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Confessions of a columnist


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OVER many years of writing for this and other publications, I have been humoured by editors who have allowed me to explore a wide range of subjects.

Frankly, I find politics quite boring after a point, and have many other interests. Life would be dull indeed if one allowed oneself to be consumed by politics.

When I read or listen to the words of most of our politicians, I am deeply depressed by their inanity. But to stay in the public eye, they need the spotlight the media supplies. Sadly, even the most pedestrian among them is provided a platform by journalists wanting a sound bite, or some gibberish tarted up as political commentary.

Amazingly, there is a wide audience for these characters as they seem to spend all their time rushing from one chat show to the next. TV hosts let them expound loudly and at length until far too many programmes resemble shouting matches.

The question that most intrigues me is why so many people are fixated by these pompous nobodies. Having met several in my years of observing the political scene, I can say that apart from a few honourable exceptions, I have not been impressed by any. Indeed, I would hate to spend an evening with most of them.

Given this state of affairs, every once in a while I indulge myself and write about something offbeat. Readers of the paper edition of Dawn might be aware that I write two columns a week, one in this space on Saturdays, and one on Mondays for the foreign pages under the title of ‘letter from abroad’. However, this heading does not appear on the online version, so understandably, some readers assume this is also an op-ed piece.

The reason I have gone into these details is that their relevance became apparent when I devoted my ‘letter from abroad’ last Monday to food I had been eating and cooking recently. I was immediately attacked by indignant readers who asked what relevance this had in a country with so much poverty. Others said they read me for political analysis, not for gastronomy. Luckily, several readers seemed to have enjoyed the article as well.

Being a political animal and a news junkie, I habitually read newspapers from around the world. Often, I am struck by how editors abroad often devote their main headlines to entirely non-political news. A few days ago, for instance, nearly half the front page of the Guardian was devoted to lovely photos of entries to the Chelsea Flower Show. Human-interest stories make the front pages regularly.

But given our addiction to politics, this would be unusual in Pakistan. Some 20 years ago, when my late, much-missed friend Eqbal Ahmed returned to live permanently in Pakistan after decades in the United States, I asked him what he missed most about his life in the West. “I miss the conversation,” he replied. “Here, all the talk is about politics, and who has run what scam. Nobody talks about a recent book he has read, or a film he has seen.”

This struck me as a very sharp and damning observation that is much truer today than when Eqbal made it. The proliferation of private TV channels populated by politicians as well as retired generals, bureaucrats and diplomats hosted by anchors with dubious credentials, has fostered a voracious appetite for political news, gossip and half-baked analysis.

In this frenzied climate, anybody attempting to discuss other matters is either ignored or rebuked for being facetious. The truth is that most of the time, writing a political column is not very difficult: all you have to do is string together recent events, and run down the government of the day.

But I see the task of the columnist as somebody who makes readers consider possibilities other than the current narrative. To those who advise me to go with the flow, I say: “Only dead fish go with the flow.” Most of all, I think freelance columnists like me, unlike staff writers, have a duty not to echo the editorial stance of the publications they write for.

Over the years, labels like ‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘imperialism’ have lost much of their meaning: while I side with the underdog, I am no longer constrained in my thinking by ideological dogma of any kind. I suppose with age comes a slaking of passions, and an increase in clarity and objectivity.

Writing a minimum of two columns a week is a bit like walking on a treadmill machine: as soon as I have finished one, I start thinking about what I’ll write next. Often, my wife accuses me of blanking out; actually, I’m thinking about my next piece. Ideas pop up at the oddest moment, but most often late at night when sleep eludes me.

When I was approached by my American publisher to write a book a couple of years ago, I wondered how I would manage to fit it in with my other writing commitments. Another problem was that I’m so used to developing my ideas within 1100 words that the thought of unlimited space to express myself in was almost frightening. In the event, I solved the problem by thinking of each chapter as an extended column.

In one sense, I consider myself very fortunate in having the small skill of being able to write concisely and clearly. Often, students wishing to become journalists ask me for advice. Invariably, I suggest they read as much as they can. But I fear that they get most of their entertainment and education off one screen or another.

I am also lucky in having a number of interests, including art, literature, history, theatre and culinary pursuits. I have a fairly large collection of books about food and cooking, and enjoy pottering around in the kitchen. Every once in a while, I indulge myself and write about food.

Currently, I am reading the memoirs of the French gastronome Brillat-Savarin, first published in 1825, and never out of print ever since. Readers are warned I might write about him at some point. And no apologies to those who only read me for my political views: thankfully, life is about a lot more than politics.

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (38) Closed

FAYYAZ A. SOOMRO May 27, 2012 08:28am
Apropos of a column titled “confession of a columnist” written by Irfan Hussain, the author is very right when he talks about how editors abroad often devote their main headlines to entirely non-political news? The author may pay attention on my reply that the other big news papers of world do not focus politics in their newspapers headlines because their political affairs are secondary in its nature based on endless debates with illogical conclusion.
skylark May 26, 2012 06:14am
i have read many articles ,brilliantly written by you i am sad to see that literary culture in both india & pakistan are replaced by these cheap tv talk shows. i live in USA but when ever i visit my indian or pakistani friends here they are glued to these TV programs and their children have stopped reading news papers or good books passive culture has definite shadow of cognitive function of brain and looses its capacity to express both in writing & speaking, is quite evident. please keep up your good work & stay healthy
Eraj May 26, 2012 04:04am
I really enjoy your non-politics pieces.
qaswar May 26, 2012 04:43am
a very ballanced and befitting answer to those who think politics is the first and the last thing to be discussed .and as said there are so many things in our life one can discuss to get away with frustrations.
SB Puri May 26, 2012 04:51am
May I suggest posting your non political pieces in some Indian publication.
Sunoo Thomas May 26, 2012 05:02am
So do I. Keep writing. I occasionally recall the great food and wedding dinners I attended as a child. I look forward to reading about your favorite recipes.
Ahmad Mustafa May 26, 2012 06:49am
Mr Hussain,I am a student of olevels and I have been reading your articles over the last five years,and I have found them to be both informative and entertaining.Although i am no expert on english literature,there' is is something in the way you write that makes me log on to the internet every saturday and monday to read your opinion on whatever subject you choose to write on.I will try and read that book of yours in the summer holidays.I sat my english exam a few days before.Please pray I get an A-star.
Haji Ashfaq May 26, 2012 07:18am
I don't want to miss any of his columns like I did not of Ardheshir Cowasjee's. Many are streo-type but few can write about subjects like gestronomy. This is a subject of those who enjoy and have a taste for delicacies. Keep writting Irfan Bhai.
anizajaved May 26, 2012 08:05am
nowadays we are prisoned in political turmoil. every news channel and news paper is not filled with political news but with humiliation of politics. these non sense politicians even brought their dirty politics in even entertaining and news on which we could be happy. if any sports man wins any title at international level political parties starts claiming that s/he belongs to them. if any unfortunate incident happens then they alleged each other that they are responsible. until or unless our politicians and media men specifically gets mature we cannot get rid of political discussions. As media have made politics an entertainment, drama, tragedy and thrill in itself.
rizwan shaikh May 26, 2012 08:15am
with best greetings..Assalam.o.aliakum. sir, since i have started reading dawn, eversince, founded your columns analytically. it is onus of a writer you perform well.after Cowasjee, you are top of editor of this newspaper. come what may, you must keep up your duty............thanks.
Rizwanul Haque May 26, 2012 08:23am
The only hing now left in the DAWN is Irfan Hussain & cowasjee, wish some new faces come up with more diversity.
Ali Raza May 26, 2012 08:33am
I enjoy reading apolitical columns.
Qamar Sabzwari May 26, 2012 09:02am
I have been reading literary contributions by you for quite sometime and this paper for more than fourteen years, now. You do not need to justify your last column or any of the writings for that matter. The dilemma with the nation, as rightly pointed out by you is that we are obsessed with politicians and finding faults in others rather than doing any soul searching. You can though advise this publication and other national dailies to devise policies to cover/publish more about positive developments in Pakistan and beautiful aspects of life instead of sizzling news items/politics/political scandals. This may lead to some effective and nice change in thinking patterns"..................
jamil janjua May 26, 2012 09:23am
Self-directed change takes you out of your comfort zone. It removes you from"the flow." It places a strain on your relationships with other people,since you are having to leave your niche before others understand the need for it. All the fears of seperation anxiety, of the unknown,can be expected. - Strategy of the Dolphins. KEEP at IT my dear friend Irfan Hussain.
ahsan ali sario May 26, 2012 09:37am
“Here, all the talk is about politics, and who has run what scam. Nobody talks about a recent book he has read, or a film he has seen.”...................commendable.
Kanu Mistry May 26, 2012 10:54am
Your non-political articles are in deed very interesting, the subjects chosen are very good and unique. The literacy level in your articles are also very high and like to read. Please continue with the non-political articles you are writing.
taha May 26, 2012 11:04am
most of the time we people talk about our problems we can not avoid our problems and here in pakistan lack of good governance has become a dilemma which has ruined the pleasures of lives of people when you see or hear of a suicide of a person owing to bad economic conditions then you can not avoid politics
Agha Ata May 26, 2012 12:01pm
You are such a normal person! Do you also have a pet? In your articles even a politician can smell roses. :)
ARD May 26, 2012 12:32pm
I am a regular reader of his column. I can vouch that he is an animal lover and has a dog named Puffin whom he treats as a family member. He had written a couple of columns about him.
El Cid May 26, 2012 12:40pm
Prayers aside you need to revise what you write. Your language and grammer needs work too. Expertise in any discipline requires sustained effort, due diligence...sometimes a life-time of it. Most Dawn columns are not worthy fodder for 'O' Levels. Don't waste precious time reading them. Shakespeare is a better bet. Voracious reading of classics, not newspaper columns, helps.
Dharmendra Goel May 26, 2012 12:52pm
I always read Irfanhussainin Dawn with greatpleasure, like Ayaz amir who unfortunately ,now has stoppedwriting ,now for sometime , i findIrfan Sahib very cultivatedcolumnistand isaware of many worldtrendsin Art history and literature. it israre that journalist instead of being a mere stringer offactual Reports from far and near also givescritical reflections. Irfan Sahib excels like AyazAmir.Pl. if you can do it do communicate my deep regards -janab Ayaz Amir Sahib. as i donot know his e-mail . Thanks D, Goel
Tariq K Sami May 26, 2012 01:48pm
I can tell you from my own personal experience that Food is the last thing that changes in the life of a immigrant. Love your columns.
qaswar May 26, 2012 02:24pm
mr goel ayaz amir write his columns for englisg daily the news.alas he had to quit dawn news paper as he turned politician
G Vishwanath May 26, 2012 03:16pm
You can write anything you want. I am always there to read it. Your old fan from Bangalore G Vishwanath
Siddharth Shastri May 26, 2012 03:33pm
How about a series of articles on assessment of the lives of those great artists of the subcontinent who migrated from one part to the other following the Partition, and what impact it had on their artistic productivity? Then there could be another series about artists who stayed put and informed speculation about what they may have missed achieving. With these, you would have touched many sensitive minds with only a hint of a dash of political flavor for the general audience. It is easy to think of Manto, Noor Jahan, and several music directors Like Ghulam Hyder in the first category; Begum Akhtar, Naushad, Ismat Chughtai, Sajjad and many others in the second; and a few like Sahir Ludhiyanvi who tried to migrate and returned to their roots.
BRR May 26, 2012 04:21pm
A well read gentleman I likely to have a lot to say about a lot of disparate topics, and an experienced journalist will be able to pontificate on a number of topics. Being an articulate personality, and apparently a gregarious one at that, perhaps even an extrovert, Mr. Husain has been able to educate as well as entertain through his columns. May his tribe increase. "Lagay Raho Husain Bhai", a some would say.
khuram Shahzad May 26, 2012 05:14pm
Truely speaking Pakistani polity and society has turned into too much Athenian style where They have indulged themselves into trifals of politics. However the rivals of Pakistan the Spartans are busy in practical works like developing educational skills, they are trying to excel in almost all walks of life. Moreover politics is the hobby of the few, for fundamental change in our socio- political uplift instead of rhetorically indulging in politics should aspire for action. This is time to act not to talk. The intellectuals should discuss all fields of interest besides politics and people should exhaust their energies in making practical endeavors in all walks of life.
aasim Saja Akhter May 26, 2012 05:50pm
Cowasjee is still my most favourite! Rest are all on payrolls!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Sri1 May 26, 2012 06:30pm
Janab Ayaz Amir whose writings I too admire, has left to help his nation personally by joining politics (PML-N). He is probably too busy to bother writing articles. I am happy that this patriot left his comfort zone and opted for action instead of just words.
P.K.Mattoo May 26, 2012 06:52pm
It is edifying to read Irfan Sahab's column.
Razzaq May 26, 2012 07:20pm
I totally agree with Irfan Saheb regarding TV channels forcing political garbage on viewers day in and day out and the third rate partipants in their talk shows. I wish they ever talk about the real issues of our country and the nation. "Aur bhi dukh hain zamane mein muhabbat ke siwa", Than another thing I find most irritating is that the non pariamentry politicians,the discredited retired army officers and the mullas are regular guests on these talk shows.
Cyrus Howell May 26, 2012 08:32pm
IN PARALLEL: + The surge of student activism (In Mexico) has drawn attention at a key time during campaigning in the politically polarized country, where security concerns and economic problems have been top issues for candidates vying for the presidency. "It was about time that Mexico woke up, that it stopped watching television," said Leonardo Mata, a student at Mexico City's Metropolitan Autonomous University who joined thousands marching in the capital on Wednesday. TV coverage of the campaign has drawn sharp criticism from some protesters, who argue that national broadcaster Televisa has provided more favorable coverage to Enrique Pena Nieto, the Institutional Revolutionary Party candidate who leads in polls. (the IRP ran Mexico for 70 years of corrupt government).
Melarkode May 26, 2012 09:03pm
Ayaz Amir .. yes I visit Dawn to read 3 people (now 2) Ayaz Amir, Irafan Hussain and Nadeem, F Paracha. Simple and clear in their message and sometimes like dynamite! and sometimes like the summer wine! It's a pleasure to read their columns. As Mr. Hussain says not just politics but for all the subtle things in life that they write in this life, I wish we had more of them in our continent. Last time I heard Mr. Amir was in Pakistan's lower house member? Anyway Dwan please pass on our regards to "Amir Shahib" "We the readers" miss him
Mustafa Razavi May 26, 2012 09:38pm
Evidently Irfan's popularity goes up exponentially as you move away from Pakistan.
Mustafa Razavi May 26, 2012 09:39pm
Dawn is an Indian Publication.
JRE May 27, 2012 01:58am
Irfan hussain ,Ayaz Amir ,Paracha ,Cyril Almeida are "hatke " column writers .They should write on any subject they like.It is always pleasure to read their columns.
dattu Tulankar May 27, 2012 02:06am
Excellent article. I am your fan simply. I have been reading your articles and that of Ayyaj Amir besides others . I can only say you represent a comman Man of R.K. Laxman, ailing Cartoonist. This is our culture we have been inheritting since ages. Although miles away you find resembalance in two persons in other wise undevided Indian sub continent.
Ms Malik May 29, 2012 02:41am
Its always a pleasure to read Irfan hussain's articles.He is my most favourite columnist.i have been reading him for a very long time. His writing style is awesome.Simple and enjoyable! ''thankfully, life is about a lot more than politics.'' i second you sir!