Irfan Husain - my student, my teacher

Javid Ali Khan writes about the life and passions of his dearest friend

Irfan Husain - my student, my teacher
A leading light, shining bright for more than 50 years of professional journalism in Pakistan, was extinguished on December 16 when Irfan Husain breathed his last peacefully in the comfort of his home in Dorset in the UK. Peaceful in life, peaceful in death.

His regular Saturday column was followed addictively by so many, young and old, male and female, students and professors, lovers of food, politics, history, literature and balanced opinions all over the sub-continent. Reading was a passion with him and it involved all types of books, from politics to sci-fi, from literature to history and mostly current affairs and opinions. All these he offered in a bouquet to his avid readers. Fond of food and cooking, he also contributed separately to epicurean columns. As a friend, Tahir Jahangir, mentions in a recent letter he wrote to Dawn, “His criticism was always fair and objective and his opinions formed with a deep knowledge of world history and current events. His humour and benign spirit often showed through. The pieces on gastronomy were always a source of rich discovery and fresh recipes.”

The word “benign” sums him up. Always a thorough gentleman, kind and caring, gentle and thoughtful, he was the decorum of propriety and a great friend. In all my 57 years of close relationship with him, I do not remember a single instance where he got angry or behaved unreasonably. Propriety and culture were in his blood.

Born into a highly cultured and literary family where everyone was an example of propriety, Irfan Hussain was the third son of famous writer, critic and author, Dr. Akhtar Husain Raipuri. His mother had also authored her autobiography, with intimate revelations of some of the very well-known and celebrated literary figures of the time, as well as recipe books. Their house was always an open house for friends of their sons and replete with intellectual and cultural discussions and good food. These friends - always welcome at their home - were first taken to the parents who were genuinely concerned about their welfare. Some were lucky to be adopted into their extended family, myself being one of the fortunate ones. This pattern was to continue all of Irfan’s life in his own homes as well.

I met him ironically enough in a classroom where he was a student and myself a teacher at Karachi University in 1963. I say ironically, because in later years he was to become my teacher and mentor, correcting my English and pronunciation as well as some of my incorrect views and opinions and pieces of knowledge.

One day I was asked by my head of department (English) to take over a class from another lecturer who found the students “very difficult” to handle. I entered the class expecting to find heckling hooligans and prepared for that eventuality. To my surprise, it was the easiest of classes as their English was very good and in some cases par excellence, as in the case of students like Irfan Husain, Javed Jabbar, Akbar Agha (now also an author) and the inimitable Anwar Maqsood.

Faced with such brilliance and wit, and not able to cope with it, the previous teacher declared them “difficult.” But I hit it off immediately with them and soon developed a friendly rapport. Having done my MA at a young age and starting to teach immediately afterwards, the age difference between my students and myself was minimal. This rapport grew further and into informality when another junior lecturer and I decided to set up a Students Theatre Guild, of which the above-named students were the stars.

Our first play was too ambitious - Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar - which in our amateurish hands became more of a comedy than the tragedy it is meant to be. It was rightly called The Murder of Julius Caesar in a review by my very talented cousin, Nasrin Azhar.

So, our next two productions were all comedies and each play brought me closer to these four or five students until the student-teacher relationship transformed completely into a strong friendship, especially when we took one play to Lahore and travelled and stayed together.

Then I left for higher studies at Cambridge. When I returned from Cambridge, Irfan had taken the civil service exam. He was posted in Lahore which I used to visit very frequently as part of my new job and we now met only as friends and partied together and had many common friends as well. At that time, I started writing in Dawn and The Sun, in which I became an “agony aunt” writing under the pseudonym Aunty J.
Irfan was passionate about life, good quality living, eating and hospitality. He was at his happiest hosting, feeding and looking after guests

Irfan also started a column under the name of Akbar Husain as under some stupid government rules, he was not supposed to do so. In one of his early columns, he decided to take the mickey out of Aunty J, knowing very well it was me and almost exposed me as being a young bachelor with a handle bar moustache and long hair.

In 1973, when I joined the foreign service as a lateral entrant from Sweden, I was sent to the Senior Staff College for training for six months and given a room in their hostel. Irfans’s little flat then became a haven and refuge for me during the weekends even though he was now married, because I had introduced him to his wife.

Irfan was transferred many times, from Railways to AG Sind, and then in EOBI and the Karachi Steel Mills, now as finance director. Both jobs where reputedly people have made millions of, not rupees, but dollars. But Irfan was as clean and honest as they come and was quick to show people, offering a basketful of money, the door. He also served as joint secretary in the Ministry of Culture and later abroad as information minister in the embassy in Washington. All this time, he kept writing columns regularly every week, under different pseudonyms to evade detection. Sometimes under the name of his son, Shakir Husain, sometimes his wife’s name, Ferida Sher and then settled on Mazdak where people noted him and became fans of Mazdak’s column in Dawn, often wondering who Mazdak actually was.

Ultimately, he decided to follow his passion which was writing, so he took early retirement and concentrated on his columns but now under his own name, with no restrictions stating what he, and others, really thought about the various travails our country went through. This enamored him to countless free and high-level thinkers who became fans of his column and thus developed a relationship with him.

Sometime earlier I had resigned from the foreign service and taken up a job in The Khaleej Times in Dubai, and we were able to meet more often and exchange views and ideas. Around that time Irfan took up with his present wife, Charlotte, herself a writer and author. I had known and admired Charlotte from mid-70s, so was very pleased with this alliance and wished it well. We stayed in constant touch and I was living and working for the Khaleej Times in London in the 1980s when he had a bypass operation. I remember taking him for his first walk after the operation on the doctor’s orders.

When I was working and living in Kenya in the 1990s, Irfan and Charlotte came and stayed with me for over a month as Charlotte did research for her new book on Hutch, a Black-British singer and darling of the British jet-set ladies, including Princess Margaret. When Irfan and Charlotte decided to tie the knot officially, I was living in London and had the privilege of being the best man at their wedding.

From then on, Irfan divided his time between England (summer months) and Pakistan (winter months) as I used to do. We would, of course, meet very often in London but also co-ordinate our travel plans to Karachi and Lahore so that we could be there together.

When they decided to have a winter home in Sri Lanka, I accompanied Irfan on his request to see the plot Charlotte and he had purchased and give advice about the old house on it. Then once again, we went there together when the house project was handed over to contractors. When the lovely house was complete, I was a frequent visitor enjoying their warm hospitality and open house ambience alongwith hundreds of other guests who visited them on their invitation. There we indulged in our common hobby, cooking and feeding guests. Irfan was passionate about life, good quality living, eating and hospitality. He was at his happiest hosting, feeding and looking after guests. Even in Dorset, no weekend went without him and Charlotte having guests staying with them and their weekend guest list used to be booked months in advance. In this, he was fortunate to find a wife who, like his parents, believed in an open house for guests and was fond of adopting and taking into her extended family any human strays like myself and many others.

These last few months were difficult ones with weekly chemotherapy injections but that did not diminish his passion for a good quality life, nor his dedication to his Saturday column. He invited me to Dorset as often as he could and I was more than happy to oblige, keep him company and cook the delicacies he and his never-ending stream of guests enjoyed. When the doctors gave him only some days more to live, Charlotte decided to bring him home where he could have not only professional but great loving and tender care. She also asked me to come down to be there when he arrived home, to keep him company, and talk and discuss with him in his mother tongue, Urdu, and to cook his favourite Pakistani dishes. So I was there when he passed away. I will always be beholden to Charlotte, the ever caring and thoughtful and loving wife, for having given me this privilege and opportunity to be with my dearest friend till the very last. The one morning he was able to sit at the table and have breakfast with us, he started to dictate for his Saturday column to his stepdaughter.

The column was not completed but those were probably the last coherent words he spoke, because immediately afterwards his condition deteriorated very quickly and he was gone in a matter of days.

Wherever he was and the number of guests notwithstanding, he never missed his Saturday column, which was his dedicated passion. A voracious reader and thinker and believer in being honest about what he wrote, he won many admirers as well as antagonized those in power or those with limited, radicalised and closed minds. As another dear friend and admirer, an ex-minister from Banazir days wrote to me, “Irfan scaled the heights of intellectual probity, honesty and expression. He lived passionately, generous in his friendships and with a heart and soul that appreciated the beauty of life, literature and nature.”

I could not put it any better. Let this be his requiem.