Remembering two gems, stellar journalists and old friends

Two wonderful colleagues and friends departed this world rather suddenly within days of each other last month, leaving behind multitudes to mourn their loss — and celebrate their lives: Khalid Hameed Farooqui, Geo News correspondent in Brussels, 7 May, and Editor The News Talat Aslam, 25 May. We honoured both at the In Memoriam section of the Southasia Peace or Sapan event on the last Sunday of May, along with others.

Khalid Hameed Farooqui: A lifetime of politics, journalism, and activism in Europe and Pakistan.
Talat Aslam: His tweets @Titojourno gathered a fan following for his posts on politics, food, film, music and nocturnal wanderings in Karachi.

The tribute to Khalid by European Commission chief spokesperson Eric Mamer in a press briefing shortly after Khalid’s passing speaks for the respect he inspired amongst colleagues and political figures:

TNS page on Talat Aslam, online, TNS e-paper, 29 May 2022

Friend Saifullah Saify in Amsterdam organised a wonderful online tribute for Khalid, with tributes from personalities like Farhatullah Babar, and journalists Hamid Mir, Asma Shirazi, Munizae Jahangir, Amber Rahim Shamsi, Murtaza Solangi, Mazhar Abbas, Raza Rumi, Nazir Leghari – see video clips at this playlist on his YouTube channel.

Sharing below my piece on Tito, as friends and family called Talat, one of three articles carried by The News on Sunday in a full page tribute. The two other remembrances, by colleagues Zia ur Rehman and Gulraiz Khan, are online here. My piece includes a couple of my illustrations for Tito’s columns in The Star 1986-88.

: Remembering two gems, stellar journalists and old friends

Farewell Talat Aslam: Will miss your wit, gentleness and political acumen

“Literacy, in my humble opinion, is far too important a matter to be left to the literate. So what’s the harm in allowing the politically illiterate from doing their bit for their unlettered countrymen?

“….I for one am thrilled that Islamabad has been declared an illiterates-free zone. What is puzzling is that this was not done years ago.”

So wrote Talat Aslam in a column for The Star, Karachi, back in 1986. Titled ‘My unlettered countrymen’ it poked gentle fun at the “glittering new ordinance” passed during Gen. Ziaul Haq’s military regime that barred “illiterates from holding passports, driving licenses, arms licenses and government jobs”.

Talat Aslam’s article in The Star, 1986, one of his many pieces that I illustrated.

Talat – or Tito, to use the nickname family and friends called him, stood firmly on the side of reason and logic, using satire to undermine irrationality and injustice.

I had interned at ‘morninger’ The Star for nine months before going abroad for higher studies in 1982. Down the corridor was monthly The Herald office, which Tito joined while I was away at college.

It was when I returned to Karachi in in 1986 after completing my degree that I first met Tito. Working at the design department at Bond Advertising Agency, I would go to The Star to pick up occasional illustrating assignments.

Tito would wander over from his desk at The Herald, his first job, to hand over his somewhat sporadic weekly offering to the Star Weekend, stopping for tea and gossip.

An unassuming, softspoken young man with a brilliant mind, he later served as editor for the Herald, then joined The News. I was already there by then, roped in by Tito’s older brother, journalist and satirical playwright Imran Aslam, earlier editor The Star.

Cuttings of my work from The Star days include Tito’s “unlettered countrymen” piece. My irreverent cartoon illustrating the piece shows a sign in front of Parliament House: “Dogs and illiterates not allowed”. A pot-bellied man in a waistcoat shows his “Legislator exempt pass” to a security officer leaning on the sign.

The cops should “hold simple tests to make sure that anyone entering our capital city can at least read the writing on the wall”, suggests Tito in the piece.

He also floats more innovative moves that could help Pakistan prosper, like taxing “the failures in our midst, to dissuade them from becoming a heavy burden on our exchequer.”

To the “thorny question of land-reforms” he proposes “a bold step forward towards income re-distribution… Anyone working a tiny parcel of land to death should surrender their fields to the nearest Wadera, Sardar, Khan, Malik or Chaudry”.

He further suggests taking away “the right to vote from people who cannot install foreign bathroom fittings – or even taps in their houses. You never know who they might vote for given half a chance.”

This deliciously tongue-in-cheek political satire and dry wit was typical of Tito. Tongue firmly in cheek, with understated humour, his writings quietly slipped a subversive punch to those who would get it.

A full page spread in The Star Weekend, 31 December 1987, Talat Aslam’s satirical ‘predictions’ for the coming year, with my illustrations.

His deep voice often seemed to have a smile in it and he retained his gentle good humour even when I’d bug him to quit smoking. He’d roll his eyes with a smile when I’d walk into his office at The News. He knew I’d make it hard for him to light up.

“I need to just finish this,” he’d say if he was on a deadline, never in a hurry to kick me out. He’d order tea and samosas, or lunch, and carry on working unflapped, as other colleagues came in to join the party.

In the past few years, Tito had taken to Twitter where he amassed a loyal following, with his food experiments, nocturnal wanderings, puns, and razor-sharp political analysis. He abhorred hypocrisy and humbug.

Not surprising to learn that he and old friend Hasan Zaidi had been talking about putting together a book on Karachi’s alternate food hangouts.

Although Tito’s health deteriorated considerably over the past few years, he retained his sense of humour and gentle manner. Diagnosed with kidney failure in 2016 while visiting his younger brother – hilariously nicknamed Ditto – in England, he had to go on dialysis.

The brothers returned to Pakistan, where Tito regained his health enough to go back to work. He lost a lot of weight – and some teeth – but gamely carried on. Kept smoking. Never complained.

It was only after he passed away suddenly on Wednesday morning that I learnt that he had studied Anthropology at University College London. I also learnt that he was 67 – he always seemed younger.

I knew the family had lived in former East Pakistan, but also learnt only after Tito’s passing that he was born in Chittagong. The family earlier lived in Madras where Tito’s two older brothers were born.

After 1971, the family moved to Lahore for a year, and then Abu Dhabi where Tito did his ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels privately. He and Ditto went on to study in England in 1973. Their youngest sibling Ayesha lives in London.

The four brothers were together just days earlier for Tito’s birthday on 16 May. “Not quite the Beatles. My brothers and me 😎” he tweeted. 

Tito’s sudden departure leaves a huge void not only for his family, but all the friends and colleagues who had the good fortune to know and work with him.

Beena Sarwar is a journalist and journalism teacher based in Boston. She is founder editor The News on Sunday. Twitter @beenasarwar

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