Search without end | Dawn

May 2015

Despite having long known and respected Ahmad Ali Khan, in reviewing this book one simply wanted to learn, most of all, about the author, in his own words. And perhaps about oneself as well. Because sometimes another person's voyage becomes one's own discovery. As it turned out, so gripping did the reading become and so engaging the subject that any selfish quests were quickly set aside.

In Search of Sense is a riveting, revealing portrait of a gentle yet towering giant of journalism. The book is a panoramic passage through a landscape of momentous landmarks in the 20th century history of South Asia and Pakistan. This is an intensely personal saga: a remarkable individual's ideological odyssey parallel to, and meshed together with, his emotive journey from childhood through all the stages that culminated into a fulsome life.

This is a publication which should be read by those to whom it is dedicated - "To all young, aspiring journalists" - as also by those who work at all journalistic levels of print and electronic news media. The latter wish has little likelihood of fulfilment. There are few indicators that most of today's senior journalists, media proprietors and TV anchors regularly read books of substance, leave alone discuss them. Especially, in view of the paucity of books written about their lives and experiences by Pakistan's leading English-language journalists, past and present. Which makes this book all the more precious.

The sub-title - My Years as a Journalist - attracts, but also inadvertently misleads. I would call this a "multigraphy", not a pure autobiography. And it is partly in two languages, to boot. There are contributions by other writers, too, contradicting the singularity promised by the word 'My'. The elder of his two daughters, the able scholar Naveed Tahir who initiated and compiled this labour of devotion addresses the 'Foreword'. An excellent 21-page 'Introduction' by I.A. Rehman outlines the richness of what is to follow. At the end of the 'Memoirs', six pieces are placed in a section called 'As others saw him'. The first, far-too-brief comment comes from his (late) wife, Hajira Masroor, the eminent Urdu writer. Two notes, one from a grandson, Ahmar Tahir Saeed, one from a granddaughter, Scheherezade Khan, then tributes from two widely hailed colleagues in Dawn, Muhammad Ali Siddiqi and Zubeida Mustafa, for whom the subject of the book was their mentor.

There are also English translations of personal letters in Urdu (reproduced at the end in original form) exchanged between husband and wife, as well as a letter in Urdu from the reputed Urdu journalist and political activist Abdullah Malik requesting details about Ahmad Ali Khan's tenure at the Pakistan Times. This is accompanied with the reply, also in Urdu.

The sub-title also unintentionally misleads: this is a book far larger in scope and content than being only about the journalistic aspect of the subject's life. This is a far-ranging work of reflections on the social, economic, cultural and political dimensions of the societies that produced the independent nation-states of Pakistan and India in 1947. The delineation of the larger context is partly inevitable for memoirs by a political journalist. But the depth and vision with which Ahmad Ali Khan surveys the formative factors, indigenous and international, that shaped the political economy of the region and the trajectory of the two new states, gives his writings exceptional pungency and power. He refers with empathy and passion to the severe inequity of resource distribution, to the malevolent control by a few of the means of production, the consequent prevalence and persistence of oppressive poverty.

Going back in time, he has described what was in some ways an idyllic first phase of his life in Bhopal, spartan but enjoyable in a large family that shared limited means with pleasure, steered by parents firmly committed to education for all seven sons. Escapades in swimming and fishing quickly evolved into an unusually early political awareness. He led a delegation of fellow schoolboys to a local official to demand, unsuccessfully, the first-ever college for the town. Then, as a sign of things to come, was urged by the school principal to edit the school magazine. Notably, for an adolescent in a small town cut off from the ferment of the large cities, he realised: "I became a political animal well before I left school".

The instinctive interest in the political process developed into a well-informed, long-abiding commitment to the values of socialism. He was inspired by the proletarian analysis of Marx and the early successes of the Soviet Union in providing education and healthcare for the masses as also in overcoming the menace of fascism in Europe.

Commencing studies in Aligarh and Lucknow universities, and continuing thereafter during his early professional phase, and his migration to Pakistan, he became an avid organiser of trade unions, a member of the Communist Party and later, a proud activist of the Left. It was in the last of these capacities that he also suffered imprisonment as part of the fall-out from the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case of 1951 (of which he was not a part) while he was serving in the Pakistan Times, Lahore. Though the concluding section of his 'Memoirs' is titled 'The Socialist Utopia: Disillusionment', his fundamental commitment to seek social justice, to formulate new structural options for the equitable re-distribution of opportunities and wealth remained unwavering. When he realised, even before his migration to Pakistan in 1947, that he could not afford to exclusively devote himself to political work due to the need to become economically self-reliant and only accidentally drifted into journalism as a source of livelihood, he assertively retained his ideological moorings.

One ironic facet of the memoirs should be stressed upon. During the pre-1947 phase, the Communist Party of India vigorously supported the idea of an independent Pakistan based on ideological endorsement of the right of self-determination. This was much to the chagrin of the Congress Party, and in stark contrast to many of the Muslim, particularly Deobandi ulema, who opposed the creation of Pakistan. Yet, less than four years after the birth of the new predominantly Muslim nation-state, the Communist Party and its members were targeted, persecuted and jailed. Meanwhile the mullahs rather quickly ascended to patriotic roosts. Though the book does not refer to a similar irony, it bears remembrance that Choudhry Rahmat Ali, the man who coined the name of Pakistan in 1933, was actually asked to leave Pakistan less than two years after its establishment. But that is another story.

In his examination of turning points in Pakistan's history, the author traces the decline of the Left, and of liberal, secular values in Pakistan to the harsh crackdown on Leftists and intellectuals which occurred in connection with the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case in 1951. He held the view that the coercive direction adopted at that time had a cumulative, debilitating effect over several decades.

Ahmad Ali Khan's observations on journalism are conceptually incisive and professionally instructive. His pioneering experiences at Dawn in its New Delhi office, then at its Karachi location, followed by an eventful twelve years away at Pakistan Times in Lahore, to be succeeded by a long and distinguished return to Dawn in Karachi commencing in 1973 empower him to set out principles and ideal practices with refreshing clarity.

Even when dealing with his favourite subject of trade unions, he emphasises that professional obligations of the press toward the public interest should not be superseded by narrower interests of wages and privileges. He underlines the perils of convergence between the identities of proprietors and editors, of permitting unbridled cross-media ownership to create unhealthy concentrations of power, of allowing advertising and commercialism to override imperatives of independence and impartiality.

Above all, having witnessed firsthand the arbitrary take-over in 1959 by the state of the privately-owned newspaper group, Progressive Papers Ltd, he cautions against the long-term dangers of governments imposing undue curbs on freedom of the media.

On page 239 there occurs, unfortunately, the only error of dates and persons in his recollections. Referring to the Press and Publications Ordinance, 1960-1962 and the irrational anti-libel amendment of the Ziaul-Haq period, credit for their repeal is incorrectly given to the government of prime minister Junejo, (March 1985-May 29, 1988). Whereas the ordinance was actually repealed in September 1988 during the caretaker government of president Ghulam Ishaq Khan, with Ellahi Buksh Soomro as information minister. This interim government took charge after the death of Ziaul-Haq on Aug 17, and remained in office during the election held in November 1988 which brought Benazir Bhutto to office as prime minister on Dec 2. This writer should know: one was present in the Senate as a member when, partly in response to a resolution moved by myself earlier in July 1988, which was adopted by the Senate, calling for the repeal of the ordinance, Ellahi Buksh Soomro made the repeal announcement on the floor of the house.

The author's analysis of journalism's ills is not a conventional finger-pointing exercise in which most journalists tend to blame all governments and others for their profession's problems. Here is a man who is man enough to conduct self-critical appraisal. Individually and collectively. For those who knew him, and for those who will get to know about him: his quiet, self-effacing, soft-spoken manner was benevolently deceptive. Ahmad Ali Khan had rock-solid integrity, unshakable ethics and steel-like resolve. These were ingrained qualities, not transient attributes. Only the consistent practice of such traits brings the credibility and respect that he earned.

He did not forget, or even perhaps forgive, a troubling episode that involved Altaf Husain, one of his well-known predecessors, the second editor of Dawn (1945-1966 ). M.A. Shakoor was a dedicated senior journalist and close associate of Ahmad Ali Khan. They shared Leftist views, and helped found and lead the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ). On the basis of bad, paranoiac intelligence, and possible quiet acquiescence by Altaf Husain who had no sympathy for Leftists, M.A. Shakoor was arbitrarily arrested. Ahmad Ali Khan felt this act was extremely offensive. Subsequently, the harassed journalist had to go into exile to the UK. Pakistan was thus deprived of an outstanding media personality.

The 'Letters' section is a heart-warming contrast to his public demeanour of calm reserve. As a husband to Hajira Masroor, here is a man who fell in love and never fell out of it, come middle or old age. He was tender, caring and protective, be he in his twenties or seventies. He was always concerned about her health, her worries, her writing, and their children, offering gentle advice and realistic choices about mundane matters of retired life. In contrast, there is not enough material from her. In sharing this private correspondence with the public, Naveed Tahir is commendably courageous, allowing a glimpse into a family's inner interactions: for the larger aim of enabling a more holistic understanding of a heart that beat with a vibrant mind. And this was a mind that remained alert right up to just days before his demise. Letters written in January and February 2007 before his demise on March 13 reveal a futuristic, positive attitude, not the cynical, despairing approach that besets many in their late age.

In the 'Memoirs' section, more than elsewhere, he writes like a deft painter: images recalled in words become vivid pictures, frozen in time, or fluid in motion. His attachment to Urdu and Persian poetry facilitates periodic reinforcement of points he wishes to underline.

In any possible second edition of the book, Naveed Tahir may want to re-sequence some parts. For instance, his two essays in the 'Appendices' should ideally follow immediately after the 'Memoirs' instead of the 'Letters', which could be moved to a later part. There is a certain disjointedness to the structure that could also be reviewed; the Urdu texts could be excluded as their English versions are quite descriptive.

As it presently appears for the reader, the book eloquently testifies to the hard work invested in this publication by all those associated with it. The production of In Search of Sense speaks of the profound regard that Naveed Tahir, in particular, holds for her dear father. He certainly stood tall and looked far ahead. He is presently elsewhere, still presumably searching for the magic behind the mirage.

In Search of Sense: My Years as a Journalist
By Ahmad Ali Khan
Sama Editorial and Publishing Service, Karachi
ISBN 978-9698784775

As published in Dawn's Cover story on 31st May 2015.