for this.

I happened to be in Karachi again in August 2016. I met him for a whole day in his home and came back pleased for having done so. Except for the rearrangements of the cages, everything was as it was last year. After lunch, that he prepared himself, he opened a wooden box - that he said he hadn’t opened in a decade - and showed me old photographs and documents. Some pertained to his debating-cum-fishing days and others to his father’s career. He was also reviewing a draft of his father’s The Golden Tradition - an English translation of Urdu poets from Vali Dakhni to Mirza Daag - that is to be reprinted soon by a publisher in India.

He gave me a long ride in his bright yellow 600 cc turbo-engine coupe car. He sat in the driving seat with a grey checkered ivy cap on his head, a pipe between his lips and scented tobacco in his mouth. We drove around the empty roads of the Phase VIII peninsula for about an hour. I could see that he was enjoying every bit of it. I could sense how he must have felt in his fishing boats in the days gone past.

In many ways, Orooj set himself apart from us, the ordinary, normal boys. There are many of us who idolise him and desire - deep down in their inner self - to be like him, but we know that it cannot be, because we couldn’t have made the personal sacrifices of comfort, career and convenience that he had the courage to forgo. Those who follow the calling of their heart and those who act according to ‘rational’ calculations cannot live their lives in the same dimension. Their paths rarely cross. They can only observe each other in some fleeting moments of time, like two vehicles crossing each other in different directions on a multi-tiered road interchange. Always, and without failing, it is the latter that are envious of the former - and never the other way. That is how we saw Orooj in college and in later life, an embodiment of Iqbal’s verse:

Subh e Azal mujh sey kaha Jibreel ney,

Jo aqal ka ghulam ho wo dil na kar qabool

(“On the day of creation, Gabriel advised me not to accept a calculating heart.”)

But then, people like Orooj also have a self-centric view of life. They challenge authority and expect the world to revolve around them. They are impulsive and at times loners; and their complete refusal to listen to reason can be frustrating at times. On a higher scale, one can admire Habib Jalib, Saghar Siddiqui, Meera Ji, Saadat Manto, Nasir Kazmi, Che Guevara, or others of the kind - but imagine for a moment, if you will, what kind of life would it be to be living with them day in and day out! At the same time, of course, what would this world be without them?

I found that Orooj has mellowed: as everyone does with age. We are all born with a sense of self-importance but nearing the wrong side of the sixties cures one of many fantasies. Orooj had much potential as a liberal and leftist voice. He had a heritage to support this. He was a natural speaker and debater. He could speak his mind, indulge in unconventional thinking, withstand adversity, hoot down the opposition and face any person without being intimidated. These are rare characteristics. The only thing required was a sense of purpose, perseverance and the art of compromise. With his natural behaviour and temperament, Orooj could have ended up in a political jail but would have emerged on the national scene with a definite presence. His personality and character held that promise. There are now only occasional hints of the firebrand and the rebel that he once was but I suspect the fires may have extinguished - leaving a few embers here and there.

In the words of our Principal Mr. Rahman Qureshi - who later served as principal of Aitchison College - in his annual report on Orooj, “The boy has potential but prefers to keep it dormant.” Orooj seems to have abided by this prophecy, but then who knows? He may yet (again) surprise us all!

I wish him health, happiness and prosperity.

When Orooj was a poet…

In early 1973, when he had become popular and successful in debating circles, he, along with some friends, organised a group of young English poets by the name of ‘Verse Creators’. The group organised poetry recitals under the auspices of the Pakistan American Cultural Centre (PACC) and the Pakistan Arts Council. PACC also collected these poems and published them in a book eponymously titled the The Verse Creators. I reproduce two poems by Orooj from this collection.




In the desert land

Sharing moments

Of cultivated agony

Turning vague thoughts

Into psychedelic images

Unable to decipher

The meaning of Time

Searching mysteriously

The intricate paths

Of illusion

Zig zagging

Into the labyrinths

Of hopeful existence.



A quiet afternoon

Under the shade of a tree

Time seems to stop.


Except for the cooing of a dove

Echoing in the distance

No melody harmonizes

With the resonant silence.


A kite circles overhead

Floating from cloud to cloud

The stillness extends

Beyond the blue horizon

And images vaporize

In contemplation.


During this time, he organised a musical band by the name of ‘The Rockers’ that held a few concerts at ‘The Coconut Grove’, situated within the Arts Council premises during 1973-74.

However, true to his wandering self, he gave up on poetry and music to move on to his other passions.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: parvezmahmood53@gmail.com