IF Dawn truly had an unknown soldier, it was M.A. Majid, who died in Karachi on Thursday after a prolonged illness. Very few people knew him outside the profession because self-projection was never his forte. Yet it was Majid who groomed writers, some of them mediocre, into becoming renowned columnists.
What characterised him was the nobility of his personality and dedication to the profession in a manner that conformed to the highest standards of journalism under nerve-racking circumstances. He was a lion-hearted man and remained unruffled when ‘breaking news’ made the editorial of the day irrelevant as the deadline approached.
Born in Sylhet in 1933, he graduated from Islamia College in Karachi and entered the profession in 1955 by joining the Illustrated Weekly of Pakistan, owned by the Dawn group of newspapers. He was later transferred to the ‘mother paper’ in 1965 to begin a career that would take him, and the world of Pakistani journalism, through tragedies and vicissitudes that have altered the very map of Pakistan. He called it a day in 2008 because of a failing eyesight.
After Dawn Overseas Weekly, for which he wrote a weekly national diary, closed down in 1989, Majid, as Dawn’s op-ed page editor, concentrated on editing editorials. This position he would hold for a quarter century as leader of the late Ahmad Ali Khan’s ‘kitchen cabinet’ that included, among others, Zubeida Mustafa.
Editing leaders and op-ed articles occupied all his time, leaving little energy for him to write. But occasionally he was moved to write, like the editorial he wrote on Bhutto’s ‘judicial murder’. Dawn pages those days had a larger size, and the editorial — Bhutto, the end of a great promise — overflowed into the third and consisted of over 1,300 words. It was a superb and bold editorial, considering that Ziaul Haq was ruling Pakistan, and Dawn’s owner, the late Mahmoud Haroon, was his interior minister.
His office was his day home. He lingered on over endless cups of tea and smoke and pored over copy, using red and blue ballpoints to sedulously check facts, correct mistakes, sort out punctuation and improve syntax and logic: all in a manner that showed his unadulterated commitment to the profession, mindful of the fact — which he never tired of telling his juniors like me — that he was editing Dawn, Jinnah’s legacy.
The editorial conference began at 11am and lasted, as always, beyond the one-hour limit. He would brief us and, if necessary clinch the issue, when there was disagreement among the writers. But that was not all. In the afternoon he would barge into the leader writer’s room to give more points, cautioning him against pitfalls and suggesting the nuances so crucial to editorial writing.
Majid would often take articles home to edit. When electricity failed, he would suffer the torture of editing it in candlelight, sweating from head to toe in summer heat and ignoring the tempting sea breeze on the terrace of his Clifton home.
The same selflessness characterised his behind-the-scenes role in the trade union movement. He never sought to be an officer of the All-Pakistan Newspaper Employees’ Confederation, nor of the journalists’ unions. But he guided APNEC, especially its Dawn unit.
He was closely aligned with Minhaj Barna and defended his position when the latter was criticised for amalgamating the workers’ and journalists’ unions to form APNEC, which cut across classes. He believed that under conditions peculiar to Pakistan a multi-class trade union had a place.
He ignored his health and ditched appointments with doctors. This had a disastrous effect upon his health. Despite promising, on his colleagues’ insistence, to keep the appointment, he would turn up in the morning, explaining embarrassingly, “Well this is Saturday. We have to manage six editorials”.
He had a tremendous sense of humour, and his banter often made our day. Once, an apoplectic editor insisted on implementing a plan that nobody really liked. When the pernickety editor asked Majid to suggest improvements, he replied, “Sir, there is very little room for improvement.” The plan was dropped.
Once, when I told him that the op-ed pages had greatly improved, he remarked, “Yes, but the news hasn’t reached the editor.”
We had passed thousands of days together. As news of his death came, memories of the decades we had together in his room flashed across my mind. There was no political event between 1973, when I rejoined Dawn, and 2008, when Majid retired, which we had not occasion to discuss, dwell upon and decide the line Dawn’s editorial would take. We joked, we laughed, we quarrelled, we lunched and dined: all in a manner that fused profession with friendship.
He suffered a great tragedy when his son-in-law died at a young age. This was a blow to him, but he carried on and served his family till his last.
He leaves behind a dedicated wife, a daughter and two sons. He was truly Dawn’s unknown soldier.