Tahir Mirza slips gently into the night
I think I first met Tahir Mirza in 1962. He must still have been working at the Civil and Military Gazette (Civil), but he could well have been at the Pakistan Times. I am not really sure. The Civil closed in 1963 and everyone working there found himself on the street. Naseer A Sheikh, the textile magnate who had bought it for its property value, had the temerity to boast that he had saved both the newspaper’s files and the plate nailed to a wall that said, “Rudyard Kipling worked here,” followed by the years when he did. Forty-four years later, nothing is known either of the files or the plate.
I met Tahir through my friend Shujaullah, who, having tired of teaching English at Cadet College, Hassan Abadal for a few years had found work as a sub at the Civil . Zuhair Siddiqi was also at the Civil as was the eccentric cartoonist, Qazi, who would place the next day’s cartoon in original on an easel on the roadside for one and all to see. Those who used to roam the Mall, a truly thandi sarak in those days, will remember Qazi’s “Yankee throws feast” cartoon that got the CID and other unpleasant outfits after him.
The first thing that struck me about Tahir was his looks. They were those of a movie star. What also struck me was his gentleness. In all the years I knew him, I never saw him angry or upset, nor did I ever hear him raise his voice. He had the temperament of a saint. I also never heard him say a harsh thing about anyone, though there were some who deserved every four-letter word you could lob at them.
When I met Tahir, I was a journalist trapped in the body of an income tax officer who had found himself doing work for which he had neither talent nor interest. It took me a few years to get free of the government of Pakistan and become a reporter. One of the great joys of finally being in a newspaper – and the Pakistan Times at that – was working with Tahir Mirza, who was one of the assistant editors and editorial writers. He also did the letters page on which I had been quite active, even from my hometown, Sialkot. The only correspondent who wrote more letters to the Pakistan Times than me was the legendary Hakim Syed Irshad from Gujrat. He had written so many letters to the Pakistan Times that on the demand of his fans, he published them in a book. I recall crossing swords with him once or twice but Hakim was the champ of the letters column.
I used to live with my brother in the Lahore cantonment because his battalion, of which he was 2-I-C, or second-in-command in Fauji parlance, was stationed there. We used to have great parties there – Eduljee and Sons being within hailing distance of the place. Tahir was one of the regulars. At one of the parties I remember at the cantonment place – just a set of rooms, which still stand – we were served cocktails complete with cherries in delicate silver-stemmed mess glassware. Raja Tajammul Hussain, who as Commissioner North Zone was the income tax king of an area stretching from Bahawalpur to Peshawar, said after having passed on a dozen or so cherries to a friend he had brought, “So that was dessert, now where is the hooch?” Eduljee, as always, obliged and on credit too. God bless those Parsi gentlemen!
Television came to Pakistan in 1964 with three or four pilot stations set up by the Japanese company, NEC. The man who brought television to the country was none other than Altaf Gauhar for which he has been given no credit. Aslam Azhar was the head of the Lahore station, and he used to live in Gulberg at the intersection of the Gulberg and Zafar Ali Roads. There would be late evening gatherings at Aslam’s place where we would sit on the open rooftop enjoying the evening breeze and that ice cold elixir. Nasreen, Aslam’s wife, was Tahir’s first cousin, hence our link to Aslam.
At the Pakistan Times, we would sometimes go to Tahir’s house in Samnabad where we would always be greeted by his father, Prof Waheed Mirza, acknowledged as the foremost authority on Amir Khusro. Tahir’s cousin, Commander MH Askari, also lived in Lahore, and even after he went to Ghotki to work for Esso Fertilizers, Lahore remained his base. He was, of course, the son of Mirza Muhammad Saeed, who taught Prof Ahmed Shah Bokhari, whose first and only book, the classic Patras ke Muzameen, is dedicated to him with these words, “I dedicate this book to my respected teacher Professor Mirza Muhammad Saeed sahib Delhavi who gave this book a look-over and rid it of several mistakes. I am proud of the fact that to this day I continue to receive his guidance.” So that was the stock Tahir Mirza came from, a family of learned and civilised men of high culture and gentlemanliness.
There was much excitement among us when Tahir married Parveen who came all the way from Saharanpur and remained his close friend and companion the rest of his days. She also had unlimited patience when it came to such of Tahir’s “ awara-gard ” friends as us.
At the Pakistan Times, our assistant editors besides Tahir were: AT Chaudhri, IA Rehman, Jamil Ahmed, Ahmed Azeez Zia and the debonair Muhammad Idrees. And our editor was the unflappable Khawaja M Asaf, who with a few deft touches could turn a pedestrian piece of writing into something quite wonderful. There was no better sub in the business.
I left Pakistan in the early 70s but was reunited with Tahir when he came to work for the BBC Urdu service in 1978. I left London for Vienna and Tahir went to the Gulf to work for one of the English dailies. Then he returned to Lahore where Mazhar Ali Khan was about to launch the weekly Viewpoint. Faiz Ahmed Faiz, learning of Tahir’s presence, took him aside and said, “Tahir akhbar naveesi karni hai ke naukri karni hai?” “ Ji, Faiz sahib akhbar naveesi,” he replied. “ Tau phir Mazhar ke saath aa jao.” And that was where Tahir worked for many years on a salary that was hardly sufficient to keep body and soul together. Old Progressive Papers Ltd hands, IA Rehman and Shafqat Tanvir Mirza had also joined Mazhar Ali Khan’s team as had Comrade Hussain Naqi.
And never closer was our association than when Tahir came to Washington as a Dawn correspondent from 2000 to 2003. We spent time together, went to press conferences and briefings and shared everything. If I missed something I would ask Tahir if he could slip me what he had filed. Tahir left to become editor of Dawn, whose Lahore edition he had earlier pioneered and consolidated. He is gone but anyone who ever came across him, even briefly, can only have remembered him with respect and affection. I only hope that what they serve in heaven is the real McCoy.