Irfan Hussain – He Gave Us So Much

By Syed Jawaid Iqbal | January 2021


Irfan Hussain, the prolific columnist and author and, as per his own description, a global citizen, died recently in England at the age of 76. He was the son of Akhtar Hussain Raipuri. Irfan had discovered some years back that he was suffering from a rare cancer and was quite candid about it in his columns. Having served as a civil servant - he was culture secretary under Benazir Bhutto – and even a diplomat (he did a stint in Pakistan’s Washington embassy), Irfan wrote with the insights of an ‘insider.’ But he did it discreetly and lent his writings a distinct touch based on personal experiences. That is why his columns were so interesting and informative.

For many years, Irfan Hussain wrote for Dawn under the byline of ‘Mazdak’ and his thoughts and ideas were always appealing. Perhaps what originally prompted him to take up this byline was his criticism of General Ziaul Haq and his regime. However, it is also true that while Irfan was a supporter of Benazir Bhutto, his writings about her policies were quite scathing. The lady was even known to have expressed her displeasure with Irfan Hussain in this regard.

Born in Amritsar and having spent his formative years in Paris, Ankara and Karachi, Irfan had a balanced worldview and this was always conveyed through his pen. Besides Mazdak, he wrote under many other pen-names but for the last several years, he had been writing under his own name.
In 2012, he published a book – ‘Fatal Faultlines – Pakistan, Islam and the West.’ This was the only book he authored in his life though many more were expected from him.

Irfan Hussain led a varied life – a civil servant but not the typical kind. He was equally a connoisseur of the arts, music, culture and cuisine. In fact, he was an avid food critic and it did not matter to him which kind of food he was writing about - fine dining or just dhabas.

I had the pleasure of knowing Irfan Hussain and of benefiting from his incisive thoughts on many occasions. He had invited me to visit him in Sri Lanka and spend my holidays there. I had accepted his kind offer but unfortunately, couldn’t make it and partake his hospitality and enjoy the delicious food he was so known for cooking himself.

The last time we met was in Karachi at Anwar Maqsood’s place. There I saw a photograph on the wall which was taken at Anwar Maqsood’s wedding 50 years back. The old photo had Javed Jabbar, Shahid Sajjad, Anwar Maqsood, Irfan Hussain and Javed Ali Khan. When I saw the old photograph, I made another snap by asking the old friends to sit in the same order as in the photograph. Both photos are printed here and one can see what differences have occurred in everyone. Shahid Sajjad is not in the group because he died in 2014 while Irfan Hussain too will never be with us anymore.

Irfan is survived by his loving wife Charlotte and his son Shakir. Even in death, Irfan Hussain’s legacy of wit, intellect and companionship lives on and we are all beneficiaries because he gave us so much to think and ponder about.

What we loved and enjoyed in Irfan’s writings, we can never lose because he became so deeply a part of us. Perhaps, his son Shakir or one of his admirers will find the time and put together his newspaper articles in book form so that more people can enjoy the magic of his pen