July Issue 2015
Book Review: In Search of Sense, Biography , Ahmed Ali Khan
The late Ahmad Ali Khan, the longest-serving editor of Dawn, was known to be a reticent and extremely private person. The publication of his memoirs, therefore, comes as a delightful surprise to those who knew him as one of the most respected newspaper editors of Pakistan. Integrity is a trait that comes easily to mind when describing ‘Khan Sahib’ (as everyone addressed him), and his memoirs are a clear reflection of this quality, which is becoming increasingly rare in the field of journalism.
In Search of Sense is an honest, straightforward account of his life, from his childhood in Bhopal to the changes and challenges he witnessed in a life spent in journalism, culminating in the editorship of Dawn. There is a fair intermingling of the private with the public, as historical events dominate both his personal and professional life. In keeping with his character, Khan Sahib’s memoirs are understated. There is no attempt at self-glorification; indeed all mistakes, whether made in his youth or as a working journalist, have been candidly admitted.
Ahmed Ali Khan had the chance to work in some of Pakistan’s leading newspapers — starting with Dawn in Delhi, then Dawn in Karachi and also a stint at The Pakistan Times during a period when Mian Iftikharuddin managed to bring together the leading lights of journalism under one roof. They included Mazhar Ali Khan, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sibte Hasan and I.A. Rehman, among others. A few of the anecdotes recorded show the innate tension between Mian Iftikharuddin and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Khan Sahib mentions, in particular, the uncomplimentary remark the newspaper’s owner made when Faiz returned from prison: he said the newspaper had carried on as usual, without him.
There’s more on Faiz in the chapter, ‘Lahore Years,’ in which he talks in detail not only about the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case but also its fallout on the leftists in Pakistan. As he writes, “For obvious reasons, the event [Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case] which was said to involve the Pakistan communists in a bid to seize power with the help of army officers, received worldwide publicity. The sensational disclosure was immediately followed by measures calculated to nip the so-called communist threat in the bud. The Communist Party and its front organisations were harassed. So was the Progressive Writers’ Association, whose office bearers had leftist leanings. In a round-up of leftists, a large number of trade union leaders, intellectuals and journalists were arrested in May 1951 and taken to the Lahore Shahi Qila for interrogation and detention.”
Many readers would be surprised to discover Ahmed Ali Khan’s socialist past. As editor of Dawn, he was known to err on the side of caution. However, he lived by his beliefs and commitment to the principles of equality and justice as envisaged by socialism and articulated by Jawaharlal Nehru, albeit for about four years only. In the chapter, ‘The Socialist Utopia: Disillusionment,’ he writes with characteristic candour:
“As I was able to analyse it later, my socialist views/inclinations could not be attributed to doctrinal commitment. I bought a number of Marxist classics from time to time but I could finish reading only a few of them. As for dialectical materialism, I found it a bit of a hard nut to crack. I could understand a bit of historical materialism, the Marxian approach to interpretation of history, and was in sympathy with it because I found it explained history in terms of objective reality and in the light of the interplay of material factors and forces, specially modes of social production.”
Though disillusioned with socialism, Khan Sahib makes clear that his sympathies lie with the working class and admits to approving of the nationalisation of industries by the Bhutto government.
Although Dawn has historically taken a principled stand on issues, it was seen as a conservative and traditional newspaper during Khan Sahib’s editorship. However, as he explains, he took over the editorship at a time of extreme difficulties for Dawn, both politically and financially. The editor he succeeded, Altaf Gauhar, had been on the warpath with the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to such an extent that the newspaper had to face the full wrath of the prime minister’s vengeance. Dawn was in the dog-house and the taps closed on its advertising revenue. Since this was the period when industries and financial institutions had recently been nationalised, the government suddenly became the biggest advertiser. As the newly inducted editor, Ahmed Ali Khan faced the challenge of retrieving lost ground with the realisation that Dawn was actually the bread and butter-provider for not just its own staff but for all employees of the group.
The other challenge he dwells on considerably is the entry of The News; the first serious competition the newspaper faced in many decades in an almost monopolistic situation. The News enticed many journalists from Dawn, with better pay as well as a technologically superior set-up. But Khan Sahib doesn’t resent the newcomer or its encroachments. With a generosity of spirit, he welcomes the competition.
Only half of In Search of Sense covers Ahmed Ali Khan’s personal memoirs. The other half, titled ‘As Others Saw Him,’ includes the impressions and memories of family members and colleagues from Dawn. His wife, writer Hajra Masroor’s account of how she met her future husband is brief and one wishes she had been more forthcoming. More revealing are the letters exchanged between the two which cover a host of subjects, with expressions of affection to concerns about family members. Unusually, for two people living under the same roof, they chose to communicate through letters.
In his introduction to the memoirs, I.A. Rehman raises this perplexing question and answers it as well:
“But why did a husband-wife consultation have to be in writing? The answer is available in one of Ahmed Ali Khan’s remarks. He invites Hajra Masroor to a discussion through the written word because, he says, writing helps one to refine one’s ideas. It is surely possible to recognise the voice of a professional journalist here, but there is perhaps more to it. What Ahmad Ali Khan is saying is simply this — that when we put down our thoughts on paper this means two things. First, we affirm our commitment to respecting whatever we say; a written word cannot easily be forgotten nor can it be taken back as easily as a verbal utterance. Secondly, and more importantly, writing follows some definite thinking and deliberation, a process not necessarily followed in oral communication.”
A firm believer in the power of words and the might of the pen, Ahmad Ali Khan was, nevertheless, a reticent person. His memoirs provide an opportunity to readers to get a unique insight into both Pakistan’s history and its journalism in one collection.
This review was originally published in Newsline’s July 2015 issue.