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Kataan Saab

Kataan Saab

By Amir Mateen

IT ALWAYS gave me slight shivers to see Burki sahib. "Come here, Badmaash," this was how he would usually begin my ordeal whenever he saw me around.

He subjected me to long grills, always before crowds, about my flawed writing skills, my political inexactitudes or even about errors that I may have committed six months earlier. Somehow, I always felt good because there was lot of affection in his censuring. He would often make me sit beside him and, being the youngest in his usual fan club, let me have the honor of doing his chores.

In any case, there was no room for protest as seniors like M. Ziauddin and Ahmad Hassan Alvi also got occasional, but politer, drubbing. Even the thunderous tenor of Afzal Khan paled before 'Kaptaan Saab's roaring.'

I saw H.K. Burki, short for Hameedullah Khan Burki, along with the three seniors (mentioned above) at his hospital three days before he died. We could see, as they say, 'his time had come' but nobody talked about it. His son Tariq, who did a tremendous job staying by his side during his last days, said he could not speak but could do what had been his passion all his life - write. It had come down to just one word: "home." The place where he wanted to breath his last.

Burki lived a wholesome life that very few in this country can match. Someone who served the Royal Navy as flotilla commander; led Pakistan's hockey team; became associate of the prestigious Royal Photographic Society in London.

His reign in journalism extended to almost half a century during which he served in London and New York, first as a correspondent of the Civil and Military Gazette and then The Pakistan Times. He was considered one of the weightiest of journalist heavyweights of his times. He fought with dictators and rubbed shoulders with the high and the mighty of his days. He was, perhaps, the closest journalist to the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, more because of his matching intellectual acumen than loyalty.

Bhutto, Ahmad Hassan Alvi confirms, would sometime go to places sitting in Burki Sahib's blue Beetle.

I could never make out why seniors like Khalid Hassan and the late Farooq Mazhar called him 'Kaptaan Saab'. May be because he was a commander in the Royal Navy or because he had captained Pakistan's Olympic Hockey team. But somehow it fitted his personality so well. He always acted like one and nobody ever dared question that.

I recall his verbal exchange with Nawabzada Nasrullah, who incidentally died a day earlier and, ironically, in a room close by. This took place at Cafe de Wasti, a term coined by Khalid Hassan for Syed Kabir Ali Wasti's residence. Kaptaan Saab took on Nawabzada, particularly about his role in the imposition of Ziaul Haq's Martial Law. It was the only time in my life that I saw Nawabzada, a giant in his own right, withdrawing from the argument in a defeatist manner.

I once asked Mr Burki who in his judgment was all-time great in Pakistani journalism. "There are many names for slots at number two and three," he said, pondering. "A.T. Chaudhry was good, Khawaja Asif was better. "But who is the best?," I insisted. "Who else - Burki," he said nonchalantly, pulling his collars. As simple as that. Surprising as it may sound but it did not seem like arrogance at all. He always had that Disraellian attitude about a particular breed of humble people "who have lots of reasons to be humble about."

His children, who had settled abroad, wanted him to live with them. Burki loved being here. Though he never wrote a column for Dawn visiting its offices in the evenings was part of his daily itinerary for years. He guided juniors, pointed out their mistakes and inspired them on stories. He could be harsh but there was always something aristocratic about it. He was not the 'oldie' who was out of touch with the latest.

He kept himself abreast with new trends in literature and politics. He generally interpreted local events in the light of international happenings, something that he learnt through his vast exposure to world politics while working abroad. He was particularly concerned about objectivity in journalism. But he was never objective when it came to ZAB. He could not hear a word against him. There was a consistency of his views for Bhutto, spanning over 40 years, which influenced a whole generation of his devotees. And then everybody read an article by HK praising Musharraf. This stirred a storm among his admirers. But nobody dared say anything to Kaptaan Saab.

And then his admirers gathered one day at the Cafe. Everybody realized the underlying tension but kept his lips sealed. Kaptaan Saab broke the ice finally, saying, "let's talk about it." And talk they did. Things got a little out of control at one stage. It was like Kaptaan Saab's Titanic had struck an iceberg. But he held on to it to the last. We all departed like the few survivors of Titanic.

After his knee operation his visits to Dawn came down to once a week. His admirers would occasionally go individually and see him at home. He would discuss about the publication of his novel with Hassan Mussanna or talk about his novel with Shujaullah or receive a call from Shaheen Sehbai. But he rarely met his admirers in a group after that. I still shiver writing all this. May be Kaptaan Saab is reading this up there and saying, "bloody hell, what is this crap?."

Published in Dawn. September 30, 2003

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