When I met Sabeen Mahmud

Apr 29, 2015, 13:54 IST


Sabeen Mahmud

Photograph: Sabeen Mahmud on Facebook


She was a Post Modern Flower Child and also an unabashed Mac snob. She was a Pink Floyd Devotee and also a Tetris addict. She was also a West Wing fanatic and could die for Hugh Laurie. Sabeen Mahmud was also one of the trends on Twitter on Friday evening.

We live in precarious times—demons of social networking sites haunt us in inexplicable ways. We are always so connected and aware, it has weaned our ability to experience experiences sans their virtual reality.

I came back home at midnight on Friday, it was a long day at work. I opened my laptop to watch another episode of Mad Men when I randomly decided to check my Twitter account. #RIPSabeenMahmud was trending. Startled, I looked it up and sitting in my sub-urban Mumbai apartment, I was made aware with a couple of clicks of what happened just minutes ago to a woman I knew and worked with. Her last tweet was just three hours ago! Virtual reality, isn’t that oxymoronic?

Soon news stories of her death began to crop. One said, ‘Human Rights activist shot dead in Karachi’, the other said, ‘Paksitani activist Sabeen Mahmud killed’, yet another said, ‘Journalist Sabeen Mahmud shot to death’. They can call her an activist or a journalist; to me she was a free child and a happy soul.

I first met Sabeen in New Delhi when I was pursuing my post-graduation. There were these mandatory sessions that we were coerced into attending, where our prolific future colleagues (or so we hoped) were invited to speak to us about their journalistic journey. Though we tried to give of the impression that as budding journalists, we were most excited to attend these sessions but the chosen day being Friday was the bone of contention.

When I heard it was Sabeen who was coming for one of these sessions, I thought, Friday be damned, I am going to attend this one. I was excited for two reasons—one, she was a woman and we had had a spate of male journalists coming in and two, she was from Pakistan, a place that had intrigued me immensely.

She entered like a rockstar, wearing a Nehru jacket on top her kurta and flashing her gazillion dollar smile. She blurred the boundaries between her country and mine so swiftly, without really making any effort to do so. I remember she said that the problem between India and Pakistan wasn’t Kashmir as much as it was the water of River Jhelum. She happily shared her email id at the end of her interaction. I knitted dreams of going to Pakistan and may be working with her on a project.

That didn’t happen but we worked on a project called Baat Cheet intended to bolster ties between the two countries—journalism students from Jamia Millia Islamia and Karachi University did print, photo, video and online features on the intrinsic connection between the two nations. Sabeen headed this initiative in Pakistan. The experience wasn’t overwhelming, but so ordinary that it made me wonder—why are we so insistent on reinforcing that an India is not a Pakistan when the two are just so seemingly alike. Baat Cheet project didn’t make any headlines but left all us students feeling strangely connected with our friends from across the border. In her lifetime, Sabeen worked towards annihilating such divisions as religion, sex or nationality, these were just so petty for her.

My favourite country, Karachi :-)

A photo posted by Sabeen Mahmud (@neebas) on Apr 21, 2015 at 10:59pm PDT


She believed in freedom of speech and that is exactly what she practiced at The Second Floor, her café in Karachi that became the go to place for liberals in Pakistan. The last session she organised was on Balochistan, the south western province that has been at loggerheads with Pakistan for years now. Many claim it was her controversial choice of topic that caused her life but I know that there was simply no caging this typhoon. Her frankness and intrepidness invoked a fear that the so-called powerful couldn’t handle.
I know the fear her frankness induced was not tolerable to many, I know even up there she is working on ways to change the world for good, listening to Message in the bottle as she does so…Sabeen’s Instagram account has over 2,000 pictures uploaded and guess what, just five days ago, she uploaded a picture with the caption, “My favourite “country”, Karachi."