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Finding people

Muhammad Hamid Zaman
As we go through the important and long-overdue exercise of the national census, I am reminded of Mukhtar Masood’s poignant words in his book Awaz-e-dost, “when we do census, we find plenty; but when we seek real souls, we return empty-handed.” Masood died last week. In many ways, it was a deep personal loss. I had been trying to meet him for several years but could not find anyone who knew where he lived. In our home, he is known as uncle SG. Our association with him started when he and my father worked in the late 1970s and early 1980s for the Regional Cooperation for Development, and he was the “SG”, the secretary general, of that multi-governmental organisation between Pakistan, Iran and Turkey. I was very young at the time but I still have a few precious memories of a man, whose voice, tone and style would mesmerise everyone in his audience. Years later, when I met another friend of my father, Ambassador Khizar Niazi and his family in Canberra, I heard the stories of how everyone, regardless of age, nationality or rank, would be in his spell of eloquence, knowledge and depth of understanding. It did not matter if you cared about history, politics, language or art, there was a sheer pleasure in just listening to him.
My personal memories of Masood are few but like millions of Urdu lovers, my real association with him is through his books, in particular Awaz-e-dost. As one reads the rich prose of the book, it seems as if each word has been chosen, polished, refined and then placed in a position that could not be taken by any other word. The book for me has been both a window into our nation’s history and a connection in time with the generation of civil servants who cared not just about the daily motions of the job, but the task of nation-building and the nation’s place on the grand map of time and history.First published in late 1972, Awaz-e-dost is also a reflection of our society, where finding individuals that think and care is getting increasingly difficult. In a society marred both by deep intolerance and gross incompetence, where voices of reason are often drowned in shouting matches on TV, his words are even truer today than they were 45 years ago. Unfortunately, in a reflection of our times, these days one cannot find copies of his books in bookstores easily. His words, like real people with souls, are becoming extinct. More recently, Masood made a very personal impact on me through his other books. In Safar Naseeb and Loh-e-Ayyam, he tells stories of his travels, his observations and his analysis of the world around him. Whether those surroundings were the majestic peaks of Karakorum or the early events of the Iranian Revolution, he is able to grip the reader both with the story and the prose.

I have been fortunate to travel the world, from the Arctic circle to the Amazon jungle, and have met people and seen places that have shaped me and my worldview. Every now and then, when I have a bit more time, I try to write about my travels in Urdu, and while I can never claim the prowess of Masood, I know in my heart, that my ability to write and my desire to share the wonders of high mountains and deep jungles, and grace of ordinary people and the smiles of innocent children, is influenced by his writing. Despite my regret of not meeting him when I was an adult, this bond of a mentor and mentee will always keep uncle SG a very special person in my life.

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