I. A. Rehman shares anecdotes from the life of a dear friend, who passed away in Lahore last Monday
On a flight from Karachi to London, Hamid Akhtar’s prostate became too stingy to allow him a moment of comfort. A London doctor fixed a catheter and the next day he strapped the urine bag to his leg, pulled the trouser over it and flew across the Atlantic to Washington. His host drove him from airport straight to the hospital for surgery.
In Hamid Akhtar, who died last week, the angel of death found a tough adversary, an easygoing person who battled against disease with grit and humour. Cancer first attacked his throat and he had to give up his favourite pipe in favour of a miserable cigarette. The second time the dreaded disease attacked his stomach though he ate less than half of what persons of half his size do. He bore pain as an unavoidable price for living and although narratives of his and his wife’s sickness sometimes found their way into his columns that he wrote every day till about a month before his passing, there was no trace of despair or pessimism in his writing.
Sickness could not prevent him from regaling his audience with stories of and about the literary giants he had rubbed shoulders with — Faiz, Sajjad Zaheer, Sahir Ludhianvi, Krishan Chander, Kaifi Azmi, Ali Sardar Jafri, Sibte Hasan and many others. And he was a raconteur par excellence. In the end he was the only literary great left from the glorious vanguard of the Progressive Writers Association. Amin Mughal put it aptly when he said on Hamid Akhtar’s death — “a mighty oak has fallen.”
Sibte Hasan used to call him “bhola badshah” because he was an unshakeable believer in the inherent goodness of human beings. He could charm men whose company progressive writers studiously avoided. He did not agree with many people but he respected their right to human dignity. Most of his tales were meant to make his listeners laugh, at least smile. Like this one: “Once Hafeez Jallandhari told me: Hamid Akhtar you can be my friend, Sibta (Sibte Hasan) can be my friend. But Faiz? No” “Yes”, I said, “for he is a poet.”
His friendships with odd people could sometimes create strange situations. A bookmaker friend of his got on the wrong side of the Race Club Stewards. So his horses ran under the name of Hamid Akhtar. That made Hamid Akhtar a controlled punter. Despite his appearance as an English country gentleman, always wearing a suit and tie, a felt hat on his head and a pipe in his mouth, he was a hand-to-mouth journalist and people had funny ideas when they saw race horses registered under his name.
He did not succeed as a film-maker for he was much too decent a man to deal with the sharks in the trade. But even when in difficulty he did not lose his sense of humour. General Yahya took a fancy to his leading lady and asked her to come over. She asked Hamid Akhtar: “The General would like to give me something. What should I ask for?” Hamid Akhtar was trying to raise money for the next shift, so he directed the question to me and I said ‘Ask for the Pakistan Railways’. Hamid Akhtar okayed the idea. The lady was happy because railways brought profit and was a means of obliging friends. Good fun was all that Hamid Akhtar got out of his film-making —and a couple of fine lyrics from Faiz.
Hamid Akhtar was a friend of friends. His best friend and companion was his wife who had insisted on marrying him in spite of her family’s objections to Hamid Akhtar’s habits and lifestyle. They had relied on the testimony of the cinema security guard (where HA had his office and provided cement to those who wanted to build houses and did not keep a bag for himself). This man had praised Hamid Akhtar as a lord who wanted the best for his food and drink, who did not spend his evenings with Lallu Panju — enough to put off a traditional, religious minded family, but Sadia took a stand and won. Hamid Akhtar took great care of her during her long illness.
That Hamid Akhtar practised what he preached was borne out by the way he brought up his daughters, pampered them without spoiling them, gave them freedom and then respected their decisions about their own lives.
The responsibilities he had assumed and the lifestyle he had adopted meant that Hamid Akhtar had to toil for his living till virtually his last breath and buy second hand cars till his US-domiciled son presented him with his first new car. Then ended his career as the after-party transporter of all his friends to their residences across the city.
Hamid Akhtar’s appearance of a man about town concealed a sharp mind that could see far into the future. In 1969-70 he was President of Punjab Union of Journalists. He and Husain Naqi (Secretary) gave Lahore a Press Club premises on the Mall.
Unlike the earlier premises it was not on top of a wine shop (now Wapda House stands there) but there was a first-rate restaurant on the ground floor. It was at the PFUJ executive meeting at Islamabad in 1969 where Hamid Akhtar lamented the degeneration of Lahore into a stronghold of reaction. At that moment he was decades ahead of time.