My talented cousin

Chaudhry Anwar Aziz, a stellar politician, was the most prominent son of Shakargarh’s soil

Shakargarh tehsil marks the furthest point to the north-east on a map of Pakistan. The very first rays of sun that fall on the Pakistani soil are on a village of Shakargarh, called Sakmal, which makes it also the reference point for calculation of Pakistan’s standard time.

Durbar Saab Kartar Pur, the famous gurdwara, is also located in the Shakargarh tehsil. Legendary Indian actor Dev Anand was born here and so was the romantic Panjabi poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi. However, the most promising and prominent son of the soil has been the one and only Chaudhary Anwar Aziz, a stellar politician and the most humble servant of the people of Shakargarh.

January 2, 1965, was a typical sunny morning in my village. However, there was a more than usual hustle bustle in the alleys and yards of houses. This was due to the West Pakistan Provincial Assembly elections. As a 4th grader, I joined my elder brother to paint two posters of a horse, for the polling station in our union council. This horse was the election symbol of Chaudhary Anwar Aziz who was contesting as an independent candidate from our constituency. This was my first introduction to this legendary leader.

Before contesting this election, as elder son of Dr Abdul Aziz, a civil surgeon, he had been living a cosy and comfortable life which held the promise of splendid accomplishments in many arenas. He had been the captain of the swimming team at Government College, Lahore and had represented Pakistan as a member of the swimming team in 1948 London Olympics. He had won the Fulbright scholarship, and gone to Michigan University to do his LLM. He had returned home in 1958 with the law degree in his hand and a beautiful, cultured, caring and loving “maim” (Kathy bhabi) as his wife. He was enjoying his life as a successful attorney, with his wife, parents, and other family members in Sargodha, where his father was a respected and renowned physician.

Neither he nor anyone else in the family had the slightest clue that soon his life would change completely and for ever. One fine evening, after a family dinner, his father, whom he loved the most, asked him to go to his maternal village to sort out a dispute between his maternal uncles.

That turned out to be more than a day’s expedition, because a faction in the family wanted to enforce an unjust and unfair solution to the dispute. That clash forced him to make a choice that ultimately changed the course of his life and consequently his destiny. He decided to join politics to confront and challenge the prevailing power structures, and powers to be, including his own cousins and uncles.

That demanded the establishment of his own power base and permanent presence in Shakargarh. With his American wife and young children, he moved to his village where there was no electricity or proper sanitary facilities. Despite many challenges and difficulties, he never looked back and served the people of Shakargarh, till his death on November 22.

His confidence in himself and his courage to confront the challenges directly stood him in good stead and his many contacts in the bureaucracy made him a formidable rival for his illiterate and overconfident opponents. His hard work, superior planning, better understanding of history, and genuine love for the poor and the otherwise marginalised, made him a hero in the eyes of some and definitely a better choice for most. The people of Shakragarh embraced him whole-heartedly. Over time he turned into an icon of Pakistani politics, serving several times in the parliament and in the federal cabinet.

I would meet him off and on at public events and political gatherings but never had an intimate relationship till 1981. That year I became a student activist and we had a clash at the Agriculture University, Faisalabad, with Islami-Jamiat-i-Tulaba, which was supported by Gen Zia. Two Jamiat members were killed in the clash and I was arrested. Instead of my father, Anwar bhai came to my rescue and managed to secure my release. That was our first serious interaction.

In 1983, I finished my medical education and joined the government of Punjab as a doctor. Then came the 1985 elections, which he decided to contest as an independent candidate for the National Assembly. I decided to join him in his election campaign. I remained with him for six weeks, despite being a government servant. He won the election. At that time there were serious threats to his life. I took over as his chief of staff and we were together all the time. What really impressed me was his dedication and love for the people, his courage in crises and the wisdom that enabled him to solve problems. He had a great understanding of history and lived a simple life. We would sleep together in a rented room, where there were no beds, not even mattresses. We slept on dried grass with our guns by our side. In the morning, we would go to shower at a close-by barber shop. This was a total surprise for me because he was a former federal minister, a Fulbright scholar, a successful attorney, and a scion of a rich and respected family.

When the cabinet was formed, he once again became a federal minister (for local government and rural development). He asked me to move to Islamabad. I got transferred to Rawalpindi and started living with him at his minister’s house in Islamabad. I was his younger brother, son, aide de camp, political counsellor and personal physician. There I truly learned from him and about him. I witnessed his generosity for his friends and his love for his constituents. I saw him deal with diplomats and heard his conversations with fellow politicians and journalists.

He was a gentleman, a socialite, and an avid student of history. I believed that he had read every important book on history, sufiism and Punjabi folklore.

He was a people’s person and always wanted to have his friends around, especially in the evenings. His favourite activity was entertaining his friends at dinner and discussing poetry, politics and people. He respected people and loved them. He understood the etiquettes, values and cultural practices and would always ensure that everyone he met – rich or poor, man or woman, young or old – felt respected. He was a charmer.

He had no hangovers about his status. When he left cabinet, he moved with me to Police Officers’ Club, where I was a doctor. He would stay with me whenever he was in Islamabad, till I moved to Geneva in 2002.

He was a generous man. We were related but not closely. However, after our interaction in 1981 we clicked and he very kindly started introducing me as his cousin. That was a precious and singular honour. Ultimately, I became an integral part of his personal life and family, where I was accepted wholeheartedly by most and grudgingly by a few. He was truly more than a brother, father, mentor, a true source of love, inspiration, wisdom, strength and support – and he maintained that relationship till his last breath.

After his death, while reflecting on our relationship, I was amazed to recall that in our 35 years of close relationship, we had not argued or disagreed even once. That is rare. He was very proud of my achievements and was perhaps the only one who fully understood my dreams and desires.

He was a humble, humorous, kind and caring person. He was an excellent conversationalist and had an abundant capacity to love people.

As a politician, he was a warrior, survivor, stubborn and shrewd. He was a satisfied man and never regretted any of his actions or decisions. He lived his life the way he wanted. However, he had two dreams that sadly couldn’t be realised. One. To construct an old age home for the people of Shakargarh, because he believed that old age in the rural settings was becoming a serious public health and social problem. Second. He wanted to take his “maim” (Kathy bhabi) on a world tour, travelling business/first class and staying in five-star hotels. He had a plan in his mind for both, but I believe in the later years of life, he didn’t have the needed strength and structures around him to realise those two dreams. That is sad but given all his talent, tactics, and schemes, he was a humble human being. Like all others, he too had to have his share of regrets.

How can I sum up the life of such an extraordinary man who blended education and erudition with earthy common sense and who could courageously do political battle for a public purpose that he held dear but could unreservedly bathe so many in his ever-flowing stream of generosity and affection? Perhaps I can borrow the words of Shakespeare: “His life was gentle and the elements so mixed in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world, THIS WAS A MAN!”

The writer is the executive director, World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland.

My talented cousin: Chaudhry Anwar Aziz was the most prominent son of Shakargarh’s soil