IN the early hours of June 18, 2020, retired ambassador Gul Haneef peacefully passed away after a protracted illness in Karachi. Gul, of course, in his inimitable way deliberately pronounced ‘retd’ as ‘retarded’. All of us are immeasurably enriched by having friends, good friends, childhood friends, lifelong friends. And we are hugely impoverished when they depart from our lives, leaving behind a palpable emptiness, an absence of presence, a space filling with memories of infinite variety that will sustain us instead of the simple but always reassuring knowledge that they are there just as you are for them.
Gul Haneef was that rare person who was loved by almost every single person he ever came into contact with. But Gul then was not just an individual; along with his wife, Malika, they were just about the most popular, admired and loved couple in the foreign service. And that is no ordinary feat considering the many, many outstanding, beloved and respected individuals and couples who have graced our service since its earliest days. Such people bring out the best in institutions, enabling them to remain level-headed in good times and resilient in difficult times.
I was particularly fortunate to have been a friend of Gul for more than 70 years. We are both from Quetta. We went to St Francis Grammar School where young Gul was regarded by his teachers as a most promising exemplar of English essay writing. He always had a fascination with books, in particular English literature and later Urdu literature. As for beliefs, he remained a firm follower of Bertrand Russell’s inclination to look askance at dogmas and narratives in support of which no facts were offered. That may indeed have been the influence of his eldest uncle who was an extraordinarily intelligent, self-taught, and tolerant person.
I first made Gul’s acquaintance as a fellow tenderfoot scout at around the age of six in 1948. Gul’s mother passed away in childbirth, and so he was brought up by his elder maternal uncles who showered unremitting love and affection upon their nephew whom they saw as their own child. His younger maternal uncle was Yahya Bakhtiar who became attorney general of Pakistan, and whose children — Gul’s cousins — have always seen Gul as their adorable elder brother.
Such people bring out the best in institutions, enabling them to remain level-headed in good times and resilient in difficult times.
Yahya Bakhtiar was a very close friend of my uncle Qazi Muhammad Isa. Both were lawyers, one was a politician. Pakistan, for all its birth pangs and early stumbling, was still the name of visionary hope and expectation in those days. It bestowed a sense of binding comradeship in a larger and shared purpose that suffused friendship and conversation.
I went to Lahore for my schooling. After my father’s death, I returned to Quetta and reacquainted myself with Gul and other Grammarian schoolmates. Later, four of us became a group endlessly discussing anything and everything. Quetta residents benignly called us the “four intellectuals of Café China and Balochistan”. We covered everything from existentialism, Sartre versus Camus, Pakistani and provincial politics, etc, all of which were perfectly normal for campuses and cafes in Karachi and Lahore but much less so for the innocent and beautiful Quetta of those halcyon days. Three of us eventually taught at Government College Quetta, waiting to be of age to sit the CSS examinations. We were younger than our students but we got them through their Punjab University supervised MA exams in good order.
I was the most pretentious of the group; Gul was the most widely and deeply read, and apart from an abiding belief in Marx and socialism, he remained sceptical of all views that were too enthusiastically espoused. Sikander Jamali was torn between three worlds: the feudal/tribal, that of Allama Iqbal’s vision, and of Quaid-i-Azam’s passion for the rights and well-being of the common man. Sikander’s was a magnificent and extraordinarily educated confusion, ennobled by the qualities of a true friend. And Changez Aliani, who was easily the most energetic and practically committed to political justice, especially for Balochistan. We were inseparable during the first half of the 1960s.
Gul and I were eventually the last of this foursome. Our undemonstrative friendship deepened with the passage of years. Our respective wives became as close friends as we were and enriched and sustained our friendship which became a constant in our lives. Now Gul is gone.
We went to different colleges in Lahore. Gul to Government College and I to FC College. We had different sets of friends but they overlapped and widened our respective circle of friends. Later, in 1965, we joined the foreign service together and naturally we had many batchmates from both the CSP and FSP. Among our batchmates, and indeed among senior and junior colleagues from all the services who had the opportunity to get to know Malika and Gul, they were an instant hit because of their warmth, hospitality, wit, modesty and unflappable optimism.
Gul’s personality, his ability to see the funny side of just about anything even in the darkest of hours made his company a constant joy to his friends and colleagues, and relieved tensions even in the most tense of diplomatic situations. The matchless qualities of Gul and Malika brought out the very best in all those who had the good fortune of their regular company and constant friendship.
Gul and I were practically toddlers together, in school together, in college together, in university together, college teachers together, joined the service together, more or less retired together, were in the Institute of Strategic Studies together, and now, along with Gul’s family, my family, and so many friends and admirers of Gul and Malika, especially from our foreign service, we grieve together and mourn the loss of a beautiful soul. Inna lillahi wa inna ileihi raji’oon.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.
Published in Dawn, June 22nd, 2020