“I don’t want to imagine a world without him,” a mutual friend said to me when she learned of Arif’s stage-four cancer. I knew exactly what she meant. It wasn’t the prospect of losing someone close to us that startled her but the idea that someone with his way of being, the empathetic sharpness that defines how he relates to the world, would soon be gone. Arif is like a velvet mirror, reflecting the world in its full complexity, yet rounding off its sharp edges. What happens when we are only left with mirrors made of glass, with their coolly accurate representations that make it harder for us to see the unity behind the seemingly disconnected pieces of our torn social fabric?

Many people feel their friends are extraordinary. Perhaps it’s a way of making ourselves feel special. Perhaps it’s a natural response to learning of a friend’s terminal illness, a way to find meaning in the face of the absurdity of an untimely death. Perhaps this essay too is just an attempt to process grief. Still, I’ve never met anyone quite like Arif and I doubt I ever will.

My first memory of him is at a bar in Lake District, leaning casually against the counter, holding a glass of water. It was late autumn, the intense yellow of the afternoon sun penetrating the room and throwing a shadow on Arif’s face. We were at a retreat for Gates Cambridge scholars – a scheme much like its older cousin, the Rhodes scholarship at Oxford – and the room was buzzing with highly accomplished people looking busy and sounding distinguished. Arif was different. His slightly crouched shoulders and gentle smile indicated he was more approachable than the rest of the crowd. When he listened, he didn’t interrupt, and when he looked, he looked straight in the eye. He was present.

Living in the moment is what we talked about years later, as we sat inside Arif’s Georgian apartment in Bath, overlooking the Somerset hills. By then, we had both finished our doctorates and started in our university posts. Arif was 41 and had been fighting cancer for three years. Even though he had only just launched his academic career as a social scientist studying inequality and poverty after two decades of studies and hard work, he only had one or two years to live according to his doctors. Crippled by chemotherapy, he was increasingly unable to teach or do research. His academic career was brought to a standstill and his attention was firmly fixed on every passing moment.

He was first diagnosed in April 2020: ampullary cancer, affecting the spot where the pancreatic duct and bile duct join and empty into the intestine. It is a rare condition, afflicting about one in 2.5 million people, because of which research is limited, treatment options scarce and survival rates low. Arif was diagnosed early enough for his doctors to try to remove the tumour, and in May, he underwent the Whipple procedure, a seven-hour highly invasive and dangerous operation that involved removing part of the pancreas, bile duct, gallbladder and duodenum. It was successful. Six months of chemotherapy followed to make sure the cancer was gone. At the end of it, he was barely recognisable – his skin was clinging to his bones and the sparks from his eyes were gone. But at least he survived and the cancer was in remission. A year and a half later, in September 2022, it came back with a vengeance and spread to his lungs. This time, there was little the doctors could do. Arif enrolled in a clinical trial at Oxford for an experimental treatment that may or may not help. It was a Hail Mary.

What does it mean to be a good friend to someone facing untimely death, someone at the precipice simultaneously of a promising academic career and of a personal tragedy? The best answer I could come up with was to try to help Arif tell his story, to try and put words to the wisdom I saw in him. And so as we sat in his living room every other Sunday afternoon – the mid-point between his chemotherapy cycles when he had the most energy – I tried to trace his story full of improbable events and unexpected turns.

Narrating time

Becoming a senior lecturer in an elite British university was an incredibly unlikely feat. Arif was born in Nooran Abreind in the Muzaffargarh district of Pakistan’s Punjab province to a village schoolteacher of little means and even fewer connections. His father was the first person in the family to receive any education, and he worked hard to create more opportunities for Arif and his seven siblings. This was no easy task in an area with no electricity and the nearest road a two-hour walk away. Arif’s parents wanted him to become a doctor, but he had other ideas. “By that time, I had been reading enough literature, especially lots of Urdu classics that I would somehow get access to in that village, and also cheap fiction, so I got way more interested in human experiences,” he told me. “Human conditions were much more fascinating to me than their anatomy or pathology.”

We certainly had that in common. I found myself immersed in a kind of sad fascination with Arif’s predicament, looking for answers to increasingly dark questions. Why is this story so absurd? Is his tragedy a metaphor for the futility of the world’s quest for equality, the universe’s way of showing a middle finger to those who try to beat the odds stacked against them? And what of the decades of research Arif was hoping to do? Will his unfinished agenda be a hole in the world’s knowledge of itself, or will someone else step in and fill it? But then again, isn’t the whole point of Arif’s work that the lived experience it is grounded in has been experienced by very few academics?

“You’re a lecturer who has carved out a career by walking on thin ice as you sought to bring insights from your past experiences into academia,” Arif said to me when I asked him that last question. “And then you suddenly don’t have time to bring it all together, to pursue any of the tasks that you set for yourself. Then who are you? You struggle to recognise yourself.” For a moment, Arif’s soft-spokenness was gone, and I thought I detected a tinge of anger in his voice. “And, when everything that you built was really around that now abruptly fading idea of the self that you pursued for so long, how would you relate to everyone else around you?”

In our conversations, Arif referred to Muzaffargarh, his birthplace, as a “middle of nowhere”. As a member of the British intellectual elite, he was now in the middle of it all (Britain, after all, likes to think it’s still the centre of the world). But I wondered if he found himself in “the middle of nowhere” not in space but in time. With his future taken away from him, the past, which was all about reaching a goal that now seemed out of reach, no longer made sense.

It is an academic’s job to make sense of the seemingly nonsensical, and so Arif did: “Our identities are heavily shaped by our understanding of time. Our sense of the present is deeply rooted in our recollection of our past.” And as he pointed out to me, speaking as much from the experience of proximity to death as he did with his academic hat on, we are guided by our ambitions for the future when we pick the memories we hold on to and the ones we consign to our personal ash heaps of history. Letting the “mundane” fade while focusing our attention on our preferred stories, we build a bridge between our past, present and future. But what happens to all those memories if one day we realise we simply have no future?

Sometimes we don’t have a choice but to cast them aside, as Arif found out in his hospital ward: “As life got reduced to the task of living one day at a time, or even one second at a time, my eyes and thoughts were fixated on the drops coming from the drip into my veins, because everything else was not any more bearable than the chemo… When the scale of time is reduced to that, then of course you cannot carry the burden of those grand narratives that you once constructed. You just go calm. That’s what your body is doing, anyway.”

At the Fitzwilliam Museum with Prince Charles during his visit to Cambridge, February 2013.

Honourable place

It was strange to hear Arif speak of shouldering grand narratives – if anything, he had spent much of his life shattering them, I thought. As a young man, having performed off the charts in school and resisted the pressure to become a doctor, he found himself studying economics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, and went on to work on rural development projects across Pakistan. He then pursued an influential career as a policy analyst, contributing to various national reforms. Although the work was initially fulfilling, it soon started to feel off. When I asked Arif to explain what seemed wrong, he told me about research studies that he worked on with a number of colleagues, including mentor Geoff Wood, a professor of international development in the UK, which raised the “architects and contractors” dilemma. One of the studies looked at research into the role of Pakistani think-tanks in shaping debates about international development. Unsurprisingly, it concluded that it was the West and its powerful institutions – the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations and bilateral aid agencies – that called the shots. The Pakistani think-tanks didn’t get paid to think but to advocate policy designs made thousands of miles away. “And suddenly I realised that I was not really the architect of the change I thought I was inducing,” he said. “I felt like I was merely a contractor. And it was not the honourable place to be in.” So Arif left the world of development and became an academic.

Arif’s honourable place is not a place of relentless critique, virtue signalling or showing off his command of fancy academic words. It is a place of seeking the truth, and the truth begins with the poor themselves. “When it comes to the poor, their lives are often reduced to statistics, and their narratives to factual accounts,” Arif believes. When I first heard him make similar comments, I found it refreshing: here is an economist who understands that people are not numbers. Over the years I have known Arif, I have seen him lean into this position with ever more vigour. During our years at Cambridge, I saw him pour through seven decades of longitudinal data from Pakistan to understand whether the mass expansion of schooling since World War II helped to stop poverty passing from one generation to the next. He would then travel to far-flung regions of the country to listen first-hand to the stories behind the numbers. Baffled with the complexity of these stories, he went on to develop a nuanced approach to listening to the voices of the poor. The goal was to neither romanticise nor pathologise poor lives in revealing their power in everyday struggles against oppressive structures. With the help of his doctoral supervisors – Professor Madeleine Arnot and Professor Anna Vignoles – he was trying to combine breadth with depth in a way I had never seen anyone else try with quite so much verve.

There are generally two kinds of scholars who study poverty: those who work with charts, tables and formulas, and those who think about stories. The numerati claim to have the full picture and so they tend to have the ear of the politicians and the media, while the narrative-wallahs are often consigned to the margins (unless they are good wordsmiths and manage to turn stories into bestsellers). Arif’s search for the honourable place led him to transcend this divide, to put the aim before the method, and integrity before going with the flow. Arif no longer refers to himself as an economist. He is simply a scholar of poverty and inequality, a maverick social scientist who does not adhere to norms and expectations of “the field”, whatever that means.

When I learned of Arif’s diagnosis, I felt pangs of my own quest for the honourable place, for trying to do the right thing. I knew our time was limited and I felt the pressure of wanting to get to the heart of this story before it was too late. So I pushed harder: “Tell me one thing. There are loads of people working on poverty out there. Many of them grew up in poverty. Many of them talk to poor people. What’s different about your approach?” I was bracing myself for a very technical answer but Arif responded as a human being. “We cannot fully empathise with people we don’t know – and know not just as academic constructs, but at a deeper personal, emotional, relational level,” he said. “We can’t wish away our positionality as researchers.” He sees the poor – that huge, faceless, voiceless category of people to be ‘reformed’ and ‘saved’ – as individuals with a face, with a voice, with agency, with wisdom. “I mean, without empathy, which is inherently tied to our own experiences and journeys, how could we even ask the right kinds of questions?” Arif said to me, before closing his eyes and taking a long pause, after which we called it a day, for he had no more energy to talk.

Interviewing Arif in Bath, February 2023.

Wellsprings of empathy

As our conversations progressed, Arif lost much weight. He also lost his hair, his appetite and the ability to button a shirt due to nerve damage in his fingers caused by chemotherapy. But he never lost his sense of humour and optimism. It wasn’t a pose, an attempt to hold it together for the sake of family and friends. The nonchalance with which he spoke about dying betrayed a reservoir of experience. He was no stranger to death and he didn’t take it for granted that he managed to stick around into his forties. This, undoubtedly, had something to do with empathy being so central to his way of being.

Arif grew up in the 1980s, the decade of Zia-ul-Haq’s military dictatorship in Pakistan and a bloody war. “The Cold War project was what valorised Islamic Jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan and it deeply penetrated Pakistani society, given the military dictatorship’s need to legitimise its own power,” Arif told me. This played out in everyday life through sectarian violence and extremism. “Unfair death was all around me, and I felt that most of the time I had narrow escapes.”

One such narrow escape is forever etched in Arif’s memory. As a 17-year-old college student, he woke up one day to the sound of gunfire coming from a nearby Shia mosque. Twenty-two worshippers who were inside at the time of the attack were slaughtered. Arif knew all of them (in a small town, everyone is more than a neighbour, as he put it). Two of the victims were brothers who were in Arif’s circle of friends – they studied in the same college, took the same bus and played cricket together. No group ever took responsibility for the attack, and though arrests were made, the suspects were soon released and the seeds of distrust were forever sown in the community. “While of course it was a tragedy, there was also this sense of gratitude of just being alive, of just surviving another event,” he said. In a way, the cancer too was simply just another event.

Perhaps it was the relentless violence in the age of terrorism and the subsequent Global War On Terror, perhaps it was curiosity or maybe it was the beginning of a quest for higher meaning that led Arif to Sufism. As a teenager, he was invited to join a spiritual gathering in a neighbouring town. The procession was led by a man in his 80s, who had renounced worldly pursuits, dedicated his life to prayer and service, and represented a very different model of Islam from the radicalism of the era. “Khidmat mein Khuda milta hai”, you find God in serving his creation, he would tell Arif while introducing him to basic tenets of Sufism. Fascinated, Arif spent much time with him over the following year, learning about his spiritual beliefs and joining him in acts of service. Arif would serve food and clean after the poorest in the community, and be served by people far more privileged than him. “The more privileged you were, the more service was expected of you,” he recalled. These experiences taught Arif that there was nothing natural about the deeply unequal social order around him. He grasped the arbitrariness of privilege and came to see service as a path to social harmony, an antidote to violence and poverty both. Years later, Arif would hear echoes of these messages in lectures by his economics teacher and mentor Professor Asad Zaman who tore apart neoclassical economic theory, helping Arif see that God’s creation could be served through a different kind of economics.

After performing Umrah, Makkah, November 2022.

Listening to these stories helped me understand some of Arif’s unlikely choices. In the final year of his PhD, he joined Britain’s first intergenerational housing scheme, where he socialised with people in their 70s and 80s. He would spend up to 20 hours a week organising potlucks, birthday celebrations and excursions to Cambridge’s mediaeval colleges. Most doctoral students in their final year would never dream of making such a commitment. In the cut-throat world of elite academia, any time spent volunteering is time not spent writing an article for a prestigious journal or chasing that dream tenure-track job. But Arif’s instinct was to get involved and it paid off. Halfway through the scheme, the team learned that hospital visits by people living in the intergenerational house fell dramatically, an irony not lost on Arif, who would find himself practically living in the hospital only two years later. “In retrospect, living in the old home also taught me to come to terms with fragility, vulnerability and dependency that I had to confront far sooner than I thought,” he told me.

The unfinished agenda

The more Arif and I talked about his life, the more I realised that becoming an academic was not a matter of personal ambition to him but a vocation, a culmination of a lifetime of gentle learning in a harsh world. This only magnified the sense of impending loss. Like the rest of the world, academia is getting more polarised by the day: liberal activist scholars who are often better at shouting than listening are pitted against conservative thinkers relying on colonial, elitist methods, as a silent majority looks on, burying their heads in the sand. The neoliberal university adds up to a kind of Hieronymus Bosch painting, a hellscape of disconnected elements, where someone like Arif is exceedingly rare, not just for his ability to tackle messy, polarising subjects with nuance and grace but also for the originality of his thought. It turns out that when you seek the truth, rather than the approval of whichever camp you supposedly belong to, you actually come up with new ideas.

But what good is all that when you cannot do research, write or teach? For academics, productivity is everything. “There is no comparison of what I felt I was up to doing three years ago and now,” Arif said to me with a heavy sadness. “I sit down and write just one paragraph or compose one email or attend just one meeting, and then I am done for the day.” I really felt for him. For an original thinker, the only thing worse than being stuck on the publish-or-perish hamster wheel is being left out of the world of ideas entirely. And so, as our conversations progressed, I started gently steering us towards the most painful subject of all: what was Arif planning to do with the three-odd decades of the academic career he once thought he had in front of him?

He had no prescriptions, no silver bullets for ending poverty. What he did have was a method and a deep understanding of the development machine. In our conversations, we spoke of intergenerational poverty, longitudinal studies, ways of capturing and amplifying the voices of the poor. But I came away thinking that his most significant unfinished agenda was something bigger: to make slow research more central to the study of poverty.

Slow research is what it says on the label – slowing down, taking our time. Some academic disciplines have a long tradition of slow research. Anthropologists, for example, can spend years immersed in a community of people to try to understand the culture shared among its members. But poverty researchers, many of whom are economists, tend to work much faster. On the face of it, this is justified by the urgency of the issue, the need to act quickly where human lives are at stake. But lurking beneath the surface is a set of assumptions – about who the poor are, what they need, what kind of a future awaits them – that many researchers take as a given. As Arif put it, “Most of the time, the people driving action on the ground are trying to construct a world rather than understand a world.” His idea is that if we slow down, we might have a shot at grasping what we are dealing with before we intervene.

The true academic’s foremost role, Arif believes, is to actually understand what a social reality is. Having lived experience of that reality helps. This doesn’t mean that every poverty researcher needs to have lived in poverty to comprehend it. Still, the lived experience does make a difference. When I pressed Arif on what the difference is, he went quiet for a moment, then said: “I do not have a preconceived answer – I think there was an answer to come later through the work I planned to do. So maybe that’s part of the unfinished agenda.”

The sadness in his voice betrayed a deep disappointment at being unable to do more, almost as if the cancer was his fault. Our culture feeds us the idea that when we lie on our deathbed, we ought to be able to look back at a lifetime of individual achievement. But meaningful change takes countless people, nameless individuals who together shift the needle. When I listened to Arif speak about his unfinished agenda, I could not help but think that he was not just a victim of cancer. He was also a victim of a toxic performance culture that cared more about what he hadn’t done than what he did do, a culture that denies a good death to those who have lived a good life.

The peace within

But cosmic scales don’t operate according to human culture. During our student years at Cambridge, Arif and I would often talk about our romantic pursuits. We both thrived in the world of ideas but we also hoped to find love. And in between the surgeries, the endless chemotherapy sessions, the trips to the emergency room and the sleepless nights, Arif did.

If Arif is an unlikely academic, Sana is an unlikely wife. She had come to London to study education and peacebuilding after years teaching at a girls’ college in Waziristan, a region at the Afghan-Pakistan border torn apart by the War on Terror. The two met through a mutual friend just before Arif first got diagnosed with cancer. Months later, I sensed the internal conflict within him: as much as he yearned for love, he thought it unfair to share the burden of his illness with a potential partner he had just met. While he could not move on from his cancer, she could, and he wanted her to. But Sana had other ideas.

Arif was visiting his family in Pakistan in September 2022 when he received the fateful call from his doctor telling him the cancer came back. In those very moments, he got a call from Sana, who was in the UK, and told her the news. I never thought to ask him what exactly happened during that phone call. It felt too personal a question. All I know is they soon decided to get married with the blessings of their families. Arif got on a plane to Mecca where he did his Umrah – the non-compulsory pilgrimage that, unlike the Hajj, can be done any time of the year – and Sana boarded a plane in London with the same destination. Their families found them an imam who performed their nikah and returned to England together. Next time I saw Arif, he was a married man.

First visit to Pakistan with Sana, Multan, October 2023.

His attention shifted from grieving what wasn’t to celebrating what was. He spoke to me of the joy of walks without a destination through the serene Mendip Hills in his backyard, the delight at catching up with old friends, the fun of experimenting with new recipes in the kitchen. Ever the scholar, he tried to wrap his head around this transformation, and told me that perhaps his old life was “full of this whole bullshit”. When I asked him what he meant, he answered that “the actual everyday experience, the mundane interactions with the people I was working with, maybe that was the actual real life and everything else was an illusion”.

It seemed that Arif found a new way of narrating time. In one of our conversations, he told me about just how destabilising it can be to have one’s image of the future shattered the way his was. The loss of the future makes survival in the present so very hard. “Coping with that struggle in the present pushes you back into the past,” Arif asserted. “You re-think certain moments, certain stories of the past to recalibrate them with the present. That’s an incredible human kind of possibility, of creativity that gives us resilience. This struggle between the present, the past, the future, has helped us survive for millions of years.” Had he said that in our first conversation, I would have thought of it as some academic hypothesis, the stuff of psychology research. But seeing the transformation in him over the months as his cancer progressed and his conception of the past and the future changed, I understood exactly what he meant – the paradox of inner peace being possible through inner struggle.

In our last interview, the possibility of Sana and Arif having children came up. I asked Arif what he would have wished to pass onto his child if they decided to start a family. He took a deep breath, looked into the distance, thought for a few moments, then spoke with unexpected confidence: “I would tell them that as human beings, as individuals, we are capable of a lot. A lot. But that requires a lot of hard work. You should dream high, but you need to be willing to pay the price.” The price Arif paid was a heavy one, but seeing him there in his living room, the rolling hills outside the window, Sana next to him, I thought he had fulfilled dreams he didn’t even know he had.