Portrait taken by Dr Kamal’s son Maazin, December 2016 | Photos provided by the writer
Portrait taken by Dr Kamal’s son Maazin, December 2016 | Photos provided by the writer

One of the most vivid memories of my childhood is sitting in front of a television screen, watching snowy static, while my father (Baba) shuffled in and out of my field of vision. I would see him poke some buttons on a black rectangular box, and then step on to the terrace and make his way up to the roof. I remember that the box controlled the satellite dish and that both had been built by him. Eventually, a CNN news story or a Michael Jackson music video would crystalise on the screen, as if by magic. This success was savoured momentarily ­— until Baba zipped about again, poking in a new set of numbers, and on to the challenge of tracking the next elusive satellite.

For a nuclear engineer with a doctorate from MIT, whose ambition in his early student days (at Brumanna High School in Lebanon and then at Queen Mary University of London) was to build the nuclear bomb for Pakistan, bringing information and entertainment via private satellite dishes must have seemed like plain vanilla stuff. But, like all his endeavours, he loved the thrill of doing something new and groundbreaking, and shunned complacency.

After completing his studies and returning to Karachi in the early 1980s, he remained of the view that a viable nuclear energy program, with appropriate safeguards, was a necessity for Pakistan. He had also decided, categorically, that he would not be part of a singular focus on developing nuclear weapons. With moral and financial support from my grandmother, Imtiaz, (a nurse/midwife and public health scientist) and my mother, Simi, (a geographer and development consultant), he acquired his first computer (an IBM) from Singapore and taught himself programming. His first program, to everyone’s amusement, was about optimising the nutritional content of chicken feed.

Dr Altamash Kamal ­— nuclear engineer, technology entrepreneur and photographer — passed away on February 21, aged 63

Bored with the entertainment and information options available on PTV, he designed, built and programmed his own satellite dish-and-receiver system. When the US Consul General in Karachi found out about this, he inquired whether it was possible to catch the 1987 “World Series” baseball championships. This was an interesting challenge. Because of Pakistan’s location, three English-language satellites were drifting in a complex pattern, so a tracking system was needed to “lock” the dish on to its moving target and ensure a reliable and steady signal. In the end, Baba built a parabolic dish, 20 feet in diameter, and an accompanying tracking system, three days before the World Series. The US Consul General was ecstatic, and the tracking system formed the basis for Wavetech, a computer software and export company which introduced private satellite dish systems to Pakistan.

Dr Kamal with a Wavetech satellite dish — photo from Herald, April 1994
Dr Kamal with a Wavetech satellite dish — photo from Herald, April 1994

After expanding and then selling Wavetech in the mid-1990s, Baba became curious about a new technology called the internet. He got to experience it first-hand during a visit to Austria in 1995 where, at the foot of the Alps, he got connected to the internet, skipped dinner, and stayed connected until 3am. He called my mother in Karachi and told her: “I have discovered what I was born for.” He believed that the internet was, at its most fundamental, about empowerment.

This belief sparked his next company, Xibercom, one of the first internet-focused companies in Pakistan, which provided web development and software services. Early clients included Citibank and the Dawn Group of Newspapers. Xibercom launched the weekly Dawn Wire Service, a free, e-mail-based news service and subsequently designed and launched the Dawn.com website. He founded Spider, Pakistan’s internet magazine and, as executive editor, used it as a platform to advocate, with some success, for liberal internet and telecommunication policies, free from government meddling and censorship. He believed that the internet must be open and accessible to prepare Pakistan for the coming information age and used Spider to introduce and explain this technology to the public.

After expanding and then selling Wavetech in the mid-1990s, Baba became curious about a new technology called the internet. He got to experience it first-hand during a visit to Austria in 1995, where, at the foot of the Alps, he got on the net, skipped dinner, and stayed on until 3am. He called my mother in Karachi and told her: “I have discovered what I was born for.” He believed that the internet was, at its most fundamental, about empowerment.

Building on Xibercom’s success, his next venture was Desistore.com, an e-commerce website targeted at expatriate Pakistanis, which he started with his sister Ajam. Desistore started with books and music, two things Baba had missed most during his own years outside Pakistan (an early bestseller was a collection of CDs of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a cornerstone of his own collection).

With family in Karachi (1994)
With family in Karachi (1994)

As a teenager, I was invited to participate actively in Baba’s professional endeavours. To humour me, he agreed to run an advertisement concept for Desistore, dreamt up by my early teenager brain, on the Dawn website. (The ad comprised sequential banners as follows: (i) Everything Desi (ii) Except the Paan (iii) (A paan peek splatters onto the banner and dribbles down) (iv) Desistore.com.) Baba went along, seeing it as a learning experience, and, I now suspect, as an opportunity to support the underdog. I was convinced the ad would be a hit. (It wasn’t, but it did garner some niche appreciation).

By the early 2000s, Desistore was up and running, expanding into other products such as cricket kits, wedding accessories and — an arguably unsurprising hit given the target customer — the lota. He gradually wrapped up the software development work with Xibercom, including transitioning the operations for the Dawn website and Spider magazine back to the Dawn team. In search for new business opportunities, he started to split his time between Karachi and Houston, where Desistore was based.

Around this time, he rediscovered photography, a passion he had developed as an early teenager with his own father, an organic chemist who taught him how to develop film at home and who passed away just after Baba started his undergraduate studies. Baba’s photography, which he began to share on his Flickr page, comprised mainly of portraits of family, friends and strangers he came across in different parts of Karachi. His favourites included candid portraits taken in interior Sindh, and a haunting set on addiction, which echoed his own lifelong struggles.

When it came to work, he was meticulous about time. His colleague shared an incident where he walked out of a meeting requested by an IT Minister because the Minister was five minutes late. This was different to the father we knew at home, routinely oversleeping, often late to sports day and school events, and frequently on the verge of missing his flight (on more than one occasion due to a last-minute haircut).

He held several group exhibitions, and then a solo exhibition, titled “Mein”, in 2008 at Canvas Gallery in Karachi. He proudly told his family and friends that it was his “first solo exhibition”, with the anticipation that there would be more in the future. It was to be his last. The following year, he had a stroke which caused him to lose movement on the left side of his body and which made keeping up with his photography difficult.

Throughout his academic and professional journey, Baba was interested in the overlapping space between science, art and philosophy. MC Escher’s art was a recurring theme in his office and at home. Fractal designs, in which the same patterns occur again and again at different scales and sizes, formed the basis for holiday cards that invited the unwitting recipient to reflect on the role of mathematics in nature. Recurring patterns featured prominently in the design of the Xibercom and Spider offices in Haroon House (with their distinct checkerboard floor tiles) and his garden at home as well.

Dr Kamal (right) at a picnic at Brummana High School, with sister Ajam (third from right) in Lebanon (1973)
Dr Kamal (right) at a picnic at Brummana High School, with sister Ajam (third from right) in Lebanon (1973)

Outside these more geeky endeavours, he enjoyed taking his four-wheel drive (he had three, at different points in his life), children (also three) and black Labrador Peelu (also three, at different points) off-roading near Sea View. The drives would normally start upbeat, with Daler Mehndi (Tunak, Tunak) and conclude with Led Zeppelin deep cuts (Nobody’s Fault But Mine), usually after the car got stuck in a sand dune.

For better or for worse, his personal and professional lives remained deeply intertwined for most of his life. Many of Baba’s companies started (and, in some cases, ended) at our house. The children were always involved. Maazin designed the invitation for Baba’s solo exhibition and Daanika would help with the end-of-month payroll. Baba always had a dedicated study at home for his late-night research, fuelled by copious amounts of instant coffee (black) and his pipe (with Captain Black, Royal Blue tobacco). It was not unusual to discover him asleep at his desk the following morning after an all-nighter, a habit he acquired during his graduate school days.

And yet, his personal and professional lives made for some notable contradictions. When it came to work, he was meticulous about time. His colleague shared an incident where he walked out of a meeting requested by an IT Minister because the minister was five minutes late. This was different to the father we knew at home, routinely oversleeping, often late to sports day and school events, and frequently on the verge of missing his flight (on more than one occasion due to a last-minute haircut). His work colleagues describe the Xibercom office having a flat, progressive corporate culture that was unique in Pakistan. I guess the culture was flat — if you weren’t him. As a teenager, I recall observing that the strict dress code (which, for men, was buttoned shirts and pants) applied flexibly to him (he preferred polo shirts) and neither did the no-smoking rule (which was enforced everywhere in the office, except his room). When I asked him about this in recent years, he told me sincerely, “Well, there have to be some perks of being the boss.”

Making polite small talk did not always come easily, especially if he had decided that finding common ground was unlikely. During his time in Houston, he would sometimes find himself at dinners with expatriate Pakistanis. When the topic of conversation turned to the most recent lecture by some self-styled Islamic scholar, he would usually find an opportunity to slip outside and smoke his pipe. On one occasion, when such an exit was not feasible, he told an unsuspecting guest at his sister Ajam’s dinner that “That scholar is a complete idiot. And if you follow his teachings, then you are a complete idiot, too.”

He valued authenticity in the company he kept. His diverse groups of friends included businessmen, artists, journalists, academics and others. Many were part of his academic and professional journey, some were extended family, and a few he mentored along the way. Several were assigned faux lofty and/or formal titles (Huzoor-i-Waala, Janab-i-Aali, etc.). A few all-weather friends continued to visit regularly even after his left side became paralysed, and through the subsequent strokes and hospitalisations over the years, until he passed.

Even while confined to a wheelchair, for the last decade or more of his life, he was full of wisdom, wit and good cheer. He read extensively, requesting all visitors to bring him books and magazines (and, if they could be smuggled or ushered past the nurse on duty, extra cigarettes). On occasion, he revisited the intricate details of his earlier work as a young man, including his satellite tracking calculations, and his doctoral research on the efficiency of nuclear reactors. Even after completing my own engineering degrees, much of this was incomprehensible, until we sat together and he explained it to me, with razor-sharp clarity.

The last year of his life was the toughest. Another stroke took away his ability to speak and write. Yet, he remained connected to the world through his iPad, poking around and exploring the different corners of the now-ubiquitous internet, the technology he once introduced and explained to Pakistan.

During this period, he sent me messages from his iPad almost every day. These messages were a free-flowing continuum of seemingly garbled letters and numbers.

They were as incomprehensible to me as the complex equations he used to generate his fractals, the HTML code he used to write the live results tracking tool for Dawn for the 1997 general elections, or the program he wrote to simulate his model nuclear reactors.

Maybe, in time, he will explain these final messages to me too.

The writer is a development finance professional based in the Philippines. He can be reached at sameerkamal@alum.mit.edu

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 15th, 2020