Tuesday July 23, 2024

In memoriam: Syed Afzel Hussain Naqvi

By Feisal Naqvi
August 26, 2021

My father died at 2:15 pm last Sunday. I would like to say that he died in my arms, but the truth is that by the time I heard my sister scream and ran in from the next room, he had already moved on from this world.

Every father looms large in the imagination of his children. But my father was larger than life in every way. He was 6' 3" and born 86 years ago when such height was more unusual than it is now. More relevantly, he carried all of us and our troubles like an unruffled Atlas. And by all of us, I mean not just his children or even his children's children. I mean the entire extended clan of people he was related to as well as humanity beyond the ties of blood. There was no cousin too distant for him to not keep tabs on. He was the one man making sure that no child was left behind. Even in our village, he financed three schools and was never happier than when he could dragoon one of his many descendants into contributing more.

He himself was a shining example of all that education could offer. After Partition had taken him from being the darling of a rich Patiala family to writing on a wooden takhti at a 'taat waala' school in Jhang, he had the strength of character to first win a scholarship to Government College, Lahore and from there to Queen Mary College, London. That experience left him with an appreciation of self-made men as well as a healthy scepticism for people who had nothing to discuss except the glories of their ancestors. He was always very clear that we had an obligation to live up to the achievements of our forefathers, not to dine out on their successes.

Unsurprisingly, he had high expectations when it came to his children's academic efforts. Every time a report card showed up, there was only one question: did you come first? Normally, my answer was no but there was one glorious moment in third grade when I was finally able to say yes! His response was simple: keep it up.

As a child, I was in complete awe of him. I remember a conversation in third grade with my best friend in which we earnestly discussed whether we were more scared of our fathers or God.

It took a few years before that awe changed into a more considered regard. In 10th grade, I had gone from Lahore to an international school in Belgium and was floundering. My father insisted that he wanted to meet my teacher. After the meeting, I remember passing a sarcastic comment of the sort beloved by teenagers, only to be told by my teacher, "I wish I had grown up with a father like yours. I would have had a different life."

The penny really dropped in college. Because I had placed out of certain requirements, I had the option of graduating in three years rather than four. But my father never blinked when I told him I wanted to take the full four years even though my studies consumed a very large portion of his salary. Education came first.

Some months later, I typed him a letter in which I told him that I loved him and that I was so very very grateful to him for all that he had given me. I just didn't want my feelings for him to remain buried any longer under the traditional desi father-son formalities.

I could continue in this vein, but there are just too many moments to remember. As he grew older, my father didn't just age gracefully, he became -- as my sister put it -- pure love. I moved back to Pakistan some 25 years ago in part to be closer to him, and in that quarter of a century, I cannot remember an unkind word or an ungracious act.

It is a strange thing to regard the death of one's father with gratitude but that is, ultimately, the word which comes closest. My father was a man of incredible rectitude and integrity. He lived a life of great dignity. And he died surrounded by people who loved him and people whom he loved. The walls of the room where he breathed his last were covered in photographs of his children, their spouses, and his grandkids, all gazing down at the man who had so gently taken care of them all these many years. What more can one ask for than, in the words of Raymond Carver, “to call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth”?

My mother, ever the stoic, certainly doesn’t think differently. At one point when my sister was condoling with her, she said, "I'm sorry, Mom." My mother replied, "Why are you sorry? He was a loving father. And you were a loving daughter." Indeed.

The night after my father's death, our family group chat was flooded with pictures and videos of my father. One video was from chaand raat just two months back. It shows my father lying in his bed, half asleep and listening to Madam Noor Jehan singing "Awaz de kahaan hai" and as her voice reaches a crescendo, my father raises his arm in that universal desi gesture of appreciation and sings along, "dunya meri jawan hai."

The day after his death, I tracked down the lyrics to that song. This is the last stanza:

Kismat pe chha rahi hai/

Kyon raat ki siyaahi

Viran hai meri neenden/

Taaron se le gavaahi

Barbaad main yahaan hoon/

Aabaad tu kahaan hai

Bedard aasmaan hai .../

Aawaz de kahaan hai ..

The writer is an advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

Twitter: @laalshah