THE WAY IT WAS: In the company of fair women —Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

Karachi has certainly become a verdant town since the old days when the number of trees could be counted on a few dozen fingertips

It is not as easy as it was in the sixties to flit across to Karachi without much thought. Karachi seemed closer and within reach. Things were better; our lives were less busy and not cluttered with inanities that have acquired preponderance over the more laudable and enriching activity of spending time, as a poet said, in the company of learned men and fair women. If they were not accessible, it was considered eminently desirable to seek them.

Fortunately, after a person has crossed fifty he begins to take courage, looking up old friends who can often be obnoxious and merrily pull you down to the substance you are really made of. Meeting them among strangers can be particularly embarrassing. All one can do in retaliation is to accept the compliments with gratitude. A buddy will ignore an odious stranger but not spare harmless eccentricities of a dear old friend. An old friend once fondly remarked about another, “He is not our friend but a common ailment!” But all said and done friends are friends, and at this time of one’s life dushman bhi apne apne lagne lagte hain.

Recently, I was in Karachi and overstayed by a few extra days. Visitors from Karachi are always in a rush to get back. I wonder why. There should always be time spared for friends, a time to pause and to reflect on immaterial things — a cheerful reflection in a pond, a pensive face, a bright prospect, memories of bygone days and unfulfilled dreams and longings cleverly concealed under the scabs of a wounded ego.

Karachi, at this time of the year, is flooded with bougainvillea. They are dangling from trees, riding balconies, and cascading over walls in the brightest of colours. There are other species, like the dwarf champa, and palms of many varieties doing splendidly well. I thought I also saw a couple of tulip trees bearing flowers. Karachi has certainly become a verdant town since the old days when the number of trees could be counted on a few dozen fingertips. The weather was friendly, breezy without the humidity and whiffs of rancid fish.

I met a lot of old friends but can one ever sate the urge for the companionship of the fair gender? The intellectuals I shirk, being so full of themselves and always in the right. But let me acknowledge the ladies from whose presence I benefited. Zohra Yousaf I have known since she was the editor of the Star, the weekly magazine of Dawn. Like Asma Jehangir and Arundhati Roy, she is frail but stands taller than most warring males. She is a sensitive caring person, an aesthete and a human rights activist. Above all, she seems always to have time for friends and all those put on trial by the adversities of life.

Marjorie Hussain has quietly and patiently devoted herself to furthering the cause of education and promotion of art. She has introduced dozens of young Karachi painters to the national art scene. As an author and a painter, she has a sizeable advantage over others art critics. Her views are mildly stated but widely respected and she can be kinder than what some artists deserve. These days she carries the burden of addressing the Karachi art scene.

The three other ladies who I met are all our premier artists and painters of substance: Naheed Ali, Mehr Afroze and Qudsia Nisar. Naheed is a gutsy painter, never afraid of exploring new direction. Proceeding from non-figuration to figuration and then on to infusing the images with temporal concerns encompasses a wide territory. Most artist stick to the established path and attempt to cash the image they have cultivated of themselves. Unfortunately Naheed left for Lahore while I was in Karachi for the launch of her exhibition at the Croweater’s Gallery which I was informed went off extremely well.

Mehr Afroze teaches at the Indus Valley School. From what I saw of her work displayed at the Croweater’s Gallery in Lahore last year, she has evolved into quite a painter. She, in her own way, has come a long way from what I regard her early smudges and scratching to forging tangible forms. The images of her recent canvases are striking and meticulously crafted. I cannot imagine that a sensitive viewer could ever tire of savouring them. Presently, she is off to Islamabad for her exhibition at the Nomad’s Gallery.

I have seldom come across a more spontaneous painter than Qudsia Nisar. She indulged me by displaying a selection of her latest works. Qudsia paints with exuberant abandon, without care or conscious thought. Her brush moves, and moves on from dots to dabs, from blobs to dashes to seemingly awara, visibly rushed brushstrokes. In the end, vibrant colours and feelings coalesce into a simple statement aesthetically at rest. The elements are momentarily arrested for our benefit, but seem impatient to scurry off towards their unforeseen bearings.

The sixth young lady closest to my heart is Mina Hassan Zaidi, my daughter, and of course my granddaughter, Tania. She put up with me and I with her without any altercation, though on occasions I did detect her raise an eyebrow. Mina has an incredible sense of detail, disapproving of anything not being at its appointed place. She has many of my paintings to help cheer her. There are others who also help, like the inimitable Gulgee, Ghulam Mustafa, Iqbal Hussain, Naheed Ali and Kaleem Khan.

Tania, a seven-year-old, also likes to paint. During visits to Lahore, she and her brother Mustafa can go through reams of paper in a day. Once, while her nano Mussarrat was working on a canvas, she pleaded to be allowed to work on an ‘easier’ part of the painting. Mussarrat naturally let her brush in a colour. Tania was pleased, but before leaving the studio thought it appropriate to remind her grandmother, “Now don’t you go about saying that you did it all by yourself!”

I cannot possibly end without mentioning another lady who was a couple of years junior to us at Government College. Pervez Masood, Habib Tarar and all others in our class who had an eye agreed that she walked rather elegantly to her classes. Naushaba was an exotic name for Lahore in the sixties. She now teaches at Karachi and I believe teaches better Urdu than English in which she received her Masters degree. Naushaba is the daughter of the great Sibte Hassan, author of several books everyone should read. ‘Pakistan mein tehzeeb ka Irtiqa’ should be compulsory for anyone wanting to go to college or anywhere else, assuming of course that we would like to truthfully reconstruct our past and update whatever is left of our civilisation. But it would be easier done in the companionship of wise old friends and fair women the likes of which in passing have been recorded above.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and a political activist