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The Quiet Brilliance of Talat Aslam (1955-2022)

Published in May-Jun 2022

Zohra Yusuf remembers Talat Aslam.

I first met Talat Aslam (Tito to all) in the early eighties when I was working for The Star, and he had joined the monthly newsmagazine the Herald, shortly after returning from England with a degree in anthropology. Razia Bhatti, tough and nurturing at the same time, was the editor of the Herald and she soon discovered Tito’s versatility in writing on diverse subjects with knowledge and impeccable use of the English language. However, there was one aspect of his writing skills that Herald did not find space for, but The Star soon did. It was his penchant for satire – witty, biting but never offensive. The absurdities of the time (the case even today) gave him ample ammunition for his columns, even though, in spite of our best efforts, he never committed to a regular weekly column – his first commitment being to the demands and deadlines of the Herald.

It was also at the Herald that Tito, along with the late Ameneh Azam Ali, introduced environmental journalism to Pakistan. Together, they explored and reported on many important environmental issues of the time. Some of these, such as the state of the Indus, are equally relevant today. Tito and Ameneh also covered conservation matters, focusing on historic monuments that are such an integral part of our heritage. Their reports were extensive and well-researched, providing valuable material to other researchers.

Tito stayed with the Herald when Razia Bhatti and almost the rest of the editorial staff left over differences with the management and later launched Newsline. With Ameneh as temporary editor, he helped bring out a few issues. However, Herald received a shot in the arm when Sherry Rehman was appointed editor. Sherry and Tito made a great editorial duo. They effectively complemented each other’s skills and strengths. Tito excelled in writing and editing while Sherry also demonstrated management abilities. She knew when to crack the whip on contributors or the production team when Tito was being a softie.

While Tito’s canvas was unusually large when it came to the choice of subjects, I particularly recall his writings on Pakistani films. Written knowledgeably and with apparent affection, they were so evocative that one could actually picture Waheed Murad singing a love song to Zeba or Shamim Ara coming down a staircase in a shimmering gharara.

However, there were more serious issues that Tito had to cover. During the period the late eighties and early nineties, when governments were sacked much before their term ended and elections became frequent, Herald published comprehensive reports to coincide with each election. The reports focused on issues of minority representation as well as women candidates and voters. Tito’s meticulous attention to detail and facts made the Herald Election Specials a credible source for other journalists as well as election monitors. I know that the election monitors of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan consulted these reports for constituency and candidate profiles. In fact, these reports acquired the status of collectibles.

Tito was a great raconteur. His anecdotes could keep his listeners in stitches. Following the harsh censorship of the Zia years, the nineties saw the rise of another kind of silencing of the press – through street power, exercised primarily by the MQM. I recall Tito’s hilarious account of visiting ‘Nine Zero’ to interview the MQM supremo, Altaf Hussain, who ranted and raved over Herald’s criticism of the party. According to Tito, Hussain accused the Herald editors of spending their evenings dancing and drinking in discos and writing their reports on his party in a state of inebriation (“nashay mein choor”)! Tito’s response, delivered with a twinkle in his eye, was “kaash” (I wish!), though he had the good sense not to say as much to the MQM chief.

Tito left Herald to join Geo when the channel was launched, but print was his medium and he returned to DawnMedia to work as the magazine editor of Dawn. In 2003, he left to join The News as its Karachi editor. He remained Senior Editor of the newspaper until his death on May 25 this year.

That Tito excelled in writing and editing is indisputable. However, it was only after his death that the generosity he showed as a mentor to scores of young journalists came to light. Social media was full of tributes and acknowledgements from the many he guided and trained, always in an unassuming and cheerful way. Tito was very active on Twitter and he seemed to enjoy the repartee with his followers. He continued to tweet almost until the end, and while clearly no PTI supporter expressed concern at the crackdown on protesters, Tito, as a firm believer in media freedom, condemned PEMRA’s action against ARY which had been moved way down the channel positions.

Although he experienced ill health for many years, Tito lived life to the fullest. Only a few days earlier, he had shared pictures of his birthday celebrations with his three brothers – captioning the photograph, “Not quite the Beatles. My brothers and me.” On hearing of his passing away, I reached out to Sherry Rehman knowing how devastated she would be. Her tribute to her old colleague and friend couldn’t be more apt. She wrote, “He was the kindest, funniest, wittiest, warmest soul in the whole world. His life was never easy, but he always bore all with a smile.”

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