‘…where life will take you’

Published in Slogan (April 2010)

In conversation with Ayesha Hoda, S.M. Shahid revisits his childhood, recalls his days at Oscar Advertising and reveals how glorious old age can be.

Seventy five year-old S.M. Shahid sits casually in what seems to be his favourite room in his simple and cosy home in Karachi – with shelves lined with wonderful books, some memorable photographs, CDs of classical music and a few cups of tea.

Though humble about his achievements and contributions, the man takes great pride in speaking of them and of the struggles of his early life – immediately drawing one into his world and his life story.

“I was born in 1934 in Bihar – a time when India was in great turmoil,” he says, vividly describing the situation at the time and the tragedies resulting from a massive earthquake, WWII, Hindu-Muslim riots and partition.

In the midst of all this, personal tragedy struck as ten-year old Shahid’s father passed away. Being the eldest amongst the sons, responsibility fell on his shoulders but he was ready to face life and was supported by his paternal uncle. It was the latter’s decision due to which the family migrated in September 1947 to Chittagong, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and then to Karachi, West Pakistan in 1951.

During these years, Shahid attended railway school and studied up to intermediate, after which he had to drop out due to financial constraints. This comes as a surprise looking at the depth of knowledge this man possesses but he cheerfully points out that he is self-taught – giving one all the more reason to be impressed.

Shahid initially earned his living by giving tuitions to kids and working on low-profile jobs. He has no regrets though – the result of being brought up in a family that believed in simple living and leading a dignified life defined by strong work ethics and sincerity.

In 1959, he began writing short stories, which were published both in English and Urdu publications. But despite his excellent writing skills, he could not get a job as a journalist since he was not a “graduate.”

The other option was a career in advertising as it did not require technical knowledge or very high qualifications. Competition was not very intense in the ad world of those times and his younger brother Mazhar Hussain had already gained experience in the field while working for Orient Advertising in Dhaka. So they got together to establish their own agency – Oscar Advertising.

Whoever hails from that particular era of Pakistani advertising remembers Oscar as a very creative agency. It remained a small agency throughout its existence but handled a number of big and important clients like the Export Promotion Bureau, State Life, First Women’s Bank, etc.

Eventually, Shahid’s best friend and mentor, Irfan Haleem, also became a partner, and together they produced a number of great campaigns. Their lives were once again affected by the political unrest in 1971, when Mazhar left for Libya and only two partners remained to run the agency.

However, they still did extremely well. “Irfan was not only my partner but my dearest friend,” Shahid reminisces. “He was a philosopher and guide. I learnt a lot from him. Like me, he was also a college dropout from Aligarh. But he had a lot of knowledge about English and Urdu literature, music, etc. We had shared interests and we truly enriched each other’s lives. Our partnership lasted for more than two decades.”

In 1987, Irfan said he could no longer take the pressure of work due to failing health. He passed away in September 1994. In October that year, Shahid decided to retire from advertising, handing over charge to his younger daughter and son-in-law.

“Young blood made the agency very successful,” says Shahid. “But around 1999, it suffered some setbacks due to changes in government. Plus, bribery was rampant but we never engaged in such unethical practices. Then my son-in-law took on some partners who turned out to be dishonest and incompetent – they brought bad business. For instance, the agency released a campaign worth 50 lakh rupees but the client never paid.

“As a result we defaulted in 2000 with All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS). All efforts on my part to recover the money were fruitless. I went to APNS and the newspapers and told them what had happened. They were quite understanding but as a rule, APNS had to suspend the agency and we lost a number of big clients because of that.”

S.M. Shahid had been a good paymaster and thus had a very good reputation in the media. In an unprecedented move, all newspapers – with the exception of one – wrote off all the money that Oscar Advertising owed them. Only one newspaper took action but that too half-heartedly.

Shahid once again got involved in the affairs of the agency but could not revive it or retrieve the lost money. So Oscar had to be shut down. “It still exists on paper,” he says, not in a sentimental way, but as a man who has learnt to cope with the highs and lows of life with a smile.

His next revelation is quite startling, “My old age is the best time of my life even though I lost all my money when the agency closed down.”

One rarely hears that.

“I believe you make half of your life yourself and half of it is determined by destiny. I firmly believe in destiny. You never know what is going to happen next; where life will take you. I could never imagine the amount of respect I earned even after my retirement.”

Then he sheds light on the other, more interesting aspects of his life.

The only thing that Shahid formally learnt in life was classical music. From 1972 – 1992, he was taught by Ustad Wilayat Ali Khan. But he was not interested in going on air on TV or radio and projecting himself as a singer. Instead, he shared his passion for music only at home or at social gatherings with friends.

He is also fond of photography and likes to explore different subjects, wildlife in particular. He documented Karachi’s old buildings in 1983 and ran a column in Daily Star for eight months, called ‘Vanishing Karachi’, in association with Ghazi Salahuddin.

After retirement in 1994, Shahid ceased to be an advertising man and dedicated his time to his other interests and hobbies. As a freelance writer, he shared his knowledge on classical music and other subjects.

Shahid also had experience in book publishing as he had published some very artistic books for Export Promotion Bureau. His first book on music – Classical Music of the Subcontinent – was sponsored by Dr. Shahid Hak, the Managing Director of PARCO, in 1999. That was the turning point in Shahid’s life as he found a way to impart his knowledge to the next generation.

With the success of the book, Dr. Shahid Hak agreed to sponsor a number of other titles that included Madam Noor Jehan, Mehdi Hasan, the greatest folk singer of Pakistan – Tufail Niazi, and one of the finest composers of songs, Kamal Das Gupta. In just seven years, S.M. Shahid published 38 magnificent books. He terms this as a very small contribution.

After Dr. Shahid Hak’s demise, S.M. Shahid did not pursue any other sponsors although he has a number of unpublished manuscripts.

“When Shahid passed away, I gave up. After a certain time I tend to give up. Like I had said goodbye to advertising. In the same way, I never went to anybody for sponsorship. I did not search for another Shahid Hak. I thought I would never find somebody as supportive as him. I will publish more books if a sponsor comes along.”

Shahid is now content with writing columns. His satirical and humorous pieces – under ‘Two’s Company’ – appear in Dawn magazine every Sunday, sometimes prompting fierce feedback from across the globe.

“My childhood was bad. Young days were full of struggle (which is a good thing). But my old age is glorious! I live in a joint family system – with my younger daughter, son-in-law and their three children – which is a great blessing.”

His three grandchildren – two boys and a girl – have inherited his aesthetic sense and interests in writing, music and visual arts. He spends a lot of time with his grandson Hasan, who is a special child and shares Shahid’s interest in classical music. Like his grandfather, the 13-year old has gained a lot of knowledge of classical music and BBC Urdu Service has made a documentary film on him.

Gladly absorbed in his world of literature, music and family, Shahid says that he would be a total misfit in advertising today.

“Everything has changed in advertising. It is a totally different ball game now. Plagiarism has become very common. They used to copy earlier as well but they had some original ideas… now a lot of things are simply ‘copy paste’. We copy India in everything. We mix Urdu and English and can speak neither language very well. The entire culture has changed.

“People have much more exposure these days, especially because of the internet. Our knowledge was limited. But the new generation is going so fast that it is missing a lot of things on the way. People don’t have the time to stop, observe and appreciate the good things in life.”

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