SALEEM Asmi has worn many hats. Beginning his professional life as a sub-editor in The Pakistan Times in 1959, he rose to be the editor of Dawn. Versatility is his virtue, which means his writings always have a freshness about them. Having known him professionally as a newsperson demonstrating his skills in the newsroom, and later as the editor of Dawn, one who was always willing to go an extra mile to test political waters, I was happy when I saw the collection of his writings from the early years, Saleem Asmi: Interviews, Articles, Reviews. The collection sheds as much light on the writer as the numerous personalities he interviews or writes about. We now see Asmi at his best, as an erudite critic of arts, culture and music.
Reproduced in the book are 23 articles, interviews, profiles and reviews Asmi wrote for different publications during 1978 and 1995.
Thirteen personalities, each of them outstanding in their field (literature, art, music) are brought alive here. There is something about Asmi’s style of writing that we are spared the stereotypes we often have to contend with. Instead, the people he writes about emerge as human beings with their share of frailties and failings along with the rare talents that have turned the spotlight on them.
Take the case of the great poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. It is only Asmi who can describe him as “shamelessly unscrupulous” and someone who would do “anything to make a quick buck, even lend his name and fame for the promotion of the products of filthy imperialist firms”. In the next breath he calls him the “greatest living poet of Urdu”.
There is a human touch resulting from presenting everyone in their context. In the write-up on Faiz, Alys figures in again and again — Alys walks in wearing rubber gloves serving tea and coffee as the guests keep dropping by; she collects the empty cups and clears the ashtrays.
Asmi recalls, “You begin your interview; Faiz begins to talk. He has hardly spoken a few sentences when in come the TV people with their paraphernalia.”
That is the tone of all 13 interviews in the book: crisp, curt, and human, with accolades in measured tones. Poet Josh Malihabadi is said to write poetry that is “a huge undistinguishable mass of words that say nothing. It is not poetry.” Immediately follows this denial, “Nonsense.
He is a poet of thoughts. A prophet of revolution.”
Interviewing people is an art. The journalist must ask the right questions to get the answers to make the interview lively and pithy. Asmi knows that art. Roshanara Begum, the classical singer, is asked if she has ever felt threatened. Khushwant Singh has to explain if he feels harassed at being gheraoed. Dancer Madam Azurie is asked if she is frustrated and dejected.
The artists are not interviewed. They are critiqued or introduced in a biographical account. Ghulam Rasul is “master of his medium”, Ahmed Pervez “went down the bottomless pit and possibly oblivion”, Jamil Naqsh is “the only painter in Pakistan who gives as much, if not more, importance to drawing as to painting”, Bashir Mirza is “a very angry man”, Monsur Salim’s re-emergence on Karachi’s art scene “seems destined to create a lot of waves”, filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s simple symbols speak for themselves.
The five book reviews add variety to the collection and Asmi handles them with great panache. The write-up on the launch of The Muslim, Islamabad’s first daily, captures vividly the excitement of a newspaper office. From the day of his first visit, when he still had to make up his mind about accepting the invitation to join the paper, Asmi goes on to describe the search for space to house the machines, the training of personnel, the fiasco the rains brought when the roof leaked, the rush of deadlines, the sense of purpose a newsman feels when things get moving and the dejection when nothing moves.
Some history, too, is recorded. Months pass and The Muslim does not receive the declaration, which, in Asmi’s words, is “the most hotly sought after piece of paper”. The proprietor, Murtaza Pooya, decides to abandon the project. The journalists respond by forming a “Save Muslim Committee”. Their “campaign of persuasion and support mobilisation” pays off and finally, after eight months of struggle, The Muslim is born.
These pieces form part of history, as compiler S.M. Shahid, who was professionally an ad-man but put his soul in art and music, has written in his note. How right Shahid is. But history has a timeline and dates are central. I wish the source and date of publication at had been given at the end of every piece in the book which, as I.A. Rehman says in the preface, “will enjoy a much longer life than most journalistic writings”. But then, Asmi is known for not keeping records.
The reviewer is former assistant editor, Dawn
Saleem Asmi: Interviews, Articles, Reviews (ANTHOLOGY) Compiled and published by S.M. Shahid ISBN 9789698625191 194pp. Rs500