Feisal Naqvi

TFT in the dark ages

In Uncategorized on June 10, 2009 at 2:05 am

My original plan for the summer of 1989 was to research my bachelor’s thesis, preferably in the immediate vicinity of a pool with something tall, cool and heavily spiked in my hand. But by the time I showed up in Pakistan, I had already blown half my grant and consequently needed a job. The Friday Times’ first chief reporter, Aamer Ahmed Khan, was a friend of mine from previous summers in the reporting business and with his enthusiastic prompting, I decided to jump onto the bandwagon.

My first memories of TFT are of immense and utter confusion leavened with an immensely welcoming atmosphere. More precisely, I remember that as we laboured to put together TFT’s second ever issue, there was a moment around about 2am Wednesday morning, approximately eight hours or so after we were supposed to have gone to press, when we were still trying to figure out what to put on the front page. For some reason, Najam was very keen on running a photograph upon which some quite unfunny quips were to be posted cartoon style. The rest of us were not convinced about the merits of his scheme and we eventually managed to get a more sober front page agreed upon, but not before another couple of hours had passed and several of us were close to passing out.

To say that TFT’s technical side was a bit lacking would be an understatement. The general modus operandi was to write whatever one thought appropriate, print it out in a long skinny column, and then cut and paste the column on to the proof page. Not surprisingly, the length of the column and the available space quite often did not match. The normal solution was to eyeball the remaining space, march back to the computer and try to come up with some brilliant summation in the inch or so left for that purpose. Some times one succeeded and sometimes one didn’t – as one would be reminded by irate authors whose pieces had been radically shortened.

Still, the mixture of opportunity and intellectual ferment brewing in the offices of TFT was too much to resist. By the time I finally returned to my research obligations six weeks later, I had determined to return. And a year later, I headed back to TFT as one of the first in a long line of valayti babus.

By the time I came back, TFT had shifted from its original home on Turner Road (behind the Lahore High Court) to fresh lodgings on top of the Vanguard book shop on the Mall. Being on the Mall had many advantages, at least as compared to Turner Road which in those days, as today, was a foetid little street choked with lawyers busily figuring how best to earn their daily bread. From a journalistic perspective, the best part of being on the Mall was that you never needed to go to the action: instead, the action came to you. Every day, or other day, some collection of loonies would band together in solidarity and march down the Mall towards Governor House protesting about the injustice being done to them. And on most such days, weather permitting, I would take a cup of tea and hang out by Vanguard’s front door to watch the loonies go by.

The problem with being in the centre of the action was that sometimes the action didn’t leave you alone. On one occasion, I remember turning my neck to the left only to see a policeman about forty yards away aiming a teargas gun at my head. A few seconds later, a teargas shell went whooshing past our noses and clonked some poor school kid on the head, who, like us, was simply picking his nose and watching the world go by. Anyhow, much drama ensued. The TFT staffers, all revolutionaries to the core, promptly charged the policeman in protest. This was not such a good idea because a few seconds later, the same policeman, now reinforced with comrades, charged us, whereupon the TFT staffers all jumped back into the office and promptly brought the shutters crashing down. We all thought we were safe but the pall of teargas outside the office had gotten sucked into the building and for the next few hours no work got done as everybody sat around putting wet handkerchiefs on their eyes until the tear gas finally dissipated.

Technically speaking, my designation at TFT was managing editor, and while I even had business cards printed with that title, I don’t think anybody other than my mother really bought the concept. For one thing, I was 21 at the time and I looked like I was, max, sixteen. Secondly, a newspaper really only has one editor and at TFT that person was unquestionably Najam Sethi. I suppose a more accurate description of my task would have been “features-wallah” but my turf covered everything other than news. It was my job to make sure that every week when the paper went to press there were seventeen pages of entertainment and my instructions were to get that material whether I had to beg, borrow or steal. If anything, stealing was preferred because the “lifted” material was normally of very good quality, usually complete with pictures, and did not require payment. All in all, a win-win situation for both reader and paper!

The people at TFT were certainly an eclectic bunch. In addition to Najam, Jugnu and Aamer, there was also a skeletal and very scruffy looking Englishman by the name of Ben who had been sent off by his father (Andreas Whittam Smith of The Independent) to go and try his luck in the wild wild East. Ben was of some indeterminate post-collegial age and whilst a brilliant writer, worked at the approximate pace of a three-toed sloth and aspired to much the same in terms of personal hygiene. Ben also had the charming disability of not being able to sleep in any condition other than the nude. At Najam’s house, where he was living, the staff had apparently worked out how to handle him but the rest of Pakistan had not been forewarned and more than one reporting trip by Ben almost ended in calamity as a result.

TFT, in general, was a haven for old khabbas of all shades. You could have swung a dead cat in TFT’s offices and probably hit half the membership of the Communist Party of Pakistan. I could tell, though, that the revolutionary fervour had started to fade by the time I returned in 1990 because Jugnu no longer addressed me as “comrade”. I thought only members of the KGB used to call each other “comrade” and acted as if my thoroughly capitalist soul was mortally offended whenever I was so addressed. Deep down, of course, I was thrilled.

Working at TFT was always a joy. I loved going to work there and I was normally the last person out. The only time that I recall things getting hairy in the office was when I rolled into Najam’s room and swore at him, much to the shock and surprise of the entire staff, and then stormed out after slamming the door. Fortunately for my future journalistic career, I was diagnosed with malaria later that day and when I returned a week later from shivering and sweating, Najam was too much of a gentleman to bring up my earlier fit.

As it turned out, TFT was not only the high point but the end of my journalistic career. After I left TFT to go to law school in 1991, I found out that going to law school meant that you got turned into a lawyer. Uh duh. Even today, there are occasions when I fantasise about heading back to the world of journalism but unfortunately, fiscal sanity always intervenes. So, for all the good times, TFT, I say thank you.

This is an article I did earlier for TFT’s 15th Anniversary. The article is reproduced here with the permission of TFT for which I am duly grateful.

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  1. What a great window into an interesting corner of journalism’s history. I love reading stories and interviews with people who have really lived in a committed and visceral way the path of the journalist.

    I have found several other great interviews and discussions from people who have varied and interesting histories in journalism here:

    http://www.ourblook.com/component/option,com_sectionex/Itemid,200076/id,8/view,category/#catid69

    They have done a great job of gathering together important perspectives on both the history and future of journalism.

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