Tuesday May 30, 2023

What we learn from Saleem Asmi

November 08, 2020

I can claim the honour of having worked under the editorship of Saleem Asmi – that meticulous editor of Dawn and indomitable fighter for human rights as vice-chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). He left this world on Oct 31, 2020.

Asmi Sahab had mastered the fine art of converting prosaic tasks of editing into a learning exercise for his team members. Every evening when we converged to the newsroom, we looked for that day’s newspaper that Asmi Sahab invariably sent to us with his comments on various news items, and corrections, or rather improvements, in our editing. By doing this, he encouraged us to keep our creative urge alive. He had a detective’s eye to pinpoint even minor lapses of editing in our copy and headlines, and was prompt in suggesting revisions.

Asmi Sahab insisted on having a stylebook or guide for his newspaper, and managed to not only develop one, but also gave away one copy to each sub-editor and reporter. By the time he took over as editor of Dawn in March 2000, he had over three decades of wide and varied experiences in journalism, both in Pakistan and abroad. From being an investigative reporter at the Pakistan Times and Viewpoint, a commentator on art and culture, to being a consummate editor and leader of teams, he had it all, save a stern countenance.

So, we were lucky to have him as our new team leader after Ahmed Ali Khan had played his long innings at the paper. Asmi Sahab made it a point to keep direct contact with nearly every staff member at Dawn. His frequent visits to various sections of the paper kept him informed about the everyday challenges we faced, from the newsroom to city desk to business pages. But his most important contribution was initiating new pages that were closer to his heart. Art was his passion and books were his salvation after hours of tiring work.

One of the qualities that I admired in him the most was his aesthetic sense. He himself was a reasonably good painter and had in his collection select works of art from some of the best artists. It was through him that I came to know about Haji Sharief and his contribution to miniature painting. When Asmi Sahab conducted an interview with Haji Sharief, the latter was already about 90 years old living in seclusion in Lahore. Somehow, Asmi Sahab managed to elicit from Haji Sharief some of the finer details of his nearly 70 years of hard work in miniature painting.

In one of my sittings with Asmi Sahab at his home, he was kind enough to explain to me the intricacies of miniature art and how Haji Sharief was so different from others working in the same genre. Asmi Sahab’s interest in art was not confined to miniature painting, he cherished landscape paintings by Ghulam Rasul as much as he loved Jamil Naqsh’s sensuous figures. The same applies to the painting of horses that Jamil Naqsh was famous for and Salim Asmi was fond of. He felt sad when creative artists or writers dissipated their energies and talent, as was done by Ahmed Pervez.

Pervez was one of the finest painters of Pakistan in the 1950s and 60s; but his descent into drunkenness and self-deception comes alive in one of Asmi’s best pieces of writing on him. As an aesthete, dance and music could not be out of Asmi Sahab’s domain, and that was reflected in his writings too. His interviews with Madam Azurie and Roshan Ara Begum are a testimony to his in-depth knowledge of the performing arts and the food of love. Asmi was equally, if not more, immersed in poetry and prose of the writers such as Faiz and Josh.

He was also scathing when he didn’t like a particular aspect of an otherwise masterpiece of fiction, for example ‘Khuda ki Basti’ by Shaukat Siddiqui. He wrote encouragingly about younger writers such as Ajmal Kamal and Asif Farrukhi. He especially praised the Urdu journal ‘Aaj’ that was new in the 1990s. Another quality in him was his comradeship with his fellow beings, his friends in particular. He was always welcoming to his juniors and if you were able to strike a chord with him, he cherished your company.

But unlike some other seniors he was never taxing or demanding; he felt happy if you could do something and didn’t berate you if you couldn’t. He didn’t like to put people in difficult situations by reminding them of what he had done for them. I never saw him bitter or ranting about what other people were not doing or could not do. His creative streak was visible when he discussed or wrote anything. Cinema and film were once his favourite topics and he could enlighten us about world cinema, whether French and German or Indian and Italian.

Asmi’s write-up titled ‘The magic of Ray’ is a befitting tribute to one of the greatest film auteurs in the history of world cinema. But as Asmi Sahab grew older and gradually lost contact with the mainstream, he preferred not to discuss the good old days when Pakistan had cinema houses where one could watch critically acclaimed films. It made him sad to see the artistic decline in society.

Lastly, it would not be fair to not mention his contribution to the struggle of the freedom of expression in Pakistan and his commitment to human rights. He was at the forefront of the student struggle in the 1950s; then he kept the banner of democracy up in the 1960s with his friends such as Husain Naqi and I A Rehman. But his most enduring image as a prisoner of conscience is etched in the memory of journalists who fought against the military junta of General Ziaul Haq. He was arrested and imprisoned by a military court that was formed to target the dissenting journalists who raised a voice to challenge the dictator’s atrocities against democracy and freedom of expression.

The HRCP can never forget the services Asmi Sahab rendered as its vice-chairman of the Sindh chapter for several years. He was part of multipl­e fact-finding missions about human rights violations in the country. He contributed to various HRCP reports and always gave a sympathetic ear to the victims and their friends and relatives who contacted Asmi Sahab for guidance and help as the VP of the HRCP in Sindh.

Perhaps the most important lesson that we could learn from journalists such as Ahfazur Rahman, Husain Naqi, I A Rehman, Nasir Zaidi, Saleem Asmi, and others is that journalism is a passion not a profession. The passion for democracy, for fundamental rights, and for educating and informing people about what is wrong in society; and that passion must be above all considerations of caste, colour, and creed.

Asmi Sahab taught us that it is not good to have a single-track mind, and that diversity is the essence of creativity. He was not a prolific writer, but whatever he wrote was worth reading and we admired his diction. He was like a careful composer, who was careless in keeping his compositions. It was thanks to his friend S M Shahid that Asmi Sahab’s articles and interviews could see the light of day.

In 2012, S M Shahid compiled and published his book titled ‘Saleem Asmi – Interviews, articles, reviews’. In one of my infrequent visits to Asmi Sahab he presented to me the book, but was reluctant to sign it as his hand was infirm to pen a legible line. Still, he did manage to write ‘To Naazir Mahmood, our colleague and friend’ and signed it with a trembling hand.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.