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Published in Jul-Aug 2020

Tortured Brilliance: Dr Altamash Kamal [1956-2020]

Aamer Ahmed Khan remembers Dr Altamash Kamal.

“Can’t you tell? The curve over there is Jupiter’s orbit. And the one in lighter coloured bricks next to it? Go on, you can tell, if you know your solar system!”

It was one of those typical Karachi evenings when the city’s air had rediscovered its moisture with a vengeance after a breezy August and Altamash was being his usual trademark aggressive self. “Go on and don’t tell me a BBC journalist doesn’t know his solar system!”

“I would give you an answer if this elaborate drama you are creating wasn’t so pretentious!” I responded, knowing full well I was probably triggering a fairly unpleasant argument that wasn’t going to die down soon. We were standing on the balcony of his house, forced to brave the humidity outside as he insisted that I look at the model of the solar system he was building in his driveway.

I probably deliberately used the word pretentious to needle him; we were so bored of seeing each other every day for almost two years. And yes, an unpleasant argument ensued, although it never occurred to either of us that we should not meet so often. That was never the deal when you made friends with Dr Altamash Kamal, a nuclear physicist by education, an IT entrepreneur by profession and an impossible man to be with, were it not for his razor sharp intellect.

Getting to know the man who was a pioneer in bringing high-speed internet to Pakistan, creator of Dawn.com and Pakistan’s first online shopping gig, DesiStore.com, was a bit like playing Sudoku. It is the same thing over and over again, yet a new challenge emerges every time you start a new game and the moment you enter the wrong digit in a square, there is no going back, the game is lost there and then. That, for me, was Altamash in a nutshell.

Before anyone says that one ought to be kind towards those who have left us, please know that I am being very kind. Had Altamash been any different, the chances are he would never have contemplated learning about code after he completed his PhD in nuclear engineering from as prestigious an institute as MIT. Yet, that was who he was; never satisfied with the path well travelled.

Little wonder that once he realised he would never work on Pakistan’s nuclear programme (because it would have cost him his personal freedom), he fell in love with building huge satellite dishes that would bring global entertainment to Pakistan at a time when the only TV options for Pakistanis was PTV and, at a stretch, STN. Much as he loved what he had built (under the banner of Wavetech), boredom was to set in as the technology became cheaper and more widely available and profit margins shrank enough to reduce the venture to the level of any other ordinary retail business.

It was time to look for something new and luckily for him, glitch-ridden dial-up internet connections were just rearing their head in Pakistan. Typically, he immediately sensed the revolution that was coming and after briefly toying with the idea of establishing an internet service provider (ISP), he launched Xibercom, one of Pakistan’s first internet-based companies. As one of the first players in the arena, Altamash was closely associated with Pakistan’s clueless policy-making bureaucracy for regulating cyberspace, a role he found both frustrating and hilarious in equal measure. He would never tire of talking about his first meeting with the Pakistan Software Export Board, where he was asked about the ‘raw material’ required by software exporters.

“By the fifth time someone mentioned raw material, I pulled out a floppy disk from my pocket and informed them that this little thing could probably earn me a million dollars depending on what I put on it; of course they thought I was pulling their leg. I left the meeting convinced that it would be foolish to depend on the government for anything.”

With his eyes now firmly set on the private sector, he soon gained an elite list of clients, among them the publishers of DAWN and under whose aegis he launched a weekly wire service (Dawn Wire Service), which he soon scaled up to create Dawn.com. He also launched Spider, Pakistan’s first internet-focused magazine; a platform he used to aggressively lobby for liberal cyber policies and a telecom infrastructure free from government interference.

Despite his strong client base, Altamash could never deny himself a bit of personal fun, something that he found with DesiStore.com, his e-commerce venture. Here, it was as much about the money it earned him as about the fun of selling lotas to expat Muslims. He was always in thrall of everything to do with the internet.

I first met Altamash shortly before the 2002 elections when he strolled into the offices of Herald to discuss the possibility of Xibercom partnering up with us in order to digitally cover the elections. We spoke for a few minutes about business and then he asked if we could speak in my office. I nodded, not knowing what to expect.

“What kind of office are you running?” he bluntly asked. “No one seems to be working. Half your staff is eating, the other half is laughing and I saw one of them nod off.” “Would you like to run it for me?” I replied with a smile. “I would sack the lot! Let’s go to my office,” and out of sheer curiosity, I followed him upstairs to enter a deathly quiet space. “Why have you brought me to this graveyard?” I asked.

They say opposites attract and it was perhaps this polar-opposite culture between our two offices that turned our initial venture into a friendship that would last for years – although it was never as smooth or as predictable as the solar system he was modelling in his driveway. Altamash was brilliant with algorithms, possessive about his work, unnecessarily defensive about its shortcomings – and yet, quick to absorb and accept a good idea, even if it wasn’t his.

The Herald election website was a roaring success despite the fact that it led to an unspoken agreement that we would never try anything work related together again. A great decision, not only because it helped us continue to meet socially but because it provided me with several glimpses into a brilliant yet tortured mind.

In worldly terms, Altamash was a success in every sense of the word. Yet he never considered himself one – a fact that left him vulnerable to the other side of intelligence – the self-destruct aspect. He loved to talk about his father and his wish that his brightest born should become a Nobel Laureate – a memory I would counter by telling him that my dad wanted me to be a policeman. But there was an underlying discontent within him, a fear of perhaps not having done enough with his life which would manifest itself at the oddest of moments and in the oddest of ways. None of this, however, ever clouded his mind when it came to a macro-understanding of the society he chose to return to as an MIT-bred nuclear engineer. He was convinced that Pakistan would never become a truly technological society.

“We will always be tenants, never landlords in this new world,” was his way of putting it. Aghast at Pakistan’s education system (he called it a ‘moron factory’), he was convinced that Pakistan’s collective intellect graph was in chronic regression. There was perhaps a bit of heartbreak in him; the knowledge that his first (and perhaps only) love, technology, may never bring to his country the benefits it would to the rest of the world.

In his last years, I was unable to maintain as much contact with him as I would have liked, partly because I moved to London and partly because of a decline in his faculties, due to a stroke that left him partially paralysed. But it seems it would not have mattered even if I had been around. He had switched off long before; a brilliant mind consumed by internal battles that will remain a mystery to all those who loved him.

Aamer Ahmed Khan is CEO, Houndbyte Technologies, and former Editor, Herald.
aak@karmuqabla.com