Salmaan Taseer: A life less ordinary

Remembering the man that was Salmaan Taseer

o these liars and swindlers, these contractors of faith

I am a rebel, I am a rebel

The last time I met Salmaan Taseer Shaheed (STS) was in the Punjab Governor’s House. This was a typical Lahori winter evening: misty and quiet, the palatial colonial mansion making it slightly surreal. A foreign dignitary was visiting; and I was part of the Lahori chatterati assembled in the stately living room that reeked of the Raj. Amid the chatter I took the opportunity to point out the rising tide of extremism in the country, and advised STS to be extra careful about what he said. Taseer’s response came with his characteristic bravado: “I am not afraid of these Mullahs. Should I stop speaking and stay at home?” He also said: “Being afraid is the worst state of mind.” Within seconds STS had cracked a joke and as always used his irrepressible humour to illustrate just how unafraid he was.

Two weeks later, I was in the same grand room, but in another state of mind: I was shocked and bewildered because STS had been gunned down in broad daylight. My grief since the day of his death has not abated and in fact has turned into a strange despondency: permanent and ominous. In his own words, STS was the ‘last man standing’ against bigotry in a country that is slipping into the hands of extremists who have banned critical thinking and espouse the ideological project designed by the Pakistani state.

Twenty-two years ago I was introduced to STS as a friend of his children, Sara and Shaan, and his razor-sharp wit and unabashed irreverence have stayed with me ever since. Unlike most Lahori parents I had met, this man was refreshing and ultra-engaging. He would joke incessantly about us young lot, our idiosyncrasies and foolish squabbles. Over the years he even chided me when I took sides in a sibling rivalry or failed to tell him what his son or daughter were up to.

It was during these years that I realized how involved he was with his children. Sara and Shaan were at college and Sanam was at school, and their father knew every detail about their courses, grades, friends and lives. The younger three— Sheheryar, Shahbaz and Sheherbano — were too little but he was overly affectionate and indulgent. His was a strange mix of paternal heavy-handedness and boundless love. Perhaps this is why his children have suffered the most after his death: he was their centre of gravity, a key pillar of their existence.

In the 1990s he set up successful companies and, unlike most rich people of Pakistan, made it big without state patronage. His rise in the subsequent years is a tale yet to be written. Combining his financial acumen with his innate intelligence he managed to build an empire out of nothing.

Many grudged him his success, but STS was an entirely self-made man. His distinguished father, M D Taseer, was a celebrated poet and intellectual but he was not a rich man. STS had an extremely hard working and practical mother Christabel Taseer – who raised the family against all odds and became the role model of perseverance for her children.

STS was utterly unlike other accountants, businessmen and members of the elite. Extremely well read, he dabbled in fine writing. He authored the first biography of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto which was published in 1979. Later he wrote for several newspapers and was involved in both populist discourse as well as drawing room discussions. He was witty, intelligent and persuasive everywhere. He could hold forth on artists, books, authors and, using highbrow critiques and colourful Lahori jibes, win people over with his delightful originality.

I remember he was distraught after losing the 1993 election. Later he took a backseat in politics. This was also the phase when Pakistan deregulated its economy. STS had the foresight to emerge as a player in the telecom sector well before anyone thought of it. “These guys have no idea,” he said to me, referring to the telecom sector, which he correctly predicted would ‘boom’. His WorldCall project became a first-of-its-kind communications service that revolutionized the way we lived. Wireless phones, inexpensive calling cards and home-based cables were the brainchild of a man who was way ahead of his times. During the high point of his career as a businessman, his social responsibility was evident: he established several television channels and published two leading progressive dailies. I vividly remember how proud he was of setting up The Daily Times and Aaj Kal, which challenged the hegemony of the right wing over mainstream media in Pakistan.

And this was his tragedy.

Like many before him, he was too modern a man for a country struggling with its fractured history and identity. One of the things he said again and again in this last phase of his life was that he was trying to reclaim ‘Jinnah’s Pakistan’. An idealist at heart, he seems to have underappreciated the fact that being a torch-bearer for a tolerant Pakistan could cost him his life.

I recall how he cited some of the pieces I had written for TFT. Amazed that he read so much, I asked him when he found the time. He retorted: “I finish reading the papers before you wake up.” His foray into the real-time world of social media was spectacular. The first Pakistani politician to do so, he used this new space too to question conservatism and conformity. For instance, he was the only politician to question the Saudi King after the WikiLeaks cables (one popular TV anchor even orchestrated an entire show on the issue, as if STS had committed blasphemy). He would call such zealots “idiots” in his inimitable style and would usually ask: “have they gone mad?”

On the freezing morning of January 5, then, I stood in the Governor’s House for his funeral. The state-fed mullahs of Lahore had refused to offer his funeral prayers. I stood there with thousands of others, unable to accept that STS was no more. And that was when I saw that STS had acquired a proud place in South Asia’s history. Like Dara Shikoh, Sarmad and Bulleh Shah before him, he was, in a strange way, honored by the very mullahs who refused to offer his funeral prayers.

In his death STS has escaped the narrow sectarian divides and hatred that are slowly consuming us all. As for Qadri, his killer, the poor boy seems to have envisioned himself as part of a procession of the righteous. But Qadri and his abettors are on the wrong side of history.

I want to end with the words of poet Munir Niazi, words that STS was always fond of quoting:

Kuj shehr de log vi zalam san

Kuj sanu maran da shauq vi si

(The city’s people were somewhat callous / And I was somewhat fond of dying)

Raza Rumi is a writer and policy expert based in Lahore.

Published in The Friday Times, January 14, 2011

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