RIP Saquib Hanif: A meticulous editor, generous friend, passionate cultural aficionado

Death brings people together. I had known Saquib Hanif and his wife Nadia Chundrigar for years in Karachi without really knowing them. We spent a lot of time together when they came to Boston 2015 for the funeral of Saquib’s childhood buddy, the brilliant Nasser Hussain, younger brother of one of my old school friends. Now, it is Saquib’s sudden death, aged just 57, that brings us together again.

Thanks to The News on Sunday for asking me to write his obituary, published on the same page as another obituary, of Tasneem Siddiqui, the top former ‘pro-people” bureaucrat and social activist who died recently from a cardiac arrest, aged 82. We had run into him at the Karachi Gymkhana just a couple of weeks earlier. He had attended a meeting on the morning he died.

In the process of working on Saquib’s obituary, I talked to old friends Amra Ali and Salman Rashid – their contrasting views of Saquib would no doubt have amused him greatly. Also sharing Salman Rashid’s lovely video – he had talked to me about these aspects of Saquib the day before recording it.

I took the photos below the day Saquib and Nadia were leaving. There was intense grief, and yet we found it within ourselves to laugh.

A painstaking editor and kind, generous friend, an intense yet subtle presence in Karachi’s art scene, an imaginative and creative corporate boss deeply invested in promoting history, culture, art and music, building his life around a network of precious relationships – Saquib Hanif was all that and more.

His sudden demise last Friday at just 57 years old devastated not family and friends but a large community of friends, journalists, and history, art, and culture lovers whose lives he impacted in multiple ways.

They include travel writer and photographer Salman Rashid whom he befriended in the 1990s soon after returning from Cornell University, USA, with a “Distinction in all Subjects”. Saquib lived most of his life in Karachi. He initially taught art appreciation at the Lyceum and the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, then joined the World Conservation Union, IUCN.

Salman Rashid, who had started out as a travel writer with the eveninger The Star, was then writing for The Frontier Post Lahore and the newly launched The News on Sunday (then Friday).

Heading ICUN’s Education, Communications and Knowledge Management department, Saquib began commissioning him for projects. Cognizant of the precarious life of a freelancer, he ensured adequate compensation for Salman Rashid’s travels as well as writing and photography.

This was the start of a lifelong friendship fueled by deep respect and feeling of kinship for each other’s work, individuality, and integrity, besides a shared passion for cultural values and fair play – and an irreverent sense of humour.

When Saquib joined the Herald as Senior Assistant Editor, Salman Rashid initially refused to contribute.

“A subeditor had messed up one of my articles, and I didn’t want to write for them again. But Saquib wouldn’t take no, he promised he would edit my work himself,” says Salman. “And he did. He would go over every word. He was a meticulous perfectionist.”

Saquib also had the humility and courage to ask if anything was unclear or needed changing about a writer’s work, and to run edited copy by them. Saquib was at The Herald for eight years, two of them as Editor.

Saquib Hanif at work. Photo: Rumana Husain, 2011.

“If I ever missed a deadline – not that I often did – Saquib would call, using the choicest gaalis (expletives). I would respond in kind,” Salman Rashid laughs at the memory. Hearing the conversation, his wife Shabnam “would know it was Saquib on the other end.”

That Saquib Hanif cussed out Salman Rashid is news to artist and writer Amra Ali in Karachi. She remembers Saquib as immensely “cultured, polished, mohazzab (refined),” a sophisticated and vital but unimposing presence in the city’s art spaces.

She would see him at art galleries in a karak (crisp) white shalwar kameez, typically avoiding launches where meaningful conversations are difficult to hold. He made an exception for the eminent artist Mehr Afroze.

He also loved the late prominent Indian artist Zarina Hashmi – she too “doted on him” says Amra, and the late sculptor Shahid Sajjad.

Zarina Hashmi: Dividing Line

Visiting her sister in Karachi, Zarina Hashmi would exhibit at Zohra Hussain’s art gallery Chowkandi, the first such space after Ali Imam’s pioneering Indus Gallery.

“Saquib would engage in conversations with Ali Imam or Zohra Apa because those conversations had meaning – there was no ulterior motive or commercial interest. He was a free person. If something didn’t appeal to him, he wouldn’t do it,” says Amra.

When Zohra Hussain expressed worry that Saquib’s pneumonia had recurred — fungal infection had snatched away her son Murtaza a couple of years ago, followed by another son Abbas last year — “he told her not to worry, he’d be there for her anytime, even if she called in the middle of the night. And now he too is gone,” says Amra.

After Herald, Saquib joined Pakistan Petroleum (PPL) as Chief Public Relations Officer in 2008. He carried his journalistic ethos into his new job, moving steadily up the ranks. At the time of his demise, he was General Manager Corporate Services, overseeing a wide range of operations.

He revamped PPL’s public relations department and company newsletter, besides developing a new website. He also launched a first-hand research project, now in its 14th year. He started it by building on Salman Rashid’s 10-part series for the Herald, Tales Less Told, about obscure legends. “He asked me to write two more,” says Salman.

Salman Rashid shares his memories of Saquib Hanif, a ‘yaaroN ka yaar’.

Their desk diary with the compiled photo essays “won first prize as a corporate publication.”

Then came Roads Less Travelled, about 12 mountain passes. “That also won first prize.”

The third was Sights Less Seen, about monuments around the country. It didn’t win first prize. “Saquib said it was politics, the *@#* (expletive) said we can’t keep giving first prize to the same company.”

Saquib later compiled the series as a set titled Less is More. He then sent Salman Rashid off to research Pakistan’s railways, published as Wheels of Empire, 2012. In 2013 came Stones of Empire, about buildings around the country, then Discoveries of Empire, about the archeological sites discovered by the British. Waters of Empire is about the irrigation system established during the colonial era. The last diary was Chorus for Crafts, 2016, about vanishing folk art around the country.

“The desk diaries completely turned around the concept of a table diary, people would write to Saquib and say that they were keeping the diaries as coffee table books,” says Salman Rashid.

The company discontinued the diaries due to the expense involved and switched to desk calendars. These too, were collectors’ items.

“All these were Saquib’s ideas. He would review each piece, each word. And he was a yaaron ka yaar (friend of friends),” says Salman Rashid.

Saquib Hanif’s passionate and unconditional support for those whose work he believed in touched many lives.

Such people who “uphold and support our culture and arts are our country’s assets,” says the qawwal Subhan Ahmed Nizami who thought of him like an older brother. Despite Saquib’s busy schedule he would always make time to meet Nizami, and they would speak every now and then if they couldn’t meet. “I met Saquib Bhai at his office just three weeks ago. He was always immensely loving and kind not just to me personally, but supportive of me as an artist and for our art and culture as a whole.”

A life well lived ended with a swift passage into the hereafter. Saquib developed fever on Wednesday evening and was rushed to Aga Khan Hospital. His son Hamza, a final-year student at Warwick University, arrived Friday morning. By afternoon, Saquib Hanif was gone.

“There is much to be grateful for,” says his wife Nadia Chundrigar Hanif. “He would have hated to be incapacitated.”

Wherever he is, may Saquib Hanif continue to share his blessings, reunited at last with his dear friend historian Nasser Hussain, carrying on intense intellectual conversations with artist friends and sending expletives to Salman Rashid, urging him to keep going.

Qawaali Mahfil at The Second Floor, T2F, with Subhan Ahmed Nizami Qawwal and Brothers

(Ends)

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