The Zafar I knew: Shared childhood, shared tastes, and a 60-year friendship

We shared a sense of defiance but over the years, Zafar matured more than I did, writes Faraz Ahmad

Former National Herald editor-in-chief Zafar Agha passed away on 21 March
Former National Herald editor-in-chief Zafar Agha passed away on 21 March

Faraz Ahmad

Zafar Agha was my childhood friend, just a year younger than me. We grew up together, though I lived with my parents in Delhi while he grew up in Allahabad, in the Nawabi Imambada of his ancestors in the care of his dear father Nawab Mahmud Agha. I called him 'mamu abba', since he was the oldest of all my mamus (maternal uncles) in Allahabad.

Allahabad was my nanihal (mother's home) and so, every vacation or during extended holidays, we children would depart for Allahabad with my mother, sometimes my father. While there were lots of children around, somehow I gelled with Zafar alone. Perhaps because both of us were rather finicky and choosy about our company and choice of food as well. 

As we grew into early teenage, we would sneak out to watch all kinds of stupid movies. Around 1967 or so, one of my mamus was getting married during Dussehra festivities in town. Using the excuse of watching Dussehra chowkies, we would go out and watch night shows. With the women of the house too busy, no one would notice our nocturnal escapades. Finally, one of my mamus caught us returning home after midnight and thus ended our life of fun during that wedding.

We laughed about it later in life, once we’d grown up.

Zafar was a much more sober and serious person than me. He would animatedly discuss movies with me, even those I had not seen. For instance, I was too young in Delhi to be allowed to watch Dev Anand’s immortal Guide. I watched it much later, and thanked Zafar for guiding me towards a good movie. It showed the level of appreciation he had cultivated at such a young age.

Zafar was a good student at school unlike me who failed twice, first in Class 8 and then a compartment during my board exams of Class 11. Thanks to that, in 1969, I barely cleared Class 11 except for English, when I was bedridden for the entire year following an operation to correct my polio deformity. Yet my parents’ insistence on seeking a career in medicine sent me to Allahabad to do my intermediate science. My sister Shehla came along too, but while she fared well at Crosswaite Women’s College, I failed, thanks to CAV College teaching me science in Hindi. 

While I was in my second year of intermediate, Zafar was in his first intermediate year at the Anglo Bengali Inter College, also studying science to pursue the same medical course. I don’t know why he gave it up. 

By 1970, I had chosen to study English honours at Aligarh Muslim University. Zafar too settled on English literature at the prestigious Allahabad University, followed by an MA in English that we both did at our respective universities. That was the time when we started maturing, reading serious stuff. We read Urdu poets like Faiz and Sahir and Majaz, and Urdu novels like Khuda Ki Basti (a critique of Pakistani society) and Quratullain Hyder’s Aag Ka Dariya (River of Fire) and Udas Naslain by Abdullah Husain.

We also read Munshi Premchand and Krishan Chander. We had animated discussions on Kafka, Camus and Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf apart from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. This was when Zafar would visit Aligarh, where both our uncles taught at the university, or when I landed up in Allahabad for vacations at my nani’s (maternal grandmother) place.

Both Zafar and I were attracted to student politics through leftist ideology. I joined the SFI, he perhaps joined the AISF. We had to hunt a lot before we both decided on journalism — not due to any focused effort but by sheer chance and situation. Yes, we shared a sense of defiance but over the years, Zafar matured more than I did, becoming more tolerant and more accepting towards friends and acquaintances. I, meanwhile, remain a prickly character, even after my 72nd birthday last December.

There was another marked difference between him and me. I contracted polio in my infancy and logically should have been physically vulnerable unlike Zafar, born a healthy child. But he had gastric problems through his youth, though he never lost his spirit. 

That was why I called him on his mobile last Tuesday to ask him to come to the Press Club. The phone kept ringing and there was no response. I forgot this altogether, little knowing he was in the ICU at Fortis Hospital. The next day, too, passed this way until Thursday, when a mutual friend, Murali Krishnan, telephoned me from Fortis and informed me about Zafar’s health.

The rest is history well-known to all of us who knew him and participated in his funeral. Goodbye, dear Zafar. 

Faraz Ahmad is a veteran freelance journalist. This piece was originally published by Newslaundry and has been modified slightly. You will find the unedited piece here

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