When Niloufer Patel, DAWN’s Director Circulation & Coordination and my colleague and friend of 26 years, passed away so suddenly and unexpectedly in September, tributes came pouring in from all the people she had touched in her lifetime. The common thread was the almost unanimous use of the word ‘gentle’ to describe her personality. And yes, Niloufer was gentle. And she was fearless, relentless and tenacious to the extreme. Her integrity and dedication were irreproachable.
Niloufer was born to Freny and Sorhab Lawyer in Bombay (Mumbai); her beloved sister Rukhsana arrived a few years later. She attended the Mama Parsi Girls Secondary School in Karachi and did her MBA at the Institute of Business Administration. She joined The Dawn Group of Newspapers (The Dawn Media Group since 2007) in 1983 as Research Officer. In 1991 she became General Manager Circulation and then Director Circulation & Coordination in 2012. It was an association of 36 years.
To do justice to Niloufer’s role and her impact on the Group would take up far more space than this tribute allows for. Perhaps Abbas Nasir, former editor DAWN, summed them up best when he wrote in his column: “Niloufer was so much more than her designated role asked of her; everybody in DAWN, whether in editorial, marketing, production or her own circulation department or senior management saw her as a personal friend, a peacemaker who was always around for them.”
Niloufer’s time with the Group coincided with one of the most disruptive periods in Pakistan’s media landscape. In 1996, she worked with DAWN’s senior management to oversee the launch of DAWN Lahore and in 2001 of DAWN Islamabad as well as the launches of Aurora and Spider in 1998. In her capacity as head of circulation, she established DAWN Sales in 1986. She also represented the newspaper during the many negotiations with the Akhbar Farosh Federation; the only woman in a room full of robust men, she was never daunted, holding firm to her negotiating position while almost beguiling them with her gentle disposition. When necessary, she would be up in the early hours of the morning and go to one or more of the 24 newspaper depots in Karachi (and further afield) to supervise the distribution of the paper and breakfast with the hawkers while transacting whatever business had brought her there. Recently, when DAWN was faced by serious distribution issues across the country, she was relentless in her endeavours to ensure the paper reached its readers.
Niloufer was a wonderful person to work alongside with and have as a friend. She was blessed with copious amounts of common sense (a commodity in surprisingly short supply). She would analyse a situation, take stock and then suggest a reasoned solution. She was always willing to walk the extra mile in order to help someone.
It was this uncompromising resolve that prompted Zaffar Abbas, Editor, DAWN, to tweet: “In passing away, DAWN has lost one of its finest. Niloufer was not just director circulation; she was a crusader for the free press. When DAWN was under severe attack and its distribution was disrupted, she worked tirelessly to make sure the paper reached most of its readers.” This view was echoed by Abbas Nasir in his column: “… she was literally on the job until the very end, ensuring that what we journalists produce get to you, the reader, unhindered all year round… whether a militant group controlling Karachi was attempting to prevent that from happening or an organised armed state institution was standing in her path.”
In 2004 she launched the DAWN National Spelling Bee competition under the umbrella of DAWN In Education which she set up in 1999. Currently in its 15th edition, the Spelling Bee is now the largest such competition in Pakistan, attracting top flying students from the ages of nine to 17 from schools across Pakistan from Skardu to Karachi. In 2004 she worked directly with CEO DAWN in mounting the Jewel in the Crown: Karachi Under the Raj (1843-1947) at the Mohatta Palace; a landmark exhibition that showcased the metamorphosis of Karachi from a small fishing village to a premier port in the East. In 2013, when DAWN undertook a major redesign of its pages, Niloufer was charged with coordinating the liaison between Editor DAWN and his team and Creative Unit, the design team. She also worked closely with the Chairman and the CEO on matters relevant to the organisation’s business. She was a trusted aide whose discretion and diplomacy could be completely relied upon.
These are only a few of Niloufer’s landmark achievements – 36 years is a long time, and Niloufer was no slacker in the pursuit of her objectives. For example, at the end of 1985 when she was engaged to Cyrus Patel (her soon to be husband) she found herself in a full blown circulation crisis that required the immediate setting up of DAWN Sales, which in turn meant, among a slew of other tasks, obtaining the names and addresses of every DAWN reader in Karachi – a mammoth job by any measure. Undaunted, she rose to the challenge, working round the clock and sacrificing her courtship days to get the job done. Her only concession to Cyrus was to allow him to come to Haroon House in the evenings and work alongside her team. It was the only way he could hope to see her. In the winter of 1991, she was involved in coordinating the first Aurora Advertising Awards at Baleji Beach in Karachi (a scintillating event still talked about by the people who gathered there). At the time, Niloufer was expecting her son Zeryus; yet she continued working and orchestrating arrangements until the day before she delivered.
All this may paint a picture of an obsessive workaholic, determined to squeeze the proverbial last ounce of blood in pursuit of achieving her goals. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. It was perhaps a function of her gentle nature that Niloufer managed to achieve so much by her tactful handling of people. She had no time for petty egos or small minded reactions, yet, rather than opt for confrontation, deflection was her weapon, which coupled with her steely resolve made her an extremely effective executive. She was very approachable and among her many talents was her ability to engage in conversation with anyone on any topic. At DAWN, the standard response to the query “where is Niloufer?” was “she is circulating.” And indeed she was, across all the floors of the building, usually with her mobile phone held up to her ear… getting the job done.
Off work Niloufer was a music fiend – she loved pop music and would stay up late at night watching TV if a concert that interested her was telecast. She also loved going to the movies and nothing pleased her more than to get together with a group of friends and watch the latest release on the big screen. She cherished her husband and son, and lived for her trips to the UK (where Zeyrus is studying medicine). Her last trip was over the Eid-ul-Azha holidays this year; when she came back I asked her how the trip had gone, she beamed at me, saying “it was just great!”
Niloufer was a wonderful person to work alongside with and have as a friend. She was blessed with copious amounts of common sense (a commodity in surprisingly short supply). She would analyse a situation, take stock and then suggest a reasoned solution. She was always willing to walk the extra mile in order to help someone. But Niloufer was also a realist and a pragmatist. Her instincts were to solve the problem in the most satisfactory way possible, rather than wring her hands and mouth comforting words. Her passing away came as a huge shock to her colleagues, friends and above all her family. Almost two months later, when I pick up my extension I still expect to hear her modulated tones harassing me (gently!) at the other end, for something she wanted me to do. When I last saw her at the hospital, I told her that I was almost beginning to miss her pestering. She smiled. The thought that I would never see her again was unimaginable. I will miss you, dear Niloufer. You were DAWN’s gentle superwoman.