This entreaty was from Asif, my friend of 55 years, living in Karachi. I promised that I would take the first opportunity to come from Islamabad and visit him.
Asif and I have been friends since 1967, when we were together at PAF Public School Sargodha. We joined the Academy together in October 1971 in the same course for flying. In Lower Topa and Risalpur, we shared a room for a year and a half. Unbeknown to him at the time, I even used his tooth- and shaving-brushes while leaving mine alone for the surprise ‘cupboard inspections.’ In early 1974, he graduated as a pilot while I joined Air Traffic Control.
We served our initial years together on the same Base in Karachi and lived in adjacent rooms. I was one of his three friends who attended his sister’s marriage in Karachi. He signed as a witness on my marriage certificate. We have been soul mates ever since. We speak to each other regularly, and discuss everything under the sun – including our health issues, children, beliefs and even our age-related ‘hidden issues’.
He was a good eldest son, from a middle-class background. His parents migrated in 1947 from Madras and settled in Muslim League Quarters, Nazimabad, in Karachi. With his meagre pay, he took loans to support his family and marry off his younger sisters. He even requested for and took a house on the Base to accommodate his family. He refused postings on better weapon systems for fear of losing this house, because he couldn’t afford to maintain two households on his salary.
At the same time, he also had human weaknesses and fell easily for the two Ws, as most young dashing fighter pilots do. Many a late evening, when he was too wobbly to walk, I took him from the bar to his room.
For various reasons, he couldn’t settle down in the Air Force for long. He also needed to finance his many responsibilities. He, therefore, took release from PAF and joined the UAE Air Force as flying instructor in 1982. Unknown to him, that proved to be a fateful decision.
He fell victim to the uncertainties of fighter flying. In 1984, his aircraft could not recover from an aerial maneuver. He crashed in a desert and broke his backbone, that left him paralysed for life, from the waist down.
I heard about his accident in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where I was serving in the Saudi Air Force on a deputation of three years. I felt immensely sad as I recalled the exuberance, energy and cheerfulness of my extrovert friend. I prayed for his recovery as he received the best possible medical attention in Europe. However, nothing worked, and he has been in the wheelchair ever since.
That’s 38 long years. However, as an embodiment of courage and hope, he didn’t give up on life. He served an airline for some time in management role. He bought a hand-driven car and roamed about the city; shopping, visiting friends and frequenting eateries.
He lives in DHA Karachi since 1997 in a house that he built in 1990s. His children are well educated and married off, with kids of their own.
Whenever I go to Karachi, I spend a whole day with him from about 11 am, when he is through with his challenging morning routine, to 11 pm when our glass ‘runneth over.’ This time, I had planned to go to him on the 25th of July. He called me to warn about rain and road flooding. I said that a little water wasn’t going to stop me from coming to him, but I managed to reach his house all dry. I thought that the Sindh government had done a good job in clearing the Shahrah-e-Faisal, Korangi Road and the Clifton Road that fell on the route to his house. This was, of course, before the September rains that deluged the province.
I could smell the aroma of qawam (edible sweet tobacco). I had not seen him favouring this delicacy earlier. On my query, he said that he picked the habit from one of the construction workers employed in his home for renovation
It is always refreshing to meet Asif. Over the years, he has displayed great courage. He has remained cheerful and lively. On the phone, it’s hard to imagine that the person behind the sparkling laughter has a severe physical disability. In person, we talked for hours in the language of teenagers. Over several glasses of ‘distilled aqua’ on the rocks, we reminisced, as we always do, about the follies of our youth, the joys of our companionship and the carefree days of a long-gone era. We listened to some items from his vast collection of classical music. One of our course mates, Arif Majeed, an ex PAF and PIA pilot, also drove a long way to join us for an hour.
Asif has multiple medical issues, as would be expected with his condition and age. He showed me a picture of his sores which are now untreatable. His digestion system remains disturbed. He has hitched up a mechanised system to shift from his chair to the WC. Bathing and washing are equally exasperating. But his smile is infectious. He believes in living his days to the full. I hope he retains his happy disposition till he meets his Creator. I also hope that we can meet more often. After all, as I wrote above, he is my soulmate.
Next day, again in heavy rain, I also met – as I always do during my visit to Karachi – another childhood friend, Orooj Ahmed Ali. He, too, is a long-time resident of DHA. Visiting his home is like going to a heavily endowed Venetian art gallery. A few years ago, having met him after a long time, I wrote a piece on him for this magazine that depicted his life and person.
When I informed Orooj about my upcoming visit, he said that he would arrange to have me picked up from my guest room on the Shahrah-e-Faisal. He also sent me the menu of the lunch for that day. It included crab-prawn-vegetables soup, fried Barramundi, fried lady fish, fried prawns, Thai red curry and rice, and all of this to be followed by ice cream over canned fruit. He later told me that he had procured the seafood from Gharo. As always in my honour, he marinated the seafood and cooked it himself or under his supervision. He can be quite exacting and keeps an eye on the minutest details. His calm and charming wife, Shaheena, would know – as all his childhood friends do – how exacting it would be to live with him.
When his driver came to collect me, he gave me a packed mask with a message that I must wear it. I felt good entering his house after lapse of a few years. I found the plants and the foliage in his lawn as green and pretty as I had seen on the previous occasion. His vast collection of birds, though, had whittled down to a few large parrots, a talking Mynah and a few partridges and finches. He had told me on phone that the rats had started stealing his valuable avian collection.
I found his house as artistic as it had been earlier. However, as he had made many more art purchases, I found the place overstuffed with expensive paintings piled up against the walls and over the furniture. He picked up paintings randomly to show his latest procurement and pronounced the price in the range of rupees 500,000 to 1.5 million. I did a mental calculation and thought that with some of this stuff in my hand, I could buy a house next door to his on that elitist Khyaban (Avenue).
He took me upstairs, the portion where his accomplished sister Shahana, an attorney and onetime newsreader on PTV, had been living for a long time but had vacated recently. He was refurnishing the rooms and redesigning the patio with stained-glass windows and carved wooden panels; that he insisted on calling “jafries.” Some of his paintings were already hung on the walls. He wanted a Mexican-type patio. Of course, I have no idea what that is.
We had lunch upstairs. While sitting for food on a small dining table, I found that he had set the crockery and cutlery in a manner that reminded me of many formal banquets that I had attended during my service days. He admonished his cook for putting the quarter plates on the right and himself placed them on the left. He scanned and counted spoons, forks, plates and glasses at their proper places from outside to inside in order of usage. He must have read some royal dinner manual. He even had charger plates placed below the dinner plate. That sort of elegance is seldom practiced nowadays. The food was exquisitely cooked. The soup was hot, mild and fragrant. The crab meat was crisp. The prawns were not chewy but disintegrated under my crowned teeth. The Barramundi was better than the one that I had had in Melbourne Southside restaurants: the only difference being that over there it was accompanied by Shiraz but, here, Orooj is over with his drinking days.
His wife asked me politely if I was fastidious too. I said that had I been so, I couldn’t have been friends with Orooj. She mulled that pensively.
In the previous article on him, I had written that he was doing well in dealing in art works. I was glad that he is still making good money in reselling art in his one-man home-gallery. He said that art galleries and dealers were envious of him because he could afford to sell at discounted price as he had no overheads. While I was there, he sold a painting that he procured a few years ago. He revealed that he had made a 400% profit on that deal. That’s a tidy earning.
He is spending this money on his passions, in renovating the upper portion of his house and in buying antiques. I especially liked the metallic lamp and Victorian brass statues of four armed knights that he had bought from a flea market. He had also bought many interesting pieces of furniture from sales. He showed me antique 10-feet-tall wooden pillars with four-feet-high carved stone stands. He said that collecting antiques and restoring them was a tedious work. Looking at all the items dumped in his home, I was certain that he must have put in a lot of effort.
He told me that he is the first Pakistani whose collection of art has been auctioned by Bonhams in the UK. He sold seventeen paintings there at good price. From being known in Pakistan as an art dealer, his fame is growing worldwide. He is also considering printing the collected works of his illustrious father, Professor Ahmed Ali.
His crisp loud laughter belies his medical conditions that had prevented him from getting vaccinated for Covid-19. He knew a lot of people who had caught the virus. Some had survived, a few had not. That had made him apprehensive, though he had been in virus-denial mode at the initial outbreak of pandemic. His wife had had two vaccines, and I urged her to take the third. She turned to Orooj, who gestured as if she didn’t need to. I understood why he had sent me the mask.
A little after lunch, he asked his house-helper to bring his paan. I could smell the aroma of qawam (edible sweet tobacco). I had not seen him favouring this delicacy earlier. On my query, he said that he picked the habit from one of the construction workers employed in his home for renovation.
Fair enough, I thought. That was typical of him. He continues to let his life roll with his passions. He was doing justice to the title “A freelance life” of my earlier article on him.
Reluctantly, I took leave at four, as I had a plane to catch. Though he had a driver, he came to drop me at the airport himself. He gave me two copies of Al-Qur’an, his father’s English translation that he had published recently.
On the way, I found him unsure of the way, even though it’s a pretty straightforward route from DHA to the airport. He told me that he hadn’t been there in at least a decade. As he bade me farewell at the departure lounge, we were both sad. Entering the eighth decade of our lives with multiple ailments, we are one step away from reporting back to our Creator.
It’s always nice to meet our childhood friends before we sign off from our current station. In the meantime, we have plenty to reminiscence about from our past life.
Aata hey yaad mujh ko, wo guzra huwa zamaana
Wo bagh ki baharain, who sab ka chehchahan
(I recall those carefree days when;
spring enlivened the landscape with our cheerful songs)
Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: email@example.com