RIP Idrees Bakhtiar — a gentleman and a journalist
Idrees Bakhtiar, who died yesterday in Karachi of complications from heart disease, was a giant of Pakistani journalism, a voracious chaser of paper and destroyer of word-processor keyboards who leaves an indelible mark on his profession.
Idrees Sahib, as he was known to newswomen (and men), and to at least three generations of Pakistani presidents and prime ministers, worked in key positions at some of the nation’s most storied news outlets.
His stellar career included groundbreaking work at Morning News, PPI, Jang, Jasarat, The Star, Herald, BBC, VOA, The Calcutta Telegraph and countless foreign as well as local media outlets.
But more that of that anon.
His story began as a part-time reporter in his native Hyderabad (Sind) at the now defunct Indus Times. The origin myth goes that he so impressed the editor that within a week he was offered a job as a full-time correspondent. He was barely out of high school, by some accounts still in class seven. The newspaper soon closed, but a dazzling new career had begun.
After a stint at the Pakistan Press International (PPI) Hyderabad bureau, he packed his bags and moved to Karachi. During the tumult and change of the late ‘sixties and ‘seventies, decades that defined print journalism in the country, a young and enterprising reporter found his metier.
He worked with Maulana Salahuddin, a pioneer of Urdu journalism, at Jasarat, helping to forge the newspaper’s rough-and-tumble reporting style. As a natural prose stylist in Urdu and a gifted news getter whose speed churning out stories was matchless, he became quickly known to a national readership. He could have stuck just with Urdu.
But he distinguished himself as an English language journalist as well, at Morning News, which was then edited by the great Shamsul Rahman (S.R.) Ghauri. The newspaper was a powerhouse of talent, boasting bylines that included Sajid Rizvi, Tony Mascarenhas, Ghulam Ali, and the great cartoonist Aziz. These were heady days in Pakistani journalism. Mascarenhas broke the East Pakistan genocide story for the London Sunday Times, earning Morning News international renown. Soon enough Ghauri faced down Zulfikar Ali Bhutto after his rise to power, losing his editorship but earning wide respect.
Under S.R. Ghauri’s tutelage, Idrees Bakhtiar learnt the ropes of city or metro reporting, bread and better journalism that remained close to his heart throughout his years. Years later, when covering Nawaz Sharif or chatting with Benazir Bhutto, he would say city reporting was closest to his heart.
When I first met Idrees Sahib, he was chief reporter of The Star, the swashbuckling Karachi eveninger holding a mirror to the vanities of Zia-ul-Haq’s military dictatorship. It was the summer of 1982 and Idrees Bakhtiar was again at the centre of news team whose work was shaking up the firmament—this time not as newbie, but as leader of the pack.
He covered or supervised the coverage of some of the great stories of the era: The return of Benazir Bhutto, the death of the prodigal son, Shahnawaz, the Park Libya Hotel bombings, the hathora murders, the death of Ziaul Haq, and countless riots and lathi charges. Through it all, he led from the front.
The dream team at The Star included, in no particular order, M.H. Deen, Vai El, Nargis Khanam, Zaffar Abbas, Mazhar Abbas, Kaleem Omar, Anwar Pirzado, magazine editor Zohra Yusuf, Saneeya Hussain, Qaiser Mahmud, Fahimeh Fifi Haroon, Najma Babar, Najma Sadeq, Tasneem Ahmar and Anjum Niaz. Our classified advertising manager, newly graduated cum laude from Smith College and bound for much greater things was Sherry Rehman.
Under the editorship first of Ghulam Nabi Mansuri and then the inimitable Imran Aslam, the paper punched consistently above its weight class. It exposed city graft, took swindlers to account, militated for women’s rights and social justice, and doggedly pursued the truth in places where other media outlets would not go.
Our polestar on the reporting end was Idrees Bakhtiar. To young reporters put in his charge he was highly demanding. ‘Get two sources,’ he would say. ‘One is never enough.’ But he was also a gentle giant, a warm and funny friend cracking jokes and unashamedly bumming cigarettes off his juniors.
‘Kya subha talwaar se shave kya tha?’ He would ask if I cut myself shaving.
In ministers and bureaucrats, the sight of Idrees Bakhtiar’s blue Vespa pulling up for a meeting or a press conference instilled fear and hope: fear because he was uncompromising and whatever he was told would be put under the microscope; hope because he was scrupulous, fair, and honest to a fault.
These qualities, along with his ready smile and wicked wit, made him welcome wherever he went. Though he himself was a card-carrying member of the Jamaat-e-Islami, two of his most ardent admirers as I remember were Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi , who served as chief minister in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s PPP government and later served as caretaker prime minister, and Maulana Shah Ahmed Noorani, the colourful and gifted head of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-i-Pakistan (JUP).
Jatoi would seek him out in a crowd, eager to find out what he thought about a late breaking story or a political development. When he became caretaker prime minister, he sought to appoint him to high government office, but Idrees Bakhtiar politely declined. By that time he had left The Star and, along with Zaffar Abbas, was very happy working at Herald, then ably edited by the multi-talented Sherry Rehman.
Maulana Noorani was one of Idrees Sahib’s regular stops on his reporting rounds. In those days, we did shoe leather reporting, literally losing shoe leather as we walked around Saddar in search of stories. On hot summer days, Maulana Noorani’s large, old flat was a haven from the city’s grime and chaos.
One day, I arrived with a copy in hand of Syed Abul-Ala-al Mwdui’s ‘Khutbaat’. I had become interested in Maulana Mawdudi and Idrees Sahib—voila—had lent me the book.
Maulana Noorani quickly took the tome away, saying: ‘DON’T READ THIS SIR. YOU WILL BECOME A HERETIC.’
The naughty maulana was needling Idrees Sahib for being a Jamaat supporter. Without missing a beat, Idrees Bakhtiar summoned Shakespeare. “Et tu Brutus,” he said turning to me with a hurt expression. “Yaar aap se kis ne kaha tha maulana ki kitab yahan laane ko.’
Maulana Noorani said, ‘Accha Brutus wali baat hai to Kitab wapas kar data hoon’, and returned book. We shared a laugh and Maulana Noorani began regaling us with political gossip. In today’s polarised Pakistan, such witty repartee between members of political sects fiercely opposed to each other seems impossible.
Equally unusual, perhaps, are the loyalty reporters and editors felt toward their respective papers or magazines. In the eighties, in addition to his duties at The Star, Idrees Sahib was stringing for the Voice Of America (VOA). One day, an editor from Washington called to ask if he could quickly file a story. The phone rang again a few minutes later. The Calcutta Telegraph wanted the same story. Soon enough, it rang again and again, a new outlet on the line.
There had been a gunfight in North Nazimabad and the two of us had spent the afternoon hiding behind a police van dodging bullets. A Baloch tribesman named Amanullah Mubarki had held Karachi’s entire police force, or so it seemed, at bay. Holed up in a house, firing away rapid Kalashnikov rounds that city dwellers then were not used to, while the police tried to set the house ablaze in hopes of smoking him out, the brave bandolero was the only game in town.
He fell eventually to a huge police assault, but not before yelling ‘muqabla’ and coming within three feet of Idrees Bakhtiar. Word of Mubarki’s derring-do, and of our chief reporter’s, reached the ears of foreign news desks and they were calling in hopes of acquiring an eye-witness account.
But we were working on our own story, for our own little Pakistani paper. Many senior reporters I knew would have left the task to a junior colleague, on that day me, and happily filed multiple stories for multiple foreign news outlets. Not Idrees Bakhtiar. He would have none of it.
After we had put out the Extra, I thought he might turn his attention to his foreign contacts. Instead he said ‘chalo tum thak gaey hoge” and we went out for kebabs in Burns Road.
It was a measure of the man. People came first. Often, I would run into him at government offices as he tried to help out a chaprasi or a sweeper by putting in a word with an official.
In the early nineties, I filed a Herald report from the United States. A journalist named Anthony Casolaro, who was investigating links between BCCI and Colombia’s Medellin drug cartel, had been murdered in a Washington area motel room. News of the murder had chilled area reporters covering the story.
My phone rang. It was Idrees Sahib in Karachi. Sherry Rehman was the editor, but he had a word of advice before he put her on. “Arre Kya bewaqoofi hai. Ziyada agay jaanay ki zurorat nahin hai. Aap ghar pe baithen.’
He was concerned, like a parent or an older sibling. In the nineties, when the government crackdown against the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) shook Karachi, Idrees Sahib took it upon himself to help free innocent individuals caught up in the police dragnet. It started with freeing one son of an assistant editor of Dawn who had disappeared. It ended with a veritable human rights campaign.
More than anything, he was a loving husband and father. During his days at The Star, he lived with his family in an apartment in Al Azam Square. I lived nearby in North Nazimabad. Sometimes I would arrive at his home in the evening to pair up with him and go cover an event. He would be on the balcony surrounded by his children. The kids would cling to him and dance around his legs and giggle and laugh and implore him not to leave.
Among those kids, he was like another kid, joking and laughing. I realised it was how he was with colleagues in the newsroom as well: Kind, jovial, non-judgmental, unbiased and genuine.
Sadly, the imprint of Idrees Bakhtiar’s character, his generosity of spirit and his willingness to accommodate disparate opinions and ideas, his tolerance, along with his humour and kindness, is a disappearing commodity. Pakistan is in crisis. As he leaves there is the sense a chapter has closed.
And yet we are fortunate, because vignettes of him may still be seen in the work of great journalists everywhere. At Dawn, he leaves a piece of himself in the exemplary and fearless Zaffar Abbas. At the Jang Group, he lives on in the breathtaking vision and innovative ideas of Imran Aslam. Surfing the net, one might see flashes of his caustic humour in the tweets of @titojourno, the unparalleled editor of The News.
And listening to Senator Sherry Rehman thundering in eloquent Urdu at the National Assembly, do not forget to listen for an Idreesian flourish.
These are small mercies we must be grateful for.
RIP Idrees Bakhtiar, gentleman and journalist.