Death of a benefactor–I have been orphaned again

Mohammed Wajihuddin

It was June 1994. Braving the scorching sun, I walked down from the bus stand near Nizamuddin police station to a beautiful white bungalow at a clean lane in Nizamuddin West, New Delhi. Clutching a folder that contained my CV and a bunch of letters to the editors published in national dailies, mostly in The Times of India, Patna edition, I walked up the marble stairs to reach the bungalow’s first floor office of Nation & The World fortnightly.

“Where does Zeyaul Haque sahab sit?,” I inquired from the peon. “He lives on the second floor and will be here soon. Wait for him here,” replied the peon, directing me to a sofa. While waiting there, I kept my eyes fixed on the brightly lit stairs between the first and second floor.

Around 15 minutes later, a tall, well-built middle-aged man with receding hairline and pleasant smile walked down the stairs.”I am interested in journalism,” I could barely utter before he asked me the purpose of visit. I followed him to his room. It was a big, airy room with windows opened to the road. It was divided into two parts by a long rack of books and files. Zeya sahab sat on a reclining chair with a wooden table before him where current issue of Time magazine and many other periodicals jostled for space with books, mostly new arrivals.

Putting my folder before him, I waited with bated breath for his reaction while he looked at the bunch of letters to the editor. Zeya sahab had worked with the Lucknow edition of The Pioneerand The Times of India–late Girilal Jain edited it then–and could tell grain from the chaff. Silently, I sent prayers that he found some merits in those passionate missives that I had once penned and got published. They were the trophies to prove that, given a chance, I might make something of my life.

After a few minutes of perusal, he looked at me, smiling. “You came at the right time. A benefactor of our company has sponsored two scholarships for trainee journalists for a year. We already have hired one. You could be the next. You will be paid a stipend of Rs 2000 monthly. If you are interested, join from next month,” he said. Andha chahe do aankh, goes a saying in Hindi, meaning, a blind person doesn’t need anything more than two eyes. While the peon brought tea for us, I visualised life in a lane that I was choosing so desperately.

Without informing my father back home in Bihar, I plunged into journalism. Zeya sahab became my mentor, my guru. Holding hands, he taught me how to take the baby steps in a field where competition was tough and merit alone mattered. Journalism till then had not lost its honour and media persons were respected. The conscience keepers of the nation were yet to be born and the band of paid pipers hardly existed.

Zeya sahab became a torchbearer for an anchor-less youngster like me. Alas, he too succumbed to Coronavirus complications on Thursday (April 22). He was 72 when he breathed last at a Delhi hospital.

Zeya sahab had made a reputation by sheer didn’t of hard work. Coming from a remote village in East Champaran, a backwater of Bihar, he had initially worked for the Urdu Daily Quami Awaz. His writing skills, his intellectual acumen and command over English language drew the attention of The Pioneer’s editor. Subsequently, he moved to The Times of India, Lucknow before reaching Delhi where he edited publications of the Russian Embassy.

A group of Muslims in mid-1980s and early 1990s had dreamed to found an English daily which could work as the community’s mouthpiece. Since they couldn’t shore up enough funds to start a daily, they settled for a fortnightly. Nation & The World was supposed to mirror aspirations, dreams, trials and tribulations of a community which believed the mainstream media was biased against it. Though the humiliating terms like godi media or pressitutes were not coined yet, the minorities had several complaints against the media. The fortnightly that Zeya sahab edited–he was Executive Editor while retired IAS and ex-VC of Aligarh Muslim University Saiyid Hamid was its editor and the moving force behind it–tried to become the ears and eyes of the community. It certainly could not live up to the high goals it had set for itself but it did play its role. The magazine died with Saiyid Hamid a couple of years ago. Nobody knows what happened to the corpus and other properties the company owned from donations from the community.

Aftab and I were trainees under the scholarship programme while Sajid and Ziya Us Salam were staffers. A U Asif assisted Zeya Sahab. So the team of six brought out a fortnightly that sat alongside the giant like India Today at some of the newspaper and magazine stalls in Delhi and elsewhere. We were not competing with anyone. We were trying to stick our necks out. Since my entry to the profession was backed more by passion than the wide reading it requires, my language lacked the clarity and correctness, so important to survive here. I observed Zeya Sahab very closely and concluded that it was vast reading that had made his writing sparkle.

Having found the mantra, I began visiting pavement book sellers at Connaught Place and Daryaganj. Picking up second hand bestsellers in fiction, history, biographies and poetry, I began devouring them. One benefit of being young and bachelor is that you take risks. I had nothing to lose but my ignorance. With Zeya sahab, a father-like figure, taking me under his wings, I only had to strive to move ahead. Life had not given an option to buy a return ticket. I had to either sail or perish.

Apart from putting in long hours at work, another trait that I learnt from Zeya sahab was his fetish for daily exercise. At the open- air gym in the building’s terrace, I did push-ups and picked up dumbbells. I would take milk, bananas and cornflakes in breakfast regularly while rajma and rotis from a Sardarji’s dhaba formed lunch. My roommate at Julena, a middle class locality near Jamia Millia Islamia, and I cooked our own dinner on a kerosene-powered stove. My daughters don’t believe that once I could make and bake round chapatis.

As the year-long training period neared its end, Zeya Sahab became a bit worried about my future. One of his journalist friends, Sharmaji, even found me a little writing’s job at a politician’s house in the leafy Lutyens’ Delhi. Sharmaji and Zeya sahab would speak in Bhojpuri which also had a lot of slang. Though soft-spoken, Zeya sahab would get angry at bad writing, especially when those so-called scholars sent in badly written unsolicited pieces for publication. Throwing them into the dustbin below his table, he would curse at the system that produced such “scholars”.

Never to dance to the commands of politicians, I quit the job with the senior politician in a week. After all, it was against my mizaj or temperament to do bidding of politicians that had prevented me from taking a shot at the Civil Services Exam. The rebel in me could have found some utterances nowhere else except in journalism. Zeya sahab was among the first well-wishers who believed in me.

After quitting the magazine, he worked for an NGO, Institute of Objective Studies. Since he didn’t know how to market himself, he didn’t get the recognition that was his due.

He encouraged me to the hilt when I set out on an uncertain journey to Mumbai without a Godfather in the big, strange city. He lived long enough to see me work with some of India’s best newspapers and editors.

Zeya Sahab, you never took anything from me for so much love, encouragement you gave. You were a selfless, noble soul. You left little early. Today I feel as if I have been orphaned again. I will miss you, Zeya Sahab. RIP.

Mohammed Wajihuddin, a senior journalist, is associated with The Times of India, Mumbai. This piece has been picked up from his blog