If My Friends Could Write… (A Novel Excerpt)
The following is an excerpt from Mohammad Shehzad’s upcoming novel. He is a journalist/writer and can be reached at: [email protected]
Qalandar would always dream. “If all my dreams could come true!” was his ardent prayer to God. He was not selfish even in dreams. He had dreams for himself as well as others. One of them was: “If my friends could write books!”
Qalandar was a successful writer in a society where creativity was the worst sin with horrible punishments. Innumerable creative minds had embraced death and thousands of such souls had fled the country, for even a faint fragrance of fresh breeze was deemed poisonous by society’s rotten minds who were in majority and at the helm of affairs. Anything threatening to their fiefdom and self-enacted commandments was considered “creativity”.
Writing was Qalandar’s passion as well as his bread and butter which luckily ensured him financial security. When Qalandar was cherishing a relaxed lifestyle in a sprawling owner-occupied villa, his highly educated friends – with degrees from the world’s best universities – lived in rented places. They were often short of money towards the end of the month and would borrow from Qalandar who would never disappoint them. However, he would never refrain himself from whispering some wisdom into their ears: “Don’t buy international brands. Don’t buy brand new cars against heavy markup. Frugality and austerity will make you rich. A penny saved is a penny earned.” These universal truths would fall on deaf ears, but Qalandar would still be proud of them.
Some of Qalandar’s friends were extremely learned and creative, like Sarmad Sehbai, the poet, playwright, novelist, filmmaker, musician and director; Ayaz Amir, one of the greatest columnists of South Asia, widely known as the “Shakespeare of Pakistan”; Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, a climate change specialist; Arif Waqar, writer, broadcaster and producer; Usman Qazi, a development expert who had read hundreds of thousands of books and retained them in his memory; Shakil Chaudhary, a political analyst and English linguist and many more.
Qalandar would hold such friends in high esteem. Every time he would spend time with them or talk to them over the phone, he would feel enlightened and as if his limited knowledge had been enriched. He would consider them his mentors. But he would also occasionally have beef with some of them, especially Ayaz Amir. The latter would always sound content with his weekly English column in Dawn. Qalandar firmly believed that it was never a column but an exquisite narration of current affairs in a literary style and diction. It would be philosophical, lyrical, sarcastic, metaphorical, humorous, and poetical. Qalandar was able to form this opinion with the help of his little exposure to the classic Urdu and English literature.
“If there is someone who could create a sentence in English with power, eloquence and a captivating beauty, he is Ayaz Amir and his counterpart in Urdu is Mushtaq Ahmad Yusufi,” Qalandar would say whenever a discussion took place between friends. It would not be sans dissent. The dissidents would come up with great names like M J Akbar, Jawed Naqvi and FS Aijazuddin.
“They are great writers, and I am a huge fan of all of them but if I have to single out one, it would be Ayaz Amir!” Would be Qalandar’s assertion.
The detractors would say: “But Ayaz has started repeating himself!” Qalandar would say without disagreeing: “His columns never meant to be scoops on politics. People read them to derive pleasure from the classic literary expression that he had introduced in political commentaries which otherwise were the most boring sections in any newspaper.” Then Qalandar would quote some of his work:
“If ambition must be tailored to capacity and performance, Musharraf and his generals will have to settle for lesser aims.”
“Modesty was never a Pakistani virtue. Admitting to mistakes is not part of our tradition. A hallmark of authority is the claim to infallibility.”
Qalandar would say that Ayaz was recording Pakistan’s history by writing short sentences like the ones above in literary style that would remind a connoisseur of literature of Shakespeare or Mozart. This argument would silence the dissidents.
Debates like this would compel Qalandar once again to call Ayaz up and reinforce the decades-old mantra with fresh enthusiasm: “You must write a book. If you don’t have the time, at least publish a collection of your columns. If you still find it difficult, since you lack the desired discipline, I can do it for you.”
“Will do it soon!” Would be the predictable reply and the same conversation would be repeated after some time. Qalandar was sure that Ayaz would bite the dust without writing a book or compiling his columns. He would insist for a book yet, considering “reminder” a national duty and Ayaz would escape him with: “Will do it soon!”
One day, he surprised Qalandar. He sent his driver to Qalandar all the way from his village Bhagwal to Islamabad, a distance of nearly 100km. He wanted a compilation of his best columns and handed the mission over to Qalandar.
It was one of the longest evenings with Ayaz, thoroughly insightful and cherishable. He was many things – an army office who fought the 1971 war; a diplomat who spent time in Moscow and a politician who won election three times. He was consistent in none except writing columns. His best columns dated back to late 70’s and 80s, before the advent of internet. He wanted to bring them out. What other mission could be greater than this for Qalandar. He was extremely excited about the project and wanted to start it right away. Ayaz showed him clippings of those columns that he had published in Viewpoint which had ceased to exist a long time ago. This was probably his best work hidden from people in Qalandar’s age group. Qalandar was more than twenty years younger than Ayaz. In fact, all his friends, except a few, were at least twenty years older than him.
Ayaz excitedly showed Qalandar an old photo. He wanted Qalandar to point out a special thing in it. Qalandar looked at the photo very carefully and said: “Ayaz it is you! At the military academy, in the mess, in front of a table, at a chair, in a cadet’s outfit.”
“Obviously, but you have missed something. Look at it carefully!”
“I can’t see it, you tell me!”
“Look under the table, close to my feet, an empty bottle of whiskey!” Ayaz replied and both burst out in laughter.
Alcohol at that time was as Islamic as honey. It was Z A Bhutto who banned it, though he himself was an open tippler. Qalandar wanted to take the clippings with him.
“They are original. I don’t have a copy. Let me have them all photocopied for you. Don’t worry. My driver will deliver them to you soon.”
Qalandar was waiting for the driver for the last twenty-two years! Perhaps, Ayaz from that moment on had been left without a driver.
Years later, Ayaz told Qalandar that he had approached his friend Ameena Saiyid, head of the Oxford University Press (OUP) Pakistan. She told Ayaz that OUP did not publish stuff like this. He reminded her that it had published Outlook: A Journal of Opinion which was a compilation of selected columns of I H Burney.
“Yes, we did it but after Mr Burney’s death!” the lady said.
“You should have told her that you were ready to die!” Qalandar said to Ayaz.
Ali Tauqeer Sheikh was another character a la Ayaz. He was a tall mountain of knowledge with many precious minerals like water, climate change, entrepreneurship, leadership, etc.
For the last twenty-two years, Qalandar was on his back for a book or two that he should have written. In a fit of passion, he would engage Qalandar’s services against lucrative wages (which would always remain outstanding and Qalandar won’t mind it). He would deliver the job but Sheikh Sahib would never write a book. He would always be travelling but he would have plans to write books on another 100 subjects that he had mastered in his last trip. Qalandar would be offered new consultancies again against attractive incentives. He would deliver and remain unpaid as ever.
Sheikh Sahib (Qalandar would never address him as Ali or Tauqeer out of respect) retired six months ago. Qalandar suggested that the time was ripe for him to author a book: How to defeat retirement? The idea fascinated him.
“Would you like to accept another consultancy on that? I will offer you handsome money?” He asked Qalandar.
“No Sheikh Sahib. It would be a heavy toll on your riches!” Qalandar said.
“Nothing in life is free…even love, my friend! You must be paid like you were always paid in the past!” Sheikh Sahib replied and assured Qalandar that a book would certainly come out this time. He was still writing the prologue when Qalandar attended the last-week silver jubilee of his retirement.
Shakil Chaudhry had picked up a hitchhiking Qalandar thirty years ago from Peshawar More. A very sweet and lovable person, Shakil, in the first meeting had disclosed that he was writing a book on English for school/college students. He would often share its excerpts with friends like Qalandar. The latter found his essay on ‘hyphen’ useful and started urging him to complete the book as soon as possible. The book came out twenty-five years later. Better late than never!
Arif Waqar described the book – Handbook of Functional English – as “an excellent work of scholarship.” Prof. Tariq Rahman, one of the finest linguistic scholars in South Asia, praised it in these words: “This book is an excellent guide for the South Asian user of the English language. It gives examples of both the British and American varieties of English and provides guidelines to avoid the common errors of most Pakistanis when they write and speak English. It is also a comprehensive guide for pronunciation, vocabulary, editing and all other aspects of English usage. It was been written with great care and attention. I recommend it to students, editors, writers and other users of English in Pakistan.” The Higher Education Commission of Pakistan had bestowed the title of ‘Distinguished National Professor’ on Dr. Tari Rahman.
Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed, an emeritus professor of Stockholm University, described it as “an exceptionally well-crafted and skillfully structured contribution on the subject.”
Usman Qazi whom Qalandar addressed as Khan Sahib (both out of respect and fun) was a true genius and a mini ocean of knowledge. He was fluent in Urdu, English, Persian, Arabic, Pashto and Balochi. Unlike Ayaz and Sheikh Sahib, he never wanted to write a book. “A person like Usman must write books,” was Qalandar’s one of the convictions. Unlike Ayaz and Sheikh saheb, Usman will not mince words and tell Qalandar point-blank: “Books should be written by those who are in the business of writing books!” Qalandar would understand what he had meant, but Usman would never admit it. In simple words, “the business of writing” meant “prostitution” and the people in this business were “pimps”. Who were the readers? Qalandar had forgotten!
Then he would add, because he would know Qalandar’s counter-argument, and he would not let him resort to it: “Whatever I had written was to please my friends. They had to sell their papers or website. Whenever there was a request, I had written.”
“But Khan Saheb, you should still write!” Qalandar would say.
“I want to write this,” Usman would make a sarcastic reference to certain anecdotes that could have been shared only among close friends as they were utterly gross jokes, “but who will publish!”
All his life, Usman had been extremely critical of others’ work – be it literature, office reports, letters or memos. Authoring a book or writing regularly was like giving foes a knife to exact revenge.
“Dubai Chalo” was one of the most popular dramas in the history of Pakistan Television. Arif Waqar had directed it. Qalandar was his fan due to his flawless command of Urdu and English (though he was a Punjabi) and his weekly radio program “Aap Ka Khat Milla” [letters to BBC Urdu from its listeners].
Arif was extremely modest, polite and humble – unlike a majority of the great writers! He was so kind that once he edited an Urdu column of Qalandar in ‘track changes on’ mode. The painstaking labour and gesture of affection moved Qalandar. He encouraged him to write more in Urdu and continued to guide him. Soon came the moment when Qalandar could have said: “Arif you should write books!”
“Will do it soon!” Was his reply and Qalandar had to educate him about the true meaning of the phrase. It left Arif laughing loudly adding: “I am a perfectionist. I would never be satisfied with my work even after revising it dozens of times.”
“If it would have been the argument of all the writers, we would have been without books. How could you have known so many things without books? Moreover, perfection is creativity’s death,” Qalandar would say and make an intellectual like Arif speechless.
Arif would not give up and evert with a more convincing argument (in his opinion). “I have only a few friends. I have shared everything with them that I could write in a book.”
“Why don’t you still write a book and tell the publisher to print a little more than few copies, say five, seven or nine so that new friends like me could also benefit.” Qalandar would say and Arif would be defenseless again. However, he will not surrender and say: “I will share everything with you that I have shared with other friends.”
Qalandar would counter this argument saying: “My wife is also your fan. My sons could be your fans. My other friends are certainly your fans. They would be interested in your anecdotes, therefore, you must write a book.”
Arif would finally accede to his request. Qalandar would insist for first one hundred words from Arif to ensure he was serious.
“You will get more than one hundred words Insha Allah [if God wills].”
Qalandar would remind Arif that in Pakistan, Insha Allah meant “never”! Arif would again laugh assuring that he would write a book.
Time continued to fly. Qalandar encountered a problem in writing and contacted Arif. The latter solved his problem. Qalandar thanked him repeating once more: “Arif you must write a book. If you did not, it would be a great injustice to Pakistani society.”
Arif was irked. “Those who should not be writing at all, are writing day in, day out. Is it not an injustice?”
“Yes, but they are holding a falling edifice. When people like you will start writing, they will start reading – your work!” Qalandar said.
“What if they did not stop writing?” Arif asked.
“A good writer can always knock down a bad writer!” Qalandar replied.
“Then stop writing!” Arif said and Qalandar did not write for months. However, Arif never sent the “more than one hundred words” that he had promised.
Qalandar had started practicing tabla instead of writing. One day, a stranger entered his room. He surprised Qalandar, for the gate and main door were locked.
“Don’t be frightened. I am Shakespeare, your fan. Why you have stopped writing?”
“Because Arif does not want me to! He says I can’t write.”
“Qalandar, you should have written a book!” Shakespeare said and presented him a manuscript.
“My son, this is one of my unpublished work. Publish it under your name. Nobody would dare to challenge you as writer.”
An overwhelmed Qalandar sent the manuscript to dozens of publishers. All reverted with one writing: “Kid, learn English before writing anything in English!”
“I am not surprised Qalandar!” said Shakespeare. “The other day, the election commission of Pakistan had rejected nomination papers of Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, for he did not have a BA degree. When he protested, a mob of devout Muslims came chanting slogans like ‘Kafir Kafir Shia Kafir’ [Shia are infidels]. It would have attacked Jinnah if he would not have made the best use of his legs.”