This is the story of an artist who could not compromise on his principles in a metropolitan city like Karachi…
It was 27th day of March. The servant silently slid into my room, lit the lamp and placed the breakfast tray and newspaper on my side table. Lazily, I left the bed and had the first sip of my bed tea. The tea was served hot and steam could be seen coming out of it. Then, something caught my attention. On the surface, a tea leaf was floating which made me think as to why it did not settle like other tea leaves. Was it because it wanted to stand out or was it because it was protesting on hot water surface?
As I was browsing the newspaper, I received a call from my friend, Kamal who told me that our other class mate, Zulfi, an artist by profession, has been missing for the last three days and that his wife was very worried about him. I tried to console him but the very mention of Zulfi caused the image of tea leaf floating on hot water surface pop up in my mind.
Zulfi was born in a lower middle class family. His father, Fazal Din, was a line man and although he owned some acres of land in his village but due to water-logging, the land was rendered uncultivable. One day, he was on top of a pole, repairing lines when he heard a girl screaming. Some men were trying to kidnap her, oblivious of the fact that he was up there. Without wasting a single second, he jumped from the pole and started fighting the goons with his cutters and pliers. As he managed to get hold of one of them, his accomplice attacked him from behind with a razor sharp knife, inflicting a deep wound on his neck but that did not cause him to loosen his grip on the kidnapper. When the police finally approached, the goon was booked on kidnapping charges and Fazal Din was shifted to the hospital where he expired owing to excessive bleeding.
Fazal Din’s heroic death could not escape media’s attention. When the word finally reached his village, his wife, Reshma, took the news well but seemed worried about the future of her only son, Zulfi. The Government of Pakistan also decided to honor this act of valor with “Sitarae Jurrat”. But immediately after his death, her brother-in-law grabbed the land owned by her deceased husband and forced her to flee the village with her son, Zulfi. When she reached Karachi, she tried to knock the doors of justice but her plea was rejected on the grounds of insufficient documentary evidence. The urban life was getting tougher by the day for her so much so that she had to sell the medal for a meager amount. Luckily, she got work as a maid in Sheikh Rafiq Ahmed’s home, a local businessman. His wife was a kind lady who enrolled Zulfi in a public school. With the passage of time, Zulfi not only turned out to be a brilliant student but his drawing skills also got better and better.
After passing B.A. examinations with flying colors, he was accepted in The Department of Visual Arts in University of Karachi. Apart from studies, he started giving tuitions as well. Within a few days, Zulfi became the centre of attraction for all the teachers because of his intelligent questions. One day, during their study tour to the tomb of Jehangir, when all the students were busy painting the landscape, Zulfi stood with his blank canvas. When his teacher asked him as to why he was not painting, he replied that according to him, a good painting is created as a result of relationship between inner feelings and external stimuli. He often used to argue with his teachers and colleagues that a true artist is the one who realistically unveils those things in his/her paintings which a normal person normally ignores.
As the examinations were approaching, topics for final paintings were being finalized. The theme Zulfi chose to paint was that of Adam and Eve as pillars with the Universe in between with all its joys and sorrows. His teacher asked him to review his topic. Basically, nearly all his teachers thought him to be a non-conformist but he was not a revolutionary. The next topic that he came up with was that of a feudal lord torturing a peasant just because he did not vote for him. His teacher turned down his idea and instead suggested him to paint a scene showing refugees migrating to Pakistan with a glimmer of hope in their eyes.
After graduation, he received a one year scholarship for Chicago Institute of Arts from American Cultural Centre. When he reached there, he was awe-struck and observed a visible difference in the modes of expression at his alma mater and the institution in which he was presently enrolled. He availed the opportunity to interact with students from other countries as well and visited nearly all the art galleries.
Once during a class discussion, when a Hindu student from India alleged that Islam terms artists as infidels, the otherwise calm and cool Zulfi reacted sharply to it, so much so that the teacher had to intervene to settle the matter. At the end of the course, a study tour of America was arranged by the Institute in which Zulfi got the opportunity to observe American culture closely. One of his teachers even asked him to extend his stay in America, if he wished, owing to the lack of freedom of expression in Pakistan. In response to this offer, Zulfi explained that once he gets back to Pakistan; his mission was to expose the gross injustices that the down trodden segment of the society had to suffer at the hands of the ruling elite.
After coming back to Pakistan, he got a job in one of the top-notch advertising agencies of Pakistan through the reference of one of his teachers. Things started to get better. He tried to adjust himself in the new environment and all was going well, when one fine day, Zulfi resigned from the job owing to certain unethical practices that the agency was engaged in. Immediately after resignation, he met his teacher and asked why it is so that the people with the potential to bring about a change in the society are confined to bread and butter only. He frequently visited different tea houses where he used to discuss these issues with other intellectuals but was discouraged to learn that unlike him, others have succumbed to the pressures of the regimented society. Tired of wrestling with this inner conflict, he settled in his village quietly where he married his maternal aunt’s daughter, Zubaida, according to his mother’s wish.
Then, one day, an advertisement in the newspaper caught his attention. It was a project called “Vision Pakistan” initiated by the President of Pakistan aiming to project a soft image of Pakistan worldwide. He applied for the job, anxiously waiting for the results. His happiness knew no bounds when he finally received the offer letter from the President Secretariat. He felt as if this was what he always wanted to achieve and considered it as a good opportunity to prove his patriotism. Although he prepared some thirty paintings for the project, nine of them could be termed as master piece and were selected for an exhibition. His paintings got a mixed response from the print and electronic media. Most of the critics were of the opinion that his paintings reflected a socialist mind set as he used to highlight poverty, desperation, illiteracy which negated the presidential claims that the country was now on its way to progress and development.
After getting married, Zulfi settled with his wife in Karachi. After a year, they were blessed with a baby boy whom he named, Farrukh. But as the years passed by, his marital life became disturbed due to increasing expenses of his wife and subsequent demands for more money to spend. Now, he spent most of his time painting alone in his studio. He used to consider himself as a chimney whose vent has been choked so it could not throw the black smoke out. Then, finally one day, he decided to call it quits. He burnt his canvas and brushes and then left for an undisclosed location. When he did not return home after elapse of three days, his wife got worried and informed the police. The only clue about him that they got was from a truck driver who told them that three days back, he had seen a man running wildly with brushes and canvas in his hands, followed by children who were throwing stones at him, claiming him to be a mad man.
While all this was going on in Karachi, the very same day and time, in another part of the world, vultures from all over the world were gathered in the jungles of Africa to defend the allegations leveled against them by their counterparts, the eagles. The basic premise on which the eagles based their argument was that since vultures feed on dead meat and none of the birds does the same, therefore they should be forced to leave the jungle. The jackal was assigned the responsibility to represent the vultures. The last time such a large gathering of birds was observed was when atomic bombs were used in World War II and the birds decided to leave the planet terming it as unsafe for their offspring.
The jackal argued that the vultures feed over dead meat because of their instinctive ability, to which the falcon presented a counter-argument that they were not gathered over there to discuss instincts, instead claimed that initially, the vultures used to hunt their prey but later on started eating what was forbidden. It further elaborated that eating permitted food creates positive vibes in the body whereas eating forbidden food leaves a negative impact on one’s life. The wood pecker asked the vultures the reason for their interminable curiosity referring to their long flights at night and inquired whether it was due to their eating the forbidden food or was it because they were searching something.
After hearing all the arguments, the Old crow asked the eldest vulture to step forward and gave him an opportunity to defend his tribe. He drew similarity between man and vultures by explaining that a long time ago, a man settled underneath the tree who, with the passage of time became a hermit. One day, he hanged himself with the branches of the tree and as the vulture tried to untangle him with its beak, it tasted human blood for the first time. Since then, vultures have been feeding over dead creatures. He also came to know of the fact that of all creatures, it is the man who fears death as he wishes to remain immortal. As a child, he remains in the blissful world of ignorance but as he grows up, he experiences change and it is this fear of death that keeps him restless.
At this point in time, all the eagles unanimously asked the Old Crow to announce his decision to exile the vultures from the jungles of Africa. The eldest vulture did not resist and asked all his tribe to start leaving. But before leaving, he said that that there were two kinds of passion, constructive and destructive. Constructive passion elevates man to the level for which he was originally created but destructive passion causes him to make bombs and sow such things in the womb of Mother Nature, repercussions of which are experienced in the forms of natural calamities. Having said this, the vultures bid adieu to the jungle, leaving other birds awe-struck.
In our story, Zulfi defied the mantra “While in Rome, do as the Romans do” by refusing to participate in the rat race. In our society, such “abnormal” people are hard to find who could swim against the currents. He was recognizant of the impact of forbidden food on one’s life hence resisted tasting it till the very end. Such people may have lost a few battles but ultimately they win the war. Since time immemorial, the conflict between the good and the evil is going on and will continue till the end of this world.