May issue 2009
The Sage is No More
A couple of weeks back, I had two friends with the first name Sabihuddin. Both were honourable, upright and thorough professionals. Both had a brain haemorrhage and, as fate would have it, I have lost both within a span of 30 days. I am not telling you an uncanny story, it is true. How I wish it wasn’t so.
Today, I am not going to talk to you about my journalist friend Sabihuddin Ghausi because you have heard about him from Amir Zia last month. Today, I shall talk about my best friend Justice Sabihuddin Ahmed, the sage.
I first came to know him in 1965 when he had come to our school to collect his sister Mehrunnisa, who was my class-mate at St Mary’s Convent High School in Sukkur. It was the Golden Jubilee function of our school and Sabih was standing there with his shirt half out of his trousers. I started talking to him and quietly pulled out the rest of his shirt. He smiled and did not protest. I thought, “Ah, a pacifist teenager!”
Although he became judge of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, he never cared about his clothes and appearance. He was a man of substance, who was above mundane things like protocols and wealth. Sabih hated to throw his weight around, which his official position granted him, and would get irritated upon finding the so-called VIPs doing so. He would send the police patrol back as soon he returned from the office and never used it for private visits, even when he was the acting governor. Though this may not be of much consequence, in a society where we are pushed around on the road by protocol police patrols, such examples are few and far between.
What made Sabih indifferent to ceremony was his family upbringing. I remember that his father Wajihuddin Ahmed, who was a CSP officer, used to send his four children to school on bicycles and would not allow them use of the official car. Mehrunnisa was the only girl in Sukkur who would pedal herself to school.
Sabih was a well-read man who could talk on almost any topic with references. His grandfather, Salahuddin Ahmed, is one of the most revered names in the history of Urdu literature. My father Shahzada Ayaz had once told me that Maulana Salahuddin (for some reason he was called Maulana Salahuddin, although he was not a clergyman), spent much of his fortune on publishing literary magazines from Lahore. “Getting published in these magazines,” he said, “would immediately establish a writer in Urdu literature.”
Our common interest in debating, literary, social, philosophical and political issues brought us very close during college days. We would read some new book and try to impress other students. In those days, fellow students could be easily impressed by intellectual capabilities and not by worldly possessions. Nobody cared about what you wore, whether you came to college on foot, on a cycle or by car.
It was this inherited selflessness which helped Sabih in deciding to accept the offer to become a judge of the Sindh High Court. Both, his wife Neelo and I, were against this decision because the salary of a judge at that time was not even one quarter of the money Sabih was making as an established lawyer. My view was that he had to feed and educate his three children. His family’s standard of living went down once he became a judge and without the help of his father, who was then working for the UN, I wonder how he would have coped.
Nobody can dispute his honesty as a judge. About the misuse of official facilities, Sabih always had one example to quote: “The tradition I revere is that Justice Abdur Rashid had emptied the ink from his pen the day he retired because it was from the official inkpot.” Once, we had to go quite far for a lunch and five of us were finding it hard to fit in my small car. I suggested that he should take his roomy official Camry, which was given to him as chief justice. He declined saying that his staff car could only be used for official purposes and that we should try to squeeze in my car all the same. I loved him for this and till today feel honoured to have enjoyed the friendship of such a principled man.
Sabih had a very sharp analytical mind, a quality which was widely appreciated by his friends and the legal community. This helped most of us sort out our thoughts no matter what we discussed with him, even if we begged to differ. Perhaps, he developed this ability to question every proposition because he had an affinity for Socratic argument, when we were in college. On his last birthday, I gave him Amartya Sen’s Argumentative India as a present, and wrote: “Argumentative India for a genetically argumentative Sabih.” Yes, it must be in the genes of the family because this quality is shared between his father, at least one brother, his daughter Sanaa, and sons, Barrister Salahuddin and Ramizuddin.
His habit of thoroughly analysing each proposition made him one of the finest legal brains of the country. Most senior lawyers and judges of the superior courts acknowledge him as an authority on the constitution of Pakistan and his ability of interpreting its true spirit in historical judgments. Being an old time leftist and human rights activist, he was always concerned about the rights of the have-nots. Once when I was debating with him about the role of the judiciary in political cases, he said politicians, at times, settle their political disputes by using the judiciary instead of other political and democratic means. “I think even if I can provide a bail or relief to a poor man who is held without any charges in a day, I have done my job and made a small contribution in providing justice to the people who have nowhere to go,” Justice Sabihuddin pointed out to me in all his humility. It was perhaps his humility and love for humanity that made him loveable. For the first time in the history of reference at the Sindh High Court, senior lawyers say that even the otherwise composed judges were unable to control their sentiments and wept during his reference.
But when I was trying to gulp down the lump in my throat and wipe the tears away, sitting through the reference held for him, I could not help but think, “Death is blind — 60 is no age to go.” It changes the state of matter in a nano-second and there you are, dust to dust. Sabih, my friend, died on April 19, the same day when his friend and my first wife, Najma, had expired 13 years ago. Again, uncanny isn’t it? He is buried in the east of the same graveyard where Najma was laid by me, next to his mother. Both were fond of sitting through long evenings and reciting Faiz, Ghalib and Sahir. If there is any life after death, as people generally believe, they both can start from where they left off 13 years ago. The only difference is, I am going to miss it.