TO those fortunate enough to have known him, Akhtar bin Shahid Jafri, or simply A.B.S., was a towering personality. He belonged to an extraordinary league of journalists, the kind one only hears about now — these were the men, very few women back then, that took on the profession for the nobility of it rather than the big bucks or fame. They wrote with integrity, passion and a belief that their words mattered. They endured hardship under dictators. They didn’t suffer fools.
In other words, they wouldn’t fare well today in the age of electronic media, social media, digital age, where attention spans have shrunk and match a goldfish’s. A man like Jafri could regale you with stories and he had many to tell — but you had to have time to enjoy hearing them. A venerated journalist and editor, of The Pakistan Times, The Muslim, The Kuwait Times, BBC and Reuters to name but a few, he also authored several books on journalism, Karachi and Pakistan.
However, today, a decade on since his death, we are paying tribute to his legacy in The Life and Times of ABS Jafri, a collection of essays compiled by his niece and journalist Urooj Jafri. Here, friends recall their memories and associations of A.B.S. and each person attests to his integrity, ethical standards, courage and convictions. Of course there are personal recollections as well that make this collection particularly enriching for those who knew Jafri. A touching tribute by his wife Roquyya Jafri sets the tone for the slim book as we learn how the couple met and some light is shed on his personal life. For example, Jafri courted Roquyya, then a young widow with two small children in Dhaka. “I could not deny that he had the most charismatic personality. Eventually I agreed to marry him.” Mrs Jafri then moved to Rawalpindi, leaving behind her family, home, career and writes: “Throughout his life, A.B.S. never forgot the sacrifices I made to marry him. … Throughout his life he loved me intensely, like a form of worship.”
Others writing in similar veins are friends like Nisar Memon who was with Jafri when he went into exile in Kuwait when General Ziaul Haq was in power; Mujahid Barelvi, I.A. Rehman, Mirza Mohammad, S.M. Shahid, Sartaj Aziz, family members Saman Jafri and Inam Jafri to name a few, have also contributed.
Mohammad Riaz shares his recollection from when he was the Quetta based correspondent of The Muslim, which Jafri was editing in Islamabad. “[A.B.S. ] was a tough warrior when it came to defending his values. He practically demonstrated in his five-decade long career that no job, no matter how lucrative or influential, was good enough if it required a compromise on principles. He quit several jobs in his career because he couldn’t take dictation.”
Poet Kishwar Naheed recounts their regular one o’clock appointment at her office, the NGO Hawwa. He would have two drinks and sometimes lunch if he didn’t have a lunch date elsewhere. But, after his two drinks, he would always “knock off sometimes a review for Radio Pakistan, sometimes a write-up for Dawn, or a piece for some other newspaper or magazine.” Naheed writes that she often finds herself looking at the clock at one and wondering if her friend will come in again.
Jafri was diagnosed with cancer and had throat surgery after which his voice was altered and he spoke in whisper. This, however, did not result in his slowing down. His love for writing continued but took a new form: authoring books. At the time of his death he had written 13 books.
As Javed Jabbar writes: “Since his values and his ideals remained unchanged, his soft-spoken yet powerful whisper became, in effect, a roar of truth that was always pleasant to hear. That decibel level stayed the same when his thoughts were put into print.”
The Life and Times of ABS Jafri
Compiled by Urooj Jafri
Jumhoori Publications, Lahore