Mohammad Khalid Akhtar (third from right) with renowned literati including Amjad Islam Amjad, Syed Muhammad Kazim Shah and Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi | Photos courtesy the writer
Mohammad Khalid Akhtar (third from right) with renowned literati including Amjad Islam Amjad, Syed Muhammad Kazim Shah and Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi | Photos courtesy the writer

Those weekends are becoming frequent when your essence sweeps my mind — your yearnings for journeys, your out-of-the-box perspectives, your fondness for cheery sunlight, your notions of serenity, your abhorrence of pettiness. It’s funny how much of my subconscious is filled with all these cherished bits and pieces that belong to you.

On those days I feel you are a mere room away. This awakening of precious emotions is not merely out of parental respect or nostalgia. This is something more purposeful and forward-looking I believe: living on your behalf, seeing 2021 and hopefully beyond, from your life-loving eyes.

To be truthful, the process of our mutual recognition consumed ages. You got properly introduced to me only after I went away to Lums in the early 1990s. Before that, it was just quiet resentment (as your absence had marked the key moments of my childhood). In that hot Cavalry Ground Lahore hostel, in moments of terrible homesickness, I thought of those delightful disruptions you had started creating of late, like listening to the BBC (the age of dish antenna had dawned recently) at full volume just outside my room, or trying to lay hands on newspapers and Time magazine before I could.

In fact, on Saturdays, there was this stealthy competition between the two of us, consisting of frequent tiptoeing trips to the front gate by both parties to get hold of the fresh copy of the magazine first. At times, Ammi did my bidding and, on winning, hid the brand-new mouth-watering Time under my pillow.

Novelist Haroon Khalid Akhtar pens a letter of remembrance to his father, the legendary Urdu writer Mohammad Khalid Akhtar, who passed away in 2002

And then, how can I forget your love for writing and receiving letters, precious exchanges with other giants and your close buddies such as Shafiqur Rehman, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi and Mustansar Hussain Tarar. Some of these letters are now preserved in the shape of a book called Khatoot [Letters] by Tarar Sahib. Our small letter-box on the gate of our Phase IV house was the busiest in the locality.

A young and ambitious Mohammad Khalid Akhtar
A young and ambitious Mohammad Khalid Akhtar

There was something noble, even festive, about those eccentricities of yours, as I belatedly noted in Lahore; your aged yet graceful energy permeating the house, enriching its neglected nooks. Ironic thus that, in order to get properly introduced to you, I had to go all the way back to Lahore — my childhood city where we all once lived in the Wapda flats at Jail Road.

In those days, it was the distance that defined you for me. The thing about distance within a family is that it can grow thick and fast once people in the house start taking dinners at different times. While this type of distance under one roof is truly soul-crippling, the one that puts you physically away across cities is therapeutic and can mend and strengthen relationships.

So, in the Lahore of the early 1990s, I pieced you together, figured you out, understood your apparent apathy towards the family, but also your medium of affection. The man who began his day by listening to songs relayed by All India Urdu service on his transistor radio while standing before the shaving glass and whom I seldom saw involved in family matters, was surely much more than a disengaged father. On my return post-graduation, I’d discover that I too stood properly introduced to him — the boy with an absentee father. The magic of distances. It is no small consolation that your seeming indifference towards family was no worse than Jinnah’s. A price that giants and master craftsmen like you end up paying.

Mohammad Khalid Akhtar was held in high regard by the Urdu literati, including the likes of Faiz Ahmed Faiz
Mohammad Khalid Akhtar was held in high regard by the Urdu literati, including the likes of Faiz Ahmed Faiz

How can I forget your love for writing and receiving letters, precious exchanges with other giants and your close buddies such as Shafiqur Rehman, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi and Mustansar Hussain Tarar. Some of these letters are now preserved in the shape of a book called Khatoot by Tarar Sahib. Our small letter-box on the gate of our Phase IV house was the busiest in the locality.

‘Yeh kya hua, kaisay hua’ from that unforgettable classic movie Amar Prem was one of your favourite songs. During Lums days, I was able to understand why it was so: the song embodied the paradoxes of life in general, but also summed up your tragedies (loss of a beloved young sister, chronic ailments, a deep sense of being a misfit in a highly garrulous world, disgruntlement with your own father, lifelong compromises faced by your free spirit) that forged you into a satirist par excellence. Instead of brooding over these adversities, you found a way to make positive use of them through your writings, winnowing pun from bitterness.

Just before I left for Lums, I had chanced upon a letter you’d written to my mother years ago, an apology of sorts for being a below-par husband, explaining how fear and complexes debilitated your youth during college days, turning you into an introvert, a man unwilling and incapable of handling the responsibilities of family life.

Left to your own devices, you’d have become a reader, a teacher, or a veritable wanderer relishing this wondrous world and the countless adventures it offered, both real and imaginary, at every turn. Although you had fallen short of realising your ultimate dream of becoming a pirate, your excursions such as Diplo se NauKot Tak were nothing short of epic journeys, where your eyes saw magical realms unfolding around you.

A get-together with friends after winning the prestigious Adamjee Literary Prize in the late 1960s, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, Shafiqur Rehman, Ashfaq Ahmed, Hussain Shahid,  Muhammad Kazim, Kanwar Aftab and Mustansir Husain Tarar
A get-together with friends after winning the prestigious Adamjee Literary Prize in the late 1960s, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, Shafiqur Rehman, Ashfaq Ahmed, Hussain Shahid, Muhammad Kazim, Kanwar Aftab and Mustansir Husain Tarar

Undisputed is the fact that my memories of childhood spent with you are few and far between. But whenever I recall them, they mostly come out as walks with you, either to or from a bookstore like the grand Ferozsons on the Mall or the tiny but verdant Bookway in Shadman market (a stone’s throw from the Wapda flats).

Those walks, and the subsequent time spent at the bookshops, were formative in nature, as they instilled in me a valuable sense of visiting some very important place, offering exciting merchandise. You generally struggled to express your love for your children in a way a normal father is expected to do. I took it as indifference, without realising that all along you were showering me with things that were most precious to your own self — books.

A man of high taste that you were, cinema had its own attraction for you. From Lawrence of Arabia to 007s, to Dr Zhivago to Pink Panther, you didn’t miss any classic and, on our lucky day, you took children along. Again, it was the walk from Jail Road all the way to the Alfalah building or Plaza or Regal on the Mall and a mandatory stopover at Ferozsons.

On a recent visit to Ferozsons in Karachi, I was flooded with memories from those early Lahore days. There was not a single book in the children’s collection that I didn’t possess back then — from Sufi Tubbusum’s Tot Batot to Kaho Namak Namak, from Aali Pe Kya Guzri to Umroo Ayyar Ke Chailay. No upper cap for books, as much as I wanted to buy — that was the unwritten rule. From clothes to toys to outdoor dining, you never bought me anything else as far I can recall.

But buying us books was not enough at times. Sometimes, you’d read us — sister and I —stories by asking us to lie by your side on the bed, your face displaying a boyish smile that was precious in its own right: made up of pleasure you derived by the sense of chaperoning us into unknown worlds, to meet new folks. Fresh settings full of novel possibilities.

A man of high taste that you were, cinema had its own attraction for you. From Lawrence of Arabia to 007s, to Dr Zhivago to Pink Panther, you didn’t miss any classic and, on our lucky day, you took children along. Again, it was the walk from Jail Road all the way to the Alfalah building or Plaza or Regal on the Mall and a mandatory stopover at Ferozsons.

Many years later, when we’d watch movies together on VCD, I noted the same fascination on your face that you exhibited while reading a novel. The Talented Mr. Ripley you watched twice and declared it a masterpiece each time in your signature exclamatory murmur. Then came The English Patient and the moment the initial score started playing (that mesmerising singing by a gypsy woman during the opening credits), you announced confidently that “It looks like one of the greatest films we’d ever get to see.”

A few of the titles by the prolific novelist, essayist, short story and travelogue writer
A few of the titles by the prolific novelist, essayist, short story and travelogue writer

Forever a traveller at heart, nobody could deny you journeys. From the dusty towns of Sindh to temples of India, from Iran and Greece to Turkey and China, you saw them all. Many of these arduous trips you undertook as a frail old man. In later days, when your legs were too tired for the physical rigours, you opted for journeys by hitching a ride with Michael Palin on his glorious travels across the globe as shown on the BBC. The documentaries, namely Around the World in Eighty Days and From Pole to Pole were the most anticipated shows of the week for you, aside from Tim Sebastian’s HardTalk. Through those programmes, you traversed various territories all the way to the South Pole and insisted your youngest son made those voyages too.

For you, the hunger for news was insatiable — from newspapers to BBC, you wanted to source them all. It reflected how vigorously you were engaged with the astonishing world, where everything was predictably unpredictable, humans never ceasing to surprise, both in feats and deceits. It all engrossed you.

When the drama of 9/11 was unfolding on our TV screen, you were watching it with a philosopher’s mind. “It will kickstart a new world,” you informed me like a sage. It was the last mega-event on the world’s stage you would witness. In a very strange way, I feel a sheepish sense of satisfaction that you did not miss out on this piece of history, this vital scene of a long movie that we are all a part of. For a man so filled with awe about every aspect of life, this would have been unfair.

I don’t remember you often you know. I don’t have to. Such is the convergence, the push of the subconscious. On Sunday afternoons, I take a flight of fancy on YouTube to watch those old episodes From Pole to Pole and, doubtless, I carry that childlike expression of awe and glee that I had seen when you watched the show once.

On my laptop, I often read passages /e-book extracts from authors that were so dear to you (all so lovingly introduced to me) — Jerome K. Jerome (Three Men in a Boat contains the most incredible, crazy humour you’d ever read), Somerset Maugham (who can forget his short story P&O), A.G. Gardiner (the world’s best essayist), Graham Greene (Baba loved the movie The End of the Affair, starring Ralph Fiennes, as much as the novel) and, of course, P.G. Wodehouse. I read them all partly because it’s great literature, but mainly because Mohammad Khalid Akhtar must continue to read on what he valued the most, in some shape and form. It is obvious I would not be able to read as much, in fact not even a fraction, for you had read every piece of fiction that existed till 2001.

I read The Economist cover to cover every week, for you. Nothing should be missed. You wouldn’t like that, I am sure. When I started my job, I could only feed you Time magazine, no comparison with The Economist as I discovered later, a regret that I should try to nullify, by hook or by crook.

This brings me to those last few months before that fateful February day of 2002. From our old Phase IV house (where my elder brother still dwells), you used to walk slowly towards Book Ocean — an unremarkable bookshop a few blocks away that you patronised so affectionately — like a thirsty traveller desperate to reach the oasis. Your love for bookshops and the surrounding markets was never-ending. For you, every market was blessed if a bookshop happened to grace its midst, an extension of sorts of your saying that “Every reader is part of my clan.”

You had to visit such places daily to invigorate yourself. This is the Mohammad Khalid Akhtar the world must also know — the life-seeking boy who would never quit walking no matter what. Even when you were all emaciated, your spirit still found a way to drag the waning body towards your Mecca. The journeys remained never-ending.

The monumental lesson that we all need to draw from your life is this: don’t let yourself be reduced to a fraction of a person because of circumstances. Stay loyal to your fascinations, and the world will come to you.

The writer is author of the novel Melody of a Tear, winner of UBL Best Debut Fiction Award 2020

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 17th, 2021

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