“And now, I want to introduce you all to one of my biggest trolls.” The hall filled up with echoes of laughter and boos as he said this. It was not the introduction I had had in mind, but I acted the part well enough. We were at a panel discussion in Karachi on the “Perils of Social Media” and I was sharing the stage with people who had far more experience than I did on this front. He had forwarded my name as part of the program: it was among the many acts of kindness I have received from him.
A month or so after the Karachi event, I had to visit Islamabad and needed a place to stay. He asked me to stay with him even though he was living at a relative’s house. I once wanted a recommendation letter from him, but discovered he was due to fly to Lahore from another city. He still managed to send me the signed letter in time. At the outset of my writing “career”, when I was writing prolifically and sending my work to every newspaper, blog, and magazine I had heard of, none deemed my work good enough to reply, even if they didn’t like it. But he believed in me during those difficult times and advised me to work harder and to be consistent. Opportunities came my way afterwards and I have him to thank for his advice and constant support. I am not the only young writer he has encouraged: I have heard similar stories about his kindness from many people.
I distinctly remember the vibrant atmosphere of his homes both in Lahore and Islamabad, brimming with books and interesting individuals, dotted with statues and artefacts from diverse cultures. He was always busy, taking those never-ending calls, writing op-eds, directing colleagues, constantly moving around. I remember how he tried his best to spend enough quality time with his children and his interest in their activities. He took great pride in their small achievements, curricular and co-curricular.
“Why don’t English-language journalists say the same things on the national media as they write in their columns?”
He belonged to a well-off family but enjoyed spending time outside the social bubble that his peers inhabited (and still inhabit). When I first met him, he had arrived in Pakistan after a long stint abroad. He had to meet two friends at a trendy coffeehouse in Lahore and kept apologizing as his friends were not “politically conscious”. During that encounter, he mentioned his upcoming trip to Islamabad and a possible role at the Jinnah Institute. Before having met in person, we had interacted online for many months. He was based in the Philippines, but his soul clearly belonged to Pakistan, compelling his constant commentary on political developments in the country.
I remember visiting him at his parents’ house in Lahore a few months before the general election in 2013. He was developing dummy programs for an upcoming Islamabad-based news channel that planned to start broadcasting before the election. He made his debut as a neutral political commentator on the Pakistani media before the elections began. He was part of a series of marathon transmissions during the election. He had come a long way from being a member of Pakistan’s elite civil service to becoming a political pundit on television. He was as fluent in Urdu as he was English, able to formulate his thoughts in an elaborate but easily understood idiom.
During our conversations, he would reminisce about the time he had spent in mofussil towns and cities of Punjab as a member of the District Management Group. His father had once been the Chief Arbiter in Pakistan’s judiciary – a fact I discovered much later. When he published his book on Delhi, I wanted to get my hands on it immediately and read it in digital format. I had seen the cover page before it was finalized. Browsing through the book, I found a lyrical style common in Urdu literature, apart from vivid descriptions of what he had seen and felt during his travels in India. As an experiment, I translated the first chapter into Urdu and sent it to him. The theme of his book was Delhi, but his affection for Lahore seeped from every page.
While I admired him very much, there was no lack of disagreement between us. I never shied away from pointing out his soft spot for the Pakistan People’s Party. We frequently differed on strategies for dealing with social media trolls (LUBP in particular). His neutrality on certain sociopolitical issues sometimes bordered on the indecisive. His craze for ‘selfies’ was almost pathological. He once admonished me to “stop treating me like a phone directory” (which didn’t actually stop my inquiries).
I had always had reservations about his involvement in a civil society organization with a tainted past. My disparaging views on Pakistan’s “development sector” were well known to him. We often sparred about his role as a “quote machine” for foreign publications or about him becoming a cheerleader for Sufi Islam. We had opposing opinions on different matters, resulting in healthy debate without affecting our relationship. To his credit, he never reacted badly to criticism and always kept his calm during an argument. He worked too hard during the days of his media involvement and we discussed ways to keep him healthy amid all the chaos.
At my last “proper” meeting with him at his house in Islamabad, we talked about the contemporary history of Pakistan and my project to document the political and social history of the 1990s. Subsequently, I caught up with him at his book launch in Lahore, but he was busy with distinguished guests such as Pran Nevile.
On the evening of 28 March last year, I received a phone call from a friend asking me if he was safe – his car had been attacked. I felt the earth give way beneath my feet. I tried calling but his phone was switched off. I checked the television: all the major news channels were running tickers about the attack. I heaved a sigh of relief when they reported that he was safe, although his driver had been injured (fatally, as I discovered later). It was a harrowing experience, receiving news of an attack on someone’s life, especially when that “someone” is your friend and mentor. I tried calling him a few days later but an associate of his answered. I have not heard his voice since then.
A few weeks after the incident, he left the country and moved to a safer place. I didn’t write about what had happened. I couldn’t. It was simply too much for me to process. A month after the attack, Hamid Mir was shot multiple times while on a visit to Karachi. I wrote an angry piece on the incident for an Urdu website to which I contribute regularly. I mentioned the earlier attack on my friend as well, but only in passing. It has taken me a whole year to be able to write these words.
The conversation that prompted me to carry out this endeavour took place at the third edition of the Lahore Literary Festival in February. I was listening to Khaled Ahmed’s pearls of wisdom on the lush green lawns of the Alhamra when a woman approached us. She praised Khaled sahib’s talk held that day and asked, “Why don’t English-language journalists say the same things on the national media as they write in their columns or say at literary festivals?” In his usual self-effacing style, Khaled sahib responded: “It is a difficult task. You should remember what happened when a colleague started saying the same things on the national media that he was writing for TFT. He was shot at and had to flee the country to save his life.”
Khaled sahib was, of course, referring to my friend, elder brother, and mentor, Raza Ahmad Rumi. “He’s just the wrong kind of Pakistani – the kind that is killed nowadays,” to quote Raza’s childhood friend, Ali Dayan Hasan.
Raza may have left, but he is still here in spirit. He lives in a land far away but his heart still beats to the tune of his country. This is not an obituary, merely a much-delayed thank-you note. These days, whenever I think of him, the legendary verses of Nasir Kazmi ring in my ears:
Naye dinon ka suraagh le kar, kidhar se aaya, kidhar gaya woh;
Ajab manoos ajnabi tha, mujhe tau hairaan kar gaya woh.
(Where is he, the person who brought a glimmer of hope to a new day/He managed to startle me, this accustomed stranger.)