A Life Lived With Passion: Irfan Husain 1944-2020
Edited by Carmen Gonzalez and Abbas Nasir Kitab (Private) Limited
This book celebrates diversity, in its finest sense. Diversity of multiple phases in Irfan Husain’s life. Of the places and countries where he resided. Of the varied subjects which engaged him. Of the progressive opinions, which he expressed. Of his advocacy for causes, using words as non-lethal weapons. Of the immense sweep of the era he journeyed through.
The anthology comprises 137 columns, originally published in Dawn between 1992 and 2020, during which period he wrote about 2,000 similar essays. The careful selection and compilation was conducted by two editors who were also the author’s good friends. They were invited by Irfan’s widow, Charlotte Breese, in her own right a respected author, and by his son Shakir (from Irfan’s first wife, Ferida Sher) to undertake this daunting task.
As conveyed in their thoughtful, affectionate note, the editors placed essays in seven sections.
- Irfan, Mind and Soul; 2. A Fractured Society; 3. The Politics of Upheaval; 4. Auditing the World; 5. Faith Matters; 6. The Great Divide; and 7. On the Menu.
While the titles of the first five sections are self-explanatory, the sixth refers to reflections on the complexity of the Pakistan-India conundrum, and the seventh focuses on Irfan Husain’s refined taste for exotic cuisine and flair for cooking.
A compilation of selected articles by late columnist Irfan Husain from nearly three decades showcases his consistently honest and courageous views as well as his refreshingly direct and eminently readable style
Consistency of values, candour about views, honesty about his own traits, courage in articulation — these qualities run like strong threads through all columns and sections. Be it in references to the spectacular scientific and technological advancements of the West/North, accompanied in contrast by its abject incapacity to recognise the nuances and subtleties of the East/South; be it about the abundance of talent and potential within the Pakistani people, marred by low human resource development and the co-existence among many of zealotry and religiosity; or be it regarding corrupt elites and mostly disastrous military interventions, Irfan Husain pulled no punches, gave no quarter.
Deciding to commence writing under the pseudonym of Mazdak — a remarkable 6th century BCE radical — for the first five years because of his status as a government officer, and subsequently, post-retirement, under his own name, the author’s style was always direct, spontaneous, fluent and eminently readable. That is why, as this reviewer re-read several columns in 2023 (after having read most of his writings when they were originally published), the flow of the text was smooth and elegant, even as explicit opinions caused ripples and waves. No artifice or contrivance, no prevarication or equivocation. He was thoroughly forthright, secular, cosmopolitan and liberal.
This reviewer is also privileged to have had a long, fairly close friendship with Irfan. It commenced in 1963, as fellow students at the University of Karachi, and spanned several dimensions, shared in my tribute published in Eos in January 2021 soon after his demise. Over about 57 years, through circumstance, shift of location (by him), and dissent about a few political issues, our relationship was always cordial, often warm and convivial.
Early on, we even became business partners, briefly and bountifully, during university days. Pocket money or sums earned from freelance work did not suffice for youthful pursuits. He suggested the name “Artemis” for a three-partner enterprise (the third being, the now sadly late Mujahid Hussain, Ameena Saiyyid’s brother, both also fellow students), for an initiative to secure printing contracts.
Artemis was the Greek goddess of chastity, a virtue we did not spend too much time seeking. But the name sounded nice, so we kept it. As middlemen between clients and printers, to our pleasant surprise, we made tidy profits in a short-lived adventure. When we hosted a qawwali night at a spacious rented office on today’s Sharea Faisal in Karachi, the date we chose — the night of September 5, 1965 — became the harbinger for the September 1965 war with India, which began the next morning. Artemis — like Pakistan’s economic trajectory until then — did not quite recover.
Nor did Irfan’s attempt to become an entrepreneur.
Just as well. His evolution as a writer was far more fulfilling and purposeful. This anthology enables a convenient survey of the vast and varied concerns he addressed in almost three decades of commentary. There is a trove of sharp observations and incisive insights.
He condemned hypocrisy in international relations and the profound neglect of women’s rights within his own country, to name only two of dozens of subjects. With humour and with distress, and with the disciplined economy of word-limits that columnists practise, Irfan became a distinguished analyst of contemporary concerns. His book Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West, published in 2012 in the US, won the Benjamin Franklin Award in the category for politics and public affairs.
Where the thematic assembling of 137 columns into seven sections facilitates reading, immediate juxtaposition of, say, a text published in 2003 with another printed in 2008 is disconcerting. There are also a few factual errors that slipped past the writer and the editors.
For instance, on page 168, in ‘Bhutto Trial: An Outside Perspective’ published on August 13, 1994, Irfan quoted verbatim the British Barrister John Mathews who visited Lahore to observe the outrageous mistrial of Z.A. Bhutto in the Lahore High Court, 1978-9. Narrating his unsuccessful attempt to meet the jailed leader by meeting a serving colonel, the officer is quoted as saying to Mathews: “…he [I] had played in the victorious Pakistani hockey team that won the gold medal at the London Olympics in 1952.” Whereas the 1952 Olympics were held in Helsinki at which India won the gold, Pakistan won the hockey gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960.
In ‘Why ZAB Failed’, published on August 16, 2003, the writer repeats the popular fiction that “…over 90,000 soldiers were prisoners of war in India (1971-73 ) …” whereas the soldiers numbered barely 45,000 (who, though encircled by about 300,000 Indian troops and with no naval or air support, “fought very gallantly …” as stated by Indian Field Marshal Manekshaw). About 50,000 civilians made up the total number of PoWs.
This reviewer also strongly disagrees with a few of Irfan’s assertions — for example, the alleged redundancy of the Two-Nation Theory, and the use of the term ‘Partition’ instead of Independence.
But such elements do not detract from the enduring appeal of this compilation. The stoic, understated, wryly humorous way in which he faced imminent mortality as a victim of a rare cancer, so movingly described in ‘Cancer Comes Calling’ in August 2020, epitomises character and courage.
The essays in A Life Lived With Passion read for the first time, or re-read in 2023, years after their first appearance, radiate refreshing relevance, rare energy and enlightenment.
The reviewer is a former senator and federal minister, and author of several books, including Pakistan: Unique Origins; Unique Destiny?
He can be reached at email@example.com
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 19th, 2023