Majeed, a gentle and kind soul, suffered from Covid-19 and left us on March 19. His kiosk survives and so do the memories
By the end of its first decade, the social centre was outside of the under-construction campus of Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU). It continues to be amongst a collection of “encroachments” that have survived half a century – the entire history of the campus.
At the start of the 1970s, recognising an economic opportunity, some local entrepreneurs set up shop across the road from the construction site. Among them were the father of Baba Mir Afzal (known as Havaldar sahib), who had a small general store, Basheer sahib, who’s shop sold fruit and later became a popular stop for juice, a Haji sahib with a restaurant and a much-needed cobbler. Majeed, a gentle and kind soul, suffered from Covid-19 and left us on March 19. His kiosk survives and so do the memories.
Today, when one approaches the main campus entrance, just past the two gates leading to the library building, which for some reason are usually closed, Majeed’s kiosk (khokha) is located to the right. A few cacti and other plants partially curtain it. To the front is an outdoor arrangement of metal chairs and tables covered by old newspapers, serving as tablecloth. To the left of a wood-and-stone entrance is a tin-roofed kitchen, with a front-facing opening and a small, indoor dining hall to the right. Past the hall, one walks into the backyard where there are more tables and chairs, with a covered porch or two. The backyard was developed some time over the last two decades and provides a view of Rawal Lake in the distance.
In January 2013, I visited Majeed. Having seen the chaos he managed during the lunch hours in my time at QAU, I was a bit early. He reminded me of the inqilab that never arrived but forever entices. I complimented him on the beard he had grown – it was an “Islami inqilab”, I said. We exchanged notes about our kids and what stages they were at. And then it was mayhem again – the lunch line had built up.
I had met Majeed on his first day of work at what was then called the University of Islamabad. It was probably August of 1973, and classes were set to resume after the summer break. The introduction took place in a small structure, newly built on the path from the hostels to the administrative and academic buildings. The enclosure may have been, at most, 100 square feet, with a small porch and window. Later, we discovered two similar structures, one between the physics and chemistry buildings, and one near the social sciences block.
At the time, the campus was mostly barren, rocky terrain. There were new academic buildings, a few were under construction, with chemistry to the west and computer sciences to the east. In the centre stood the physics and mathematics blocks, to the south of which were two administrative buildings. There were no fountains or walkways, and one had to climb rocks, rather steep at places, and jump over crevices when walking to class. The three hostel buildings, one of which housed working women and some faculty members, stood quite a distance to the east. One of the boys’ hostels housed the offices of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, and also accommodated the university bus drivers in one of its wings.
A room in one of the administrative buildings served as a cafeteria, operating only during office hours. Students staying in the hostel made daily evening bus trips to Aabpara market to buy bread for breakfast, as the mess only served lunch and dinner, at least in the boys’ hostels. There was a rudimentary shop, set up next to the mess kitchen, but it was usually out of needed items.
Construction was ongoing and there were more donkeys to be seen on one’s way to class than fellow students. Our treks to and from the classes, over the rocky terrain, kept the cobbler’s shop busy. Three odd and out-of-place structures were meant to provide a place for students to grab a snack or a cup of tea. Majeed, born in 1956 and barely 18 at the time, was put in charge of one of these spots by the late Afzal Ahmed Rizvi.
Rizvi lived in Lahore and worked at the State Life Corporation. He was a man who had wide and varied connections. He was not overtly religious, but quite pious. Earlier, when he was stationed in Rawalpindi (in 1965), he wanted to help educate a child and mentioned it to his friends. One of them introduced him to Irfan sahib, and Rizvi decided to support the education of Majeed Irfan (the eldest of two brothers and three sisters). And so, Majeed set out on the path to the QAU.
When Majeed completed his secondary school (matric) (in 1970-71), Irfan sahib asked for a job for his son. But Rizvi sahib had other plans. Around that time, Rizvi married Gulshan Ara Chohan, a medical doctor. They moved to Lahore and Majeed came with them, was enrolled in college and completed an intermediate commerce certificate. Majeed’s younger brother Rasheed later joined them. He completed his matriculation in 1973, enlisted in the Air Force and retired as a C-130 technician.
Rizvi sahib liked to cook, and Majeed picked up that skill. In the kitchen, Majeed excelled at daal masoor (red lentils) and Rizvi sahib liked daal-chawal. Roshan Ara, Rizvi sahib’s sister-in-law, was teaching at the Government Girls College, Satellite Town,
Rawalpindi, in the early ’70s. During her time there, Ms Kaneez Yusuf was the College principal. They were on friendly terms and kept in touch later, when Ms Yusuf was appointed vice chancellor of the QAU (in 1972). Thus came the contract for the small canteen and Majeed’s entry to the campus. Aslam Chohan, Rizvi sahib’s brother-in-law was my classmate in the Physics Department.
In the early days, the business was unrealistic. The canteen served breakfast, tea and sandwiches. The table settings included a tablecloth, napkins, forks and knives. To start with, Aslam’s younger sister helped out at the register, while Majeed served the food. Aslam’s friends, including me, also helped in setting the tables. The demand for breakfast was high and difficult to keep up with. Within a couple of weeks, things changed, as the speed of service had to be prioritised over aesthetics. Majeed took charge and a server was hired.
Business was profitable because of the certainty of regular clientele. But the canteen’s luck did not last for long, as other events took over. The Students Union elections in 1974 were hotly contested, and the Progressive Students Organisation (PSO) was supported by the administration and the government of the time. My friend Aslam, who was active in student politics, was upset over the manipulation of rules, especially admissions rules in the newly established Department of Pakistan Studies, to prop up the PSO. He was pressured to fall in line but refused, choosing to join a third group, the Socialist Students League (SSL). The Islami Jamiat-i-Talba (IJT) won and pushed to revoke canteen contracts. The QAU terminated the contracts and threatened police action to have the canteens vacated.
In January 2013, I visited Majeed. Having seen the chaos he managed during the lunch hours in my time at QAU, I was a bit early. He reminded me of the inqilab that never comes but forever entices.
Majeed was supporting his parents and five siblings at the time. He was around 20 years old. He took a bold and courageous step. Confident in his abilities, Majeed, took over the hut that was run by Haji sahib, in May 1975. The hut was across from the main campus entrance – the one used by the VC. Within months, Majeed had bought the shares of the two friends he had partnered with to start the business. He brought his maternal uncle into the business (we all called him mamma), who took charge of the tandoor, baking the fresh hot rotis that were served with every concoction that Majeed cooked up. Soon, the place livened up. Labourers, faculty employees and students walked over to the hut to savour Majeed’s cooking.
Majeed was threatened with demolition. The Capital Development Authority sent notices and demolition crews a few times, starting from the early days of his hut in 1975. However, the university community, including labourers who ate at Majeed’s kiosk and local journalists, responded and defended Majeed’s and other street vendors’ livelihoods.
In those days, Majeed and his team slept in the hut. When night fell, they would push the wooden tables together to form beds. Water was collected in tin cans from a watering outlet on the side of the hut that faced the university and was stored in clay pitchers. At dusk, gas lanterns would be lit for business hours. It was only about two years ago that an electricity connection and a water line finally reached the place.
As the business grew, so did the team and the menu. Alumni from those years would remember the names of Ilyas, Ali, Shabeer and the late Akbar. We knew we could walk in any time and Majeed would put something together. The first such dish was called Emergency and consisted of a scrambled egg, with freshly cut onions and tomatoes. The next invention was the Cuban – a kebab wrapped in an omelette. Later came the Buffet – rice with a choice of items on the menu – often sold as half an order. It was first served to local journalists who had come to cover the demolition of encroachments.
A dish was named after my teacher and colleague Pervez Hoodbhoy, who was a regular patron. It was a mix of potatoes, chickpeas and lentils. Later, chicken was added to the recipe and thus it was called Chicken Pervezi. A dish called Crisis took off in the late ’70s. The day’s leftovers were wrapped in an omelette and served to students from the Administrative Sciences Department late in the day. As Abrar-ul-Haque, a famous alumnus and singer, said, “It was the only Crisis in our lives that made us happy and we paid for it.”
Apart from the cooking, Majeed was a friend to all. He also served as a no-questions-asked money-lender. There were many who borrowed from him in the last few days of the month, when the scholarship money ran out or when the banks were closed. One could eat on credit and pay later, and some did not pay at all. There were others who could not pay and were fed regardless. The menu did not mention prices, just what was available. It was all taken in one’s stride.
The business expanded over the years. Majeed’s enterprise took over the small canteen near the social sciences block in the ’80s. Folks would come in mid-morning for steaming samosas. At the turn of the century, Majeed got a contract to run the cafeteria at the Commission on Science and Technology for Sustainable Development in the South (COMSATS) University, and ran it successfully, along with his base at the QAU. They have now expanded to catering private events and have a social media presence.
All along, Majeed supported his family. Soon after establishing his business in 1976, his youngest brother, Saeed, moved in with him. Majeed sent him to school and college. Saeed now serves as a medical technician at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences. Nazeer, his brother-in-law, took the helm at the Social Sciences Department canteen. Majeed’s four sons got their bachelor’s degrees; Anis manages the kiosk, Tausif took charge of the COMSATS enterprise and Hanif, the eldest, shares responsibilities with the others. The youngest son is employed outside of the family business.
A CSS officer and former student once visited Majeed’s hut with his friends. After he and his guests had finished their meal, the officer went up to Majeed to pay for the food and asked to settle the account from his student days. Majeed smiled, refused to accept any payment and said, “Sir, I want the government of Pakistan to remain indebted to me.” All of us are in Majeed’s debt.
The writer studied and served at the QAU Department of Physics from 1973 to 1997