“Please, Sir, you must come to class,” I remember saying to him one day in his office on campus, full of upturned books with their ribs creaking and papers as scattered as his hair. A number of solemn visitors were seated around his work table who fell silent as I entered. I resented them because they kept him from class.
“Sure. Please carry on. I’ll join you,” he had replied, nodding towards the company, and stubbing his cheap cigarette in a glass ashtray. He caught up with me in the corridor in his typical long strides, long hair streaming behind him, white shirt sticking out at the back of his perennial blue jeans. I wasted no time in asking him about references to what we were reading with him, not that Dr Hasan Zafar Arif was ever impressed with intellectualism. He responded nonchalantly with a string of names then turned towards me with a twinkle in his eyes and asked:
“But tell me, what are you going to do with this bourgeois education?”
This was the end of 1983 and the temperature on campus was hotter than Karachi’s second summer in October. Liberal left students were often beaten up by the armed right wing students who were gaining in strength under the worse military dictatorship the country had suffered. I knew that my teacher was always at the forefront negotiating flashpoints between students and warding off the use of arms, and yet, it kept getting worse and we expected classes to be suspended any time.
I did not respond to his query because I knew it was rhetorical and because I did not quite understand what he was asking me.
Despite his causal appearance, my teacher was a formidable mind, a theoretician who challenged you to come up with an argument against what you were being taught and not just reproduce it in tests and tutorials. His clipped British accent came from having spent years in the UK on his doctoral dissertation titled ‘An Elucidation on the Concept of Truth’, and he had recently returned from a post-doc at Harvard, working with the famous Professor Quine on analytical philosophy.
But I was only about twenty years of age then, hence the leader of my own revolution in a teacup. For leaving medical school to study philosophy at Karachi University, the family had first tried to have my head examined and had then disowned me. That was the flag I ran with at the time as one of Dr Arif’s most ardent, or nerdy, students. But he was a tough love kind of a guy and personal sagas cut no ice with him. Reluctantly, I appreciated that he never threw around credentials at us or ever talked down to his students. If he would only come to class. No one could foresee that we would be the last batch of students of philosophy that Dr Arif would ever teach at the University.
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That term ended and I was most disappointed with Dr Arif because it was clear he did not take us seriously at all. I had secured full marks, as had all others in our class of seven students, with one failure. I caught him once near the notice board where he had put up the mark sheet.
“Sir, this is not possible,” is all I had managed to articulate, pointing towards the mark sheet.
“Why is that?” He had responded absentmindedly.
“This is not serious grading, Sir,” I said lamely, and he looked like he had just woken up.
He laughed.“Are you being competitive, then? Do you wish me to raise your marks? You see how this is not logically possible,” he had said with smiling eyes and continued, as I shook my head.“And what do you intend to do later with this education?”
I remember stammering something about how I planned to go abroad for further studies, to England probably, although there were two more years to graduation.
“More studies?” he had remarked, “That is the best way to prolong adolescence”.
I remember smarting from his words and firming in my decision like a jelly about to set. After all, he was an accomplished guy.
This was already 1984 and things were getting worse by the day as the University took on the appearance of a battlefield. Soldiers entered the campus and all academic activity came to a standstill. The best teachers, among them Dr Arif, were issued warnings to lay off working with student groups. The charge against my professor of Analytical Philosophy was that he spent his evenings on campus sitting around the “thara” with students. He wrote back to the military commander to lay off of politics, which resulted in him being suspended from his teaching post and incarcerated for what we all assumed was a short period of detention.
The University was closed for an indefinite period so I gave up and went abroad.Dr. Arif stayed in prison for two years with no case registered against him and no trial.
I remembered him whenever I was praised by the British faculty for having read up on my primary sources and when I was praised for being meticulous with my arguments. It took me a lot of learning in development economics, critical historiography and several courses in the sociology of knowledge to figure out that all knowledge was historically and politically constructed by whoever was in power, that not all of it was to be consumed uncritically like Wimpy’s hamburgers.
I learnt from him that there was a universe out there that was larger than my personal star-bound ship. Dr Arif was my introduction to what it meant to be a socialist and that is what he remained for me over the years. Often, you could read about him changing political parties and activist movements, all of them unfortunate choices as far as I could understand, but his desire to do people’s politics was always explicit.
To my brilliant and courageous teacher who did not believe in bourgeois education,may you now rest in peace, your work is done.