Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Adam Nayyar: a tribute

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I first knew Adam Nayyar back in 1985. I met him in Geoffrey Moorhouse's book To the Frontier and immediately took a great liking for him. He was, Moorhouse wrote, an anthropologist with a doctorate from Heidelberg with a tremendous sense of humour that immediately struck me as unmistakably Lahori. From that account Adam also came across as a mimic and a man of the greatest erudition.

In 1983, when Moorhouse was in Islamabad to write his book, Adam was working for Lok Virsa. Their meeting took off on a rather sour note with Adam roundly berating Moorhouse for being an 'unregenerate imperialist' come to Pakistan to 'wallow in nostalgia for the days of the Raj'. I thought that an exaggeration. Now, three decades later, when I know this good man well enough, I know that he would indeed have said that and more.

Moorhouse says that they may never have met again had the farewell not been typical a la Adam Nayyar. Just before driving off, Adam stuck his head out of the car window and 'gave the sort of absent-minded salute that belonged to well-bred British officers alone' and said, 'Right, Corporal. Stand at ease, now.' The mimicry according to Moorhouse was 'perfect, the voice so uncannily right'.

That was when I liked Adam Nayyar. Then a perfect nobody, I could never imagine I would one day be able to call him a friend — after just a single meeting too, he who had featured in the best travel book of the year 1984. Moorhouse obviously took to him for they met again and Adam and his German wife Doris took him up to Nurpur in the hills outside Islamabad.

I never forgot Adam Nayyar after that. For one, it was a unique name and secondly as time went by I got to know more and more of his work. His speciality was our local music of which I knew pathetically little. But I also knew that he had linguistic and allied anthropological work to his credit. It was late in 2002, nearly two decades after I had first met him in the book that I called him to talk to him about Baltistan. He was still working with Lok Virsa. We met in his home somewhere in Islamabad shortly before noon and it was as if we had known each other forever. Doris was gone; it was indulgent, generous Lucia from Spain.

His Punjabi gave him away to be what I had suspected from the first day: a true blue Lahore (from Misri Shah). He did indeed have a riotous sense of humour and a laugh to go with it. As we sat down in a lounge that had every sign of belonging to an anthropologist, he asked what I would like. I said tea and he gravely looked at his watch to announce that it was almost noon and time to properly water ourselves. That we proceeded to do.

There is one unmistakable mark of the guru, of the master of his art, of the teacher who has reached the zenith of erudition. In the presence of such a person, one need only ask a question and knowledge bursts forth without hindrance. Such a one does not pull punches, in a manner of speaking. He lets you have it all. And so for nearly five hours Adam Nayyar held me in thrall. When I left his home later that afternoon, it was as if I had received a PhD crash course in the anthropology of Baltistan.

With his sense of humour, Adam came across as a natural teacher. His discourse was peppered with amusing analogies and anecdotes. Explaining the pronunciation of a particularly Balti word, he produced the guttural qahf sound and glibly connected it with a Lahori cuss word. It was almost as if he did not take his erudition seriously. But then I realised that in a country where every nobody takes himself so very seriously Adam Nayyar was a breath of fresh air.

He was so certain of his expertise in his field that Adam did not have to pretend to take himself seriously. He was not threatened by the likes of me, or indeed by anyone else. The confidence that comes from a profundity of knowledge was what made Adam's discourse shine. That was what held me spellbound for the afternoon.

We briefly talked of his time in Lok Virsa and I learned he was working under a sham 'expert' of a boss whose greatest bugbear was Adam's expertise. Adam talked of transferring to the Pakistan National Council of the Arts — to which he shortly afterwards did go. I was surprised how someone of his training and expertise have not reached the top slot at Lok Virsa and realised that men like Adam Nayyar earn what they have through dint of honest hard work and genuine output, not by pimping to 
the needs of those more powerful than themselves.

This good man, Adam, kept his head down and worked away while the pygmies around him bowed, scraped and apple-polished to remain in positions that they did not deserve. In twenty years or even less, the names of men who benighted Lok Virsa for more than a quarter century or those who were the bane of PNCA will be lost. But that of Adam Nayyar will live on in the work he leaves behind.

That day in Islamabad we parted with promises of meeting often. But the drudgery of making a living kept me away and we met once more at a function at NCA, Lahore. I told Adam and Lucia they had to come home with us for I needed to 'avenge' that one afternoon in Islamabad. But they had to drive back to Islamabad that day and I was left thirsting for this brilliant man's company.

When we do not see friends for long periods, there is always the thought that there is time yet. That one day when life has slowed down a bit and there is time on our hands, we shall meet and bask in the other's brilliance. That is how I had always seen my inability to meet up again with Adam.

It was from friend Shahid Nadeem's column in Aaj Kal (August 9) that I learned of the passing away of that most precious of men Adam Nayyar. I called Shahid to ask if there was another one of the same name. But no, it was the one and only, the inimitable, the unsurpassable Adam Nayyar that so many of us knew and whose mere presence we valued. He who had decades of work left in him was deceived out of it by lymphoma that that gave him less than two weeks after being discovered.

I read Shahid's piece through. And then I wept. As much for my departed friend as for having denied myself the pleasure of his company more often. Rest in peace, dear friend. The pygmies who denied you your rightful place are already unknown. Long after their bones have turned to dust, your name will live on.


posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 9 October 2014 at 08:54, Blogger pilgrim said...

What ahomage from a friend ..reading it sounded the soul was commanding the pen ,not just mind .

At 9 October 2014 at 14:39, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

That was the way good old Adam was. That is the only way to remember him.

At 9 October 2014 at 21:49, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

Great man. Nice to know Adam Nayyar.


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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days