It’s hard enough to condole the death of a person; what does one say about the death of an institution?
‘Herald parhta hi kon tha? Woh alag time tha jab log magazines parha kartay thay,’ said the smug ones among us. It wasn’t entirely untrue.
Wounded by censorship and financial constraints, Herald was a dinosaur heaving its last breath. Nostalgia kept it alive in people’s collective imagination even when they stopped their subscriptions. But so many others I spoke to — journalists, academics, activists — agreed it was the end of an era. A cliché we use too often to describe someone’s demise. But some clichés are underrated.
It really was the end of an era. An era that began when Jimi Hendrix was playing at Woodstock, my father wore bell bottom pants and booze was still legal in Pakistan. Oh, and the country was also under its second martial law.
Sadly, the archives for those first few issues — an illustrated weekly in the late 1960s — were not available at Herald’s office when I worked there, but most issues of Herald, after it became a monthly magazine in the 1970s, are bound and preserved.
I’ve had the privilege of spending countless hours sifting through Herald’s physical archives. My favourite were the issues from the 1980s. Edited by the indomitable Razia Bhatti, a towering personality and uncompromising journalist, Herald defined what it meant to hold truth to power. Its constant defiance and refusal to cower down in the face of Ziaul Haq’s military regime made me want to punch the air.
Not all the stories were in your face. Some would circumvent conspicuously. Sometimes, the pages would be left blank (I didn’t come across any blank pages but Zahid Hussain, who worked there at the time, has confirmed it in his column). That must’ve really riled the generals up.
Razia Bhatti and Herald eventually fell out and she moved to open up Newsline, Herald’s first direct competitor. I’m told the pressure on Herald’s management from Zia was too great to withstand. She was not interested in mincing words and Herald wasn’t willing to come under the butcher’s axe. So they went their separate ways.
Razia Bhatti with her band of fiery men, but mostly women, continued to court controversy, while Herald came back with an entirely new editorial team. The stories covered by Herald in the 1990s on the country’s political strife, particularly the violence in Karachi, are a masterclass in fearless reportage.
I joined Herald in April 2016, in my ninth year of being a professional journalist, and for the first time, I could write and edit without feeling the constant need to self-censor. Herald was, at the time, still lucky enough to say things and get away with it — for the most part. But the tide started to turn pretty quickly. Soon came the loss. In waves. Like a storm in the sea of misfortune.
Cyril Almeida's story in October 2016 unleashed a campaign to try to drown Dawn out. The boat for Herald, too, suddenly started rocking. The pressure to not cover certain stories increased and the number of adverts decreased. But there is — was — something in the DNA of Herald to resist. It has always been a left of centre publication, even when Dawn the newspaper hasn’t.
Dawn was a centrist paper at best, at times swinging right, up until the turn of the century when Abbas Nasir started editing the paper. It was under him that Dawn truly established its progressive credentials. So, on plodded Herald, asking difficult questions from people not used to giving answers.
Then came another wave. The run-up to the 2018 elections was difficult, as it was for the rest of Pakistani media, but the May 2018 issue with Manzoor Pashteen on the cover brought a barrage of abuse. The usual suspects came out with guns blazing, spewing vitriol and branding Dawn and Herald as traitors. In one instance, we had to remove a nominee from our person of the year poll. Every month was a battle against censorship, within and without.
The last couple of years, right until the closure of the magazine, felt like trying to breathe on the bottom of the ocean floor. Thankfully, journalism and adversity have a way with each other. Herald continued with the same vigour to not dilute its legacy. The magazine poked the bear in Balochistan, questioned sectarianism in South Punjab and retraced the steps of a killer in Kasur — without fear or favour.
The storm also delivered personal loss. A childhood friend who was diagnosed with cancer soon after I joined Herald died a year and a half later. I watched him wither away on the hospital bed, asking friends and family for donations to help him pay his medical bills. His death convinced me nothing was worth hanging on to. Not even the love of my life.
When we first heard talk of Herald’s closure at the end of last year, the sense of loss came flooding back. I wanted to run. To scream. And so in April this year, I left Herald and moved to another city. I felt guilty about abandoning my colleagues. I told them it wasn’t them. It was me.
I find it ironic that I now work for an organisation fighting for the rights of condemned prisoners, because one of my favourite Herald stories from these last years was on people on death row. Written by Subuk Hasnain, whose courage and kindness I will never forget, the story was a testament to the magazine and the people who contributed to it. Lesser people like me run away from loss, she faced death in the eyes of people who live it every day.
'Life After Death' was the title on that June 2018 issue’s cover. I can’t help but hope that there is life after death after all. For my friend, so he can drink tea and drive fast cars somewhere up there. For lost love, so that we may find it again someday. For Herald, so that it may continue to tell stories from the margins. And for the rest of us, who just feel terribly lost.
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Ali Haider Habib was the Senior Assistant Editor of the Herald between April 2016 and April 2019. He currently works for Justice Project Pakistan and moonlights as a musician. He tweets @haiderhabib
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