ON the morning of Oct 13, 1970 the body of the former CSP officer and famous poet, Syed Mustafa Zaidi, was found at his residence in the upscale neighbourhood of KDA Scheme Number One in Karachi. In an adjoining room, a woman, Shahnaz Saleem Gul (or Shahnaz Gul), who was not his wife, was also found.
Zaidi’s death became one of the most sensational news items in Pakistan during those eventful months leading to the December 1970 national elections. All the newspapers and even international magazines and periodicals carried the news and followed the legal case for several months. I recalled the circumstances of Zaidi’s death after reading historian Gyan Prakash’s recent discussion of the Nanavati murder trial in Bombay in the early 1960s. In his book, Mumbai Fables, Prakash has a chapter on the murder committed by Lt. Commander K.M. Nanavati, a serving officer in the Indian Navy, of his wife’s lover.
Prakash shows how the incident created one of the longest-running media scandals of the era which reverberates to this day in various versions in fiction and film. He suggests that such events give access to a different kind of archive to study the city and its cultural process. Following Prakash’s lead, I went back to the newspaper reporting on Mustafa Zaidi’s death and also to a range of other sources — letters, memoirs, literary journals and his own writings — to reconstruct a moment in Karachi’s history.
There have been several blogs and newspaper articles about Zaidi in recent years. Laurel Steele from the University of Chicago has also written a doctoral thesis on his work (it remains unpublished) and the details of his death have been discussed and debated in literary circles for years. My intention here is not to offer another literary analysis of Zaidi’s poetry, a work that is beyond my competence and demands a much more serious study. Here I follow anthropologist Katherine Verdery’s argument about how dead bodies may represent the lives of complex humans whose curriculum vitae enable us to scrutinise not only their life histories but also the lives of those who were contemporaries of the deceased.
In the brief space awarded by this column, I will discuss the circumstances surrounding Zaidi’s death and highlight the details of this sad event as it played out in the Urdu and English press. In doing so, I will also suggest how, by playing up the scandalous and the salacious, the reporting on the case paradoxically created avenues in the Pakistani print media to implicitly argue for middle-class respectability and normative moral behaviour. The death of the poet, in other words, became an arena to push for social restraint in an era when the country was finally allowing itself a range of political and cultural freedoms (the forthcoming elections, the labour and student unrest, the culturally rebellious youth) after a decade or more of restrictive rule in the 1960s.
Mustafa Zaidi was born in October 1930 in Allahabad. His early education was in India, where he had already started to write poetry. He came to Pakistan in the early 1950s, and after completing his Master’s from Government College, Lahore, he taught as a lecturer of English at Islamia College, Karachi, and then at Peshawar University. He passed his Civil Service exams in 1954 and entered the service soon after. He held numerous posts in different parts of Pakistan, which included serving as deputy commissioner of Nawabshah, Sahiwal, Jhelum, Khanewal and Lahore. He was married to a German woman, Vera Zaidi, who had made Pakistan her home and they had two children, a boy and a girl.
Zaidi was deputy secretary basic democracies posted in Lahore when, in December of 1969, under martial law regulations during Gen Yahya Khan’s regime, he was suspended from his duties; in May of 1970 he was removed from service. Zaidi was among the 303 civil servants who were dismissed from service on various charges during this era, the cases famously called “three naught three (303)”. Zaidi maintained his innocence about his dismissal and in his writings alleged that he was made a scapegoat as he was not willing to take a bribe from the relatives of a politically powerful person.
A modernist Urdu poet of exceptional expressive style and command of the poetic form, Zaidi, early in his literary career, was taken under the wings by Josh Malihabadi, to whom he remained close throughout his life. He published his first collection of poetry in India, at the age of 19, under the nom de plume Tekh Allahabadi. The collection was called Zanjeerain (it was republished in Pakistan as Roshni). Zaidi subsequently wrote five more volumes. Koh-i-Nida, his last collection of verses, was published posthumously. The introduction to this text remains his final piece of prose and has been analysed by many for clues about his state of mind soon before he passed away. Some poems in this volume were part of his unpublished verses from earlier years and some were more recent. The compilation also has a series of poems on Gul, the last one written merely three weeks before his death.
To refresh our memories, I offer some of the details of the murder as reported in the press and from the testimony given in the court by various witnesses in the case. On Oct 12, 1970, Shahnaz Gul came to Mustafa Zaidi’s KDA house at around 10:30 a.m. (the house belonged to a friend and Zaidi was living in the upper portion). Zaidi’s wife and children were in Germany and the chowkidar saw Gul enter the house. Soon after, Zaidi’s nephew, who was close to him in age and a friend, came to visit him. Zaidi came down to greet him, but did not invite him up to his apartment. He promised his nephew that he would go swimming with him at the airport pool later that afternoon. At this time the postman also arrived bearing an international aerogramme for Zaidi.
The nephew called Zaidi several times during the evening when he did not turn up for swimming. No one answered and there was a constant busy signal. Later that night some close friends went to the house and knocked on the door but again no one answered. On the morning of Oct 13, friends and family contacted the police and in the presence of a sub-divisional magistrate and a deputy superintendent of police the main door to the apartment was broken open. The room Zaidi’s body was found inside was also bolted from the inside and it too was forcefully opened.
Zaidi’s body was found with the telephone set in his hand. There was dried blood around his mouth and nostrils, and the buttons of his shirt were open. The air conditioner was running and there were naphthalene balls on the bed. An earring was found near the bed and there was a mug with remnants of some liquid in it. An unopened aerogramme from Zaidi’s wife was also found in the room. An unconscious woman was lying in the sitting room, adjacent to the bedroom. She was identified as Shahnaz Saleem Gul, the wife of a Karachi-based businessman, Saleem Khan. While Zaidi’s body was taken to the morgue for postmortem, Gul was moved to Jinnah Hospital, from where, after she regained consciousness, her husband took her home. Chemical analysis of their stomach wash, which took some days, revealed Librium, a tranquillizer, in Gul’s case, and barbiturates in Zaidi’s.
The case was initially handled by the Drigh Road police station, but then moved to the crime branch of the Karachi police. Finally, a special team was constituted by the inspector general of police. For a while the death was considered a suicide, but by late October, due to the delay in the chemical report and a series of missteps in the investigation process, general dissatisfaction was expressed in the press and by Zaidi’s family members. The Sindh and Balochistan High Court, with Justice Abdul Kader Sheikh at the bench, took suo motu action to ensure that investigations were properly conducted. An independent medical board was constituted and it expressed dissatisfaction with the chemical examiner’s report and the postmortem procedure. It also wanted to confirm the reason behind the bleeding from the mouth and nostrils, as barbiturate poisoning, it said, did not produce such effects.
In light of these developments, by early November, Gul was arrested on the suspicion of murder. She was charged in two cases, one under the martial law regulations on smuggling and the other under the Criminal Procedure Code for murder. The presiding magistrate in the case alleged foul play, negated the earlier theory of suicide proposed by the police, and argued that Zaidi’s death was caused by “some criminal conspiracy”. The medical board recommended the exhumation of Zaidi’s body for another postmortem to check for blunt injury to the head and to see if the internal viscera were damaged. The final medical report showed that Zaidi’s death was due to suffocation and not barbiturate poisoning. This in itself raised suspicion of foul play and repeated bail applications for Gul were rejected by the Sindh-Balochistan High Court. Eventually the case of Mustafa Zaidi’s murder with Shahnaz Saleem Gul as the main accused was heard in the court of district magistrate Kunwar Idris. She was acquitted due to lack of evidence.
IN A RECENT conversation with the historian Neilesh Bose, I discussed the place of biography in South Asian historiography. The issue that perturbed us both was how we mostly come across partial hagiographies of important figures while the contradictions in their behaviour, along with their private lives, remain out of bounds. The daily lives, the relationships in intimate spaces, and at times unruly habits could surely make the gossip circuit, but academic biographies avoided these issues in favour of the public persona.
In discussing this issue I remembered historian Dipesh Chakrabarty’s essay from the early 1990s in which he argues that modern individuals in the European context have interiorised selves that pour out in diaries, memoirs, letters, novels and perhaps on the analyst’s couch. However, this interiority, according to Chakarbarty, does not always manifest itself in autobiographical writings of modern Indian subjects. Perhaps this hesitation to reveal “too much” is part of the holding back that historians or biographers on South Asian subjects are also involved in (however, there may be a shift taking place; do see Geeta Patel’s excellent literary biography of Miraji, Lyrical Movements, Historical Hauntings and the more recent book on Muhammad Hasan Askari, Vernacular Modernity in the Writing of Muhammad Hasan Askari by Mehr Afshan Farooqi).
Given this discussion on the personal and the private in South Asian biography, I found the introduction to Koh-in-Nida, Zaidi’s final published prose writing, amazingly open about his private self (was this a clue to something about to happen?). In it he mentions how this would be his last book as there is very little appreciation of his work among his peers. He writes about himself as a “misfit” in government service and as a poet, lamenting that literary critic Dr Wazir Agha, in a book on new poetry, ignored him while mentioning somewhat unknown poets.
This issue was also taken up in a letter to the writer Ibne Insha, which was then published posthumously in the literary journalAfkar’s special edition on Mustafa Zaidi. (Wazir Agha replied to the editor of Afkar and argued that he had mentioned Zaidi’s poetry along with others and was sorry to hear Zaidi’s sentiments about the omission.) In this particular letter to Ibne Insha, (Sept 9, 1969), Zaidi speaks about how he should be written off by friends in the same way one forgets those who are deceased. He speaks of how he had not felt so tired and broken ever before in his life. This letter, dated prior to his dismissal from service, suggests that Zaidi was going through low periods even before his removal from government service; in the months following his termination, according to friends, he started remaining sad and aloof. It is during this period that his wife left with the children for Germany to explore other avenues for the family’s future.
Zaidi, in letters written in the months of July and August 1970, to a close friend who was also a physician, openly discusses his “melancholia” and mentions how medicines like Librium and Valium are helping him stay stable (he expresses worry about losing his hair, while mentioning that there is no dandruff). He also hints at financial troubles and complains about friends wanting him to call them in Lahore and Rawalpindi while he does not have the resources of making even a single long-distance telephone call. Similarly, he worries about how his children have been orphaned in his lifetime and remains concerned about the economic problems his family must be facing in Germany. He ends one letter by saying that he is going through unbearable mental pain but cannot write about it as he does not want to relive the agony.
It can be argued that Zaidi was going through very difficult times during the summer months of 1970. A sensitive poet and intellectual, who read and travelled widely (driving across Europe in his Volkswagen Beetle, taking trips to various parts of the world), Zaidi lived life to its fullest and may have found it unbearable after losing his job. His condition may have been exacerbated by being alone when his wife and children travelled to Germany. Moreover, it is possible that his relationship with Gul had taken a turn for the worse. News reports suggest that they had first met in Lahore 15 months before Zaidi’s death. They had become close and Zaidi’s five poems for her show the arc of their relationship. The last poem, written on Sept 22, 1970, is about the pain of rejection.
As the news about his affair became public knowledge soon after his death, an effort by friends and family was made to rescue Zaidi’s reputation from the malicious gossip in the press. Almost all major literary journals took out special editions in which friends and colleagues wrote long essays on Zaidi’s poetry and intellect; testimonies were given about his dedication to his wife and family. The press also followed a formulaic representational form in which the two main women in Zaidi’s life at this time were portrayed as polar opposites. Vera Zaidi, his wife, was often presented as the unsuspecting and grieving spouse who was waiting for her husband to join her in Germany and had to return following the tragic event. Reports continued to portray her as a woman who, despite her European background, was the epitome of Eastern respectability; a person who left Europe to come to Pakistan, learnt Urdu and was an exemplary mother and partner. This was contrasted with Gul’s life, a mother of two daughters who, though a Pakistani, was having an affair with not only Mustafa Zaidi, but also allegedly with other government officials and successful businessmen.
The smuggling charges under which Gul was arrested stemmed from suspicion raised by the police and by Zaidi’s friends about her involvement in an international smuggling ring that may have led to Zaidi’s murder. News reports mentioned Zaidi himself suggesting these connections to his friends and his nephew (who worked for the civil aviation). The nephew testified in court that Zaidi had tipped him to ask the Custom officials at Karachi airport to be vigilant when Gul returned from Europe in late September (she came a day earlier and the plot to “nab” her failed).
There was no concrete evidence for such allegations and nothing could be verified. What is known, however, is that Gul had started ignoring Zaidi’s advances after he was removed from service and was based in Karachi. She had also travelled during the summer of 1970 for three weeks to Europe to participate in a business venture. Zaidi was agitated by her departure and, according to the testimony by his nephew, he used his connections to get on the plane to see her off (while her husband was in the main lounge of the airport) and gave her a poem he had written for her. He also tried to call and reach her in London. On her return, he continued to pursue her and two days before his death he had parked his car outside her house and confronted her when she walked out.
At the same time in his letters to friends during this period he spoke about waiting for permission from the martial law authorities (he was on the Exit Control List) to join his family in Germany. Several pieces of correspondence on this topic with the authorities were recovered from his house by the investigating team. What can be inferred from what I have shared above, and this is mere speculation on my part, is that Zaidi was perhaps going through a very painful time in his life with conflicted feelings and emotions about his own worth, his family life, his personal relationships and his own future.
Surely this gives us a more complex picture than that developed in interviews given by friends and family (see the interview given by Vera Zaidi and family members to Sahar Ansari in Afkar). It is obvious from Zaidi’s own letters and writings that he himself may not have agreed to this representation. A man of diverse intellectual tastes, he openly writes about his deep interest in the historical study of pornography and about a range of creative pursuits which included being an accomplished photographer (with his own dark room) and a licensed pilot. Clearly, he was a person who was somewhat larger than life and who was willing to take intellectual and personal risks (he was involved in a plane crash a few months before his death) to fulfil his many desires and passions.
As suggested above, while Vera Zaidi was portrayed as the dutiful spouse, Gul was represented in the press as the immoral person who had not only snatched a loving father and husband from his family, but was also insincere to him, leaving him for others who could help her climb the social ladder. This was re-emphasised by the prosecution in the trial. As always happens, ironically the trial did not spare Zaidi and his actions either. Explicit photos of Gul were presented and it was alleged that these were taken by Zaidi who had them printed in various sizes through a friend in the advertising sector. The prosecution used these photos as a motive for the murder. They argued that Zaidi was using them to blackmail Gul to continue her relationship with him.
The Pakistani press (Urdu and English) had a field day at a time when press restrictions had been partially lifted due to the upcoming general elections. It was a time of general euphoria and political openness in Pakistan following the removal of Ayub Khan through a popular movement. The country was also moving towards the first general election based on adult franchise and direct voting in its history. The eastern wing was demanding its long denied rights in the federation, workers and students were demonstrating for equity and social justice, and the press had found a new voice to support various political and social causes. Hence the press delved into a range of ways that news could be reported and analysed. Perhaps these newfound freedoms were responsible for Zaidi’s murder case being reported in sensational terms. I would submit that the country has become numb to such news due to the many scandals and reporting excesses of the past decades and it may find the entire episode mundane and even boring by today’s standards. But in the autumn of 1970, the reporting on this case was a break from the past and had a tremendous popular following.
Within this portrayal was a populist streak as the cast of characters in the trial were part of Karachi’s elite and the newspapers were providing a glimpse into the closed world of upper-class lifestyles (remember that the television itself was a young medium in the country). Rather than focus on the facts of the case and show sensitivity to the personal lives of those directly involved, the press coverage became a circus with regular mentions of parties at Sindh Club, drinks at the Nasreen Ballroom and early morning breakfasts at Demitasse (both at the Intercontinental Hotel). It also seemed to love reporting on the murky world of smuggling, financial corruption, sex work, pornography and the use of illegal drugs that the rich were supposedly indulging in. More than the tragic incident itself, the news reporting focused on voyeuristic techniques to depict an upper-class way of life that was fascinating in its details and the press milked the story for all its scandalous elements. In doing this, it also generated a moralising discourse about middle-class respectable behaviour that was implicitly contrasted with the lifestyle of the rich and the famous. Paradoxically, however, the denunciation and disapproval of the socially ‘deviant’ practices linked to this case, in a Foucauldian sense, coexisted with the proliferation of a discourse about them.
Unfortunately, what got lost in this circus is the fact that on a fateful day in October 44 years ago Pakistan lost one of its finest creative minds. On the same day, his wife, children, family and friends lost someone who was extremely dear to them. Their futures were forever changed. And I suspect, so was Gul’s.