Photos: Notes on a Scandal /Instagram
Photos: Notes on a Scandal /Instagram

Pakistani true crime podcast Notes on a Scandal explores the mysterious death of poet Mustafa Zaidi 50 years later

The upcoming second season of journalists Saba Imtiaz and Tooba Masood's podcast will reexamine the trial of Shahnaz Gul.
29 Jul, 2022

As the podcast wave finally catches on in Pakistan and content creators begin warming up their throats, we notice that politics, entertainment, the economy and lifestyle seem to be everyone’s favourite things to talk about. But what about one of the most popular podcast topics online — true crime? Enter Notes on a Scandal, a Pakistani podcast that examines the mysterious death of a man named Mustafa Zaidi over half a century after he was found dead in his apartment in Karachi.

Zaidi died in 1970 and his death remains a mystery till this day. For three years, journalists Tooba Masood and Saba Imtiaz have been studying the case and they’re now sharing their findings, the very beginning of Zaidi’s career and his extramarital affair with socialite Shahnaz Gul in their podcast Notes on a Scandal.

Who was Mustafa Zaidi?

Zaidi was a well-known poet and a talented civil servant who was found dead on October 12, 1970, in his rented room in Karachi. He was 40 years old. Found unconscious beside him was Gul, the subject of several of his poems.

There are two schools of thought on Zaidi’s death. The first is that he was poisoned by Gul and the second is that he committed suicide. While there is evidence to support both claims, the mystery surrounding his death still persists.

The poet and officer was married to Vera Zaidi, a German woman with whom he had a son and a daughter.

Notes on a Scandal

In an interview with Images, the podcast hosts revealed that they learned about Zaidi’s story years ago but never got the chance to work on it until they sat down three years ago, spoke about the case and found a “long common obsession” about Zaidi’s mysterious death.

When asked why they chose the murder mystery genre for their podcast, Imtiaz told Images that Zaidi’s story came first than the medium as true crime tends to lend itself quite well to podcasts because “there is a way to combine storytelling, investigation, poetry, popular culture and conversations”.

She said true crime is a hugely popular genre for podcasts around the world. For Masood, Notes on a Scandal became a way to branch out with their story which they plan on sharing through a book. She has been fond of true crime podcasts for a while and feels like this was the “natural route” for her and Imtiaz.

“The idea behind the podcast was simple: the life and death of Mustafa Zaidi. This covered the late poet’s life, Shahnaz Gul, Karachi and Pakistani society in the 70s, the representation of women — everything,” explained Masood.

Unravelling the case 52 years later

Masood and Imitiaz believe Zaidi’s tragic yet mysterious death is something that will intrigue people today as much as it did back then, even if the case is about 52-years-old.

“There was a really established narrative around Mustafa Zaidi’s death that pigeonholed the main characters of the story. Like many significant cases in Pakistan, there was a consensus somehow that there was more to the story or that there was a conspiracy, but it never really felt clear what that was,” Imtiaz revealed.

But for a case like this, one season with just eight episodes is not enough. The second season of Notes on a Scandal, titled The State vs Shahnaz Gul, will discuss “Gul’s trial, who was charged for Zaidi’s death as well as the media circus around the case.”

The State vs Shahnaz Gul

But why are we talking about Mustafa Zaidi?

The hosts believe that since Zaidi was a prominent poet as well as civil servant, it made him a well-known figure to the public and that’s why the circumstances of his death are important to discuss. “There was a very strong sense of an organised conspiracy or cover-up behind his death, and it even prompted the Sindh High Court to take notice. It really appealed on every level — even people who have a disdain for scandal were invested in this case,” Imtiaz explained.

According to her, the case gave people the opportunity to talk about the elite — from their social lives to their political and personal influence and potential for being implicated in crime — and to read about this in the papers.

Zaidi and Gul’s case was Pakistan’s first-ever sex scandal and, according to Masood, it was fascinating enough to get people talking and have an opinion about it. The media coverage shocked her and she believes there is a “market for podcasts” in Pakistan, especially true crime or unsolved cases. “After working in the newsroom and going through archives, I think there are several stories that can be revisited,” she said.

 Saba Imtiaz and Tooba Masood while researching for the podcast and their book in Gujranwala
Saba Imtiaz and Tooba Masood while researching for the podcast and their book in Gujranwala

For now, Notes on a Scandal focuses on Zaidi’s case. The upcoming second season will also investigate the case and Gul’s subsequent trial. Both seasons draw heavily from the book Masood and Imtiaz are writing, titled Society Girl. The podcast itself is in the form of a conversation between Masood and Imtiaz.

Society Girl “explores Mustafa Zaidi’s life and looks at his death in the context of a pivotal time in Pakistan’s history, with a devastating cyclone in Bangladesh [then] East Pakistan, the countrywide general elections, and the brutal crackdown in [then] East Pakistan in 1971.”

The first season and two trailers summarising the sequel are available on most podcast streaming platforms and the second season of Notes on a Scandal will go live in August. The podcast is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Amazon Music and Stitcher.