11 Aug 2019


Joan Afzal| Courtesy Salima Hashmi
Joan Afzal| Courtesy Salima Hashmi

In a column in the 1990s, the late progressive writer and journalist Hamid Akhtar had written about a visitor who had come to Lahore after an absence of many years. He wrote about how the visiting English lady was meeting with old friends and reminiscing about the time she had spent in Lahore, mostly by herself — as her husband was in jail — during the early 1950s. Her name was Joan Afzal.

While Hamid Sahib was alive, I had interviewed him in 2007 for a book project. A couple of years later, as I was planning to visit Britain during the winter break of 2010, I gave him a call from Austin, Texas, where I live and teach, asking about Joan. I half feared that, as with many who were of her age, we may have lost Joan. Akhtar fondly remembered our earlier conversation and encouraged me to meet with Joan since she was still very much alive and in London. He asked me to get in touch with Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s daughter, Salima Hashmi, to get her whereabouts, as she was in regular contact with Joan.

I knew Salima Hashmi and sent her an email. She responded immediately and gave me Joan’s email address. I emailed and, very soon, received a reply with a phone number. I called on the designated day and was greeted by a gracious voice at the other end — a bit hard of hearing, but very polite and welcoming. I noted the address and made my plans.

The Englishwoman who became an inalienable part of Pakistan’s leftist gatherings and, indeed, of the country’s history, passed away on July 16

On a grey January morning, I travelled to a simple house near the Wembley Park tube station in London to meet with Joan Afzal. Joan, by then in her 80s, was the widow of Chowdhary Mohammad Afzal, one-time general secretary of the Pakistan Trade Union Federation (PTUF) and member of the regional committee of the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP).

That afternoon at the house, a few minutes’ walk from the tube station, an elegant woman welcomed me at the doorstep with a big smile. Perhaps I reminded her of someone she knew during her Lahore days. After pleasantries she asked me if I would like something, but the sentence was left unfinished. I was not sure whether it was an invitation for lunch or tea. It was one in the afternoon and I imagined that she was offering me a cup of soup. “What do you have,” I asked. “Well, I can offer you scotch or gin,” she replied. I was a bit taken aback. I had come prepared for an interview and a drink on the rocks was not my idea of focusing on the topic. I declined, she smiled again and said, “All Pakistani communists started drinking before noon and they loved scotch, neat.” It was a delightful comment, welcoming and perhaps true. After all, she had known them all!

Joan Githero was a young woman, not even 20, when she met Mohammad Afzal through a mutual friend who worked for the BBC in London. This must have been the immediate post-war years. Afzal had been working for the BBC since the early 1940s. He had completed his MA in English Literature from Government College, Lahore, and was a student of Professor Ahmad Shah Bukhari (the great satirist Patras Bukhari). Bukhari had been closely linked with All-India Radio (AIR) and his brother, Z A Bukhari, was one of its senior managers in Delhi. In 1940, Lionel Fielden, the director of AIR, took Z A Bukhari with him to London to help start the new Hindustani service for the BBC. This service would help explain the ongoing war to an Indian public. Afzal was recruited to work in London for this BBC service by Patras Bukhari. Afzal may have been radicalised while in London; at the least he was one of the young anti-colonial workers in the Hindustani service.

A few months after Independence, Afzal wrote a memo to his superiors about the future policy of the BBC in which he criticised his role — and those like him at the BBC — as a mere translating machine that relays the British vision for India’s future to Indians. In this memo, Afzal argued for a more democratic relationship built on the recognition of the common humanity that the British and the Indians shared and also the problems that were common between them. This universalistic and humanitarian perspective was asking for a change of relationship between the former colonial masters and the newly independent states of India and Pakistan.

Perhaps his evolving thoughts on the matter made Afzal leave for Pakistan. He arrived in Lahore in 1948, and joined the then legal CPP. Soon, he became an active member in the CPP-supported PTUF, eventually becoming its general secretary.

Joan had not heard from Afzal much since he had left for Pakistan. She had saved some money working for a South African newspaper and by placing advertisements for rare books in newspapers. She wrote to Afzal telling him that she was arriving. She booked a ticket on an ocean-liner, reaching Karachi via Bombay. Afzal was there to meet her. This was October 1950, and they had not seen each other in almost three years. They got married in Karachi and proceeded to Lahore, where they set up house in Afzal’s Model Town bungalow. His brother, Dr Akram, had a clinic downstairs and Joan and Afzal lived on the second floor.

Joan with the writer | Courtesy the writer
Joan with the writer | Courtesy the writer

Afzal was arrested a few months after Joan’s arrival during the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, in which leftist army officers and some civilians were accused of plotting to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan. Joan lived by herself in the apartment during those years. She took up employment in Lahore’s Plaza cinema and also got a part-time position at a Montessori school in Lahore Cantonment. She would later also work for the Punjab Religious Book Society, near the Anarkali Bazaar, as an accountant.

In those days, like many other women, Joan cycled everywhere: eight miles to the school, then eight miles to the Plaza cinema, and then eight miles back to Model Town. Women riding bikes to work or to college was not an unfamiliar sight in the Lahore of the early 1950s.

Afzal was initially kept in the Lahore Central Jail and Joan would go every two weeks to visit him. Their meetings could last only 10 minutes and a senior jail officer would always be present. “I never wept at home, although I did miss him, but when I saw him in the jail, I could not stop crying,” she said to me while describing her emotions about being young, not knowing the language or understanding the culture and, perhaps, also not fully aware of the gravity of the political situation that had led to Afzal’s arrest. But Joan stayed on, riding her bike, delivering food and tobacco — Royal Seal — and working at various places.

Afzal was released in 1953, but then rearrested when the Communist Party was banned in 1954. The continuous uncertainty in their lives and also being warned by contacts in the dreaded Punjab Police that, if Afzal were to stay in Pakistan, this revolving door of being in and out of jail would be his future, led the couple to leave Pakistan for good and settle in the UK. Afzal passed away in 1981.

When I met her in 2010, Joan was still smoking her favourite brand of cigarettes, sipping her scotch and speaking about how she first met Faiz on the veranda of Falleti’s Hotel in Lahore during a labour conference to which Afzal had invited a Chinese delegation. Faiz knew who she was and talked to her at length while she had no clue, in this first meeting, that she was speaking to one of the most creative minds in the country. She also reminisced about how Syed Sibte Hasan, the intellectual and writer, had recognised her as Afzal’s wife at a Lahore bus stop, although she had no recollection of ever having met him before. She eventually got to know all these people very well. She knew Alys Faiz during the time when both their husbands were behind bars. She also knew Chris Taseer, Alys’ elder sister and the widow of Dr M D Taseer.

Joan and Afzal’s house became the stopping place for all these people when they visited London, from the late 1950s onwards. Number 32, Church Crescent in Muswell Hill was always full of visitors from Pakistan: Mian Iftikharuddin, Faiz, Alys, Sibte Hasan, Hamid Akhtar and many others.

The last time I met Joan was in May of 2017. I presented her with my book on communism in Pakistan. She looked frail and was suffering from a malignancy, but was alert and thankful that I had come by with my family. I heard from Salima Sahiba recently that Joan passed away on July 16, 2019. Many of us lost a friend and Pakistan, a part of its history.

The writer teaches anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin in the US

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 11th, 2019