Obaidullah Beg – my friend and legend
On Friday, the twenty second day of June they laid him to eternal rest in Karachi. Obaidullah Beg, or OB to those who were close to him, left his earthly abode leaving behind a legacy of love and understanding that will be treasured by all who came in contact with him.
I became an OB fan when television was black and white, and his signature programme Kasauti drew us to the ‘box’ like a magnet. Little did I know that this man, with his rugged looks, awesome knowledge and an even more awesome command over the spoken word would one day become one of my closest friends.
It all began when Obaidullah Beg and I teamed up to make a series of documentaries on the Central Asian Republics somewhere in the late nineteen nineties. I was excited at the prospect of working with him and overawed by the force of his personality, but it was he, who put me at ease by steering our conversation to our families. He was overjoyed on discovering my background, our common passion for reading, delving into history and our uncannily similar culinary preferences.
He would call me up before boarding his flight from Karachi and I would convey his itinerary to my better half, who would immediately begin necessary preparations in the kitchen to produce the two things he liked best – shami kebabs and maash lentils (which OB insisted on calling muqashar-o-biryan).
My friend abstained from consuming poultry in deference to his one-time hobby of keeping aseel cockerels as pets and I would often provoke him by saying that next time I came to Karachi and had dinner at his home in Clifton, he should ensure that the chicken curry was adequately ‘thin’ and in plenty. He would give me one of his ‘make believe’ annoyed looks and say that there would be no chicken, but he would make curry in his geyser so that I could drink it from his taps.
One of OB’s passions was chess, a game that I do not have the ability to even attempt. Whenever he came to Islamabad, he was usually joined in his hotel room by one of his close friends and former colleagues from Pakistan Television, for a game. I too was summoned on these occasions, perhaps, in the hope that watching the two contestants ‘thrust and parry’ may motivate me to take up the sport. As I entered the room, he would look up with his inimitable smile and then shake his head at my inadequacy and say that I was doing no good to my family traditions by staying away from the ‘game of kings’.
OB found great resonance in my elder sister, who was in his reckoning something of an authority in classic Urdu Literature by virtue of her long-term pedantic experience in the subject. He would always enquire about her and as and when they happened to meet at my house, I would sit silently in a bid to imbibe their animated discussions on poetry. It was during one of these sessions that I produced some old family documents in Persian and requested him to translate them for us. His interpretation of these papers and the passion with which he did it has remained an unforgettable experience for our family.
Obaidullah Beg wrote one novel in his lifetime and gave me an annotated copy. I remember that I started reading his work one winter evening and when I reached its ending, I could see daylight through my window. I called him up that afternoon and said that he owed me one sleepless night, but on a more serious note I suggested that since his novel contained all the ingredients of an epic film or even a multi-episode television play, we should get together and work on the idea. He gave me one of his subtle laughs and just said: “Choro Tariq, kiya faida.” His words contained no pain (for his threshold for pain was very high), but his words had a ring of regret for a system that had not recognised the true worth of his work and given it due recognition.
When he suffered a heart attack, I remonstrated with him for not getting in touch earlier, only to be told that he did not want to unnecessarily upset me. He changed a lot after this setback – I found him quieter and more homebound, spending time with his family. I now wonder if it was premonition or just something that happens when people safely negotiate a life-threatening milestone.
I last met him in December 2011 at his home during a short trip to Karachi and was upset by his wispy appearance. We were joined by his family and I left him an hour later with a promise to have dinner with him on my next visit. Had I known that I would not see him again, I would have tarried a while longer.
It was on Mother’s Day that I rang up his cell phone to record a message for listeners. My call was taken by his daughter, who told me that her father was unwell and had taken a turn for the worst. I spoke to his wife and could find little to say. This was, perhaps, OB’s last recording and the clip shall always have a place of honour in our archives.
I have not called up his grieving family for I do not have words to express myself to them. Perhaps, I shall do so when I have gathered enough courage (and words) along with the confidence that I shall not break down, when I speak to them. All I can do now is to dedicate this week’s column to Obaidullah Beg – devoted husband and father, a legend by any right and a friend whose memory shall never fade from our hearts.