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A Life Lived in Full

Published in Jan-Feb 2022

Zohra Yusuf reviews Paradise Lost: A Journey from Kashmir to Karachi – Memoirs of Syed Nizam Shah.

It is rare to become so quickly engrossed in the recollections of a person you don’t know, and who would not be considered ‘famous’ in the public domain. Paradise Lost, the memoirs of Syed Nizam Shah, has this unique quality of drawing the reader in, both through its compelling narrative and easy style. Coming face-to-face with fast-changing developments from a young age, Shah’s flow of memories begins with his beloved Kashmir and the role his forefathers played in its history. Descending from the Naqshbandi order, his family enjoyed a deeply respected status in Kashmir. As a reiteration of the family’s privileged position, Shah’s father was the first native Muslim to be appointed Governor of Kashmir in the Dogra administration.

While Paradise Lost is immensely readable throughout, the chapters on Shah’s Kashmir roots are the most evocative. They have a ‘straight from the heart’ ring to them, which the later chapters on his corporate life cannot match. Describing the harmonious and tolerant society in which he grew up, where festivals of all religions were celebrated with equal respect and enthusiasm, Shah credits this large-heartedness of Kashmir to the development of his own character. He writes, “This air of neutrality, open-mindedness and cohesiveness that was unique to the Valley seeped into my consciousness at a very early age. It would be fair to say that this was the training ground that enabled me to forge friendships regardless of geographical, ethnic or religious identities, and would help me face innumerable challenges in the professional arena.”

Indeed, as the narrative progresses and Shah begins to face a multitude of challenges – from dislocation and separation from family to adjusting to a corporate environment – the reader realises that his reference to the influence of Kashmir holds true. Sensing the turmoil that was to set India on fire, Shah’s father decided to send him to King’s William College on the Isle of Man in England to study. The adjustment to the dictates of college life in England for a boy not yet 14 and from a privileged background was hard, to put it mildly. Shah vividly describes the trials and tribulations of blending into a fairly regimented life. However, it is the exposure to the cold and damp weather that seems most difficult for students from warmer climates to adjust to.

Shah landed in a country ravaged by war. He describes both the destruction and the deprivations. He writes, “Life in post-war England was brutal in its frugality. Everything had been pared down to the basics... the list of grocery items one could buy was restricted.” Under the circumstances, the idyllic life Shah led in Kashmir seemed as remote as the physical distance.

It was in England, and at a very young age, that Shah joined the British American Company (BAT). This initiation into corporate life would lead to a long professional career that prove to be extremely rewarding – both in the quick rise to the top, as well as the invaluable learning and experience it entailed.

Arriving in Pakistan, he joined BAT’s local subsidiary, Pakistan Tobacco Company (PTC). His first posting in Akora Khattak, where PTC had a factory, posed yet another challenge in adapting to a starkly different environment. At a time when tobacco was not considered a ‘dirty’ business, Shah managed to get PTC to work for the uplift of the environment and infrastructure in Akora Khattak – a place he began to love and where he forged strong friendships. Later, as chairman of the company (the youngest person to be appointed to the position), he would support many projects that had an impact on education, health and sports – ranging from financial contribution to the setting up of the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), the Aga Khan University Hospital (AKUH) and the widely popular Wills cricket sponsorship.

The account of Wills’ involvement with cricket has many interesting anecdotes and observations, including those on the arrogance of the senior (unnamed) players. Shah notes with pleasure the delight of his relatives in Kashmir on seeing him handing out Wills trophies to cricketers on Pakistan Television. If Shah lost a home (his paradise) in Kashmir, he found and began to love another one – Pakistan’s then capital – Karachi. There is a lot of nostalgia in his memoirs for the swinging city Karachi once was. He recalls the ease with which his wife, Nasreen, whose family came from Wah, adjusted to life in the city. As he notes, “Nasreen’s innate charm made her an immediate success in my social circle, and she took to city life with aplomb. She enjoyed our Saturday night outings to one of Karachi’s many clubs, where invariably one of the city’s famous Goan bands would be playing.”

His long association with PTC also involved a posting in Chittagong, a port city in former East Pakistan. In fact, his last visit to East Pakistan was in 1971 when he reluctantly travelled to Dacca (now Dhaka) to try and retrieve some of the company’s assets. He describes his companions on that flight as “army personnel and jawans of the Frontier Corps who had no idea of where they were going and for what.” This was just one of the indicators of the disaster that would culminate in surrender on December 16, 1971.

Paradise Lost is more than an account of a life lived in Kashmir, Pakistan and many countries in between. There are astute observations on Pakistan’s political developments and their impact on the country’s economy. His exposure to government-owned or managed enterprises, while heading several of them following his retirement from PTC, gave him an insider’s view of the machinations of power. While the deterioration of state institutions is described candidly, Shah discreetly refrains from naming those responsible for the situation. In fact, while he has hinted at many adversaries in his professional life, the only one identified by name is Ghulam Ishaq Khan, who, as Finance Minister, refused to give any concessions to the tobacco industry.

Nizam Shah’s is a life lived to the fullest. Although feelings of pain and loss (for Kashmir and for the Karachi that was) run through the narrative, it is balanced by a sense of optimism and acceptance of his adopted city. As he sums up, “What I lost in the Valley was indeed precious but what I found here [Karachi] remains priceless.”

Paradise Lost: A Journey From Kashmir to Karachi
By Syed Nizam Shah
Published by Paramount Books
280 pp, Rs 995
ISBN: 9789692101110

Zohra Yusuf is Chief Creative Officer, Spectrum VMLY&R.