It was extremely rare for Irfan Husain’s columns not to evoke a response from readers. Anger or agreement. Chuckles or censure. Envy sometimes, when he wrote about the good life – his travels and enjoyment of great food and drink. In fact, the repertoire of subjects he covered every week ensured that he was never short of readers. Irfan’s political comments, of course, got the most – and strongest – feedback, from fan to hate mail.
Irfan Husain’s life was truly one “lived with passion.” He was passionate about people’s rights (particularly those of the more vulnerable), secularism, the equality of citizens, regional peace and the lessons from history. He was equally passionate about the arts, reading, cooking and enjoying the finest cuisines. His wide interests reflected in his weekly columns should have made the editing of this collection an overwhelming task. Carmen González and Abbas Nasir, journalists themselves and friends of Irfan’s, have done a remarkable job in bringing coherence and accessibility to these columns (all written for Dawn) on a huge range of diverse issues. As they explain in the editors’ note:
“Irfan was a prolific columnist who produced some 2,000 pieces over a span of 28 years. His glorious, fascinatingly inquisitive mind contributed to making our task even more taxing, as he wrote about pretty much every topic and issue with scholarly rigour and passion.”
Opting for a thematic arrangement, the editors have organised the book into seven sections according to topic and chronologically. Together they give more than a glimpse into Irfan’s mind, interests and concerns. Of course, writing about this part of the world, the concerns were many, causing deep anguish. In the chapter Faith Matters, the columns not only show deep concern about the rise of religious extremism and the loss of tolerance but also take a historical view of the decline of Muslims in the world.
It’s not only Muslim fanaticism that Irfan takes issue with. He casts a critical look at the bloodshed and violence caused by the absolute belief that one’s religion or ideology is superior to another’s. In his column, The Faith Militant, he writes: “Alas, man-made dogmas have been just as uncaring of human life as have divine faiths. More people have been killed in the name of communism and national socialism in the last century than for any other cause. But both kinds of belief generate the same kind of moral superiority and inspire similar sorts of immunity from human and spiritual laws and constraints as do revealed religions.”
The tolerance and understanding that Irfan attempted to promote through his writing struck a chord across the border as well. His columns were widely read in India and after his death, many Indians revealed how he engaged in dialogue with them – arguing, explaining and always responding to questions and comments. However, while he had a large circle of fans and regular readers in India and Pakistan, he received a frightening number of hate mail as well. He tried to engage with them, too, but with little success. In fact, he acknowledges that he often opened his inbox with trepidation, anticipating the barrage of hate mail from one “aggrieved” group or another.
The section Politics of Upheaval comprises articles that take a critical – and insightful – view of Pakistan’s perpetually messy state of affairs. Irfan holds the country’s “spymasters” responsible for some of the mayhem the country periodically suffers. In How Our Spymasters View the World (October 11, 2008), he lists major cases of intelligence failures, resulting in chaos and loss of lives. The prominent cases include the attack on the Marriott in Islamabad, and the fiasco that followed the appeasement of the Lal Masjid clerics. About the ISI he notes: “Deeply embroiled in national politics and quixotic adventures abroad, the agency has taken its eye off the ball. The result is a conflagration set off by its own creations among the many extremist outfits it created to fight our proxy wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir.”
Irfan had a special penchant for writing about food. His description of a “humble” fried egg could be mouth-watering. Living in England, he often wrote about his family’s recipes for traditional Subcontinental dishes. As a frequent dinner guest in his home in Karachi, I can vouch for both the delicious taste and the generous spread found on the family dining table. His knowledge of food, their ingredients, as well as his desire to share interesting tidbits, fascinates the reader. There is, for example, an entire column on chillies – their unusual variety interlinked with his own experience of them. A sample: “Another killer chilli is the famous naga (viper) or bhut (ghost) jolokia from Nagaland in India. Also grown in Dorset in the UK, the chilli is sold in some supermarkets where you have to prove you are at least 18 before you are allowed to buy it.”
Being Irfan’s frequent dinner companion at various eateries in Karachi, I had the pleasure of experiencing both interesting cuisine and unique ambience. We ate at a dhaba frequented by port workers (where I was the only woman), at his favourite leg of lamb place, Qaiser’s on Bunder Road, as well as at fine dining places where chefs and managers would hover around anxious to please, knowing he was a food critic.
Irfan’s regular readers, of course, looked forward to his take on Pakistan’s political scenario every Saturday. Like peeling an onion, in his column A Fractured Society, for example, he laid bare the rotten layers of a state and society that treated its women and minorities with violence and discrimination.
As one of Irfan’s former editors, I must confess that his columns required no editing for language and length. In difficult times, they were blue-pencilled much to his chagrin. His choice of words was always precise and he took the trouble of researching his themes so it was extremely rare that a retraction was called for. He was also deeply committed to meeting deadlines and the only time a column was dropped was because of censorship or fear of official repercussions. He would then share the unpublished columns with close friends while hitting out at Dawn’s self-imposed censorship. When his column did not appear on Saturday, December 14, 2020, I assumed it was yet another casualty of censorship. Two days later, he passed away.
Irfan candidly shared some aspects of his personal life with his readers. He wrote about his heart attack and subsequent surgery in detail. He adopted an almost detached and rational approach to sharing his experience of discovering he had cancer, and the painful treatment that followed. When his column Cancer Comes Calling appeared on August 6, 2020, many concerned friends called me to check up on him. It was heart-breaking for his friends to read (in an otherwise calm, informative column): “After nearly three years of this barrage (of 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.” A Life Lived with Passion will be launched in London on September 27.
A Life Lived With Passion – Irfan Husain (1944-2020)
Edited by Carmen González and Abbas Nasir
Published by Kitab (Pvt) Ltd
473 pp. Price: (N/A)
Zohra Yusuf is Chief Creative Officer, Spectrum VMLY&R.
Photos: Stephan Andrew/White Star