The ustaad of ustaads who mentored generations of journalists
For years I told Abul Hasanat sahib to write his own obituary—for I knew he would hate what any of us attempted. And yet, I find myself here, in the thicket of this unsure sentence, because on Saturday, at about ten o’ clock in the night, he decided to pass away without listening to me.
Hasanat sahib is…was… one of the last of the Pakistan media industry’s old guard. He is best known for his time at Dawn newspaper with a long tenure as its Karachi city editor. Prior to that, he had been at the Saudi Gazette. I know him because he came to work with my team when I was city editor at The Express Tribune in 2011. He joined us a year after his father’s death and retirement from Dawn.
When he got sick this September, Shahzeb Ahmed who worked with Hasanat sb at the Tribune, called me up at the Samaa Digital newsroom where I work now. The old man just would not stay at home and get better. Could I have a word with him? “He listens to you,” Shahzeb said. I hung up and dialed the number.
“Here, listen to me!” I scolded when Hasanat sb picked up.
“Me abhi Shahzeb ki khabar leta hun,” he said through gritted teeth. I heard Shahzeb protest in the background for ratting him out.
“You don’t worry about who called me,” I retorted. “What is this rubbish I’m hearing about you coming in to work when you aren’t well? I’m coming to get you right now to drop you home.”
A few days later he was admitted to Liaquat National Hospital with pneumonia. A lifetime of smoking had landed him in trouble earlier as well. Each year his lungs would give a dharna at least once. He had repeatedly tried to quit. After a wholly useless experience with nicotine patches and gum he tried vaping—self-consciously initially and then with panache with a suave little black e-cigarette he gleefully used indoors because of the impunity it offered.
I messaged him: I’m coming to see you. Stay alive!
I’m glad I went to see him at the hospital on Sunday, the last time we spoke. I cranked up the back of the bed so he could sit up and I didn’t mention his sickness. Instead I sought to divert his mind with his favourite topic: the state of the media industry.
This always got him worked up, for it was with progressive melancholy that he had seen changes and pressures batter Dawn and The Express Tribune. When I get out of here I’m going to pay (Dawn’s) Fahim Zaman a visit and ask him about this Fahd business, he had said, referring to circulating news that Tribune Executive Editor Fahd Husain had left the Express group and gone to Dawn in Islamabad. Hasanat sb had his own theory of why this could have happened. His eyes blazed above his oxygen mask as he expounded on it. A bony finger shook in the barely antiseptic air of the High Dependency Unit. He used the word ‘establishment’ with a capital E. If he hadn’t had a mask on and been less of a gentleman he would have spat on the ground to punctuate his point.
He was eventually discharged but I knew in my bones that this was the end. I started dreading writing an obituary and frankly, who was I to even write one? I had only known him for a decade.
Thing is, you don’t write obituaries for men like Hasanat sb, in my opinion. Nothing can ever do justice to the magnitude of their careers and intellect, the breadth of their experience running newspapers. Truth be told, I’ve been drawing a blank on his quirks and signature phrases, mention of which now smacks of reductionism for such a personality. At his funeral, some of us old and more recent Tribune folk sat around in his tiny North Nazimabad driveway and told a few stories. But every time I sat down to write this before his death and immediately after, I couldn’t remember exact quotes (and he would hate to be misquoted). I can’t even tell you anything of what other people say about him—mostly because in the privacy of my grief and numbness, I just care about who he was in my life and all I should offer here is a measure of the man for the editor he made me and the friendship and strange love that existed between us.
I first heard of Hasanat sb—but never met him even once—while I was at Dawn, for a blip in my career. After I passed a subbing test, senior editorial writer Muhammad Ali Siddiqi had placed me in Letters to the Editor with Umer Shariq, (now Muhammad Umer at The News). It would take me barely an hour to zip letters after which I’d tiptoe my way down the Corridor of Power to Editor Tahir Mirza sb’s office eager to have them vetted, my nervous palms leaving the sheath of printouts damp. Once he had made his corrective markings (don’t use ‘upcountry’ because people upcountry read Dawn too, he had once said), one day, I ventured beyond the scope of permission to speak:
“Sir, can’t I go work at the City desk?” I asked. “I’m really desperate. I don’t mind staying late at all.” This is what I recall I said, but were not necessarily my exact words. You see, once the letters would be done (and a few extras) I had nothing to occupy my time in those days, whose hours stretched like a terminal illness till 5pm. I was so desperate for work and to learn newspaper that I’d often pop my head in to Muhammad Ali Siddiqi’s office and ask if I could be of any assistance. He would write a topic on a chit of paper and dispatch me to the library to bring back clippings for an editorial he was writing. I think he thought I was slightly mad but an excellent chamchi.
Tahir Mirza was kind but firm. No. I could not join Hasanat sb’s newsroom. No woman worked there after Maghrib.
Now, this was not my first home, Daily Times, where I could weep, wail or sulk to eventually wear down Editor Najam Sethi if I didn’t get what I wanted. This was Dawn and Tahir Mirza had spoken. I slunk back through the Corridor, hating Hasanat sb in my black little heart. (To be fair, I should mention here, that this was probably Tahir Mirza sb playing a joke on me. There is no rule of ‘women after Maghrib’ at Dawn. He probably said it because the desk was full and I was most certainly underqualified for it.)
Well, who cares about the city pages anyway, I had said to myself. They’re boring. And that was that.
A second life
The wounds of my thwarted sub-editorial ambitions healed. Time passed. And then, by 2010, I was myself city editor for Karachi at a newly launched The Express Tribune.
One day, Editor Kamal Siddiqi said there was someone he wanted me to meet. It is an interview but not an interview, he added. In those early days after the launch, my desk was fully staffed which is why I was mystified. He gave me some background and I came away with the sense that this was just a token meeting. But given who it was, I panicked.
I went into the tiny conference room.
“Ah…Hasanat sb,” I squeaked.
He had white hair he wore in the kind of bob cut I always associate with Urdu-speaking poets. His shoes were immaculate, his shirt could have walked off a tuxedo and his grand posture, set back in the chair, could have launched a military offensive.
And I glowered at Kamal Siddiqi in my black little heart. Not for anything else, but how on God’s green earth was I supposed to ‘interview’ a senior journalist in his 60s who had run only the most important City pages for Karachi at a time when its history was being made. Hasanat sb was a legend; he had shaped some of the top reporters of our time such as Syed Raza Hasan who had covered among other things crime at Dawn and is now at Reuters, Arman Sabir who went on to BBC…
So, I gathered myself and switched tactic. “Sir, have you seen The Express Tribune City pages yet,” I asked him. He had not. I then opened up a few editions and walked him through the design and editorial content.
He didn’t like them.
Nevertheless, Hasanat sb joined the City desk as an editorial consultant where he worked till almost his dying day.
When he joined us, Hasanat sb was essentially surrounded by women who were more than a generation younger. The estrogen levels in the air alone would have driven him crazy. I want to stress just how unusual this configuration was for a newsroom. The Express Tribune was the new kid on the block with a very young team of mostly university graduates. The newspaper itself was started by Bilal Lakhani who was barely out of diapers in newspaper industry years. There were no old hacks sitting around the newsroom like furniture, smoking cigarettes and holding forth. Our Editor Kamal Siddiqi was quite young himself. In fact, Hasanat sb had once sneered that he wasn’t fit to run the paper. (Much later, after its astounding success, he did, to be fair, confess that he had been wrong).
We were young but we had a vision—we wouldn’t be like Dawn the Yawn. Bilal had award-winning Polish designer Jacek Utko create our modern grid, which preferred white space over dense print, editorial art over photographs and gave us the room to do double-truck spreads for one story. The website was, and still is today, an industry frontrunner. Its journalists now populate all the other major newsrooms, many of them running desks of their own.
I dwell on all these details for a reason: Hasanat sb, unbeknownst to us all at the time, was making a transition I see incredibly few senior journalists make. He had a full career at the country’s most prestigious and credible newspaper where he had been its all-powerful city editor. And with us at The Express Tribune, he adjusted to a whole new world of journalism. He may have had many accomplishments in life, but for me, his endearing ability to adjust at the age of 60-plus to a radically new newsroom culture and bring value to its team and journalism is a feat few accomplish. Most post-retirement journalists, much to my dismay, retreat from the community, or worse, hang on to the redundant forms of condescending news-telling about Big Government and the Deep State in a deaf self-pitying nostalgia that reeks of hubris.
What I am most proud of is Hasanat sb’s transformation without forgetting who he was as an editor, for few men I know carry that inherent dignity this man did. Even his gait, his chaal, the way he would arrive had a slow gravitas, a swag. Coupled with his classy sartorial sense, the elegance with which he held himself made me look around at the other men in my life and despair. We would especially swoon (at least those of us who had not been singed by his acerbic wit or condescension) in Winter when he wore that sexy maroon woolen scarf and winter jackets. This earned him a nickname. About a year ago when I thought he was really dying, I sat by his SIUT bed and decided the time had come to tell him.
“Do you want to know what your nickname is?” I asked him.
And like a schoolboy he could not contain his excitement.
“Don’t get too excited,” I replied, for I knew the nicknames of some of the other seniors at Dawn. No, this was a very Tribune thing.
“It’s Natty. Nats for short. And yes, everyone uses it.”
I think he was secretly pleased it wasn’t mean.
And so, Natty secretly reigned behind the scenes at The Express Tribune, in all his sartorial glory.
For me, it was like cheating. He could solve any problem. Any copy. Any story. I fell back on him every day. He was my backbone.
Quite lazily, I would ask him to break in new reporters and train them. He would send them off with lists of questions to ostensibly write a story on some institution. In reality he was giving them an education. Writer and freelance journalist Saba Imtiaz recalled how Hasanat sb dispatched her to figure out the domicile scam. She groaned when he assigned it because it was such a can of worms but when she emerged on the other end, she had a solid understanding of how the entire system worked. I’d often tease him that he would send them off to do a PhD.
And so he poured his energies into dispensing experience and one-liner wisdom to the young reporters and sub-editors. Few seniors do that anymore. Newsrooms have grown younger but at the cost of the great value senior editors bring. But a senior editor is a sham unless they can selflessly pass on their knowledge. Mentors are crucial in the news business but so many people are too selfish or insecure to invest in an up-and-coming talent that might pose a threat to them. Not Hasanat sb. He was an ustaad of ustaads.
Of course it took him time to really become comfortable with us young women. I will never forget the day sub-editor Tooba Masood (now at Dawn) danced around him chanting a word that bordered on obscene just to bug him. “Iblees,” he called her. You are positively satanic. But he grew to love us and us him. We reached a point where we could say the P word very loudly to get a rise out of him and other more conservative elements in the newsroom. That barrier was broken because of a story in which a woman chopped off her husband’s male member. We all had a fight over what headline to use. Kamal sb insisted on “private parts” but I argued that the more scientific sounding “genitals” worked. Private part just sounded titillating. Hasanat sb was mortified.
I am infinitely grateful that a raised eyebrow from him would remind me not to cross certain lines in our enthusiasm for casual or youthful diction. On the language front, Hasanat sb was a consummate grammar wonk but that didn’t stop me from fighting with him over prepositions around intransitive verbs. You see, he was one of the most widely read news persons I have ever come across, but in addition to that he was a master translator, especially of poetry and by extension, the Urdu and English idiom. We preferred reporters did not translate or bleach quotes given in Urdu so often I would sit with Hasanat sb to ask him how to properly convey the meaning of even one phrase. If he didn’t have an answer immediately available, he would go home and sleep on it. Inevitably, by either late night, or the next day he had messaged the perfect words. I have never worked since with anyone else like that.
Naturally, with such a wordsmith on the team with unparalleled knowledge of Pakistan, its history, people and personalities, culture, music and literature, I wanted him to write. But hell would freeze over before Hasanat sb took a byline. And herein was his sobering lesson on being an editor: you never take a byline. It was cheap. He did write one or two pieces upon my insistence but they went by a pseudonym.
Sarak chaap editor
I would like to believe that much of Hasanat sb’s character as an editor would have come from what he learnt from his father Abul Akhyar, a towering figure in Pakistani journalism, who it was clear he revered. It is a beautiful coincidence that father and son were both city editors at Dawn, although Akhyar sb was perhaps just for a few months on break from the Business Recorder. Hasanat sb held that fort much longer.
It was in this role that Hasanat sb displayed the singular talent of being able to “manage different interests”, explained his friend Humair Ishtiaq, assistant editor at Dawn. At the newspaper this talent translated into being able to get along with News Editor Saleem Asmi and Editor Ahmad Ali Khan, both men who came from very different journalism schools of thought. It was Asmi sb who had put up Hasanat sb’s name for city editor, a position that Sabihuddin Ghousi had wanted to leave in order to return to reporting. Khan sahib and Asmi sahib hardly agreed on anything, added Ishtiaq sb, but they agreed on this.
Of course, just as it was in my case, Hasanat sb too found himself a ‘young’ city editor in a Dawn newsroom with some rather senior names (Shamim Rahman for example). He had laid down some conditions when Khan sahib discussed the position with him. One of them was to reassign the crime reporter to another beat because he was up to no good. I can only imagine that it was difficult for him at some points to handle reporters who may not have taken him seriously. Perhaps that is why he knew what I went through and what had shaped me when I assumed the same position at the Tribune.
The best of city editors are journalists who know the territory, which demands the rare combination of someone with irreproachable English skills, who is an HR manager and has experienced the city at street level so reporters can’t run circles around you. Hum kalay admi they, says Ishtiaq sb, referring to himself and Hasanat sb. We were sarak chaap. They knew the man on the street. Even after he returned from the Middle East and had bought his first car, Hasanat sb took the bus so he could stay informed about the way Karachi was on the street and never grow too distant from it. You could pick any neighbourhood and Hasanat sb knew its terrain, dynamics, history and where its stories lay buried. He carried an intimacy with Karachi’s geography. But then, when he became city editor, he also developed a rapport with the “city’s administrative elite” such as SIUT’s Dr Adib Rizvi or the commissioners. “He was a kala admi who sat with the gora man.”
Indeed, that wealth of city knowledge is what I drew on when he was by my side. He never ever dropped names or showed off, but he knew and was respected by the who’s who of Karachi and beyond. Take the poet Jamiluddin Aali for example, whose obituary is one of the rare bylines Hasanat sb took, in 2015. It was a stellar piece of writing which speaks for itself and includes the story of how Hasanat sb was involved in the Urdu Dictionary Board.
When it came to my own writing, which was initially reluctant as I had also imbibed the no-byline rule, I always handed over a draft for him to check. He once returned the papers seemingly untouched. I was almost about to go back to him but then I saw he had inserted a single word, “allegedly”, and that was what saved the entire piece. This was what an editor did.
I am grateful to Kamal Siddiqi for having the wisdom to ask Hasanat sb to join us even though it may not have seemed like a good fit. I am eternally indebted to the old man for reminding me of the sobering business of ensuring the lede is lede-worthy. We sometimes made inappropriate choices on the top story, or skipped some fact-checking. Having him there was an education in maintaining a standard. “Why should we have the Sindh Assembly proceedings as lede,” I must have argued with him. To us younger people it was boring. But Hasanat sb would then point out that something important was unfolding in the law-making which the House was trying to sneak past the public. With a little rewriting we had to amplify the impact he knew it would have on the people.
And so, he guided me as an editor, held my hand and schooled me. I frequently lose my way. I would get lost as a journalist, an editor and also as a woman. It is a profession and society full of despair. After I left Tribune I would ring him up and fix a time to go to his home in North Nazimabad where I would sit in his parlour for long talks. He was a father to me, a best friend, a mentor, someone who gave me confidence and love. He had old world charm and in his home I saw just how well-respected women were and how women should be treated. He particularly enjoyed it when I would wear a sari. He understood me. I talked to him about everything, how dumb boys were, being married, being unmarried, intellectual wastelands, why sub-editors forget the comma after an embedded phrase, how to live, how to die, what to read…
Once, during those sessions in which he soothed my jangled nerves, he gave me a book, a big font photocopy of The Human Situation: A series of Gifford Lectures given in the University of Glasgow on the subject ‘Why are we here?’ by W. Macneile Dixon. It was a book he had read many times, he told me. A few months ago he asked me to return it but I put it off. I think I knew he was going to slip away soon, make his transition. I effectively stole the book for I had wanted to keep something of his. For look at these words, you can tell the man from what he delighted in:
“We are, no doubt, of some trifling importance to ourselves, but to attach any importance or significance to mankind at large is difficult. ‘We burn’, said Pascal, ‘to find some firm foundation, some unshakeable basis on which we may build the tower which reaches up to infinity.’ We desire, that is, to think nobly of ourselves. But the ship of life is so small and the sea of circumstances so wide, that we are discouraged.”
In his dying, Hasanat sb has left me adrift in that sea and I am frightened to be without him.