His reply was pithy and shorn of emotions: ‘Safe as can be.’
Two weeks ago, I read Where to with anti-Americanism and responded with a comment: ‘Courageous piece. I expect nothing less from you, Murtaza.’
As is evident, the leitmotif of my recent interactions with Murtaza was a single word: courage. Till the very end, he continued to write pieces that required exemplary courage, honesty and introspection. If the thought of personal safety crossed his mind, he didn’t allow his work to reflect that.
Today, as I sit here in shock and denial, I cannot help thinking of our first meeting. It was the morning of our first day at the Asia Journalism Fellowship in Singapore. Dressed in formals, I was waiting along with a few other Fellows for the bus to take us to the University when Murtaza – wearing cargo shorts, a collared T-shirt and glitzy sunglasses – walked up to me. He grinned and said:
‘You must be the other Fellow from India. I was looking for you.’ I shook his hand. ‘Sutta peethe ho?’(Do you smoke?) I nodded. ‘Toh chalo, chaoon mein shauk farmathe hain.’ (Then let’s enjoy a cigarette in the shade.)
Just like that, he had used his easy charm to win me over. Over the next three months, I saw him employ this trick many times. It took but a few moments for him to connect with the human being across from him. Having done that, he would use his razor-sharp intellect and ready wit to seal the deal. Yet another friend was made, yet another barrier breached.
I suppose it was natural for us to strike a deep friendship – despite external appearances, we had so much in common. We had both spent longish spells in the US. More importantly, both of us were fond of Bollywood, Hindi music from the 60s and 70s, ghazals, filter “ciggys,” and sub-continental history. I discovered that he could talk knowledgeably for hours on any of these topics. On one occasion, he stoked my jealousy by stating that he had managed to meet Gulzar in flesh and blood!
‘So many of your idioms come from West Punjab,’ he had told Gulzar sahab on that pleasant afternoon many years ago.
‘Where else would they come from?’ the great poet had replied.
We sat in the reflected glow of this nostalgic conversation, wondering aloud how conjoined India and Pakistan really are. We kept returning to this theme of commonality, whether we spoke about minority rights, gender issues, terrorism, bureaucracy, the Indus Valley Civilization, the rich-poor divide or geopolitics. Since both of us were veritable owls, we worked together till late into the night, often breaking into abrupt conversation to banish monotony. For instance, looking up from the manuscript he was writing on Musharraf at that time, he once asked me, his voice dripping with adulation:
‘Isn’t Waheeda Rehman one of the most beautiful women ever?!’
Another event of note happened during our stay in Singapore. Although he was already a renowned journalist with proven credentials, he could not get an Indian visa on time to attend a family wedding. He appeared to take the setback in his stride, declaring:
‘There are jokers on both sides of the border. Can’t be helped.’
I’ll always miss this, his willingness to look beyond the current situation with objectivity and humour. But what I’ll miss even more is his genuine warmth. Few know that Murtaza was not only a superb host but also a great cook. He seemed to revel in the opportunity to feed people. At least a dozen times in those three months, he told me:
‘Aren’t you fed up of that Food Court stuff? Come over. I’ll cook the evening’s meal.’
This was in addition to the festive pan-Asian potluck dinners we Fellows regularly enjoyed, in which the star dish would usually be the one cooked by Murtaza.
In Murtaza’s presence, I always felt as if I was at a crossroads he was familiar with. With him, I could always share the anxieties and joys of being a father to my daughter Risha. He, in turn, would talk with rare pride about his wife and their three angels – if memory serves me right, they are named Maya, Priya and Dina.
The last time I heard his voice was when he called from New Delhi.
‘Can’t you catch a flight to here?’ he asked. ‘My visa is not valid for Bangalore.’
I regrettably told him that I had committed my time elsewhere. I don’t remember now what those other commitments were, but I’ll forever regret not taking up his offer. I wish I had caught that flight to New Delhi. I wish I could have spent one more memorable evening with my dear friend from across the border.
All I can do now is to send out a silent prayer to him and his family. And hope to convey to him that he will be missed more than he can imagine.
Eshwar Sundaresan is a Bangalore-based writer, freelance journalist, ideator and entrepreneur. His works are Googlable.