By Raza Rumi

Professor Javaid Iqbal Syed’s memoir traverses the political and the personal, the mundane and the sublime, and weaves a narrative that reflects the decades of his life and times in Pakistan. Syed came from a Punjabi family which had settled in Balochistan. Through his sheer dedication he rose to the rank of the Vice Chancellor of Allama Iqbal Open University (AIOU) during the mid 1990s. However, his tale is not restricted to his career or professional achievements, but is in fact a record of his inner journeys through the murky and inhospitable terrain known as Pakistan.

It just so happens that I have known Professor Syed since I was a child and he has, for better or for worse, been an integral part of my life.

Syed and my father grew up in the secular, plural, well laid-out cantonment Quetta of the 1940s, and their common bond emanating from the collective memory of a city lost has held them together for decades. Neither of them lives in Quetta anymore, but they are rooted in an imagined world where money, class and possessions did not matter; where human connection and a communal ethos prevailed. Friends were meant to be friends for life; street names were etched in your memory; and the old-world values of tolerance and amity were always revered.

We knew him as the affectionate uncle who would play tricks and entertain us endlessly, with jokes, mimicry and the kinds of fascinating stories that the kids of today don’t like to hear. Syed’s penchant for magic is what made his friends name him as ‘Javaid Jadugar’. However, the snippets of time we spent with him do not make up for a life story. Luckily, his book provides the missing links that even those who know him are likely to have remained oblivious to.

In Pakistan the memoir or autobiography is a popular and persistent form. Typically, it will come from neurotic dictators and self-stuffed bureaucrats and sometimes those generals who never reclaimed the plot they lost while in service. But this book falls in none of those self-aggrandizing categories. It is a book that almost borders on the autobiographical novel, a book that re-invokes the sounds of train engines, the atmosphere of mellow candlelit rooms, the unfruitful travails and records of passion and glory of falling in love.

The narrator also reminisces about the not-so-dusty lanes of Quetta, his wide circle of school and college friends and the kind of unique culture that prevailed in the early days of Pakistan, when the poison of faith-based fascism was yet to find its way into the body politic. Javaid Iqbal Syed studied at Quetta’s Islamia High School and later at the Government College Quetta – both public sector institutions imparting a high quality of education and a solid grounding in the disciplines that prepared him to be an academic, without the crutches of high-sounding degrees that are in vogue today and represent the commoditization of a basic service.

Before he decided to join a university, Syed ran away from the small town precincts of Quetta and found himself in Lahore in the early 1960s, where he took up a rather ordinary job at the happening hotel (now defunct) that was. the Falettis His interaction and engagement with the big city – the nerve center of Pakistani culture and literature – is subtly described in the book. But this experience also highlighted the need for engaging in a more meaningful pursuit than merely earning a livelihood.

This search for meaning is what took the narrator to the Family Planning Association of Pakistan in 1965, another institution that we have wantonly destroyed over the years, and later back to Quetta. Before returning to Quetta he earned a Masters degree in 1969 from the University of Chicago.

His return to Quetta is described well in the book. He served in the provincial bureaucracy in 1969-75. Tired of bureaucratic shenanigans, he joined the University in Balochistan which gave space to a domiciled Quetta resident – a job with immense potential that was close to his heart. The stint at Balochistan University was, however, short-lived, as the local-versus-settler politics had set in and this utter lack of belongingness is captured through simple yet elegant prose. After all, where could a Balochistan settler find home when the province was experiencing a bout of ethnic chauvinism?

But this was still the radical and transformative 1970s in Pakistan, when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had buried the remains of Jinnah’s Pakistan to create a new country with all its contradictions. Therefore, Islamabad as the new hub for the amorphous idea of a post-71 Pakistan emerges in the author’s life as the new ‘home’. After that the narrator shifts to Islamabad, but he never fails to mention his old associations and the gaiety of the lost world of Quetta. This productive phase at Allama Iqbal Open University, setting it up from scratch and building on it as the virtual center for learning, is also a tale that has not been captured by others. Luckily, Syed’s book gives us some insights into how AIOU became a harbinger of modernity within the colonial structures of education laid down by the good old British. Syed’s association with AIOU lasted for two decades or so. His work in the sociology and social work departments introduced the contemporary global trends of research and seeking excellence in a highly competitive environment.

Throughout the book, the author’s political affiliations and affinity with progressive politics also becomes clear. The narrative is not didactic about ideology or politics but recognizes that the wholesome human being has an essential political self that is alive and awake. This is why Syed’s final ascension to the head of his institution coincides with Benazir Bhutto’s relentless comeback, against all odds, as Prime Minister in 1993:

“I invited the Prime Minister Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto … she also got herself enrolled as an honorary student for a short term course: ‘Learn to Speak Pushto, Punjabi and Baluchi’. For this, she had formally filled an admission form, paid the course fee and had received the learning package at the auditorium in front of thousands of her admirers. As a matter of honor that the Prime Minister of Pakistan was also a student of their university, a copy of her signed admission form was enlarged, framed and fixed by me over one of the walls of the university auditorium. The Prime Minister had a busy day at the campus. Besides inaugurating the university’s short term educational programs, including one on Women Policing, the Prime Minister also inaugurated the Tree Plantation Scheme of the AIOU by herself planting a tree at the campus. Under the scheme now thousands of students in all parts of Pakistan were supposed to plant trees in their own villages, houses and at open spaces to earn twenty additional marks in their final examination as a substitute for the defense training component which was in vogue in other formal educational institutions.”

The two prominent women in the book are Syed’s wife Shehzad and Benazir Bhutto. The passion for his wife and the love poetry that he composed for her before and after their marriage is recounted with immense pride and pleasure. His own translation of a poem for his wife-to-be ‘YOU ARE THE ONE’ is endearing in its simplicity:

And the sweet voices

That I ever heard;

The colors of the sun

Which I saw in dew drops,

Putting these together in my mind

I made an image of someone!

Though there came

A number of people in my life

When I saw you

Said this heart of mine

‘You are the one!

His second love, Ms Bhutto, represents the kind of ideological union that a citizen expects with a state carved out of the ideology he holds. But this tragic tale is also handled with much dexterity, and with undertones of disappointment and mourning when Benazir Bhutto is killed:

“There were party workers, leaders, men and women, old and young; beating their chests; wailing and crying; like babies with their bubbling chins and open mouths; they openly shed their tears in hospital corridors, and over the streets. It was such a day of mourning in the history of this country that even some of the worst enemies of People’s Party wept on that day. I also shed my tears in some of my following words:


These drops hanging on your eyelids

Would now become the lamps lit into the darkest

Lanes of the king’s palaces…

The enemies of this land,

Will no more be able to hide themselves

Into the basements…

But these tears are not the same old tears!

They symbolize the pride of

Millions of her brothers

And the unity of our land;

A true tale of a princess;

Her untold bravery and fearlessness;

Only that we read in fiction…

With the colors of their sister’s blood

Her brothers now carry with them.

Let this not be ever extinguished;

A promise

Which they now made to themselves.

Powerful pieces of poetry are to be found in ‘No Qualms’. They enrich the text and provide it with additional layers of meaning. Some readers may find the constant poetry to break the flow of the narrative, but this is a style that is familiar to Pakistanis who read and write Urdu, and has been practiced by well-loved authors who have dabbled in semi autobiographicaldastaans or stories. Another passage and a poem from the book typify the style Syed employs, a style not too far away from classic Urdu fiction:

“Days were passed and it was my third year in the university as its Vice Chancellor. There was hardly any news coming from Haseeb or from Lutfi [two of the author’s close friends]. And then one day I received a letter from Haseeb which he wrote to me from the address of a graveyard! Probably being alive he knew its whereabouts. Though as a first impression I took it to be a joke, after phoning at his place I was shocked to learn that he had really passed away. For a long time, this letter left me wondering that there were people who even at their deathbeds did not give up their sense of humor and smilingly departed, while leaving their friends with their remembrance.

For quite a while this letter kept lying in one of my books. Then a day after having suddenly found it, I had a feeling as if he was still alive and was waiting for my reply. So I replied to his letter in the form of an Urdu poem. I am sure while sitting in heaven he must have read it to some pretty ‘hoors’ sitting around him!”


This letter which you have written

From your grave,

Of whichever city of tombs,

I find it soaked with the same honey,

The sweetness of which had changed the bitterness

Of our gone by days

Into our laughers.

(Concerning the sale of your cycle)

My dear

This letter which you have written

From your grave

Therein something you have forgotten

It was this blessed cycle of yours

Which that day of starving

Filled the empty stomachs

Of your friends…

I am glad that you have not mentioned

That shared love of ours with that pretty girl

Nor that I was a rival to you

But be sure that the Munkar and Nakeer

Don’t go through its contents

As many of these angels

Were already annoyed

On this earth with us!

However dear

We shall clear our debt

When we meet there again…

This is an earthy, unpretentious tale. It is about a man who is eternally positive, despite all odds, and retains a sense of humour. This is why the vicissitudes of his life are familiar and banal, though also poetic and original, for they merge into the larger experience of Pakistanis who have seen their visions and cities dissipate over the decades. The ‘new Pakistan’ is still an unfinished project, but personal histories such as this one allow one to make sense of the country we inhabit.

First published in The Friday Times

Raza Rumi is a writer and policy expert based in Lahore. He blogs at Email: