Remembering Irfan Husain’s life of passion

Published March 29, 2024
Ahmed Rashid, Najam Sethi, Khawar Mumtaz and Javed Ali Khan at the launch of Irfan Husain’s book. — White Star
Ahmed Rashid, Najam Sethi, Khawar Mumtaz and Javed Ali Khan at the launch of Irfan Husain’s book. — White Star

LAHORE: Friends of the columnist Irfan Husain got together and shared their memories on the launch of his posthumous book, A Life Lived with Passion, at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan on Thursday.

The book that contains a selection of Irfan’s columns has been edited by Carmen Gonzalez and former editor of Dawn, Abbas Nasir.

The speakers included journalists Najam Sethi and Ahmed Rashid and human rights activist Khawar Mumtaz while Irfan’s old friend and the force behind the publication of the book, Javed Ali Khan, was the moderator.

Sharing the reminiscences of his friendship with Irfan, who died of cancer in December 2020, Sethi said when he himself came back to Lahore from his journeys in 1978, he was in no mood of striking new friendships as there was a lot of surveillance. He set up a publishing house and a bookshop.

“One of the first people who came to see me and who I didn’t know was Irfan Husain,” Sethi said, adding that Irfan used to live at Mayo Gardens and his own bookshop/office was on Davis Road where the late columnist would often drop by, making special efforts to put him at ease.

“Then we started meeting and cooking together at Mayo Gardens. We used to flatter each other over cooking.”

Sethi said the friendship continued even after Irfan went abroad as he would occasionally come and stay at Mian Ijazul Hassan‘s place. He said those were the days of Gen Ziaul Haq and ‘certain things’ were not allowed but Irfan somehow managed to gather things that were needed, teaching him some other dimensions of life.

“He was a great friend, erudite, well-read, witty, charming and never ever offended anyone which is a rare quality. I will always call him a true liberal, in political as well as personal sense.”

Sethi said Irfan was one of the first people who began to look at Imran Khan in the 1990s as he had eyes on the retired cricketer. He wrote one of the first articles on Imran and gave him some advice. He was concerned that Imran was too close to the JI and had taken Gen Hamid Gul as his mentor.

Sethi said Irfan was fond of Benazir Bhutto and constantly tried to defend her, saying that the centre of corruption allegations was Asif Zardari, and not Benazir.

Ahmad Rashid said he was eight years old when he first got close to Irfan, a cousin, who was three or four years older to him. He was very charming from that age. He said Irfan had an incredible social repertoire with people and he had cooking abilities since his teenage though his mother didn’t trust him with that. Rashid said Irfan had utter charm to win over anyone. He gave credit to Irfan’s parents, Hameeda Khala and Akhtar Hussain, for his achievements.

Khawar Mumtaz said her friendship with Irfan started at the Karachi University where he was studying economics and she was a student of international relations. She said their group used to sit outside classrooms as the cafeteria had segregated seating arrangements for boys and girls.

“He would laugh at his own jokes and was very courteous, especially to females.”

Ms Mumtaz said she and Irfan came to Lahore at the same time as he was getting training at the Civil Services Academy and she was married to his cousin, Kamil Mumtaz. She said Irfan was influenced by the literary background of his family that had many writers—his father Dr Akhtar Hussain, his mother and maternal grandfather who was first detective writer of Urdu while Altaf Fatima as well as Ahmed Rashid were also his relatives.

She spoke about his articles that had a streak of anarchism and irreverence, saying that he would take on the double standards among the Muslims regarding preaching of their religion but not giving others the same right. She said he wrote during the Gen Zia and Gen Musharraf eras as well as the 2018 elections and wondered what he would have written about the 2024 elections.

Mumtaz said Irfan had started writing under the name of his wife initially and then used his son’s name as he was a civil servant and used his own name after his retirement.

Javed Ali Khan said he was an English language teacher at the Karachi University where Irfan was a student of economics. He said then all the students had to take English language courses and Irfan too became his student.

“I started as his teacher and mentor and later he became my teacher and mentor,” Javed said and added that his other contemporaries were Anwar Maqsood and Javed Jabbar. In drama school, they all became friends. “This book, which I call a collectors’ item, is a collaboration between Irfan’s wife Charlotte, his son Shakir and myself.”

He called the book a labour of love as he had to go through over 2,500 columns and select 140 of the good ones and split them according to themes and chapters. He gave credit to Abbas Nasir and his wife Gonzalez too for devoting themselves to the book.

The heartfelt recollections of friends testified to Irfan’s life lived with passion.

Published in Dawn, March 29th, 2024

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