The Passing of an Era:
Wing Commander Muzaffar Ali Syed

Gp Capt SM HALI writes an eloquent obituary for a well-known PAF educationist

Can storied urn call back that animated breath?
Can flattery soothe the dull cold ear of death?

These famous lines from Thomas Gray's 'Elegy written in a Country Church Yard' reverberate in my memory as I sit down in an attempt to eulogize Wing Commander Muzaffar Ali Syed. But he needs no eulogy for he was greater than life itself. It is a coincidence that as Cadets in 1970 at the PAF Academy these very lines commenced his first English lesson in our class. He asked me to recite the poem and as I came to the line 'The paths of glory lead but to the grave', I stumbled. The ever alert Muzaffar Saheb asked me where I had learnt my pronunciation? Being the son of a Linguistics and Phonetics professor, I was touched to the quick and replied, 'From my father!' 'Yes my son, it is your father who is the linguist and you have a long way to go', quipped Muzaffar Saheb.

My first impression was that Muzaffar Saheb was too much of a critic and found faults with everything. For my first declamation I was assigned to Syed Saheb's tutelage. When I submitted my script, he commented that it was a well-written script but the real challenge was in delivery. Having been the debating champion at PAF College Sargodha, I again took offence. But sensing the prick to my vanity, Syed Saheb explained that life is an endless process of learning. Nobody can claim that he has perfected an art or subject. There is always room to acquire more knowledge. Slowly there evolved a relationship for which I am forever grateful to him. He taught me English, poetry and public speaking but above all he taught me humility.

Having done his BA Honours in Persian and Masters in English, Muzaffar Ali Syed obtained commission in Pakistan Air Force in the Education Branch on 24 May, 1958 and commenced his career as Sub-Editor of the PAF's journal Shaheen. Soon he was transferred as an English Tutor to PAF Academy Risalpur, then a college. Scores of cadets passed through his able tutelage some of whom went on to achieve distinctions in Air Operations, Air Combat and Air Warfare but none forgot the basic lessons in English and the art of appreciating English Literature imparted by him. Having served at various training institutions of PAF, Muzaffar Ali Syed Saheb also imparted training briefly at Tehran and later at Saudi Arabia. His swan song in PAF was the Urdu Translation of PAF's official history. A masterpiece indeed. He retired in November 1986. For his meritorious services to Pakistan Air Force, the Government of Pakistan awarded him the Tamgha-e-Imtiaz (Military).

During his tenure in Pakistan Air Force, Muzaffar Ali Syed Saheb had a very interesting career. He was kind, he was hospitable and he was critical.

When he returned from deputation to Saudi Arabia in 1978, he brought a brand new car. Anybody and everybody could come and borrow his car. If the borrower didn't have money to pay for the fuel, Syed Saheb wouldn't hesitate in providing that too. He would arrive at his office every morning with a large thermos full of coffee. The whole day visitors would be treated to a constant stream of cups of coffee. A habit which perhaps urged him every evening after retirement to visit the Coffee House at Lahore. His informality was to an extent that while he was Head of Humanities Department at the PAF Academy, he was strolling in the corridor puffing away at a cigarette tucked in the little finger of his cupped palm which was his typical style. He saw a junior officer unsuccessfully trying to start his rather battered old car. Syed Saheb walked up to him and asked him to take the steering wheel. Much to the embarrassment of the officer, Syed Saheb discarded his cigarette and started pushing the car in full uniform till its engine reluctantly picked up. Of course some reluctant airmen, seeing the Wing Commander labouring away joined in the push.

His wit and quick repartee sometimes got him into trouble. A certain Chief of Air Staff was visiting a Base on inspection. At the end of the day, a formal banquet was laid out. During the meal, the Air Chief sought out the Mess Secretary and inquired of him what amount of messing was paid for each meal. The Mess Secretary informed him of the amount and the Air Chief pulled out the money from his wallet and paid him. Syed Saheb, who was watching this incident from the other end of the table, remarked that Allama Mashriqi used to pay eight annas for the Dal Roti he used to have in the mess he visited (hinting that the Five Rupees the Air Chief had paid was too less for the five-course dinner he had just partaken.)

During the period of one the Air Chiefs, officers with ungainly waistlines were dealt with severely. Because of his bulky figures Muzaffar Ali Syed Saheb was also ordered to attend office in civvies. He was told that he could wear his uniform only if he trimmed his figure. This was despite the fact that the Air Chief personally respected him and used to jokingly refer to him as my intellectual foe.

The critic in him was ever active. He once pointed out mistakes in the work of a junior officer and asked him to bring two Gulab Jamans per mistake as a fine. The junior officer took offence and was on the look out and happened to find some errors in Syed Sahebs work. Syed Saheb was so magnanimous that he not only praised the officer but ordered two kilos of Gulab Jamans.

There were no pretensions in Muzaffar Ali Syed. A junior colleague compiled a detailed appreciation of Maulana Maududis Tafheem-al-Quran and requested Syed Saheb to go through it critically. A lesser person would have been flattered but Syed Saheb turned him down saying that his knowledge of religious matters was limited and he felt incompetent to comment on Maulana Maududis work.

His memory was photogenic and he could quote verbatim Masnavis in Persian, Shakespeare's sonnets or literary verses from Urdu and English alike fluently.

Syed Saheb continued his literary pursuits even after retirement and his admirers were rewarded with his regular columns in The Nation and The Friday Times. His criticism based on objectivity earned him fame. His book Tanqeed Ki Azadi was no surprise but left us, his fans yearning for more. With him departs one of the leading literary critics of his time. It is indeed the passing of an era.