I heard about the The Second Floor (T2F) in Karachi before hearing about the person behind it. Prior to relocation to Karachi, my birthplace and the city where I came of age, T2F was described to me as the reason why Karachi was still cooler than Lahore. I recalled the 1980s and 1990s during my school and medical college years, when there weren’t any spaces like T2F, where one could go and immerse oneself in thinking, for oneself and for those around you.
After resettling in Karachi, I had the opportunity to visit a few sessions at T2F. It was delightful. The talks and discussions were scintillatin; photographic or other exhibits impressive; and the cafe, an oasis. But none of that even came close to the person who ran the show — Sabeen Mahmud. Every time I would see her there, I found her exuding vitality and uber enthusiasm for any cause célèbre that she hosted. She was witty and introspective, an intriguing combination — a real charmer, as they say.
Interestingly, I was in the same batch as her in school, but I didn’t remember her from then. Neither did she, especially as I preferred to play invisibility at T2F events I attended. As I play back those few interactions with her, I speculate that she assumed that I was merely another sojourner, a fellow traveler, in life’s journey. And she wouldn’t have been off the mark. And because I was a stranger to her, I can comment more freely about Sabeen. And that way, I generate a eulogy to her. Perhaps, in that critical eulogy there will be an epitaph too, which might hit the mark, considering it’s penned by an itinerant observer.
Maybe there’s no need to do so, as much has been written about her by people who knew her way more than I did, you might very rightfully point out. But I must write for Sabeen as there’s a need to say what follows.
Sabeen did amazing work for Karachi by creating a space for critical discourse about art, culture, literature, lifestyle choices, tolerance, a pluralistic society, animal welfare, socio-political awareness, and so on. In a somewhat pensive mind frame, I wonder, albeit retrospectively, had Sabeen been more cautious in her approach, continued to agitate quietly without rocking the boat so much, then would she be alive today?
Sabeen apparently very famously said, “I think therefore I am dangerous”. In spite of multiple threats and warnings, she chose to rock her boat her way. Which then begs the question: should one rock one’s boat one’s own way, regardless of what the religio-political climate is like, versus quietly rocking the generic boat in a subtle manner that gets one’s message out, connects with the relevant recipients, and lets you live too? Getting involved, creating awareness, or agitating, be it through dharna politics or in an air-conditioned library, simply to bring about macro-level change by transforming society is, in my opinion, grandiose thinking — not critical. Too often, micro-level change is not given the consideration that it really deserves; small effort, sustainable, ‘self’ work that contributes towards the change that people wish to see in themselves, prior to being reflected in their societies. Scores of societies have transformed themselves when groups have come together and worked on small-scale projects, changing themselves in the process.
I don’t know if I am making much sense, but whatever I say above, it is with all due respect to the dear departed. Not knowing her well enough enables me to create alternative scenarios, the ‘what ifs’ — wishfully thinking that perhaps then she would still be amongst us, as we need her alive much more than physically dead. As I grapple within my mind and heart for rational answers, which I know I will not find, I am painfully aware of the dearth of thinking people the world over. And with Sabeen gone, a year later, there’s still a void.
No doubt that we live in an age of darkness. Intolerance, bigotry, religio-political grandstanding, consumerism, capitalism, flashiness, instantaneous gratification, nepotism, blind competition, fear, hate… need I go on? I think what Sabeen taught us was that in spite of all the mess, there are shades to darkness, and that is enlightenment only if you choose to see it as such.
If the destiny of great people is to see their goals unfulfilled, then Sabeen achieved more than what she could ever have imagined.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 16th, 2016.
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