Friend, philosopher and guide: Sajjad Haider Malik

November 29, 2020

Teaching, writing, and acting: every facet of Sajjad Sahib’s personality was impressive

The month of November has left us with several bereavements to mourn. Qazi Javed has left for his heavenly abode, Masood Mufti has passed away and on 25th, Prof Sajjad Haider Malik bade us a final farewell. Qazi Javed and I had a relationship of mutual respect. Mild-mannered and soft-spoken, Qazi sahib was a humanist. His legacy includes numerous books that he wrote and translated. Trained in the discipline of philosophy, Qazi sahib mostly focused on intellectual history of Muslims in India.

In this column, the sole focus is Prof Sajjad Haider Malik. His demise is much like a personal loss. He was truly a philosopher friend and a guide. When I started my academic career (in 1987) at FC College, Lahore, Sajjad sahib was among the English faculty. He had been transferred from Liaquat Pur (in Rahim Yar Khan district) to Lahore and had joined FC College in 1986. I learnt that he had been consigned to the remote southern Punjab job as a punishment. (During the Zia regime, such transfers were routine.)

Earlier, he had been teaching at Asghar Mall College, Rawalpindi. For a lesser person born in Talagang in Chakwal district and accustomed to a life in Rawalpindi at his ancestral home with a large family including an invalid the Liaquat Pur posting would have been a nightmare. But Sajjad sahib accepted it with grace and fortitude and proceeded to report to the Bahawalpur division director (colleges).

He never approached anybody with a request for a review of the decision. An upright teacher throughout his career, Sajjad sahib lived his life on his own terms. There was no way he would compromise his principles. While he was serving in Liaquat Pur, Gen Ziaul Haq visited the area. At the bidding of the district administration, Sajjad sahib was in the reception queue. Ziaul Haq, who recognised him because of his newspaper connection, asked after his well-being. He also asked what he was doing in Liaquat Pur. Sajjad sahib just shook his hand and didn’t utter a single word of complaint.

The strength of character, erudition and indifference to material considerations made Sajjad sahib a rare human being to whom everybody imbued with a desire for learning, felt attracted. He had a tremendous knack of instructing young people to speak good English. Those wishing to refine their writing style turned to him and Sajjad sahib devoted a lot of valuable time and energy to impart the skills they needed.

As in charge of the Friday edition of The Pakistan Times, Iqbal Jaffery sahib would sometimes run into difficult situations resulting from the dearth of people who could write on themes like Landa Bazaar, local food sold on the roadsides and the festivity of Basant. Sajjad sahib was frequently the person who came to his rescue. His vast vocabulary and keen observation had equipped Sajjad sahib to push his pen on any subject of inquiry.

The strength of character, erudition and indifference to material considerations made Sajjad Sahib a rare human being to whom anybody, imbued with a desire for learning, gravitated like a magnet.

For his distinctive style of writing and incisive wit, Bernard Shaw was one of his favourites. Since teaching drama to post-graduate students was his top-priority, Ibsen, Samuel Becket and Shaw were often under discussion. Among prose writers, he adored Aldous Huxley and Bertrand Russell. His standard advice to students who desired to improve their writing in English was: “Do read literature, because a language can only be learnt by reading literature.” Those who took his advice reaped the dividends. He enjoined his students and young colleagues to avoid using guidebooks and to invest their time instead on grasping the original text.

After reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Insulted and Humiliated in quick succession I started feeling morose. When I mentioned this to Sajjad sahib he took me to the library and got me several slim volumes of PG Wodehouse that helped me get back to my normal self. I have never come across anybody so forthcoming in helping young people the way Sajjad sahib was.

Films were a passion with Sajjad sahib. He had a keen eye to appreciate good movies and encouraged others to watch those. His admiration for David Lean, Roman Polansky and Frances Ford Coppola was enormous. Marlon Brando, Vivian Leah, Meryl Streep and Lawrence Olivier were his all-time favourites. He relished writing film reviews in The Pakistan Times and later for The Friday Times.

His film reviews were impartial and profound. As a result, many cinema-goers used to decide which movie to watch after reading Sajjad sahib’s review in The Pakistan Times. He also had a mellifluous voice and could sing classical melodies. He would often lead discussions on Frank Sinatra, Tome Jones, Beatles and Elves Pressley in a secluded corner of FC College’s staff room. Those were illuminating conversations. Shahid Imtiaz and I were the biggest beneficiaries of the exchange, especially when Prof Ashfaq Sarwar joined in.

He always emphasised brevity which he himself practiced himself in his speech as well as in his writing. There was hardly a superfluous word In his columns or articles. Precision was his hallmark. I remember when I published my first book, Idea of History through Ages, the title of the book was suggested by Sajjad sahib. I presented him a copy of the book to read. Afterwards, when he reviewed the, he summed up the theme of the book in a single sentence: The civilisations and groups of people who chose to hold fast to knowledge and discovery flourished; and the ones who gave it a wide berth declined - some of them were wiped out. That exactly was the conclusion of the book.

Teaching, writing, acting: every facet of Sajjad sahib’s personality was impressive. He was an unsung scholar and mentor of many including myself and Shahid Imtiaz. A part of him will always live in me. In that sense, I am his legatee.

The writer is a Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

Friend, philosopher and guide: Sajjad Haider Malik