Zoay passed away on July 10/2014 at his home in Lahore. Death was caused by dehydration. No doctor was called. He was buried without participation of any of his friends, peers or fans. His estranged daughters came to know of it four days later.
I do not recall where and when i met Zoay, but he was a constant part of my environment from early 70s when i was studying Journalism at the University of the Punjab, working for Mothly Dhanak, and writing for Pakistan Television. At any of those places, Zoay would appear with a big enthusiastic smile, and give me something like a wild flower or a stone or a piece of wood. Often, he would not say anything, and sometimes just a word or two, like: ‘Ye dekho, Didi’ (look at this, Didi), and then another enthusiastic smile, and Zoay is gone.
Zoay was in the ‘NCA Crowd’, meaning a student, teacher or graduate of the National College of Arts. My recollection of his earliest paintings is that of a sparse canvas and a neutral pallet projecting rather sedated female and male shapes. By mid-Seventies, in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s time, Zoay’s work began to show a lot more color and detail. That’s also the time when he managed to lose his umpteenth job as a paid artist with another of Pakistan’s cultural institutes, and this time for creating an invitation card with so much detail that no one from the whole line of officials could catch all the vulgar insults and abuses that were intricately woven into his artful design.
In those days, Zoay, without doubt, was the most refreshing, beautiful and pleasant person i knew. I’m not sure why he began calling me ‘Didi’, a Hindi word for older sister, but i liked it. To me, he was the ‘flower-child’ with his shoulder-length hair and that happy smile. Some common friends told me that Zoay had a real mean streak, but i had never experienced it. I knew, he could be angry, and that his anger could find expression in violence. One time, he became upset, and within a few minutes, he cut open with a kitchen knife over half a dozen of his most recent paintings. In those situations, it was impossible to talk to Zoay or to deter him from doing what he had decided to do. It was as if a part of him knew no language, only instinct could access him.
Actually, i don’t recall ever having a discussion with Zoay on anything. His political positions, consistent and clear, were expressed in his art and in his actions, and in all the ways that he lived his life. If he felt appalled by the imposition of Muslim Arab culture over indigenous cultures and languages of Indus Valley then it would be reflected in most things that he would do, and in the symbols and motifs he would choose. Zoay had no ‘social self’, and he could easily see where others had propped up theirs. As well, he had no illusions in political ideologies or in the capabilities of the functionaries of the art world. None of it could take away his smile.
But Zoay’s seemingly innocent happy smile could easily turn mischievous, enough to cause some real havoc. One time, i was at Lahore Television station when Zoay arrived, and said:
‘Didi, ye dekho’, he had on his palm a brown little seed-like thing.
‘Ye kia hai?’ What is it, i asked.
‘Tum dekhna chahti ho sabz ghaas per kheltay hoye sfaid khargosh?’ You want to see green grass and white rabbits playing over it, he asked.
‘Sabz ghaas pe sfaid khargosh?’ I could actually see white fluffy rabbits tumbling on fresh green grass under the golden sheen of an early morning sun. ‘Haan’. Yes, i said, for sure.
‘Tau ye lo’, he offered me that brown seed with his most generous smile.
‘Ye hai kia?’ But what is it, i asked, taking it.
‘Aala cheez hai’, it’s a good thing, he assured me.
‘Pakki baat?’ Are you sure?
‘Buss nigl lo’, just swallow it, he said.
‘No, not without water’, i said, stalling for time.
Zoay instantly got up, and went away.
I looked at the brown plasticky thing, and decided that it’s probably a new tranquilizer; various brands were available over the counter at that time.
He returned with a glass of water, and offered it to me in an obedient manner.
I downed it.
He sat there for a few minutes, and watched me like a concerned and proud mother whose young daughter was about to give birth to her first baby. Then he got up, and said:
‘Didi, aik tau chhatt pe na jana, koi chakoo nazar aye tau uss ko na uthana, aur yaad rakhna ke cheezain itni qareeb nahin jitni nazar aati hain’, don’t go on the roof, if you see a knife don’t pick it up, and remember that things are not as close as they seem.
And before i could say anything, he was gone.
Minutes later, when i got up from my seat, things began to change and shift. Shapes were melting into other shapes, colors had become sharp and intense, voices were either drowned whispers or screeching noises. That was a spectacular beginning of an unstoppable 22-hour death-trip caused by a single drop of acid. Too intense for ordinary grass and mere rabbits.
After, Zoay kind of disappeared.
Decades later in 2006 in Lahore, i asked him why he gave me LSD without telling me, he said:
‘Main ne socha koi baat kernay ke hogi’, i thought we’ll have something to talk about, he said.
‘Mujhe bataye baghair?’ Without telling me?
‘Patta nahin tum khaati ya nahin’, wasn’t sure if you would have taken it, he said.
Simple Zoay logic.
Nothing was simple in 2006-7. I was shocked out of my depth to find that the ‘flower child’ of the Seventies, my beautiful friend, had turned into an aspiring Angel of Wrath living in his own prison of porn and filth. I heard of many outrageous things that Zoay had done in the past decade or so, including when he went with a ‘peace’ delegate from Pakistan to India in a ‘peoples’ move toward the unity of the Punjab, one of his own cherished goals, where he ended up going on stage and literally pissing over the ceremony and the audience. I found that he was now capable of talking without a pause for 10-12 hours, spewing abuses and unthinkable insults over anyone, friend or foe, who may have offended him for a brief moment. This was Zoay’s weathered response to his life in an increasingly regressive religious environment that had nurtured un-reason and violence around him. Because of who and how he was, he could be spotted as the ‘other’ from miles. This kept him on edge. And we know how lonely and unrewarding that can be. He had become insufferable, and only a couple of friends in Lahore could ‘tolerate’ him. Akram Varraich with the lightness of his spirit, and Shahid Mirza with his apparent sanity, provided Zoay with the sustenance to continue on and to connect with the rest of the world.
I also noticed that the word ‘Didi’ had gone out of commission, and now i was just ‘Canadian’. Zoay also impressed upon me the following: He makes so much money from selling his paintings that it would be impossible for me to make from my writing, that he is an established world-renowned artist while few people know my work, and, that having been born in 1947 he was even older than me. I was delighted on all three counts since all three were true, but it was sad that none seemed to have added happiness to his personal life. He had two estranged daughters from a disastrous marriage, and a sister and brother he lived with. But other than his Italian wife who he mentioned with fondness, he seemed to have had no memorable close relationship.
At times, he was still humorous and happy. In a ‘brainstorming’ session with Akram on how to present my novel ‘Skeena’, Zoay came out with many incredible suggestions including to publish the novel on a 40-yard thaan or stack of cloth. Why? To increase the readership of a Punjabi novel by making it available at the many clothing stores across the Province in addition to the few bookshops. People, specially women, could come and say ‘give us a yard and a half of Skeena’ to make a shirt, the shopkeeper could say ‘No, no, i can’t cut it in the middle of a chapter, you have to buy 3 yards to begin with’. ‘But i don’t need 3 yards’, and so, ‘i can’t cut the chapter’. Here, concerns such as the ‘privileged class’ aspect of the necessity to buy the whole 40 yards of cloth to read a novel were brought forth. At this point, the possibility to publish the 350 pages on three yards, or on one, was entertained but found to be too stressful to the eye and so bordering over ageism.
But it was again Zoay’s art that fascinated me the most. Now, he was painting a provocative woman with sexually explicit gestures and sharp colors, and she was right in-the-face of the moderate-to-extreme Muslim sensibilities of the local establishment/s. No more of the beautified Mughal-miniature-inspired busy paintings of Bhutto’s time nor the reclamation of hidden human shapes in trees by carving wooden sculptures in Zia’s era that Zoay partly spent in Europe. This was a sexual, culturally-rooted, strong superwoman made to counter/attack/protest the ruling macho-Muslim-male psyche; a woman that only a man could have created. No wonder, his art sells in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad where few paintings are being sold. His art sells to almost keep up with the religious fanaticism in Pakistan. It is so because each of Zoay’s frames work to destruct the prevalent religious and social constructs, a process that does not happen enough in Pakistan’s art and literature. I can think of many poets who created art of resistance, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ahmad Faraz, Fahmida Riaz, Kishwar Naheed, Ustad Daman, Habib Jalib, but i can’t think of an artist other than Zoay, and Shahid Mirza in some of his newer creations. That could be because i’m away for so long i may not know, and so my hope is that someone will bring up some names, and then Zoay will not be alone in this category.
At this time, there is little or no acknowledgement of Zoay’s death or life in the art channels of Pakistan’s mainstream media or cultural institutions, but with his sprawling creative contributions it’ll be hard to push aside his work from Pakistan’s history of art or of resistance.
A part of me is Zoay. The part that insists on seeing rabbits playing on green grass in the unforgiving harshness of urban social concrete.
In 2007, i was chastising Zoay about the condition of his bad health, and he said that he hoped that i would write his obituary, and i had said that i would if he was to create an epitaph or a design of an epitaph for me. He had agreed. So, here’s the obituary, though i don’t see no epitaph or a design of it. But that’s all for the best, because i would have seriously minded another stance of his colorfully contorted nude puppet of a bold female figure on my grave.