Each one of my earlier memories of Idrees Bakhtiar or Idrees sahab (as he was called by everyone) is entwined with my early days at Herald. I had landed at the magazine, The Dawn Media Group and the city all on the same day, after having accepted the job of editing the magazine. Unclear of how I was going to cope with a magazine and its staff, in addition to living in unfamiliar Karachi, I was a bundle of nerves – and in no shape to make a good first impression on anyone including Idrees sahab.
And yet, he quickly became my confidante, security blanket, shrink and all things editorial within days. And that perhaps was his most endearing quality; his generosity, which extended to helping an outsider he perhaps didn’t think much of.
He didn’t reserve his patience and his advice for just his friends; it was there for everybody and everyone took advantage of it, as did I. Be it an editorial decision, a second opinion on a piece, advice on how to handle personnel problems, exhausted staff or even how to make my way through the bureaucratic maze of The Dawn Media Group – every problem awaited the late arrival of Idrees sahab.
And late it was. He was old school and his day began late; nothing would ever change that.
The afternoon threatened to turn into evening and the difficult employee I was avoiding would go home or the story on which I needed advice would miss its deadline by the time I heard the quiet “Salam” (just the one word) outside the open door to the editor’s office. He would stop outside the door until I acknowledged the greeting and progress towards his office only once he had determined the level of crisis facing me.
As the days turned into months and then years and my ability to handle crises at Herald improved, he continued to stop at the door, announce his arrival before moving ahead. Clad in his freshly-ironed shirt and pants, his cigarettes and papers in hand, his head tilted to face me, I can still picture him at the door – clearly – even though the rest of the memories of those hectic days at Herald run into each other chaotically, making it hard for me to separate specific incidents and stories.
But I do remember that in all the years that we worked together, no crisis ever frazzled him – every problem called for a pause and a “kuch karte hain” in his calm, soft voice. It is only on his passing away that I realised his generosity and willingness to help people was a lifelong habit; everyone who spoke or wrote of him has mentioned it, as they remembered “Idrees sahab”.
Death in many ways makes us selfish for we grieve for our own loss. And this time around, it has been no different. Since I heard of his death, the sense of loss refuses to go away. Because I lost so much more than a friend and a ‘kindred spirit’. Just when we needed more like him, it seems he decided he didn’t want anything to do with us.
By the time I met Idrees sahab at the tail end of the Musharraf years, he was slowly withdrawing from reporting. And frankly, while I had heard of him earlier, I was not very familiar with his work. But as time went on, casual conversations with him about Karachi and its politics and his days at Star, Herald and earlier, made me aware of the giant he was in his heyday as a reporter. But I learnt this more from what I read and heard and less from him directly. He loved to tell stories but rarely were they focused on himself or his own stories (a rarity when it comes to the breed we call reporters).
Those achievements I found in the past issues of Herald as I made my way through investigative reports by him; and then turned to him for the snippets that hadn’t made it into the stories. For someone who had witnessed the turmoil of the nineties so closely, the human suffering in Karachi rather than the shenanigans of the rulers were closer to this heart – he could talk endlessly of the operations in the city and their human cost. We spoke in detail about the extensive reporting in Herald on human rights violations during the nineties operations; poignant at a time when the state was clearing out FATA.
I still remember his answer when we once discussed the excessive violence of the MQM, which arguably had compelled the state to react equally violently. But for Idrees sahab “all terrorism is bad but state terrorism is just unacceptable.” His voice still echoes in my head. That was Idrees sahab; he knew what he believed in.
But despite being a man of strong convictions, he was open-minded and tolerant. His affinity to the Jama’at Islami was no secret but many of his closest friends were the most secular, left-leaning people in Karachi and beyond. And they all admired him for this reason – one could talk to him more openly than to most because with him, it was a debate and an exchange of ideas. An interaction didn’t turn unpleasant and neither did it have to be abandoned suddenly due to heated tempers. Be it politics, religion or journalism, with Idrees sahab, all could be discussed without fear of offence or insult.
And neither were questions left unasked. Even when I moved to DAWN, any headline or story he objected to (or where he felt I may have played a role) led to a message or a call. And I usually came off the worse in these encounters. His objection was rarely ever without merit. Unlike others who are quick on the draw but cannot articulate their views because they have not thought the matter out, he had arguments; perhaps this is why he never had to raise his voice or lose his temper.
Indeed, in a rapidly growing industry where jobs and posts grew faster than experienced human resource, his grasp of editorial matters was rare. In his last job at Geo, he supervised content – others called it censorship – as an unbridled medium grew weary of any caution and parameters. But for Idrees sahab, it was the equivalent of the editing desk that no paper can run without. Like most of us from print, the shenanigans on television upset him and caused him despair but only because he believed in journalism as a cause. It was never just a job for him.
When his employment at Geo ended recently, we made plans – like multiple ones earlier – of writing projects and books. I thought we had endless time to do it. In fact, he came to Islamabad recently, but I didn’t get around to seeing him, confidently arrogant that I would soon make it up to him.
Little did I know that I wasn’t going to get another chance.
Death in many ways makes us selfish for we grieve for our own loss. And this time around, it has been no different. Since I heard of his death, the sense of loss refuses to go away. Because I lost so much more than a friend and a ‘kindred spirit’. It seems as if he has taken away with him a world where we could believe in different ideologies, different ideas and yet be friends. A world in which supporting an idea or a group didn’t mean one was a stooge or had been bribed, or that someone who thought differently had to be despised or ‘othered’. Just when we needed more like him, it seems he decided he didn’t want anything to do with us.
I am mourning for so much more than just Idrees sahab.
Arifa Noor is a journalist and the lead anchor for News Wise on DawnNews. In her previous capacities she was Editor Herald and Resident Editor DAWN Islamabad. firstname.lastname@example.org