"Chelsea Grey And Rainy..."

Numerous eminent artists today got their first professional shows at Khaas, strengthening their ability to enter the art world, perhaps more self-assured

This was the view from my taxi window, as I rode out of Heathrow on a typical evening in July, and how she’d described her favourite weather, I recalled. “Come,” she had said, when we chatted in the spring and I had dissed London weather and added why I’d always preferred sunny New York. 

Full-blown laughing emojis had been her response as I imagined her deep distinctive laughter, in my head.

As I tried to process the day in mid-July and wait for the news of the inevitable I badly needed it to be eternity…, not one which was a matter of days and then hours and then minutes. In the days that followed, all of us friends and family found ourselves suffering amidst the chaos of loss; and life has been a bit of a blur as we all attempt to accept finality while we navigate the disarray, characteristic of grief. 

Mouse (Zishan Ain) Afzal Khan or M to her friends, was a citizen of both worlds, as comfortable as she was quoting Shakespeare as she would be reciting Ghalib and Faiz couplets. Laughingly she explained how her maternal grandfather – the eminent Zulfiqar Bukhari – had her memorize bits from Ghalib’s divan and practice the art of baet baazi at a young age. She would navigate both her worlds effortlessly and float across them, seamlessly. 

Her stoicism almost had an Anglo-Saxon edge to it, most evident when her younger sister Poppy passed away eight years ago: if she was Poppy’s anchor through her trials with her disease, M became the fortified keystone that held everything and everyone together, after Poppy. A couple of years later, as we sat with friends one evening talking about Poppy, tears rolled down my cheeks suddenly and M just looked at me and said, “Listen to me! We can’t break down, or else how will we carry on…?” 

And carry on she did with much perseverance as a supportive parent to her young nieces Bano and Noorie, a devoted daughter and niece, and an ever-gracious hostess to family, friends and non-friends, in the welcoming home that uncle Affie and aunty Puppo always maintained. That she continued the tradition in London, was no meagre feat, but served to reassure Bano and Noorie that life is always to be celebrated and shared with friends everywhere.

Mouse was a very close friend and sometimes when one chooses friendship, one is choosing family. That was the case with my 30-year-long friendship with both Mouse and her sister Poppy – there were no territorial boundaries between us, just as there was no ambivalence or ambiguity, which is sometimes the norm, between the siblings.

We became friends in Islamabad in the early 1990s and shared an interest in the arts, music and our love for dancing the night away. Mouse and her friend Mobina ran a leading art gallery in town- the first professional undertaking to produce exceptionally designed invitation cards and creative catalogues, worthy of collection. As I look back at that time, I now see that she had a firm belief, not unlike the Florentines that ‘Art in all its forms could make people happy, wise and civilised.’ Most people considered Islamabad-a city of bureaucrats and diplomats-a cultural backwater then. But in a very short period, Khaas Gallery became a trailblazer and M the trendsetter. The gallery’s offering of modern and contemporary art was an education for many in the twin cities. In my view the only parallel, decades earlier would have been the Rawalpindi Art Gallery (1961-77) by the eminent modern artist Zubeda Agha (1922-1997), who M admired immensely. 

Mouse decided to add a café to Khaas, a space for contemplation and coffee. The cafe offered a limited yet delectable menu, finely curated by her and Poppy – one that Islamabad had never seen. As somebody who hardly ever stepped into the kitchen, she not only served exceptionally large salads but also convinced her mother’s carnivorous Pakhtun chef to perfectly roll vegetarian sushi at home! It was no surprise to find cabinet ministers and diplomats suddenly arrive for a no-fuss lunch. Until one day we had security personnel sniffing around, only to discover that President Musharraf had decided to experience the place that his entire cabinet was raving about!

Khaas showed many emerging artists - those whose work appealed to M in a blink! Not necessary those signed up with a series of commercial galleries elsewhere. Numerous eminent artists today, got their first professional shows at Khaas, strengthening their ability to enter the art world, perhaps more self-assured. Among others were women artists: Sonia Chundrigar, Humera Abid, Bushra Waqas and Sana Arjumand. Over the years, she invited exhibited artists back to show their work, even if they moved abroad. Despite the absence of exclusive representations in Pakistan, she felt strongly about the gallery’s continuous engagement at every stage in an artist’s career, and thus formed meaningful and trusting relationships. Bushra Waqas’s solo ‘The Red Carpet’ for the re-launch of Khaas Contemporary in March 2021 was another such show curated by her; having shown her photo etching thesis back in 2008. Coincidentally the 2021 show opened just before Bushra was shortlisted for the prestigious Jameel Art Prize. 

In the early 2000s Mouse and her lifelong friend Zahir Riaz launched the first-ever jazz program TakeFive on FM 89 radio. Playing amazing music the duo would take listeners through the artists’ journeys and life struggles. Soon fans of all ages were hankering after TakeFive’s playlist and Dave Brubeck, Nina Simone, John Coltrane and Stan Getz etc became ‘cool’ for the young and restless of Islamabad – so she handed out complementary CDs. I was astonished to discover how TakeFive had made youngsters music-savvy when I overheard my 12 year old asking her Saxophone playing friend if he knew the notes to Take Five by Brubeck, the poor soul responded in the negative. So she proceeded to play it for him and downloaded the music sheets for him to learn!

Around 2000, I swapped my full time job for a consulting role, and M invited me onto the committee of the LRBT fundraising balls; and together with her friend Salik, we became the core-team. Year after year the elegant annual events that she conceived and organized became legendary. Not just for their impeccable ambience and attention to detail, but for the unprecedented amounts of money that they raised for the cause. The sheer altruism that she displayed in every aspect of this undertaking, as I witnessed at close quarters, was uniquely Mouse. Despite my occasional conniptions at late vendors or unreliable contractors, she would remain the ever-calm. “C’mon lets get a foot massage and deal with our stress,” was her response.

We became a team and I found myself also assisting her from time to time with the gallery shows.

In 2006 she convinced me to be part of the book launch for the first novel by our common friend Moni Mohsin at Khaas. But I don’t qualify and I haven’t read the book, I said. Well neither have I, as its not available in Pakistan yet, she had said “But you’ve both been friends since age 16, so how about introducing the real Moni to an audience who don’t know her”, which I did. Mouse had a way of giving people confidence such that they were not only convinced to ‘put their best foot forward’, but to ‘be their best selves’. Her passion for art was infectious and even those who had no intentions of buying would be irresistibly drawn to an artwork. Many ended up paying in easy instalments or got friends’-discounts, because she could sense that the person would cherish living with it, and to her that was paramount.

I lost my mother just a month after Poppy passed away, and Mouse came over for condolences and we talked about the immense vacuum in our lives. As she was leaving she held my hands and said “Poppy had a plan for us,” she had entered Khaas in Art-15 in London, and there’s no way I can do this on my own – we’ve always been a team, and we will work through our grief - together, she declared. A few weeks later we set about preparing for the show, with her long trusted colleague Babur Gul working away in Pakistan and Alia Bilgrami as a curator. Among others, Khaas was showing Zubeda Agha’s works in London after a long hiatus. Editing the catalogue with Momin Zafar and figuring out the display with Babur saw us through several sleepless nights and trips to the stationers, which delighted her no end. 

Our last show together was in January this year, at the old gallery space in her house. Since it was a private viewing for a select audience we wanted to return to the intimacy of the space and worked non-stop over two and half days to make it happen. It was like old times, we re-hauled the lighting, had to have the right coffee, the best canapés and of course appropriate music.

Mouse’s generosity of spirit and joie de vivre was not something to be taken lightly, she was magnanimous and effortlessly gave of herself. Her compassion was discrete but as a friend you’d always have the security that she had your back, unconditionally. Forever the remarkable peacemaker, she made people feel heard and was often adjudicating and interceding, when others would just give up. All her emotions were a private affair but by her own admission, nothing got her more infuriated than misogyny and ‘schadenfreude.’ She stood by her friends in the most turbulent of times and her sentiments were akin to what EM Forster once wrote about friendship, “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”

You brought us irreplaceable joy; you were the extraordinary (khaas) in our lives. Mouse, you went away too soon, and with your passing we have lost a piece of ourselves.