NOTE: A slightly longer version of this article was published in ‘The News on Sunday’, July 5 2009 – http://tinyurl.com/tns-doc – also uploaded at This wonderful doc (2) at the Dr Sarwar website . The title is borrowed from Ali Jafari’s tribute posted at the Dr Sarwar site which also contains contributions by I.A. Rehman, Dr Badar Siddiqi, S.M. Naseem, Eric Rahim, Salima Hashmi, Drs Anwar and Abdullah Mangi and Dr Asif Ali Hameedi and others.
She is not the grave-visiting sort. A white-haired dynamo with luminous eyes she pioneered teacher training and teaching English as a second language in large classrooms with limited resources. The activism she brought with her from Pratapgarh in UP, India, to Pakistan in the late 1950s has remained, nurtured and encouraged by the life partner she found.
Zakia met Sarwar after moving to Karachi from Lahore in 1961. The unconventional, dashing, long-limbed Allahabad-born doctor was known as the ‘hero of the January movement’. He came to Karachi after Partition and joined Dow Medical College. There, he started Pakistan’s first student union, catalysing the first nation-wide inter-collegiate students’ body. When the government ignored their demands related to fees, lab and hostel facilities, the students held a ‘Demands Day’ procession on January 8, 1953. Confronted by armed police, Sarwar tried to stop the students from surging ahead. Police opened fire. Seven students died on that ‘Black Day’. Several, including Sarwar, were injured.
Sarwar and his even taller older brother Akhtar were jailed (Sarwar received his final MBBS results in 1954 while in prison for a year) during the crackdown on progressive forces, after Pakistan and America signed a military pact.
Akhtar’s sudden death (pneumonia) in 1958 at the peak of his career devastated his circle of progressive writers, poets, activists and journalists. Sarwar, who had been particularly close to Akhtar, insisted that everyone get on with their work and not sit around mourning.
Zakia’s older brother Zawwar Hasan was also close to Akhtar. They had played field hockey for rival college teams in Allahabad, re-connecting as sports journalists in Karachi. Some years later, when Zawwar’s young children were ill, Zakia would take them to Sarwar’s clinic nearby.
Their romance included outings like seeing off the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz to receive the Lenin Peace Prize. “As a comrade, his relationship with Abba was an unspoken clear bond based on a shared understanding of the universal struggle for a just human order,” says Salima Hashmi, Faiz’s daughter.
Sarwar and Zakia married in September 1962, overcoming parental apprehensions about religious differences (Shi’a, Sunni). Neither was religious. Akhtar would have approved, as Zawwar did.
As their eldest child, one of my earliest memories is Zakia and other college teachers on hunger strike, demanding an end to the exploitation of teachers. Sarwar supported her against the muttered disapproval (‘women from good families out on the streets’), as always, giving her the space to develop her potential.
He practiced as a general physician for nearly fifty years from a modest clinic in a low-income area, treating struggling workers, journalists, artists and writers free. He was contemptuous of doctors who charged high fees, prescribing costly tests and medicines where less expensive ones would do. He helped launch the Pakistan Medical Association and its affiliated Medical Gazette – platforms that have played a significant role in Pakistan’s progressive politics.
Diagnosed with cancer in August 2007 (‘stage four’, pancreas, metastasis to the lungs), he remained characteristically calm and good humoured. “Look,” he reasoned, “everyone has to die. If this is how I have to go, so be it.”
He refused to give up drinking or smoking, reminding us of friends who died early despite giving up such habits. When a cousin’s mother-in-law was diagnosed with lung cancer, he asked wryly, “And does she also smoke?”
He defied doctors’ predictions of ‘maybe six months…’. “To look into the eyes of a killer disease, and yet not roll over is something that the bravest could envy,” wrote Zawwar in October last year.
Friends flocked to ‘Doc’, hosting parties at his home when he was too weak to go out. Emerging from anaesthesia after getting a blocked bile duct cleared this April, one of his first questions was about the Indian elections. At home, when his breathing became dangerously obstructed, doctors suggested suctioning out excess fluid in intensive care, with the risk of lung collapse and life support if the procedure failed. He waved his hand and pronounced, ‘No point, no point’.
He died peacefully in his sleep that night, half an hour after I kissed him goodnight. “Sleep well Babba,” I said.
“Goodnight,” he replied, clasping my hand back. “Go to sleep.”
Zakia now takes time out from her work to sit by his last resting place. It gives her peace.
This article was first published in HardNews, New Delhi – http://www.hardnewsmedia.com/2009/07/3060