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An Unusual Mind - Saleem Asmi (1934-2020)

Published in Nov-Dec 2020

Zohra Yusuf remembers Saleem Asmi.

Confined to a wheelchair and mostly staying home, Saleem Asmi was not a lonely man. The jalsaghar that DAWN’s Delhi columnist Jawed Naqvi referred to in his posthumous tribute was in session almost until the end. His warmth, intellect and depth of knowledge drew people to him. Young and old. Friends from his student years, as well as those who only discovered him on Facebook and made the effort to know him in person. With his immediate family living away, he kept an open and welcoming house. He had trained his staff well to know his friends’ likes and dislikes in food and drink.

Asmi sahib was known both as an aesthete and a proclaimed atheist. The aesthete part of his life was better known and shared, although he did not shy away from expressing his aversion to all religions. His home has wall-to-wall art even today, although he had the good sense to give the more valuable pieces from his collection (Bashir Mirza and Jamil Naqsh, among others) to his children years ago. He often bought paintings to support a struggling artist – without indicating that he was doing so to help out. In his lounge hangs a rare portrait of him that his dear friend, Ali Imam, did even if by then he had stopped painting. Artists were frequent visitors to his home, though lately it was the younger ones who took the time to see him.

Apart from his art collection, his home is full of books, music and films, although he had stopped listening to music or watching films for some years, and lately he had practically given up reading books apart from an occasional one downloaded on Kindle. He seemed, however, enchanted by social media – Facebook, in particular – and was often seen lost in his iPad or iPhone, reading and commenting on posts, making new friends in the process.

Out in the media world, Asmi sahib was known as an uncompromising journalist and editor. His lifelong friendships were also forged there. I.A. Rehman always took the time, when he was in Karachi, to spend his evenings with him and it was my pleasure to join them.

Asmi sahib suffered imprisonment during Zia-ul Haq’s rule in the company of other brave journalists. Although conditions were tough from what I heard, he never talked about those days with any sense of self-glorification; he took the imprisonment in his stride – as a fact of life in those difficult times. After his imprisonment ended, he plunged into exciting journalistic ventures – helping launch The Muslim in 1978 and giving it a smart, easy-on-the-eye layout. Later he moved to Khaleej Times in Dubai to leave his imprint on the newspaper. The respect and popularity he gained there were evident from continuing friendships. Two colleagues from his Khaleej Times days visited him in Karachi whenever they could. He assigned Jawed Naqvi the responsibility of reporting for DAWN from Delhi, as well as Latha Jishnu, who became my friend – she always called him “Chief”.

After his return from Dubai, he joined DAWN as City Editor. He found his niche when he was later made News Editor. With a keen eye for anything newsworthy, he encouraged investigative reporting and ensured that due prominence was given to issues that mattered at the time. Reporters recall his stringent demands for verification of any story he had doubts about. However, he truly found the space to give his own vision to the newspaper when he was promoted to the editorship of DAWN on the retirement of Ahmad Ali Khan in March 2000. He himself ‘retired’ as Editor in January 2003. After his appointment as Editor, I recall Zubeida Mustafa exclaiming to me that it seemed somebody had opened all the windows, letting in the fresh air. The manifestation of this change was first seen in the tabloid magazines he launched – Books & Authors, The Gallery and Sci-Tech World. He also had the good sense to assign the editing of these magazines to the right people – Zubeida Mustafa made many issues of Books & Authors good enough to collect. Similarly, Murtaza Razvi explored new perspectives on art in each issue of The Gallery.

However, he was not content with the softer side of editing a newspaper. He had a hunger for hard news and exclusive coverage. It was this hard nose for news that led him to publish Hamid Mir’s interview of Osama Bin Laden after Mir’s own newspaper turned it down. Published in DAWN in November 2001, this interview was also rare in the sense that the interviewer was a non-staffer and worked for another newspaper.

In 2012, much against Asmi sahib’s opposition, his old friend S.M. Shahid managed to publish a collection of his columns. Simply titled Saleem Asmi, this book showed readers an earlier part of his journalism – as a contributor to the Herald and other publications. His sense of objective reporting comes through, as he asks tough questions of many well-known personalities, ranging from Faiz Ahmed Faiz to Roshan Ara Begum – un-intimidated by their fame.

I personally got to know him through his association with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). Elected to the Council and later as HRCP’s Vice Chairperson for Sindh, his commitment to human rights issues was balanced with a keen attention to organisational matters. During the two terms he served, HRCP held more meetings than ever before in other parts of Sindh, away from the comforts of Karachi. He knew the importance of involving grassroots members in HRCP activities, as this was the only way that a human rights movement could be sustained. His contribution went beyond the expected role of an office-holder. When Asma Jahangir announced the institution of the Nisar Osmani Award for Courage in Journalism, he persuaded his friend and Pakistan’s finest sculptor, Shahid Sajjad, to design the award. He spent hours with Sajjad, going over the design and discussing options. He also organised the Courage in Journalism Awards that were presented to Zamir Niazi and Razia Bhatti (posthumously).

During his tenure, HRCP held an international conference on the theme of tolerance in collaboration with UNESCO. He worked hard to put together an exhibition of Pakistani art on the hotel premises so that visiting delegates could experience another aspect of the country as well. His friendship with artists led to Bashir Mirza donating a large oil painting, depicting a prisoner, to HRCP. Meticulous as he was, Asmi sahib had the painting restored and transported to HRCP’s head office in Lahore where it is still displayed in the auditorium. On his appointment as Editor DAWN, he resigned from his position of Vice Chairperson as he sensed a conflict of interest could arise.

Although usually surrounded by old friends or younger people who sought his opinion on a range of issues, I believe Asmi sahib had more to share. Many more could have benefited if he had had the chance to teach students of the media – or of the arts. However, the failing was not his alone. Institutions of learning in Pakistan rarely seek unusual minds.

Zohra Yusuf is Chief Creative Officer, Spectrum VMLY&R.