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Remembering Musadiq, Remembering Sanwal

Updated January 21, 2014

One of my oldest friends, who I’ve known since school days but who I have rarely seen over the last 25 years because he chose to settle down in Germany, had once likened true friendship to the two rails of a railway track. They run in separate lines but always in parallel – no matter how far away one might have come from the origins, no matter how different one’s experiences in one’s own groove of life over time, you can still connect across the divide, simply because you have moved along, evolved, at the same pace.

Musadiq Sanwal, who passed away all too suddenly, last Friday, was just such a friend for me. No matter how many days or weeks or even months sometimes passed between our substantive interactions, there was never a question we would not immediately connect. Talking about literature, music, films, politics, people, sharing jokes and even on an emotional level, we instinctively knew exactly where the other was coming from. This, despite the fact that on the face of it, our backgrounds were entirely different – he a proud multilingual Seraiki from Multan who studied art at the NCA in Lahore and knew intimately about classical and folk music; myself a Karachi-raised Urdu speaker who struggled to understand literary Seraiki and studied physics and computer science abroad before choosing filmmaking and journalism as professions. He was the only friend from whom hearing the appellations ‘jani’, ‘jigram’, ‘pyaaray’ never seemed unnatural or insincere.

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Interview with Musadiq on Sufism:

I was always torn between calling him Musadiq or Sanwal – half his friends addressed him by his first name, the others by his second. I, like many, used his names interchangeably. The first always seemed more political – he was named after Mohammad Mossadeq, the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, toppled in 1953 by the CIA-MI6 organised coup which installed the Shah of Iran. But Sanwal always sounded more poetic and indigenous and rolled off the tongue more easily. Both elements existed effortlessly in him. The lasting impression of many who interacted with him, particularly recently, was of ‘a gentle soul’ – he was after all always encouraging of creativity, forgiving of personal faults and imparted his formidable knowledge about poetry, prose and music with a light touch. But he was also the same person who was beaten so badly by Jamaatis during his days of leftist political activism in college that he lost sight in one eye. He never trumpeted it but his fire against social injustice never died out. His music and his art were deeply informed by his political training and his ethics and he would have no qualms about telling off someone he felt was being arrogant.

After the attack by the Jamaat thugs in which Musadiq lost sight in one eye. -Image courtesy of Aamir Mughal
After the attack by the Jamaat thugs in which Musadiq lost sight in one eye. -Image courtesy of Aamir Mughal

Our mutual friend Sharjil Baloch, now a BBC journalist, recalled to me how Musadiq encouraged him to follow his heart, to leave the medical profession to become a videographer and journalist if he really wanted to, finding him assignments to do. Yet, on his first trip with Musadiq to a fishing village, Musadiq scolded him simply for asking for directions from a pedestrian while lying back in his car seat. Musadiq, he said, was incensed at the perceived arrogance Sharjil had shown, as a car-riding urbanite to a poor villager. It was these little things that made Musadiq what he was.

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Some people leave an indelible impression on me in my first meeting with them, and I can recall that first meeting in great detail. With others, I forget that first meeting because I feel I have known them all my life. While we kept a vigil at the hospital during his last few days, trying to be useful to his wife Shehla and his family, I strained to remember when I had first met Sanwal. I couldn’t. I knew I had known him for around 20 years, but I couldn’t place the exact circumstances of our initial meeting. I tried asking our friends Mohammad Hanif and Talat Aslam, who had known him longer, if they recalled the exact first time they met him. They couldn’t either.

Musadiq with his wife Shehla at the 2nd KaraFilm Festival 2002.
Musadiq with his wife Shehla at the 2nd KaraFilm Festival 2002.

Fragments of various images came back to me: his telling me how excited everyone in his Baang Theatre Group had been at my very positive review in The Herald of Marnay Ke Baad Kya Hoga?, the Hanif-scripted play he had directed. “Sab chhalaangay maar rahe thhe,” he told me one day. The original play was a total departure from the drama that had until then been staged in Karachi, mixing pop culture references with a biting political satire and brilliant stage direction and performances and it had seemed theatre was finally coming into its own in Pakistan. But I wrote the review before I really became friends with him, though I did know him. I recall visiting him in the sparse one bedroom flat he shared off Zamzama, where the first thing you saw as you opened the door was a tabla and harmonium sitting on the concrete floor. I recall sitting with him and Talat and listening to cassette tapes of obscure music from Abbottabad and having an animated discussion about the quirky, melancholic, modern beauty of the lyrics ‘Murree Di Main Sair Karaan, Mahiye Diyaan Caaraan Vich.

Musadiq on music, poetry, art and Pakistani angst. -Video courtesy of Nofil Naqvi:

I recall the concert he did at my house in the mid-‘90s with some 40-50 friends and family members in attendance – where he sang for hours and hours, everything from classical to Punjabi and Seraiki and Sindhi folk to filmi numbers by Madam Noor Jehan, Bhupen Hazarika, Lata Mangeshkar, Sorrayya Multanikar, Pathanay Khan and Mohammad Rafi. Everytime I now hear the songs he sang then, I remember the gusto with which he sang in his booming voice that seemed to emanate out of nowhere from his slight frame and which surprised everyone who heard him for the first time. My parents, who were also at that concert, always recalled his swaying head and mop of grey hair as he sang, which epitomised his total immersion in his music. When he sang, he sang from the heart. He always referred to it as the best concert he had ever done, and I used to tell him that I never enjoyed his public concerts because they reminded me of the pulsing energy and easy interaction of that home concert, which the more formal public concerts lacked.

The author with Hanif and Musadiq before Musadiq left for treatment in the US, March 2013.
The author with Hanif and Musadiq before Musadiq left for treatment in the US, March 2013.

I recall the hilarious awkwardness of his marriage ceremony to Shehla, when some of the baraatis, old friends overcome with joy for him and imbibing from supplies in the boot of a car, ended up prostrate at the feet of the bride and groom. I recall the endless nights sitting up with him in his home while he worked tirelessly on designing the logo, posters and catalogue for the 1st KaraFilm Festival, with Shehla coming in periodically to ask if we needed tea. The KaraFilm logo is still the same, blending elements of film (a film can) and the Urdu script to provide Kara its unique Pakistani identity. He would continue to design all the material for the festivals until he left for London to accompany Shehla on her graduate studies and take up a job with the BBC. I recall visiting him at the studio he had set up to listen to his experimentations in fusing folk tunes with electronica.

But I couldn’t recall the first time I met him.

KaraFilm Logo: Designed by Musadiq.
KaraFilm Logo: Designed by Musadiq.

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Sanwal and I first decided to work together in 1998 on a theatre play that I had adapted into Urdu. It was celebrated French playwright, Yasmine Raza’s Art. Art is a story basically about male friendship, but I had set the play in Karachi with the three protagonists being former leftist comrades at Karachi University, whose divergent life paths lead to resentments between them. This mix of psychological with the cultural and political I think appealed to Musadiq.

The author with Mohammad Hanif and Musadiq at a screening of Raat Chali Hai Jhoom Ke at the NFT in London in 2005.
The author with Mohammad Hanif and Musadiq at a screening of Raat Chali Hai Jhoom Ke at the NFT in London in 2005.

For a few months we held casting sessions and discussed stage directions. But we were stymied by our inability to find an actor to fill one of the key roles. At the same time Hanif had finished up the script for what would eventually become the film Raat Chali Hai Jhoom Ke – an adaptation of Martin Scorsese’s film After Hours which I had suggested to Hanif. Musadiq and I abandoned Art and began to work earnestly on Raat.

Musadiq was the more experienced director of actors, and yet he allowed me to take the directorial lead, ego never coming into the equation. In truth, many of the castings of the multifarious characters in the film and their mannerisms and accents were entirely Musadiq’s suggestions. After the grueling almost-entirely night shoot was done, we shared many laughs about what we went through together – among them a situation where Musadiq was ensconced between two local toughs in the backseat of my Beetle as I drove around the streets of the then-volatile Shah Faisal Colony at 3 am with my wife Tahera in the front seat, looking for Kalashnikovs we could borrow as props for a scene. “All I was thinking then,” he would tell me later, “is that if a bullet came through the back looking for either of those two [the toughs], I would be the unfortunate bystander who gets shot.”

By the time we sat down to do the music score for the film, we already knew that we wanted to title the film Raat Chali Hai Jhoom Ke – the title of a 1967 film song composed by Muslehuddin, in a film starring Waheed Murad. Sanwal suggested we also use the melody and do the entire score as variations on the original tune. I wanted a minimalist score but didn’t want a typical one. One day Sanwal told me he had thought long and hard about which instruments to use and had decided that the instrument that defined contemporary Karachi the most was the guitar – it was youthful, modern and non-traditional, like Karachi. Very few immigrants to Karachi – Musadiq moved to the city in the mid-1980s – felt the city’s pulse the way Musadiq did. He wanted to do variations of the melody with a guitar and tabla. So we sought out Aamir Zaki – the most brilliant guitarist of his generation – and Ustad Bashir Khan – the most respected tabla-nawaz in Karachi and Sanwal supervised the recordings. Unusually for film scores, the musicians had little idea of what they were scoring, that was entirely only in our heads.

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When Musadiq was diagnosed with cancer last year, I was not in Pakistan. I had been away for almost three months on a project. I only found out more than a month later after I returned. Like everyone who held him dear, I was shattered. But when I berated him for not telling me immediately, he blew off my protestations with a big smile and told me “It’s not such a big deal yaara, I have no intention of dying, very soon I’m going to beat this bastard of a disease, I’d rather talk about the projects we’re going to be doing.”

I have never met anyone who faced his mortality or the pain he no doubt suffered with such a sunny disposition. Never once did he ever complain and never once did he ever allow any of those around him to feel sorry for him. He had a way of making light of any discussion about his illness that made everyone laugh, lightening the burden of knowledge. He would sometimes miss meetings we had set up, but he would always call ahead to tell me he was simply not up for it that day, that he was feeling tired. He never went into the details and neither did I.

Before Musadiq left for treatment in the US, March 2013.
Before Musadiq left for treatment in the US, March 2013.

When he was about to leave for chemotherapy and radiation treatment in the US in March last year, his friends organised an evening in his honour. We met at Nazish Brohi and Owais Towhid’s house. By this time, he had begun to look frail and could not sing. He sat and played the tabla instead – according to Hanif, percussion was his original expertise – while Khaled Ahmad and Sharjil took turns playing the flute and his studio accomplice, Bilal accompanied on guitar. If someone became too solicitous about his health asking if he really should be doing or eating such and such thing, he would laughingly abuse them and tell them off “Why are you treating me like an ill person?”

I went over the next night to his house to drop off a book I had gotten for him. I didn’t know if I would see him again. But I wrote a note to him in the book, trying to balance hope with remembrance of our friendship along with an Urdu couplet, I think by Nasir Kazmi – about which all I remember now is that it took me a long time to find the right one. We said our goodbyes. A couple of weeks later, I received an email from him from the US in response to my asking about how his treatment was going. “Btw,” he wrote, “loved Mr. Fox. And then I read your note again. It was one of the best on any books I ever received. You must have finished your Reema project. Let's plan something else. I really miss the days we worked together on Raat. Let me return and do a film together. Had we continued then, you would have had some great films out there.” Musadiq was nothing if not generous.

Cover art from Musadiq's album, Aajzi.
Cover art from Musadiq's album, Aajzi.
When he finally returned more than 3 months later, he looked in better shape than he had ever looked. He’d put on weight and had a bright new crop of curly white hair. I remarked that most people have the opposite effect after going through chemo. He happily told me, he’d beaten his illness.

A few weeks before he died, I went to see Musadiq at his Dawn offices. We were supposed to be discussing some work I would do for the Dawn website about which we had been constantly in touch, over phone and email since he returned. Instead, we shared some haleem and naan he ordered from Burnes Road “in honour of your visit pyaaray” and we talked books and films. And he read me a few pages of the memoir about his illness he had begun writing in the US. “I had a lot of time on my hands,” he laughed, “and there was a burst of creativity too.” He had titled his memoir ‘Main Ka Keera’ – it was an irreverent dialogue between himself and the ‘bug’ inside him. Hopefully it will see publication soon.

Music video for Musadiq's Aajzi, directed by Farjad Nabi:

Before I left, he brought up a Mohammad Khalid Akhtar story, set in 1960s Karachi, I had heard him praise for over 10 years, telling me it would make a great film script. I told him it might seem a bit dated; he countered that a skillful adaptation could make it very contemporary. I expressed doubt anyone could do such an adaptation. “Should I try?” he asked hesitatingly, his eyes dancing, a smirk on his lips. When I enthusiastically said ‘Of course! If you want to!’ he gave me a big hug. “Chal phir, this is what I’m going to do for you!”

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These two recordings showcase Sanwal's range of talent as well as his openness to all forms of music:

Sanwal's brilliant minimalist rendition of Mohammad Bakhsh's Saiful Malook:

Sanwal's soaring fusion of Madhoo Lal Hussain's Sufi verse with electronica:

We were supposed to meet two weeks ago, but Musadiq called saying he was going to go into surgery the next day so our meeting would have to be postponed till after. “It’s just a small thing,” he said, “They just want to take out that keera completely.” As it is, they took out an entire lung. When I called to ask him how he was, he didn’t pick up but texted back to say “Sorry jaani, couldn’t take your call. Still on oxygen which will take a week. Once things improve, will call. Love.” Hanif showed me a photo he had taken of Musadiq in the ICU. Musadiq was sitting upright in bed, tubes still attached, smiling for the camera. I had to leave Karachi for a few days and when I got back I asked Hanif how things were. He told me Musadiq had come home, was walking around and fine but had developed an infection from a check-up visit and gone back into hospital. But that he was improving.

A day later, I received a call saying Musadiq’s condition had suddenly worsened. By the time Hanif and I reached the hospital that day, he was already critical and under heavy sedation. After a particularly risky procedure to revive his vitals late at night, Shehla suggested we go in one by one into the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit to talk to him. I reminded him of the projects we had planned to do and the music we still had to make, that Musadiq still had to fight the Shah. I have no idea if he heard us, he did not respond. The next day there was a glimmer of hope when he dumbfounded doctors by opening his eyes three times and his vitals improved even after they had more or less given up. Typical dramatist that he was, he was putting us through a roller-coaster of emotions. From a morose day expecting the worst news, we went home that night in uplifted spirits, joking about how he was playing tricks with us, his audience.

The next morning he was gone. The biggest of hearts had played his final beat.