As I type these words, I want to press delete and start again. ‘Dear Zain’, I want to begin. ‘Dear Zain: I hope you are well….’
Because that’s how all my communication with Zain usually begins (began?).
As I look at exactly 178 emails in my mailbox when I type Zainul Abedin in the search bar, this is how they go. Even the last one that I wrote a few days ago when I heard that Zain was in the hospital, I wrote this:
Dear Zain, it said, I hope you are well.
I don’t have to jog my memory to recall how long I have known Zain; because it’s right there in front of me, sitting in my mailbox. An email from Zain I received on November 14, 2010 at 2:36 am.
“I was wondering if we could fix a weekly slot for your columns,” it began.
Not just the Sunday slot, I noticed, but the ‘coveted’ Sunday slot.
“You will eventually get paid” he added, “all our writers do.” Zain obviously knew how to make a pitch but he also knew how to keep it real. I remember feeling my heart bungee-jump for a bit as a butterfly in my gut told me I was onto something wonderful. I quickly scrolled down to see who this email was from. And there it was.
Zainul Abedin, Editor op-ed The News.
For a freelance writer doing occasional features and whose personal essays would often be hidden by editors in obscure spaces on their pages, if THIS wasn’t a coup then I don’t know what was. I was elated. “I do, I do, I do”, I instantly committed.
Dear Zain, I wrote, I want you to know that this is the break I had been waiting for all my life. And you are the one who gave it to me. So thank you.
Soon after that email exchange, I grew from a two-column old op-ed writer who had gotten herself noticed by the mighty op-ed editor to an anxious three-column old op-ed writer who was feeling the burden of the readers’ expectations already. I had been fired from my teaching job after I made fun of something in my first column, and by the time I wrote my third, I had already received my first angry-VIP call. “What do I do, what do I do, what do I do?” I turned to Zain. “I don’t think I can do this. A)I don’t think I am good enough; B) I don't think I am not rich enough; C)I don't think I am powerful enough.”
This was another thing about Zain. He always recognized a writing emergency when he saw it. We set up a time to call and he picked up. “My job as an editor is not to fix your grammar,” he almost chided, “but to make sure you have optimal conditions to write... to get the best out of you. What do you need? Time? Take all the time you need, but it would be a pity to see you go and leave the coveted Sunday slot that I had been keeping from the encroachers for so long.”
Here, he had done it. Three strikes in one stroke. What I heard in this two minute chat was: A)I was valued; B) Valued but not THAT valued; C) My slot was a coveted slot and if I didn’t get my act together, there were plenty of people available to sweep me aside. In retrospect, I think it was option C that finally made me get over myself and pick up where I had wanted to leave.
There is a reason why almost a decade after that chat, and almost six years since I left writing my column, I still think of Zain as My Editor. Zainul Abedin may not have been correcting people’s grammar, but he made a writer feel that they mattered and knew how to keep the spark alive. He noticed salvageable writing in a heap of News Post and gave it a space to flourish. He understood a writer’s ego, insecurities and vulnerabilities, and he tackled them all in one swift motion when he had to. He may have had a million disagreements with his writers, especially when one of them got swept away in the tide of popular politics, but it never became personal for Zain. Despite some debate about the content of my writing, my columns mostly appeared uncensored the next day.
I haven’t written for this paper for six years, and haven’t spoken to Zain on the phone in almost seven, but somehow we were always able to pick up where we left.
“Happy Birthday Zain,” I wrote to him last year. “Thank you,” he said. “Hope you are safe and sane." “The only thing more rampant than Covid-19 here is the uncertainty,” he wrote further. “Stay safe Zain!” I wrote back.
I could see from the small icon that dropped next to my message that Zain had read my message, but as is usual in digital small talk where one person has to leave it at that, Zain left it at that too.
That’s the last time I spoke to him.
If I had known that in six months Zain would succumb to what he perceived as the lesser of the two evils between Covid-19 and Uncertainty, maybe I would have said something more.
“Dear Zain,” I would have said, “I hope you are well.”
Right now, as I write this, I truly wish for that little icon to drop down next to this sentence, and show me that Zain has read my message. I don't know whether it's the writer in me seeking my editor’s final approval or if it's actually possible to miss one's editor like that.
Thank you Zain for all you did for me. In my story, you will always be The One Who Noticed.
And made sure I eventually got paid for it.
Zainul Abedin wrote the blurb of Adiah Afraz’s book of columns, and wanted to know the name of the editor who put a typo in it.
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