Sabeen and I!

Now only memories, writes Mohsin Sayeed

Sabeen and I!
1Jatay huay kehtay ho qayamat mein milain ge
Kya khoob qayamat ka hai goya koi din aur

– Ghalib

Kahoon kis se maen keh kya hai, shab-e-gham buri bala hai
Mujhe kya bura tha marna agar aik baar hota

– Ghalib

Iss waqt tu yoon lagta hai ab kuchh bhi naheen hai/
Mahatab na sooraj na andhera na savera/
Aankhon ke dariche mein kisi husn ki jhalakan/
aur dil ki panahon mein kisi dard ka dera

– Faiz

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

– W. H. Auden

Whenever I read these words of beauty, I appreciated them, loved them, was moved by them but never fathomed the grief that created them and other such gems. Till I lost Sabeen Mahmud. Not that I have not lost loved ones, but it was she whose loss made me fully understand the power of sorrow and grief.

Courtesy: Haroon and Amima from Inverted Rainbow
Courtesy: Haroon and Amima from Inverted Rainbow

Sabeen’s loss also made me understand that grieving and mourning are highly selfish acts; there’s no standard form of the expression. Looking at Mahenaz Mahmud, Sabeen’s mother, leaves me stunned. Her grace, dignity and strength with which she is bearing her loss are beyond description. Not human. Absolutely supernatural.  She makes me feel like a cheap, two bit drama queen who is desperate for attention. But not everyone, in fact, most of us mortals, have not been given such strength and dignity as Mahenaz has. When Sabeen was being taken to her final abode from The Second Floor (T2F), I heard a smiling Mahenaz asking her nonagenarian mother to smile. “Hanss dijiye uss ko achha lagay ga.”(Please, smile. She will like it.) Oh God!

Baat karni mujhe mushkil kabhi aisy tau na thee

– Bahadur Shah Zafar

Why should we be strong? What’s the point? I am simply howling, mourning the greatest loss of my life till now.  I don’t know if you will find any flow, any connection, any form in what I am writing now. But I don’t care. Here I am recollecting and sharing memories of some of the moments spent with her that enriched my life, and now have become scars that will never heal. And to tell you the truth, I don’t want them to heal and disappear.  I lost my father three months ago. That did not hit me as hard. I lost two other friends also - Poppy and Masood Hamid - and their going shocked me, but Sabeen’s departure has created a deep wound leaving me angry more than anything else.

I lost my father three months ago. That did not hit me as hard

I mourn and grieve Sabeen for many, many reasons. Some I can write about, some I can’t as they are just between her and me. I cannot recall when and where I met Sabeen for the first time as I always saw her at protests outside the Karachi Press Club and cultural events. Perhaps, it was Caravan Karachi, a series of cultural events celebrating Karachi, where I was introduced to her and Mahenaz. Then one day I got a call from her – “We are starting a place that will provide a platform to like-minded people for all things we would like to do. You have to come and help me, be with me.” said Sabeen. I asked, “A place to alleviate Intellectual Poverty in this country?”
When I coined Youthiya, Sabeen was overjoyed

“You got it.” she exclaimed. And The Second Floor began. She loved the place. When T2F shifted to its current premises, I asked her what she wanted as a house-warming gift, she replied: “Bring a nice plant.” She was this simple. She loved plants, motia (a kind of flower), animals, excellence, genius, intelligence, music, neuroscience, science, logic, music and fine taste. Many evenings spent at T2F later, and walking in the backstreet when I popped out for a smoke, we became friends. Discussing current affairs, society and politics, ideas and what not, Sabeen always gave a unique perspective that not only calmed me down but also made me think and probe further. She would tell me not to blow up at everything. “Don’t be so angry. Chill na. Not good for your BP and diabetes. I fear one day some vein will burst in your head.” And then we would laugh. She was my partner in crime in using ch***iya and f**k. We shared a passion for these two terms. She had mastered almost all the derivatives and uses of the word F**k. She would deliver it with such fervour and passion that it never sounded vulgar or unnecessary when she uttered it. When I coined Youthiya, Sabeen was overjoyed and most appreciative. She always proudly informed people about its coinage and used it liberally.

Sabeen was a stickler for cleanliness and maintained it at T2F like a Nazi. I often would whine about not being able to smoke and she would snub me. In fact, recently a meeting was held in one of the conference rooms to discuss protests regarding #NeverForget. Although, I didn’t call the meeting, T2F staff assumed I was the organiser. And rightly so as she always made me and others feel as I owned the place. So I attended the meeting but left early while others were still there. Sabeen was travelling at that time. Few days later I got a call from her and got an earful regarding the mess those people had created in the conference room. I was truly embarrassed. Not that she was rude or stern. That wasn’t the Sabeen I knew. She gave it to me in such a loving manner that there was a puddle where I was. She was hurt that I didn’t respect the sanctity of T2F. I explained my position. She understood and asked me to convey that to the group. She was right. Sabeen was the only one who worked hard, invested sweat and blood in running the place, keeping it open and no one had the right to use it and not take care of the place.


During the sessions at T2F, I would ask questions. When I insisted on my point, or argue, she would openly snub me saying, “Okay, Mohsin, enough.” And I never ever took offence because she would do it in an unbiased manner that is required of a good moderator. Often she refused to hand me the mic again after one question. I would whine to her that she never let me speak. She would say, “Ufffff…I know you na. If I let you speak, there would be no time for others and you will scandalise the poor audience and torture the guests.”

I loved the way she said ‘uffffff’. It was so expressive and had so many meanings.

Once I was going through a personal crisis. She found out. Asked me to come over and talked to me. I broke down during the conversation. She got up and hugged me and kissed me. The warmth, the love the tightness of her hug and sweetness of the kiss I will cherish always. Whenever we met, gave me the same warm hugs and loud kisses conveying that she was one of the very few people in this world who accepted me as I am—with all my shortcomings, flaws and rough edges.
She was one of the very few people in this world who accepted me as I am

At one point in time she wanted to adopt a baby. Intense research into the process of adoption, bringing up a baby, several efforts, and trips to Bilquis Edhi later, it was revealed that as a single person the laws didn’t allow her to adopt a baby. Frustrated and disappointed, she vent out her feelings. I told her to get a cat instead. Amazed, “how can a cat be a replacement of a baby?” she asked. I explained my philosophy about children to her: a baby is too demanding, a waste of time, energy and money as s/he grows up and will leave us; hurt us with defiance; it is a huge, never-ending responsibility and source of concern. I would have said get a dog but then dogs are always craving for attention and did not believe in the concept of space. So, a cat was best for her. She didn’t seem convinced. In fact, disagreed and disliked my philosophy.


A few days later, she called to tell me that she had got Tetris, the cat. When I went over to see Tetris, she thanked me: “Getting a cat was the wisest and best advice that you have ever given to anyone.” She knew my intellect level rather well, I guess. Knowing her love for the game, technology obsession and personal quirkiness, the name Tetris didn’t astonish me at all. Tetris was a playful cat. Soon we noticed her Facebook timeline and conversations dominated by Tetris’ pictures and anecdotes. Sabeen was over the moon.

Then Tetris died. Sabeen was sad without Tetris. I advised her to get another cat. She refused. “No, too much to handle if that one also left me.” I insisted. And then came Jaadu. Sabeen was happy again. Jaadu cast its spell on her. I wonder how Jaadu is coping with her absence? Mahenaz and Jaadu first came to my mind when I heard about Sabeen’s leaving us. Both are not human — Mahenaz in her strength and grace and Jaadu in his existence. So we will never know about their feelings, it seems. Sabeen loved fiercely and cared for deeply, I just don’t understand how they will go on without Sabeen.

Needless to say, Sabeen passionately loved freedom and liberty, in all forms and concepts. Once taking a cigarette break in the back lane of T2F, she expressed the intention of buying a motorbike. “I will ride it from home to office and for short rides. It will be great fun. It seems so liberating and free.” So, one beautiful spring evening, returning from the Karachi Literature Festival, as we were waiting for valets to bring our cars in front of the Beach Luxury Hotel, she gleefully informed me that she was a proud owner of a moped. I became excited and demanded a ride. She invited me and Marvi Mazhar, another dear friend, over for a ride, tea and conversation. We went to her place. After tea, my usual cigarette urge raised its ugly head. I wanted to smoke in the room and Mahenaz was not pleased. I said I could respect the rule of not smoking indoors at T2F, not the house and defied. Then Marvi, Sabeen and I went for a ride on her newly acquired moped.

The sun was setting, a beautiful cool spring breeze was blowing, the birds were chirping. Sabeen looked exceedingly happy. There was a glow on her face and she didn’t stop smiling. I didn’t know how to ride, neither did Marvi so Sabeen sat at the healm and took us on a ride. I had never ever seen her so happy. I took lots of pictures from my phone that I can’t find now. But her face with a halo of happiness is cast in my eyes, my mind, forever.

Running a place like T2F is, perhaps, one of the hardest tasks in Pakistan

Sabeen’s sense of accomplishment and achievement was rarely external. She always watched her own created success from the side-lines and just smiled. Never the one for publicity or limelight. I witnessed this over and over again. She remained busy working, and working hard, organising and once the event finished, she had a satisfactory smile and silently went home. Unlike her contemporaries and the youthiyas at large, she did not have any sense of entitlement, and never needed external endorsement of her achievements. Praises, fame, appreciation didn’t matter much; she did all because she couldn’t stay without doing them, because they had to be done.

In the summer of 2012, she called to inform me to keep three days free in July for the Social Media Mela. “You have to handle the media desk.” Did I have an option to say no to a command that stemmed more from love than from a professional stand point? Of course, not. A day before the event, I got another call. “You have to go to the airport and receive the Indian delegates. I want someone senior to represent T2F.” “Bad choice,” I said. “I know but you are my choice. Oh and then be the host from T2F at the welcome lunch Americans are giving.”  And three days of fun and frolic with lots of craziness, intense conversations and debates, enlightening sessions, sharing of ideas, opening hearts and minds, making new friendships began.

This was Sabeen who loved seeing all this happening and constantly provided opportunities for them to happen.

At the Social Media Mela, she would sneak up to me and say, “Come on Mohsin, shout for people to attend the sessions” or “Tell people to pipe down as the noise is disturbing the session inside.” “Why do you want me to look like a crazy, screaming banshee?” I asked. “Because you have big voice and are mad enough to do that,” she would mischievously smile and walk off. And I would happily comply with her orders.

Sabeen loved festivals, song, dance, music and wanted to take them on streets. She loved life and wanted to celebrate with people. I remember Juma Hafta Art Bazar in and outside T2F in the lane and plot next to T2F.  Inside an arts and craft show was put up giving a platform to budding artists and artisans to show and sell their work. Outside on the walls people were invited to express themselves in the form of graffiti art. Her pet love, Truck Art, had a prominent space. She had invited truck artists to paint the walls. Young people had a field day painting the streets. Blaring loudspeakers played songs.  Rekha Bhardwaj’s ‘Ghagra’ was on a loop. Guess who played it several times? Sabeen! She loved the song. I often teased her by saying that she was very ‘Awami’. And she accepted. She turned around and accused me of being elitist. I haughtily would reply to her taunt: “No darling, I just have fine taste.” It was refreshing to see someone who worshipped Steve Jobs and Apple, adored The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen and Pink Floyd, had a passion for neuroscience, indulging in ‘Ghagra’ and ethnic crafts and culture. She always wore Sanganiri and Bagru block prints, khaddar, handwoven fabrics, a lot of Fab India garments, kolhapuri chappals, rally bags etc. Her house is also adorned with ethnic but tasteful block prints and patchwork throws and covers. Colour suited her. She wore it in the form of vibrant specs frames. In fact, once she decorated them with truck-art chamak patti. Also, whenever she put on bright lipstick, her face would brighten up and looked great. Glamourised, to be precise.

She spoke and wrote beautiful, chaste Urdu that she learnt over the years.  She loved our own culture. But her knowledge of subcontinental cinema music was rather weak, and that was the only area where I felt superior to her and teased her. Habitually, during any conversation I would break into a song from Pakistani or Indian cinema, and she would be blank. And then I would explain, and send a link of the song. She would say, “F***ing Grammar School na!” and I would tease her even more. Not the one to take it lying down, she would attack back taunting at my fashion background. And that was how we would continue, laughing and teasing.


Her passion for Qavvali was another enigma for me. She was definitely a connoisseur. Qavvali was a regular feature on the events calendar of T2F. She also encouraged the young sons of Ustads and Maestros of Qavvali, and organized solo shows for them. When the qavvali was good (and there was no reason it wasn’t when held there) she not only enjoyed but would become spellbound. She knew almost all kalams by heart and would sing along. All performers wanted her to be seated right in front. But on a couple of occasions when the qavvals didn’t perform well or became too commercial, she would get highly displeased, almost agitated. Once, at a mehfil organised by a group of qavvals at a hotel, ‘Maen naeen jana khariyan de naal’ was being rendered. I whispered in her ear, “Maen naeen gana bhairyan de naal. Let’s run.” And we escaped the scene like two naughty kids signalling to the qavvals that we were making a trip to the rest room. We ran out giggling.

Running a place like T2F is, perhaps, one of the hardest tasks in Pakistan. A country where there is little appreciation for intellect, intellectual poverty or the concept of free speech, sustaining T2F was a miracle that Sabeen performed every day.  She often put money from her own pocket to keep it running. One day, she called and informed me about the Creative Karachi Festival as again “T2F is running out of funds. So it will be a fund raiser but our way without compromising on the philosophy and ethics.” A couple of days before the event at Alliance, there was no major sponsor. I distinctly remember that a corporate sponsor offered money in lieu of branding the stage. The sum was rather attractive. I would have been lured, but not Sabeen. She refused. She stuck to her principles and created a beautiful stage paying tribute to the city and recognising the efforts of all involved in organising the Creative Karachi Festival by naming them.

And what a great day it was in Karachi’s life. There was happiness, laughter, music, art, fun and frolic everywhere. Pleased with all the festivity, Sabeen was busy cleaning the tables and picking up trash. “Don’t throw your cigarette butt on the grass. We have created beautiful trash bins,” she yelled in a mock anger before I could even think of throwing it. “You have OCD. Why do you always scold me?” I said. “Because I can.” she smugly replied, with a naughty glint of a child in eyes and smirk on lips. A day later, she called, her voice brimming over with happiness: “There was a time, not much before the festival when we didn’t have sponsors, and now we have not only had a great event, fun, and broken even but also made some money that will take care of our finances for a couple of months.”
Another reason for me to love Sabeen was her dislike for Abida Parveen

Sabeen was no angel that she was never angry or never hated anything. She did. And with passion. She hated apathy, indifference, inertia, mediocrity, snobbery, intolerance, injustice, oppression, unprofessionalism, disrespect towards intellect and so much more.  But even her hatred never stood in the way of her reaching out to people with whom she disagreed with for these very reasons. Another reason for me to love Sabeen was her dislike for Abida Parveen. During Aman ki Aasha event, Abida Parveen acted high and mighty and did not show up for rehearsals with Shubha Mudgal. That was enough for Sabeen not to like her, and rightly so.

When I was informed about a protest at Karachi Press Club being held for Sabeen, it sounded wrong, extremely wrong. She would often pick and drop me from my workplace to go to protests. ‘Who will pick me up if the protest is for her?’ I thought selfishly. During the protest and even afterwards, her words were ringing in my head. “Mohsin, what’s the point in us going to these protests and screaming? The same people, the same faces.” she once said coming back from one of the demonstrations at the Press Club. The fatigue had begun to set in. “Phir maen yeh sochti hoon keh ab yeh bhi na karain?” (Then I think shouldn’t we even do this much?). Sometimes it frustrated her, doing the same thing over and over again. She wanted to do something different, more effectively. Therefore, when we, under the umbrella of Citizens for Democracy (CfD), undertook a letter writing campaign protesting Shahbaz Bhatti’s murder at Jehangir Kothari Parade, held Jashn-e-Faiz at the KMC Sports Complex and a demonstration against Lahore Police’s high handedness at Nayyar Ali Dada’s Gallery with song, dance, theatre and live drawing, Sabeen was really happy.

Speculations are being made for the reason behind her murder. People are guessing who could be behind it. I know who murdered Sabeen: us, this misogynistic society, this weak, oppressed, country, these silent, and cowardly people. It’s us who murdered her. Don’t be too shocked, I shall let you know why I blame us, this society.

Sabeen’s sin was not that she gave space to the oppressed for them to raise their voice. She had been threatened earlier as well. In 2013, when she did a fun protest against the extremists who put up billboards against celebrating Valentine’s Day, dire threats of violence and murder came openly. Why?

Because Sabeen was an intelligent, independent, free thinking, vocal individual who believed in freedom of all sorts and worked for a peaceful, progressive, free environment. But, she was a woman. And this was the biggest threat for the self-styled, self-appointed, hyper-nationalists, guardians of morality, Islam and Pakistan. She was a challenge to their hyper Muslim machismo, to the loud, deafening hetro-normative narrative spewed from everywhere— from mosques to the airwaves. This was her prime sin. And our sin is that we did not get out of our cushy, air-conditioned environments to act or to speak up. We almost threw her to the wolves, by remaining silent and inactive, only busy in dropping our kids to tuition, football, birthdays, and attending balls, kitty parties and boozy brunches, merrily planning our vacations abroad. At the most, registering our protest on Facebook by clicking on the like button or writing status updates expressing ‘unbelievable’, ‘barbarity’, ‘horrible’ and other such fancy words, and that too out of guilt. So, both sections of society murdered Sabeen—one by jingoistic extremism, and the other by criminal silence and apathy.

As Rajesh Khanna says in Anand: “Babu Moshai, Zindagi baree honi chahiye, lambi naheen.” In a short lifespan, Sabeen lived a great life—a life lived on her own terms and conditions and that’s the greatest achievement and her legacy, if there is any. Though, she never bothered or cared much about leaving a legacy.  She just wanted to live her life.

The loss of Sabeen is too heavy. I am not Mahenaz nor am I Nuzhat and Zaheer Kidvai, who are bearing the loss with their chins up and smiles. I cannot. Like a traditional Rudali (professional women in Rajathan who are invited to wail and cry at funerals), I am shamelessly howling and wailing. I have no dignity, no grace. I will howl and scream. I can only do this. I am neither Ghalib, Zafar, Faiz nor Auden to be able to create beauty out of loss; but now I can feel and fathom their moments of grief and loss. I wish I were. Wouldn’t I love to create something of immortal power and beauty for Sabeen that she deserves? I would love to write ‘Sabeen ka Marsiya’ just as Ghalib wrote ‘Arif ka Marsiya’. But it is Sabeen’s misfortune that she was friends with mere, mediocre mortals like me and to have been born ahead of her times.

So, I turn to the greats once again, as she only deserved greats…

Dhoondo ge agar mulkon mulkon
Milnay ke naheen nayaab hain hum

– Shaad Azeemabadi

Haan ae falak-e-peer, jawan tha abhi Arif
Kya tera bigarta jo na marta koi din aur

– Ghalib