‘Farewell Talat Aslam: Will miss your wit, political acumen’

Talat stood firmly on the side of reason and logic, using satire to undermine irrationality and injustice

‘Farewell Talat Aslam: Will miss your wit, political acumen’


iteracy, in my humble opinion, is far too important a matter to be left to the literate. So what is the harm in allowing the politically illiterate from doing their bit for their unlettered countrymen?

“….I for one am thrilled that Islamabad has been declared an illiterates-free zone. What is puzzling is that this was not done years ago.”

So wrote Talat Aslam in a column for The Star, Karachi, back in 1986. Titled My Unlettered Countrymen, it poked gentle fun at the “glittering new ordinance” passed during Gen Ziaul Haq’s military regime that barred “illiterates from holding passports, driving licenses, arms licenses and government jobs”.

Talat – or Tito, to use the nickname family and friends called him – stood firmly on the side of reason and logic, using satire to undermine irrationality and injustice.

I had interned at ‘morninger’ The Star for nine months before going abroad for higher studies in 1982. Down the corridor was monthly The Herald office, which Tito joined while I was away at college.

It was when I returned to Karachi in 1986 after completing my degree that I first met Tito. Working at the design department at Bond Advertising Agency, I would go to The Star to pick up occasional illustrating assignments.

Tito would wander over from his desk at the Herald, his first job, to hand over his somewhat sporadic weekly offering to the Star Weekend, stopping for tea and gossip.

An unassuming, soft-spoken young man with a brilliant mind, he later served as editor for the Herald, then joined The News. I was already there by then, roped in by Tito’s older brother, journalist and satirical playwright Imran Aslam, earlier editor of The Star.

Cuttings of my work from The Star days include Tito’s “unlettered countrymen” piece. My irreverent cartoon illustrating the piece shows a sign in front of the Parliament House: “Dogs and illiterates not allowed”. A pot-bellied man in a waistcoat shows his “Legislator exempt pass” to a security officer leaning on the sign.

The cops should “hold simple tests to make sure that anyone entering our capital city can at least read the writing on the wall,” suggests Tito in the piece.

He also floats more innovative moves that could help Pakistan prosper, like taxing “the failures in our midst, to dissuade them from becoming a heavy burden on our exchequer.”

To the “thorny question of land-reforms”, he proposes “a bold step forward towards income re-distribution… Anyone working a tiny parcel of land to death should surrender their fields to the nearest Wadera, Sardar, Khan, Malik or Chaudhry”.

He further suggests taking away “the right to vote from people who cannot install foreign bathroom fittings – or even taps in their houses. You never know who they might vote for given half a chance.”

This deliciously tongue-in-cheek political satire and dry wit was typical of Tito. Tongue firmly in cheek, with understated humour, his writings quietly slipped a subversive punch to those who would get it.

His deep voice often seemed to have a smile in it and he retained his gentle good humour even when I’d bug him to quit smoking. He’d roll his eyes with a smile when I’d walk into his office at The News. He knew I’d make it hard for him to light up.

“I need to just finish this,” he’d say if he was on a deadline, never in a hurry to kick me out. He’d order tea and samosas, or lunch, and carry on working unflapped, as other colleagues came in to join the party.

In the past few years, Tito had taken to Twitter where he amassed a loyal following, with his food experiments, nocturnal wanderings, puns and razor-sharp political analysis. He abhorred hypocrisy and humbug.

It is not surprising to learn that he and old friend Hasan Zaidi had been talking about putting together a book on Karachi’s alternative food hangouts.

Although Tito’s health deteriorated considerably over the past few years, he retained his sense of humour and gentle manner. Diagnosed with kidney failure in 2016 while visiting his younger brother – hilariously nicknamed Ditto – in England, he had to go on dialysis.

The brothers returned to Pakistan, where Tito regained his health enough to go back to work. He lost a lot of weight – and some teeth – but gamely carried on. Kept smoking. Never complained.

It was only after he passed away suddenly on Wednesday morning that I learnt that he had studied anthropology at University College, London. I also learnt that he was 67; he always seemed younger.

An unassuming, softspoken young man with a brilliant mind, he later rved as editor for the Herald, then joined The News. I was already there by then, roped in by Tito’s lder brother, journalist and satirical playwright Imran Aslam, earlier editor of The Star. 

I knew the family had lived in former East Pakistan, but also learnt only after Tito’s passing that he was born in Chittagong. The family had earlier lived in Madras where Tito’s two older brothers were born.

After 1971, the family moved to Lahore for a year, and then to Abu Dhabi where Tito did his O and A levels privately. He and Ditto went on to study in England in 1973. Their youngest sibling, Ayesha, lives in London.

The four brothers were together just days earlier for Tito’s birthday on May 16. “Not quite the Beatles. My brothers and me,” he tweeted.

Tito’s sudden departure leaves a huge void not only for his family, but all the friends and colleagues who had the good fortune to know and work with him.

The writer is a journalist and journalism teacher based in Boston. She is the founder editor of The News on Sunday. Blog: www.beenasarwar.com. Twitter @beenasarwar 


‘Farewell Talat Aslam: Will miss your wit, political acumen’

The eternal optimist

By Gulraiz Khan


hen the Green Line BRT opened to the public in January, I couldn’t wait to jump on board. I had been sharing my anticipation on Twitter, and Tito was one of the handful of people who reached out to say that he wanted to come along.

On the crisp, blue afternoon of Saturday, January 15, we gathered at Numaish station with the enthusiasm of school children going on a field trip. Tito was running a few minutes behind, so he boarded a bus after ours, and joined us at the Board Office station. Decked in a sporty bomber jacket, with khaki trousers and a striped blue shirt, he had dressed up for the occasion.

Throughout the trip, he observed the commuters sharply, picked up on languages and accents to guess their background, and read the sign boards along the way to determine the makeup of neighbourhoods. He got most excited at the signs of food outlets. “I must come again to eat at this place,” he remarked more than once. Of the entire group of seven, he was the only one as excited as me about the Khopra Mithai from Mullah, a halwai at Nazimabad, that we got off to try.

I think the Khopra Mithai left an impression. Last Tuesday, more than five months after our trip, I met him at his balcony for a post-birthday celebration. While we talked about a lot of things, the one thing he was most enthusiastic to share was a story idea he wanted to discuss with me. He wanted to commission residents of neighbourhoods along the Green Line route to share food (and cultural) recommendations along the route. A food map of the Green and Orange Line!

There are few people I’ve come across who share my enthusiasm for this city. To Tito, this enthusiasm came effortlessly. He found joy in the city’s simplest offerings – the chai and paratha at his favourite Kakar Hotel, Waheed’s fry kebabs that we had that night, or that Khopra Mithai that we shared as a celebration of the joy that Green Line brought to us. He was grounded and always optimistic. I envied that about him. Maybe if I make that food map along transit lines, I will understand where his optimism came from.

The writer is the head of Digital Design Lab – Level 3, United Bank Limited

‘Farewell Talat Aslam: Will miss your wit, political acumen’