The salt of the earth

Remembering Zafar Iqbal Mirza


It  was, if serves well, the fall of 1979. I, and a university fellow, Muzammil Ahmed — who has recently retired as PTV Director News, had gone to see another classmate (Dr) Ikramul Haq – author of a couple of fine books on taxation in Pakistan, at the offices of weekly Viewpoint. Ikram used to write Students Corner piece in the magazine. We were talking (loudly) as we entered in the compound of the building. Ikram put a finger on his lips signalling us to be silent. “This man does not like noise,” he whispered pointing to a dingy room where a sober-looking elderly figure of a typical editor was visible. “Who is he,” I asked. “ZIM”, Ikram replied and hurried to add in a lighter vein, “you may also call him a djin (genie),” he explained that the man was capable of miracles in the newsroom.

Four years when I left The Muslim to join Dawn on the instance of late Nisar Osmani, the first person I noticed in the reporters’ hall was none other than ZIM – Zafar Iqbal Mirza as I knew him later. Within a few days I discovered the ancient-looking man was neither too sober nor snobbish. Instead he was jolly and soft spoken and at times sounded like a good old friend. Within days it turned out that it was always party-time in his company. He would finish the day’s workload in no time and then share gossip in a very pleasant fashion. For me, the party-time lasted around 18 years.

His professional acumen, especially his editing skills, were the stuff of legends. He mentored a whole generation of young reporters and sub editors. He was always keen on solid reporting. During my early days at Dawn, I filed a story about two big city hospitals asking poor patients to buy the articles needed for their surgical operations in clear violation of government policy and instructions. Both the hospitals – Services and Mayo – rebutted the story and their rebuttal was also published. ZIM was very unhappy and asked me to bring solid evidence in support of my narrative. Next day, I obtained prescription slips from doctors asking the patients to buy a good number of articles from outside the hospital. I remember ZIM was so keen on clarity that he asked the desk to also print the prescriptions alongside my story. The government took stern action against the hospitals and several Urdu papers wrote editorials on the issue, citing the Dawn report. This introduced me in the local circles of newsmen with a thud. This was not exceptional treatment; ZIM imparted journalistic values to many young reporters, instilling confidence in them and helping them find their feet in the profession.

The weekly letter from Lahore, he wrote, was a passion. When most writers found it impossible to get through censorship during the dictatorial regime of Gen Zia ul haq, ZIM’s contribution went unscathed as he had perfected the art of exposing the tyranny between the lines. He refused also to confine himself to a few subjects as most of his contemporaries did. He would write on subjects as varies as Shakespeare’s plays and his college days.

The ZIM I got to know was not all about a professional journalist. I also had the good fortune of getting to know some other aspects of his person. His outward appearance was always shabby, his dress would be wrinkled, he would not shave for weeks, his nails would not be trimmed and he wore the look of an ordinary man. He perhaps enjoyed the camouflage. Those knowing him only through his writing could possibly never imagine what he looked like. He hated meeting people holding high positions especially in the officialdom. He ate cheap, simple food and never minded stopping at a street vendor’s to eat an ordinary meal in a busy street.

His professional acumen, especially his editing skills, were the stuff of legends. He mentored a whole generation of young reporters and sub editors. He was always keen on solid reporting.

Sometimes, he would ask me to drop him at his Model Town residence since I lived nearby. He introduced me to his family. Soon, I was a family friend. When I got married, he invited us to a lavish meal and himself plucked a couple of roses from the lawn of his sprawling house to present to my wife telling her “Shaukat is like my second son.” (ZIM had only one son). He never put a gate on the main entrance to his house. Not even allowed a brick wall around it. The boundary consisted of a dense gardening hedge. One could simply walk up to his room.

He was a night owl who treasured the life after sunset. The ‘good thing’ he would drink after dusk was as dear to him as his writing job during the day. The likeminded thronged to a room lit with a 60-watt tungsten bulb. The family was not on his side in this but this did not bother ZIM. Many friends would bring the ‘good thing’, sit around for a smoke, discuss cricket and share jokes often until midnight. If I was around, he would sometime say ‘chalo Shaukat say shair suntay hain’ (now we listen to poetry from Shaukat).

I saw him crying like a child on the demise of Muhammad Idrees – journalist, TV presenter and the most dear friend. In fact, no one knew where ZIM had gone after Idrees sahib passed away. Three days later, he was found at a lonely place with a distant friend continuously crying and visibly high.

ZIM found the chores and errands of mundane life embarrassing and refused stubbornly to visit government offices. On at least two occasions I witnessed his helplessness. Once I found the family in a heated debate as his wife needed a fresh passport to visit some shrines in Iraq. ZIM stood his ground; he would not visit the passport office. I volunteered for the assignment and the matter was settled. On another occasion, he called me requesting profusely for a personal favour — to help him buy a room cooler!

He would never compromise on professional standards. Once another close friend – the famous Naeem Bokhari — desired to be a regular columnist. He wrote a piece and handed it over to ZIM at Dawn’s office for editing and his feedback. When he came back in the evening to collect the edited version of his write up he was stunned to see how heavily it had been rewritten. In his loud Walled-City style Bokhari acknowledged that he had probably been wrong to believe that he could be a column writer. He would never write for a newspaper again.

I am not the type to keep souvenirs. But in my archives I have a copy Dawn dated June 2000. At the top corner of my story on annual Punjab budget is a ball pen insertion: An excellent piece of budget reporting – signed ZIM. 

The author is a journalist, union leader, mentor and teacher

Zafar Iqbal Mirza: The salt of the earth