If I were to sit down and make a list of ten people who have impressed and influenced me most in my life, the name of Rashid Latif would be there for certain. I have yet to meet anyone who straight talks better than him, even in his 90s. We always remain connected, wherever we may be on the planet and our exchanges are always unedited and free flowing, without concern for alignment. There is nothing under the sky that we don’t discuss. Although he needs no introduction, I still felt that for the benefit of those who may not know him well enough, I would write something about this amazing person.
So, do indulge in what unfolds, as the master speaks as I write.
Siraj Khan: What would be a title that you would give yourself (in four words)?
Rashid Latif: “Run of the Mill”
SK: Take me to the beginnings, recall some childhood memories which you consider to be profound.
RL: I was born in Azamgarh (UP) on the 2nd of January 1931 but was only two years old when the family moved to Meerut, where we lived till 1947. Our first house (rented) was an annex of a mosque but, structurally it was an integral part of that. The entrance of our house was through the large main gate of that mosque.
While I was still a toddler, my extremely religious mother made me run to the mosque daily for the prayers. I was taught to recite the Quran long before I learnt ABCD. By the time I was 5 years old I was a devout Muslim.
At that age, my father decided to place me in a kindergarten of a school run, by missionaries. The school day used to start with a prayer in its chapel that excluded kindergarten children. After completing kindergarten, I too, was expected to attend the chapel. However, I refused to pray before the cross. When the teacher failed in coaxing me to attend the chapel, I was taken to the tall and well-built British Principal, Ms. Watts, who was furious and threatened to throw me out of the school and my father out of his job – but by that time I had become a fanatic Muslim, and could not possibly agree. Then, considering my academic record, I was exempted from the very mission for which that school was established.
That incident also depicts the tremendous control the childhood programming of religious dogmas can wield over one’s mind. As children, we were mortally scared of the two mounted British soldiers that used to take a daily round of the city. The moment the children heard trotting of the horses, they ran into their houses warning, “Gora aaya, Gora aaya!” Despite that in-built fear, I had fearlessly stood up against the “white principal.” The firm stand on principles has persisted all along, often seriously risking my life.
SK: Many years ago, I recall you once telling me about your experience during the 1947 partition and migrating to the new Land of the Pure, carved out of a bigger being. I remember some of it, but could we briefly revisit the significant incidents during the crossing of the Radcliffe Line?
RL: Although Delhi communal riots had created tension 30 miles away in Meerut, but even then, we had absolutely no intention of migrating to Pakistan. At about 07:00hr on the 5th of November 1947, my father received a few permits for a special train leaving Meerut for Lahore at 10:00 hrs. At the spur of the moment, he decided to send the family to Karachi for two or three months, but staying back himself.
Our home was in the middle of a Hindu locality. They came over to assure us that they would lay down their lives to save ours if we were attacked by any mob. When we told them of our resolve to return within three months, they bade us a tearful farewell. I can never forget that emotional scene when in a sea of communal hatred, there were such serene islands of love and affection.
That special train was slightly different from those shown in documentaries. That special train comprised only 3rd-class compartments with hard wooden benches. All bogies were locked and completely sealed by steel mesh. Our compartment was designed for 40 passengers. I counted 120 heads (including children). No one could move. You had to see us to know what ‘packed like sardines’ meant. There were three open wagons fortified with sandbags, one at each end and one at the center of that train with army soldiers in battle ready position. That four-hour journey took us 60 hours. It was like travelling in a war zone, stopping, starting and often reversing the train. During the night, the army used flares to avoid getting ambushed. It was at Wagah station that we were unlocked and could get some water to drink and wash our faces.
SK: In a few words, what experience in your life would you consider as life-changing?
RL: During that life-threatening journey through East Punjab, watching from my moving cage, I witnessed; the destroyed houses, mosques, piles of plundered empty trunks, and humans treading, in miles long caravans, in opposite direction. After reaching Lahore, I witnessed similar scenes; Shah Alami Market razed to the ground, a temple in Krishan Nagar opposite our temporary abode turned into a butcher shop, with the carcass of a cow hanging at its main gate. The roles of the plunderers and the victims were juxtaposed in East and West Punjab. Those scenes raised the questions: why Allah did not save Muslims in East Punjab and why Bhagwan could not save His worshipers in West Punjab? The tug of war between childhood programming and rationality lasted for nearly one year. The pendulum swung from extreme right to extreme left after Ramzan 1948. The horrors of partition had transformed a fanatic Muslim into an agnostic.
SK: Switching gears now, which Government of Pakistan has impressed you the most?
RL: I have interacted with numerous top executives around the world but have never met an executive like Z. A. Bhutto. His memory was phenomenal. Without any notes, he could recall the exact timeline of various jobs for strict compliance. No delays were overlooked. His scanning of most voluminous files in minutes without skipping a word was simply mind-boggling. He perfected the art of governance. Bhutto was ruthless to the mediocre, but affectionate towards then efficient and diligent. During his era, instead of the applicants begging for action on their petitions, the government officers were chasing them to ensure that a job was completed by the deadline. The government machinery delivered its best during his tenure.
SK: Would it be right to say that you are not only a pioneer of recording in Pakistan, making 78 and 45 rpm records/LPs, but also audio-cassettes, CDs and starting private TV channels?
RL: Except for CDs, your assumption is correct. Both EMI and SRBC that I started from scratch did not venture into CDs. SRBC was the first to produce pre-recorded video cassettes. It started the first ever 24-hour TV transmission in South Asia. We were using 24-track mixers since 1974, while Bollywood received its first 16 track console in 1984.
SK: Is it the music you love more or the sound?
RL: Music is an arrangement of sound confined to the pre-set parameters of melody and rhythm. Simply put, talking and music are analogous to walking (no rules) and marching (conforming to strict rules). Music is a more pleasant format of the sound.
SK: What would you consider as three major accomplishments in your professional career, which still give you a sense of pride?
RL: (1) In 1974, it was almost impossible to persuade women to work in a factory. With great difficulty we recruited about a dozen. A few months later when we advertised for about 30 more workers, hundreds turned up. Our competent Chief Engineer was Saadia. Our deft Forklift Operator was a girl. Through Shalimar, I had accomplished my passion of changing the women’s outlook.
(2) The German manufacturer of our machinery, Dr Kurzeder, doubted our production figures. I requested him to go to the floor with a stopwatch to check the output. He took several readings for nearly an hour and admitted that our girls were more efficient than Germans. That was a matter of great pride.
(3) EMI, the world’s largest recording company then, employing 40,000 persons wanted me not to set up a record making plant in Pakistan and offered a posting in any country of my choice, except Pakistan, which I declined. Then they warned me that by using their clout, they could make the Pakistani Company bankrupt. I accepted that challenge. EMI tried their best. They turned our own Board members, Kh Shahid Hussain (CEO, NAFDEC) and Aslam Azhar (CEO, PTV) as our adversaries and even approached the then President of Pakistan, Ch. Fazal Elahi, but I received unflinching support from three top Pakistani officials, S. Ijlal Haider Zaidi (DG, PBC), Yusuf Buch (Adviser to the PM) and Masood-ur-Raoof (Additional Secretary I & B). Instead of SRBC going bankrupt, it set an all-time record of distributing a dividend of 500%. It was EMI Pakistan that went bankrupt. An EMI London executive, Mike Wells, called at my Karachi residence offering EMI (Pakistan) Ltd to me at a token price of Rs 1 only. Goliath had met its David. It was the highest achievement of my life, but I still declined due to my commitment with SRBC.
SK: Have your professional qualifications played a major role in you becoming what you are today or has it been your own individual outlook and approach to life?
RL: You may find it difficult to believe but right from my first job as Assistant Engineer at EMI (Pakistan) Ltd (within 5 minutes of my graduation in 1954) to the highest post in the Government of Pakistan as Federal Secretary, I have never applied for any job even verbally and nobody has asked for my credentials.
SK: Have you ever been asked to do something that you have openly disagreed with?
RL: Soon after General Zia-ul-Haq took over, he learnt that I had introduced an open plan office, where all the tables and chairs were absolutely identical. He conveyed his desire to visit such an institution, through General Mujibur Rahman Khan. I must tell you that I hated Gen Zia for manipulating Bhutto’s hanging. Risking my life, I told General Mujib that he was welcome but I would neither receive General Zia personally nor shake hands with him. General Mujib obviously felt that it may appear as an insult to the head of the nation and decided to cancel the visit entirely.
SK: Wise decision, I guess. Please tell me more about your experience as Federal Secretary, Ministry of Information, working with BB?
RL: When BB asked me to join her government, I told her that I have never lied, could not mislead the public or would do anything illegal that the ministry of I&B was not supposed to do. She said that she did not expect any such thing from me. She kept her words and never asked me to do anything improper or illegal.
However, Asif Zardari approached me thrice for favours to his friends that I declined. He once said something in Sindhi. When I asked him to translate that, he said that “it was easier to milk a bull than get a favour from me.”
In 1990, a senior journalist, Nazir Naji, told me that Shehbaz Sharif wanted to see me. I accompanied him. Shehbaz said, “I have gone through the secret files on you. You accepted no bribe, recruited not a single friend or relative, promoted or demoted any subordinate and even declined to accept BB’s gift of a plot in Islamabad. What for did you come to Islamabad?” I replied, “I did not come here to take but to give to the nation whatever I could. I noticed him silently gazing at the ceiling with a look that probably whispered “What an idiot! He came here not to make money”. I respectfully took my exit.
SK: I know that you are working on your autobiography. Is there anything else which you would still want to accomplish in life?
RL: I do wish to weed out the myths from Indian classical music and make it scientific and easy to understand, so that the educated younger generation could learn and appreciate it better. Today, most of the music teachers do not know how to describe a musical note scientifically or rationally.
Author’s note: After thanking him, I thought I would close with an Urdu verse from the pen of Suroor Barabankvi: