Published in Jan-Feb 2021
It takes great dedication, passion and seriousness of intent to write a thoughtful, interesting, topical and addictive opinion column on current affairs or world events week after week for over 50 years, as well as musings on music, literature, books and especially food. It is almost impossible to sustain writing of such high quality. Irfan Husain achieved this.
Some people are born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Irfan was born in 1944 with a pen in his hand to Dr Akhtar Husain Raipuri, renowned scholar, author, writer, critic and educationist – and part of Pakistan’s Progressive Writers Movement – and Hamida Begum, daughter of renowned author Zafar Omar and a writer in her own right, in a home that served as a centre of literary, cultural and intellectual discussions which nurtured his innate talent.
Dr Husain served as Education Secretary before joining UNESCO in 1956. He was posted in Paris where Irfan went to a bilingual (English and French) school. It was there that he imbibed a culture of free and tolerant thinking. This was what was to give his columns their strength. After Paris, he was sent to Turkey to study and then to Karachi, where after an MA in Economics, he passed the Civil Service examination in 1967. Assigned to Accounting Services, he was posted at the Railway Headquarters in Lahore where he met and married his first wife, Ferida, daughter of Brigadier Qayyum Sher and where his only child, Shakir, was born.
Soon after his first posting, the urge to write began to tug at his heart. As government servants were not allowed to publish their writings, Irfan started writing in various publications in 1969 under the assumed name of Akbar Husain. Under Ziaul Haq’s rule, when dissent was punished harshly, he wrote about human rights and criticised the anti-social, misogynistic and radical religious policies of the dictator’s government, avoiding detection by repeatedly changing his nom de plume, writing under his wife’s name or even his son’s name. His brave criticism and opinions were widely read. Ultimately, he settled on the name Mazdak, reputedly an ancient Persian writer who stood up to the emperor, playing with fire and which led to a short life. Mazdak started writing a regular weekly column for Dawn which became very popular for his brave opinions and enlightened ideas. An avid reader, Irfan’s reading encompassed all subjects from history to literature, politics to international affairs, current world and national events, which he condensed into a well presented bouquet in his own well-chosen words.
Irfan served as Joint Secretary of Culture for some time but due to his writing skills he was transferred to the Information Ministry under Secretary Hamid Jalal and Minister Yusuf Buch, both highly educated and enlightened people. He also did short stints in Karachi as AG Sind, Director of Finance of EOBI and Pakistan Steel Mills, positions where others made millions for themselves; he was not too popular because of his strong character, honesty and integrity. In Benazir Bhutto’s time, he was posted to the Pakistan Embassy in Washington as Information Minister. After writing for about 14 years under the name of Mazdak, Irfan decided to devote time to his two passions, writing and reading, and in his spare time, to his favourite hobby of cooking. He took an early retirement in 1997 and started writing under his own name, speaking out frankly about current leaders and events. His voracious reading and knowledge gave added weight to his opinions and criticism.
After retirement, he was persuaded to take up the position of Founder President of the newly established Textile Institute of Pakistan. He launched into this project with his usual gusto and dedication. After getting the Institute up and running, he moved to the UK. Divorced for some years, he married English author Charlotte Breese in 1999. After this, he spent the major part of the year in the UK, coming to Pakistan only in the winter months.
In 2012, his book Fatal Faultlines was published which examined why the West is threatened by Islamic ideas and why Muslims are unable to comprehend the former’s misconceptions.
Charlotte and he built a winter home in Sri Lanka and like their homes in the UK, this house too was never empty of distinguished guests from all over the world – intellectuals, writers, human rights activists – from Arundhati Roy, Jawed Naqvi to Maggie Smith and Victoria Schofield – as well as the countless friends he had. The guest list could have served as a Who’s Who of the famous. Irfan was at his happiest cooking and feeding his guests, in which I was also an accomplice whenever I visited them. The list of invitees or self-invitees was booked months in advance, so popular was their hospitality.
No matter the number of guests, activities, discussions and entertainments, one item was sacred to Irfan – his Saturday column for Dawn. If at any time his column failed to appear (it happened two or three times), it was because the newspaper chose discretion over valour in order not to antagonise and earn the wrath of the powers that be or the extremist mullahs. He was very clear in his mind as to what was dragging Pakistan down and said so without fear or favour. The admiration he evoked was not only for his knowledgeable probing and intellectual mind, but mostly because of his courage to say what most people were thinking but were afraid to say. He spoke on behalf of all such silent people. This earned him the antagonism of narrow backward thinking people and radical extremists, but as he said, he was not writing to gain popularity but to do justice to his profession, his conscience and his principles. A testament to his dedication was his effort to dictate his Saturday column to his stepdaughter five days before he passed away.
Irfan was what in Urdu we call a very wazedar and thoughtful friend. He had a wry sense of humour, sometimes seen in his columns, but mostly reserved for friends. He was passionate about life, about his friends, about his column, about hosting and feeding guests. He enjoyed a high quality of life, physical and mental. As a dear friend put it, Irfan scaled the heights of intellectual probity and expression. He lived passionately, generous in his friendships with a heart and soul that appreciated the beauty of life, literature and nature.
This is borne out by Irfan’s words in his column titled Cancer Comes Calling, written a few months ago, when his doctors gave him a limited time to live. It sums up his courage, personality, his dignity and his strength. He wrote: “After nearly three years of this barrage (chemotherapy), I must confess there are times I wish it would just end quietly, without fuss. But then I look outside the window and see the flowers, trees and birds in our garden, and I am happy to be still alive.”
Once when we were taking a short walk after one of his chemotherapy sessions, we started to discuss Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, where Caesar says: “Cowards die many times before their deaths, the valiant never taste of death but once...” Irfan agreed wholeheartedly with these lines. He was completely unafraid and totally unfazed by the approaching end. His only concern was that he could not work as hard or live as fully as he was accustomed to but was determined to do so until the end.
He was true to his words. He lived a purposeful, meaningful and upright life, right until the end and passed away “quietly without fuss” early in the morning on Wednesday, December 16, 2020 peacefully, with dignity and with his wife and his son by his side.