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Eulogy: Infinite income


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From our first meeting in what was perhaps 1968 to our last meeting 44 years later, just a few weeks before his demise in June 2012, Obaidullah Baig remained unfailingly and so engagingly the very same person.

Warm, affectionate, sincere, soft-spoken, humble. The lines on his craggily handsome face that came with time more clearly defined a depth already present.

His life spanned over seven decades yet his character stayed still, fixed and well-rooted. With some people, qualities and values never change.

Without being a close friend, one felt close to him. Without meeting him regularly one could be familiar and comfortable with him whenever we met.

There was an approximate simultaniety in our association as free-lancers with the birth and evolution of Pakistan Television at the Karachi centre in the late 1960s and the early 1970s. Aslam Azhar's vigorous leadership and his bold willingness to encourage innovation, initially as General Manager at KTV and subsequently as Managing Director at HQ enabled the introduction of the instant hit of Kasauti (Twenty Questions ) starring Obaidullah Baig, Iftikhar Arif and Qureshpur. As also to launch several other path-breaking programmes in documentaries, current affairs, drama, entertainment, music and sports. We discovered the golden days of TV together.

As part of the exclusive Kasauti trio: which remained exclusive even when, in the 1990s, Ghazi Salahuddin replaced Iftikhar Arif — Obaidullah retained his distinct individuality. He was probably most under-stated but by no means inconspicuous. His sense of quietness magnified his strengths: resolute character, authentic scholarship, a perpetual quest for new knowledge, a bemused expression of ease with the world around him.

Whether chasing clues or venturing into wild reaches of the countryside, his demeanour showed a stolid, steady self-confidence in his mission. Whether one million viewed his work or one thousand read it, what mattered most to him was his belief in the relevance and worth of his labour.

Fortunate to have married Salma, an accomplished and charming individual in her own right, they became parents of three gifted daughters, Mariam, Fatima and Amina. Born into an educated, respected family, he sustained and enhanced its traditions by nurturing a future generation of talent and skills.

Commencing with some of his first documentaries, he honoured this writer with frequent invitations to narrate the English versions specially adapted for screenings overseas. They were splendid films on our country's ecology, beautiful and threatened, on its remarkable people, and on regional neighbours in Central Asia.

He would always politely offer to ensure that a commentator's fee be paid. Often one would decline. On a few occasions, there was acceptance with the understanding that the amount would go to a cause more deserving than one's own pocket, though the pocket too needed periodic refreshment. During our last collaboration, he insisted that one accept a sum of Rs.5000, profusely apologising for the fact that there were only three zeroes in the figure, not more.

Somewhere inside that rich, resonant mind lay buried that last transaction between us. At his soyem, his family shared with me an episode at once amusing and endearing. Just two days before his final departure, emerging from sedation induced by two doses of morphine given to dull the pain of cancer and other complications, he suddenly posed a question to the family at his bedside: “What is Javed Jabbar's income?” Salma consoled him: “Please don't worry. If you wish to employ his services, we will call him and ask what he earns.” To which Obaid applied a definitive closure by saying “Rs.5000, I know it is Rs.5000.”

Deeply flattered as one is for being remembered, however inadvertently, by a person in acute physical distress whose mind dredged up unrelated memories, one is grievously saddened by the loss of an individual who enriched our society in multiple ways and with singular humility.

Dear Obaidullah Baig, may you earn infinite income as you film the horizons of heaven and attempt to correctly guess the ultimate truth.

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