A prince departs
Anyone who knew Syed Abid Ali, who died so suddenly in Islamabad at the turn of the new year, would agree that he could only be described as a prince among men. He was a man with a heart of gold and shoulders strong enough to take on any burden if it could be of some benefit to a friend. How he managed to do that never ceased to amaze me, because the number of his friends was legion. For each of them, he had the same wonderful and warm smile, the same open-armed and big-hearted hospitality, the same affection, the same concern.
There are some whom God sends to this world with an unlimited capacity to love. He also gives them the ability and the strength not to burden others with their own troubles. In all the years I knew Syed Abid Ali, I do not remember even once hear him complain about anyone or anything. All one always saw on his face was a sun-like smile and optimism beyond measure. His wit, his good humour, his sense of fun were infectious. I am not surprised that he maintained a life-long friendship with Raja Tajammul Hussain, who shares many of Syed Abid Ali’s qualities and his benevolent attitude towards life and people.
How long had I known Syed Abid Ali? When did I first meet him? Who brought us together? I really have no idea because he was the sort of man about whom you could say, “I have always known him.” It is possible that we first met in Karachi in the mid-1960s during my brief stint with the old Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, when he was in tourism.
He used to hang out at the Central Hotel which was also the daytime and evening headquarters of Sadequain to whom no one was closer in the whole wide world than Syed Abid Ali and his lovely and wonderful wife Nazi, whom Sadequain had declared his one and only sister. One day, word went round that Safdar Mir “Zeno” (whom Sara Suleri Goodyear has dismissed in her recent book as “a columnist”) had arrived in Karachi. Since he left Lahore rarely, his arrival in Karachi was an event for his friends. He was even perhaps staying with Syed Abid Ali. We gathered in the evening at the great watering hole of Central Hotel and since the bar was overflowing with acolytes of the “red fairy in her black dog coach”, we took a table in the courtyard which was equally crowded.
There were just the three of us with Syed Abid Ali wearing a perfectly starched, long white muslin kurta – a loud declaration of Punjabiyat in the heart of pre-MQM Karachi. We were happily engaged in conversation, mostly about Lahore and what was happening there, when suddenly, a man at the next table said something to Safdar Mir that was not only out of the blue but absolutely uncalled for. Safdar Mir, never to take one on the chin, and a boxer in his youth (‘Phir raha hai shehr mein Safdar khula,’ Ahmed Mushtaq had once written) rose slowly from his chair and was about to land one on the intruder’s jaw, when like a bolt of lightening Syed Abid Ali Shah, the most peaceful of men, fell on the man. The fight was brief but it was straight out of a Marx Brothers movie. Alas, the victim was Syed Abid Ali’s immaculate mulmul ka kurta, torn from one end to the other. Moral: if you must get into a fight, on no account should you be in a muslin kurta.
The walls of Syed Abid Ali’s home were plastered with Sadequain’s work: sketches, calligraphy, doodles, his famous quatrains, what have you. If there was one man in this world who could talk Sadequain in or out of anything, it was Syed Abid Ali, and more than that his “sister” Nazi. They could do no wrong and what they said, went. Those who knew Sadequain would also know what a hard man to persuade into anything he was.
And few people were closer to Faiz Ahmed Faiz than Syed Abid Ali. Faiz’s great elegy for Hussain and the martyrs of Karbala entitled ‘Marsiyya-e-Imam’ (Raat aayi hai Shabbir pai yalghar-e-bala hai) he once recited at Karbala Gamay Shah in Lahore where Syed Abid Ali had taken him during Muharram. It was awesome, he told me, hearing Faiz recite that powerful elegy for the Prince of Martyrs, Hussain. “You know people like Faiz, we Shias call them Sunni Shias,” he told me. I should also add that if there was one person who could crack a joke at Faiz’s expense and get away with it, without doubt it was Syed Abid Ali.
He had a game heart and where most would have taken to parhaizi khana, long walks and teetotalling, Syed Abid Ali chose to live life to the hilt. I have neither seen nor heard of anyone treating heart disease with the contempt it deserves as Syed Abid Ali. While it is true that in the end it got him, he never lost any sleep over it. Syed Abid Ali was irrepressible. Last November, he was rushed to hospital where his heart stopped and it was only the heroic efforts of a doctor that brought him back to life. He wrote about it in the Daily Times on 28 December. What follows is vintage Syed Abid Ali. No one else could have written about a near-death experience with such exuberance.
Syed Abid Ali writes, “A personal note (with profound apologies): I was rushed to Islamabad’s PIMS Hospital with a serious heart condition in the small hours of the morning some four weeks ago. I am told that as I tried to stand up from the wheelchair to lie down on the bed in the CCU, I went limp and fell down on the floor where ostensibly I ‘kicked the bucket’, following a cardiac arrest. What happened afterwards, I have managed to piece together from the professional exchanges among the doctors and the prying questioning of my wife and son. It seems there had been a slight confusion of identity on the part of the venerable angel of death and the Almighty, in His merciful munificence, put it right by sending another young angel clad in a white coat in the form of Dr Tahir. When he failed to revive me by other means, he gave me six electric shocks on the chest, one after another. It seems that the last one, given just under the heart did the trick and the old ticker started ticking away once again, feebly at first but satisfactorily level in good time.
“The process took an hour and a half, during which time I remember nothing but total oblivion. No peering down a tunnel with a bright light at the other end or flying like a lark in the skies. When my cardiologist, Dr Iqbal Saifullah, a soft spoken man with a healing touch, arrived later on in the morning, he told me I had just passed out, and that to be on the safe side, I would be kept in the hospital for another week or so. At the time of discharge, he advised me to take it easy for a while and to go back to my normal routine in about a month’s time. This is the reason for my absence from these pages for the last month or so.
“It would, perhaps, be presumptuous on my part to say that I have saved friends Munoo Bhai and Zafar Iqbal Mirza, for the time being, from writing emotional columns and friend Khalid Hasan from ‘mentioning me in dispatches’ with the same love, warmth and affection that he has shown over the years. But after all, what is an obituary between friends, and, if possible I would like to go through mine in my lifetime. I promise it would never be leaked out until it is actually published on the ‘proper occasion’. May I be allowed to improvise a couplet, with due apologies to Mirza Ghalib: ‘ Munoo-o-Meerza column tau likhen gay shayed: Mur gaya Abid-e-Ashufta nawa kahtay hein.’”
This piece of remembrance of a dear friend, it is appropriate, should end with a snatch of poetry from Iqbal:
Jo bada-kash thay puranay wo uthtay jatay hain:
Kahin is aab-baqaye dwam la saqi.
The old friends from the tavern have started leaving one by one;
Bring O bring from somewhere, cupbearer, the elixir of life everlasting.