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Restless soul at rest

April 25, 2012


THE headline above is not mine. It is Murtaza Razvi’s, a colleague and friend from Dawn. I have borrowed it from the obituary he wrote of his mother, a writer, for Dawn’s Books & Authors when I was editing it.

Now, a decade later, it gives me a sense of sadness to use the same words for Murtaza whose life was cut short so brutally a week ago. It was January 2002. Murtaza’s mother Zaheena Tahir had passed away in Lahore. On his return after her funeral, he had resumed work. As I condoled with him, we talked about what mothers meant to their children even after they were no longer children. He told me about Zaheena Tahir and her writings. I was fascinated and asked him if he would like to write a piece on her literary work for me. He agreed.

That piece of writing gave me an instant insight into this young man who was mature beyond his years. I have always believed that a man carries the reflection of his mother. Zaheena’s prose and poetry, according to Habib Jalib writing in the preface to her book, were directed “at inequality and injustices that we see around us” and some of her poems expressed “deep-felt pain”, which inspired “resistance against the age-old order”.

Murtaza inherited this sensitivity. His life and interests were rich and versatile and as a result his personality had multiple dimensions. As the tributes poured in, one realised how well-liked Murtaza Razvi was and for such diverse reasons. Political, social and cultural analyst, literary critic and translator. Above all, he was a good human being and ever ready to help.

His academic background — a Masters in Indian History from Government College Lahore and another Masters in Political Science from Villanova University (US) — combined with his sensitivity and perception produced a fine intellect. That was his biggest asset.

Add to this his command over various languages (eastern and western) and you had a writer who could succinctly express ideas freely but intelligently. His ability to combine the qualities of head and heart gave much strength to his writing and he rooted his idioms deeply in local culture and traditions.

His concern for his fellow-beings and the remarkable breadth and depth of his knowledge and reading gave him the ability to transform the most mundane issue into something exalted. This is there in his book Ordinary People, which is a collection of 15 interviews he conducted with people each of whom may be described as the ‘man in the street’.

They included people like a barber, a shoemaker, a hawker and so on. The idea was to show how these men and women with no extraordinary claim to fame — some actually marginalised — had made contributions to society and the economy in their own humble way to keep the wheels of national life turning.

Dr Mubarak Ali, the eminent historian who remembers Murtaza fondly and is full of praise for his work, describes this book as “history from below”. That was Murtaza, so fair in his assessment and always willing to champion the cause of the oppressed.

We often spoke about the status of women in Pakistan and what direction the struggle should take. We were in agreement on the line writers should take. For us the age that was “a veritable whine-fest of moaning, groaning and self-pity” on the oppression of women needed to end. We needed a period of struggle and self-construction with women working for self-improvement, as many are doing.

His last book Musharraf: The Years in Power was an example of what publishers call quickie books that are written at short notice to coincide with a major unexpected event and thus catch the popular imagination.

The event was Gen Musharraf’s ouster from power. Murtaza wrote the book in three months and should be given credit for his creativity and innovation. After capturing a snapshot of the events in the Musharraf decade — mainly for the benefit of foreign readers — he did something ingenious to give the book a new appeal. He interviewed eight different people of all shades of opinion — there would have been nine had Musharraf agreed to meet him — and produced a neat package of diverse and interesting views including those of Lt Gen (retd) Moinuddin Haider, Dr Ayesha Siddiqa, Javed Jabbar, Khalid Ahmed, two of Musharraf’s batch mates, lawyer Abid Hasan Minto and cricketer Aftab Gul.In his blogs, Murtaza used his knowledge of literature and culture to write biting humorous pieces that conveyed a profound message. Whether it was by quoting Ghalib’s poetry — ‘hum ko faryad karni aati hai’ — or delving into language usage to bring up gems — ‘Allah hafiz’ and not ‘Khuda hafiz’ — he sharply demonstrated the Saudisation of Pakistani culture and politics.

What has gone from our midst is the synthesis of East and West that Murtaza symbolised and which gave beauty to his writings. For this he drew deep from the fountains of our cultures and languages and that was the prism through which he looked at politics. Small wonder he never wanted to leave this country even when violence began tearing it to shreds. There were moments of wavering as when he had to fetch his girls suddenly from school because of a bomb scare and Priya clung to him and cried, “I don’t want to die.” But the moment passed and he held firm. My heart goes out to Sheri and the girls in this hour of grief. We will be there for you.