Khalid Hasan: a great Pakistani

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Aakar Patel

The writer is a former newspaper editor who lives in Bombay

Khalid Hasan was bilingual. That gave him intellectual access that is denied to most English journalists in India and Pakistan. It gave his writing a dimension that desis do not get in other English writing. It is what attracts us to the English writing of bilinguals like Tagore, Iqbal and Gandhi: their knowledge of our subcontinent.

Hasan’s writing was illuminating and entertaining for all of us; but his great value was to English monolinguals whom he introduced to their culture and literature. And of course he made people come alive. This is something he had in common with the two men he translated — Manto and A Hamid.

Like a conjurer, Hasan was able to settle us effortlessly into that favourite subcontinental emotion: nostalgia. He was able to recount anecdotes perfectly. And his readers will remember many of Khalid Hasan’s columns because of this talent. He ennobled characters. Delhi, Bombay and Bollywood have suffered because they have not been chronicled by a person of Khalid Hasan’s calibre.

Lahore is a very fine city, but it became better in his writing. So did Sialkot, though Hasan always mentioned what a dump it was. He did not have the sentimentalism that many of us have. When I reviewed a Farida Khanum concert in Bombay, and commented on how badly it was organised (chief guest Shatrughan Sinha spoke so long on Zia’s era that he had to be clapped off stage; the organisers sent a chit to Khanum asking her to ‘talk less and sing more’; and the tabla player was stopped by Khanum and corrected: ‘Ek taal’), Mr Hasan wrote to me.

“This practice of talking more and singing less is like a disease that has rampaged across the concert halls of India and Pakistan and I am glad the organisers sent her a “chit” asking that she sing more than she talk. The tabla player was of course a disaster and I am astonished that in a place like Mumbai, they couldn’t find one who wouldn’t be off beat. Had Farida (whom I know well) not rehearsed with him? And who chose this BJP joker Shatrughan Sinha? Who indeed? He was indeed close to Ziaul Haq and was in Pakistan frequently during his dark and repressive rule. That in itself is reason enough to keep him out of any civilised gathering. Farida, may I also add, has sometimes been accused of being be-taali and even be-surri but I am going to ask my good friend Saeed Malik in Lahore what he thinks.”

Mr Hasan wrote back a few days later (I cannot locate that email) saying Malik told him that ek taal was not ever used for light music and ghazals and that Khanum was probably wrong. Khalid Hasan served Bhutto in the 70s as his press secretary. In one of his unpublished long pieces ( has all his columns), he is most balanced and points out Bhutto’s failings. But he was not coloured. He often defended him on two of the counts that Bhutto is most often attacked: the Udhar tum, idhar hum line; and the tearing-up of the Polish resolution that apparently could have prevented the break-up of Pakistan.

He demonstrated that the first was the intervention of headline writer Abbas Athar and the second was an urban myth.

Khalid Hasan was secular, and married to a Christian, Juanita, as was his brother, Masood Hasan (married to Kinnaird College’s Ira Hasan). When I came to Lahore to lecture at Kinnaird on Ira’s invitation, Masood Hasan showed me a guide to style for journalists written by Khalid Hasan. It seemed the sort of book that Indian journalists needed badly.

It would have been difficult for Khalid Hasan to make a living corresponding for a Pakistani newspaper, given how little subcontinental papers pay, but he never wrote about that.

He was a refugee from Kashmir and saw the issue there in Manichean terms. He wrote once that the secularism argument did not matter in this case and that if the Kashmiris wanted Islamisation, then that should be their choice.

One writer Mr Hasan greatly admired was Patras Bokhari. I thought Bokhari’s understanding of Hindus and caste was unclear, though he wrote about them with great empathy. In Patras Kay Mazameen’s essay ‘Saweray jo kal aankh meri khulee’ he introduces his neighbour as Lala (merchant/householder) Kripashankarji Brahmachari (ascetic/bachelor). This was an improbability. I also thought the humour in ‘Lahaur ka Jugraffiya’ was too subtle and told Mr Hasan that. He replied saying I should read Bokhari as being “amusing, in an intellectual sense.”

Mr Hasan added a PS to his email, the story about Bokhari, into whose office a grandee once walked and stood. “Please take a chair” Bokhari told him without looking up from his writing. The official said: ‘Don’t you know I am (so-and-so)?’ Still looking down, Bokhari said: ‘Then please take two chairs.’

‘You will agree that Bokhari telling an ICS to take two chairs is funny,’ Mr Hasan wrote. And of course it was.

Khalid Hasan took great delight in recounting anecdotes. He could make readers giggle, a rare gift. His column about Abdulla Malik told of how once a crow disturbed a Kakezai’s sleep, landing on his face. The Pathan clenched his teeth around the crow’s feet. ‘Realising that he was trapped,’ Mr Hasan translated, ‘the crow thought of a stratagem. He asked the man what his caste was. The idea was that the moment he opened his mouth with an answer, it would free the crow’s claw and he would fly away. ‘Kakezai,’ the man muttered.” The crow remained trapped because you can pronounce the word Kakezai without unlocking your teeth. Anyone who does not believe it is welcome to try.’

Khalid Hasan was a reporter who was always interested in stories. When I told him I had discovered a personal interview of Jinnah from May 1916 in the Gujarati magazine Visami Sadi (20th Century), he immediately asked me to translate it and he reported it in the Daily Times the next day.

His interest in news stories was not fleeting and he had the dogged persistence that only the best reporters have.

After the Farida Khanum story he emailed me:

18 December, 2007

‘Dear Aakar

Shamshad Begum, the great playback singer of yesteryear lives in Mumbai in total anonymity. Wouldn’t you like to hunt her out and do a report? I am greatly interested in learning what I can about her. An address will help. She should not be hard to locate. Your movie industry contact could help.

Khalid Hasan’

I was terrified. I had no idea what Shamshad Begum had sung or what to ask her and I could not say no to Mr Hasan. I thought I should get someone to do the story instead and wrote the same day to Meenal Baghel, the editor of the Mumbai Mirror, but she was unable to get it done.

18 January, 2008

‘Dear Aakar

What progress on Shamshad Begum?

Khalid Hasan’

I had done some ground work and replied:

‘Dear Khalid Saheb

Shamshad Begum lives with her daughter in tony Cuffe Parade, so she’s doing fine.

Sending you a story about Mubarak Begum, whose son is a cab driver and whose daughter has Parkinson’s.


He replied immediately:

‘Ain’t you doing a story on Shamshad Begum? Why don’t you go and meet her? Talk to her about her times? She started out in Lahore and has sung for every legendary music director.

Khalid Hasan’

30 January, 2008

‘Dear Aakar,

Thanks very much for sending me the Mubarak Begum piece. What a shame. She indeed was a very fine singer. Why doesn’t Lata help her? She is a millionaire many times over. Can an effort to put her on a fair stipend be organised in Bombay? When will you go and see Shamshad Begum? I await that.

Khalid Hasan’

19 April, 2008

‘Dear Aakar

This is a gentle reminder of your promise to go and see Shamshad Begum and do an interview (a detailed one please, starting with her beginnings in Lahore)

Khalid Hasan

PS: Did Mekaal’s concerts in India ever materialise?’

16 December, 2008

‘Dear Aakar

You still have to do that Shamshad Begum interview that I have asked you several times in the past to do. You think you can give it another shot?

Khalid Hasan’

I will, Mr Hasan.

Email: aakar.patel@

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