Pakistan was born in Lahore, in 1947, in the neo-colonial, palatial house belonging to Sir Fazl-e-Hussain, a Punjabi politician and a loyal subject of the British Colonists.
The first image that comes to my mind is that of the silver-haired Rafi Peer, who had the looks of a Patrician. The actor, director and playwright, Rafi Peer, towered over all the other radio producers and, I might add, actors. In those days he was still known as Rafi Peer. It was some years later that he changed his surname to Peerzada.
Peer Sahib would never tap his cigarette on the cigarette packet, as was the wont of all the stylish smokers of that era. During rehearsals he would tap his cigarette on the microphone, hanging in front of him, before putting it in between his lips. I, as well as the callow young generation of my acquaintance, was awe-struck in his presence.
Other than Peer Sahib, I remember two performers with great affection: the girl with the golden voice, Mohini Das, later to be known as Mohini Hameed, and the versatile actor Muhammad Hussain. Mohini Das’ metier was playing the ingénue in a tragedy. Her memorable performance in a play called Akhiyan (written and directed by Peer Sahib) haunted listeners for generations. Radio bosses wasted her voice by over-using it in all kinds of inconsequential broadcasts, even making her announce “Mandi Ke Bhau” (Market Rates).
As for Muhammad Hussain, he deserves a whole chapter in the radio annals. He could produce many voices and many accents. He could be the tragic lover and the doting uncle within the span of a page. He often played two or three parts in a play. Unschooled and untutored, he possessed a remarkable sense of timing. There were times when his eyes drifted from the page, but he never lost any time in looking for the written words; he would improvise with perfect ease. The entire galaxy of seasoned radio actors were stationed in Lahore for the first year of Pakistan’s existence; Muhammed Hussain outclassed them all.
I used to be a ‘voice’ in those days — the odd town-crier or, occasionally, the deliverer of one line: “Lunch is served Sir.” In spite of my intense efforts I was never given a speaking part of any consequence. There were many actors on the payroll of the Broadcasting Service known as “staff artistes”. They were all experienced actors and it was only right that sizeable parts were distributed among them… I think I was fortunate enough to have been chosen as a “voice”. That was the title given to me when I signed the receipt for a ten rupee cheque given to me after my first broadcast.
Pakistan Hamara Hai was the first jingoistic feature programme launched from Lahore towards the end of 1947. It was a daily programme replete with Iqbal’s most did active couplets. Many ‘voices’ were used in it. I was lucky enough to find myself in the cast once a week. I earned, on an average, forty rupees a month, which was not a princely sum, but it enabled me to complete my final year at the University without being a burden on my father’s meagre resources.
Exhortative, impassioned, I declaimed whatever text was given to me. No director — there were many — told me to take it easy. Fervour was the order of the day and I learnt nothing, but Radio became my first love.
I left Lahore towards the end of 1949 and returned seven years later to attend to my father who had suffered a stroke known technically as ‘coronary thrombosis’. Miraculously, my father recovered, but I had to stay on to collect enough money to be able to afford an air ticket back to England where I was trying (like hundreds of others) to make a living as a professional actor. I directed an ambitious Shakespeare production in the hope of raising a few pennies but what I earned could barely pay for the expensive cigarettes I had become addicted to. I turned to Radio, or rather to Nizami Sahib.
The chubby, corpulent head of Radio Pakistan Lahore, Mahmood Nizami, was one of the most charismatic personalities in the broadcasting hierarchy of Pakistan. He was a man who combined the manner of Friar Tuck with the mind of AJP Taylor. Nizami Sahib was one of the few top men who had not come out of the Ahmed Shah Bokhari school of thought, by which I mean that he had not graduated from Government College Lahore.
Ahmed Shah Bokhari, or ASB, as he was known, had been the Controller General of All India Radio and, during his reign, had recruited the cream of the Ravians: Rashid Ahmed, Noon Meem Rashid, Somnath Chibb, to name but three. These worthies had all imbibed the verve and wisdom of ASB, if not his wit. Nizami Sahib was the product of Islamia college Lahore. He had acquired his intellectual prowess in the surrounds of Arab Hotel, the famous slip-shod café frequented by the likes of Akhtar Shiranee and Charagh Hasan Hasrat.
Nizami Sahib had written an absorbing book on Iqbal. It was Ijaz Batalvi’s contention that Nizami Sahib would have written at least half a dozen penetrating books on Indo Muslim history if he had not been so occupied with the affairs of his dearly loved buffalo. I shall tell you about that buffalo on another occasion.
The most endearing aspect of Nizami Sahib’s personality was the disarming manner in which he helped people who, he knew, were desperately in need of work. He would scratch his shiny, bald head and ask them if they could be so kind as to oblige him by preparing broadcastable material on social hygiene, new developments in mathematics, Hegelian philosophy, or whatever.
He spoke very fast. I don’t think I have ever come across anyone who could pack more words in one breath. Words poured out of his mouth with the rapidity of a sten-gun, and yet he remained articulate. Many people tried to imitate him but they all ended up jabbering incoherently. Only Ijaz Batalvi perfected the knack of Nizami-esque gibberish.
Having heard of my RADA background he invited me to his office and after cracking a few jokes said he was wondering if I could come to his aid. Could I pick thirteen plays which reflected various stages of the development of Western drama, a package that could form a ‘drama quarter’. (In Radio Pakistan’s parlance a ‘quarter’ meant three months.) He really made me feel that I would be helping him out. It did not occur to me at the time that Nizami Sahib’s sole concern was for me not to feel that a favour was being granted to me.