Madeeha Maqbool signs off from her stint as Digital Guest Editor with a final curation from our archives. The following is an excerpt from a memoir by the incomparable Zia Mohyeddin, recounting his friendship with the late Ijaz Batalvi, published in its entirety in our fifth volume (2021).
He once saw me walking on my way home to Model Town—a distance of nine miles from the Government College. He was on his bike. “Where are you off to?” he asked me. “I am going home,” I said, too ashamed to admit that I didn’t have money to pay the bus fare. He took pity on me and gave me a ride on his bicycle all the way from Lahore to Model Town. On the long journey he recited a few lines in Persian, which, he said, were by Nazeery. He asked me if I understood what they meant. I shook my head; he did not deign to explain. Perhaps he thought that the meaning would be beyond my understanding.
We met again in Murree a year after the Partition. Batalvi was now a programme producer at Azad Kashmir Radio. It was on his recommendation that the great Noon Meem Rashed, (the boss of AK Radio) agreed to have me audition as an English newsreader. I remember doing a poor imitation of Nobby Clarke (the legendary newsreader of All India Radio). Surprisingly, I was offered the job—five rupees a day—and was told I could move to the hostel, which housed everybody who worked in Tararkhel, the mythical name given to the locale of Azad Kashmir Radio. Lodging was free and meals only cost three rupees a day. I was delirious.
Ijaz Batalvi was the bon vivant of the group. He had the room with the best view, and he was the one who dictated what was to be cooked. The others probably resented this, but they all knew that he could crush them with his scathing wit. Also, he was Noon Meem’s favourite. I spent two months at the hostel, and remained in awe of Ijaz Batalvi.
For I had not read the books he had, and not ‘seen the world’ as he had. Rashed Sahib had lent me Huxley’s Chrome Yellow and Sinclair Lewis’s Babbit and I threw myself into these books and many, many others. Had it not been for Rashed Sahib, I would not have developed my passion for English literature.
My first few weeks in London (in 1953) were governed totally by the whims of Mrs Lesley-Smith, who had taken me under her wing. The Lesley-Smiths lived in the upper middleclass suburb of Shortlands. I was her sole lodger, but she had not given me the keys to the front door because, “We don’t want people coming in at all sorts of hours and upsetting Timothy.” Timothy was her fat cat who had the run of her sitting room. No matter which chair I chose to sit in, Timothy would jump into my lap and begin to growl and scratch. “Oh, he’s a spoilt brat,” Mrs Lesley-Smith would coo, “You don’t mind him, do you?” But mind him I did and I would move to another chair, until, within a few moments, Timothy decided to dislodge me from that seat as well.
I described my plight to Ijaz Batalvi, who was now at Lincoln’s Inn, “having dinners”.
“Is she attractive?” he asked me. I told her she looked like a younger Martita Hunt.
“Get rid of her at once,” he advised, “landladies are bad enough, but cat landladies are the worst.” I mentioned that she had taken me on because of my friend Alex Elmore and that she was not charging me any rent.
“Well, you’ve got to grow up sometimes.” was his answer.
Ijaz Batalvi lived in Egerton Gardens in South Kensington opposite the Brompton Oratory. It was a posh address. 36 Egerton Gardens was a large Victorian building that had been converted into a bed-and-breakfast establishment. He had me fixed up in a room on the same floor as he was on. His room was large and spacious, and he had a gas ring that you could cook a meal on. We had tea and toast most mornings in his room.
He was now a self-assured young man who no longer found it difficult to converse in English. He was about to be admitted to the bar and he had become known to writers and psychiatrists and politicians. Ladies were not allowed into rooms at 36, but they visited ‘Battle Vee’, as Betty and her sister Vera, two of the more regular visitors, called him.
In the mid-fifties, the BBC Urdu Service regularly broadcast half-hour plays every week. Batalvi was the leading member of a cast that had an assortment of colourful characters who had been in England for decades. They had come to study law or medicine, but had given up after a year or two and had drifted into a life of carefree vagrancy. Not many people are aware that Batalvi acted in close to fifty radio plays ranging from Shakespeare to Priestly.
His most magnanimous gesture was to relinquish his role (as a leading man) in my favour. I was now a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and had moved from Egerton Gardens to a poky little room in Bayswater because I could not afford the exorbitant rent of four guineas a week. He sacrificed a fixed income because he felt that I needed the five guineas (my fee for appearing in a play) more than he did.
England did a lot for Ijaz Batalvi. His wit was now sharper; his intellect had matured; his sartorial appearance too, had undergone a change. He now looked dapper rather than dandified. In his Burberry topcoat and his golf hat, he looked every inch a ladies’ man, which he was.
He must have gone through a tremendous strain after the execution of Z.A. Bhutto, for which many people (in my view, mistakenly), held him personally responsible. A lesser mortal would have become cynical, but not Batalvi. He never allowed the strain to sully his intellect or affect his impish sense of humour. He was an outstanding lawyer who always caused ripples when he entered a courtroom. Judges quailed and his adversaries shivered in their boots.
But Ijaz Batalvi was not just an eminent lawyer; he was a litterateur, a thinker and a brilliant analyst of events. I relished his company because he was, by far, one of the finest conversationalists in our country. We are not going to see the likes of him for many seasons.
When he talked about something he loved—Iqbal, perhaps, or Rashed and Meeraji—his erudition never failed to coruscate. His principal intellectual weapon was gusto. Ijaz Batalvi argued flamboyantly; he would punctuate his discourse with piquant non sequiturs, demolish premise with counter-premise and seal the subject with a flourish. He had learnt part of this technique from Mahmood Nizami, the chubby, corpulent head of Lahore radio in the early 50s. Nizami Sahib was a man who combined the manner of Friar Tuck with the mind of A.J.P. Taylor. Nearly all the other luminaries in the broadcasting service, Noon Meem Rashed, Rashid Ahmed, Chib, et al., had imbibed the verve and wisdom of Ahmed Shah Bokhari. Nizami Sahib was the product of Islamia College, Lahore, and had acquired his intellectual prowess in the surrounds of Arab Hotel, the famous, slipshod café frequented by the likes of Maulana Charagh Hasan Hasrat and Akhtar Sheerani.
Zia Mohyeddin is a legend in his lifetime, his long career spans acting, directing, writing, broadcasting and a wide range of aesthetic disciplines. Born in Faisalabad, Pakistan, he graduated from Government College, Lahore. He is also the author of three books and has been awarded the highest civilian award in Pakistan, the Hilal e Imtiaz.