A requiem for Abbas Athar can no longer be postponed. He had stopped speaking quite some days ago and he took his last breath in the early hours of Monday (May 6). It is not possible for him to come out of coma and ask his attendants about what they had been doing during the past few minutes.
The end came after a protracted battle with death that he had fought with the tenacity for which he was known.
A self-made man, Abbas Athar started earning his living before completing his studies. He first attracted attention as a rebellious young man in search of a suitable mode of expression. Soon he began to be noticed as a member of a group of young poets, led by Iftikhar Jalib among others, who defended what they called the ‘new verse’ and who were not afraid of taking on the leading lights in Urdu poetry, quite often with calculated irreverence.
What made him drift into journalism is not known but after a short stint with daily Anjam, in Karachi, he joined Imroze, Lahore.
In 1970 he emerged out of the shadows of senior journalists at Imroze. First he was elected Secretary of the PPL Workers’ Union
(its president: A.T. Chaudhri). Then came the journalists’ strike – the only countrywide labour strike in pre-1971 Pakistan – and Abbas Athar had to work hard, along with PUJ President and Secretary, Hamid Akhtar and Husain Naqi, to keep the quislings in the union at bay. The strike succeeded, the PFUJ demands were conceded – and this was during the Yahya regime – but more than a hundred journalists and calligraphists (who had won the right to be accepted as working journalists) were sacked, Abbas Athar among them. When it was decided to answer the government’s assault on press freedom and trade union rights by bringing out journalists’ own paper, the task of giving the paper (Azad) a robust body and an attractive face was assumed by Abbas Athar. He found in Aziz Akhtar, the paper’s art editor, a kindred soul. The two spent many days designing the paper. Even when the paper had started coming out they would spend whole afternoons planning the next issue’s layout.
They started by concentrating on the upper half of the front page – the part visible at the stalls – and experimented with a variety of headlines and efficient use of prime space. They developed the idea of a roaring headline, up to 5 or 6 inches deep, that they called ‘the hunter’ and also experimented with the idea of changing the place of the masthead. Each day the front-page layout of the next morning’s issue was designed and all matter was filled into the scheme.
Circumstances smiled on them. When the paper’s first issue was being prepared the Polish Deputy Premier was killed at the
Lahore airport. And one after the other a series of big stories followed. Mustafa Zaidi’s death became the talk of the town. East Bengal was hit by a devastating cyclone. The 1970 election galvanised the nation. The PPL workers’ agitation was quite a story.
And so on. The way Abbas Athar coined the headlines and developed the lay-out style, with Aziz Akhtar by his side, had a deep impact on Urdu journalism. One of their significant innovations was the use of large-sized pictures on the front page, that was much earlier than the practice was adopted by English dailies.
Throughout the months that he worked at Azad, Abbas Athar, like the other-sponsors of the paper, demonstrated what a labour of love meant. In addition to producing the paper Abbas Athar used to drive me on his lightweight motor-bike across the city – to the High Court, the labour court, to lawyers’ offices, to the paper merchant’s den, and to friends’ houses at odd hours to collect a few thousand rupees we needed to bring out the next issue. It was in those hard days that one discovered the quality of Abbas Athar’s determination to pursue his goal and his infinite capacity to bear hardship.
After Azad closed down, Abbas Athar went on to edit Musawat, where he developed serious differences with the PPP and then he surprised everybody by publishing Bhutto’s statement in the court. Arrested, tried and sentenced by a military court, Abbas Athar was also tortured in the infamous Shahi Qila. For some time he sought asylum in the United States where he discovered what other professions he could adopt – that of a travel agent or a bartender, for instance.
Back in Lahore Abbas Athar quickly rehabilitated himself in the media after joining Nawa-i-Waqt. There he started his column ‘Kankrian’ (small pieces of stone popularised as weapons by the Palestinians), which became enormously popular. Then he moved himself and his column to Express, where he reigned as the group editor till his death.
An analysis of Abbas Athar’s complex personality demands more space than is available at the moment. He had a quick mind that he unfortunately did not devote fully to creative writing. He was also a good judge of talent. Always a party-man (dharay-wala) his friends adored him and he was dreaded by his enemies. Sometimes his dharaybandi, especially when he chose to control the journalists union or the Press Club, made his friends wonder about the means he adopted. But he had a habit of trying his hand at whatever attracted him and then dropping it altogether. Just like his habit of leaving his meal half-finished.
There was a time when the underworld decided to go for him but he stood his ground, only he chose not to move around alone.
He was never overawed by the high and the mighty, indeed the iconoclast in him came out often without a warning. He liked mocking at men in authority but when they fell from power he was their best defender. As a professional he earned his wages with honest labour, even when he disagreed with his employer’s policies. He was outspoken to a fault and would often surprise his companions with disclosures about his private life and what he in anger felt. There were no ifs and buts in his column and he did not hesitate to be alone in defending parties/politicians that everybody else had chosen to abuse profusely.
Abbas Athar had the courage to live the way he wanted. He had no regrets, nor should his friends have any.—I. A. Rehman