Sabeen Mahmud taught us how to love – be it the city, music, arts, poetry or each other. A year after the founder of The Second Floor (T2F) was taken away from us, her friends and family share with The Express Tribune the legacy of the woman who loved with a passion and inspired others to do the same.
For Sabeen, the first lessons in love came from her mother, Mahenaz Mahmud. In the last few months before her death, Sabeen would often thank her mother for her upbringing, Mahenaz recalled during a conversation with The Express Tribune at T2F. “Thank you for your love, Amma. Thank you, for your tough love!” Sabeen would tell her mother.
It was apparent for anyone who came across Sabeen that there was not much that fazed her. It is not surprising when Mahenaz shared how she brought up her only daughter. “I pushed her into being independent,” she said. “When she was five, a sane mother would not have allowed her to cross on her own a busy road with cars coming from both sides. But, I did that after telling her to look both ways.”
And it seemed that Sabeen took this lesson to direct the rest of her life – she pushed ahead regardless of the hurdles. Mahenaz pointed out that she chose not to leave Sabeen behind at a day care or a nursery. “This is how the Amma-Sabeen relationship was nurtured over the years.” Mahenaz made sure her own values passed on to her daughter. “From a young age, she [Sabeen] had the ideals entrenched in her of being a fair and just person, which she was till the very end,” she said.
The mother remembered how she told Sabeen to never say she was bored. “There is enough to learn and do in the world and one lifetime isn’t enough,” she would tell Sabeen, asking her to keep herself busy. “So she did. She read a lot, played cricket with the chowkidaars on the street and played other imaginative games by herself.” The independent streak that Sabeen personified was cultivated by Mahenaz. “I nurtured within her this aspect of carrying her own weight in life. She would have to pick up her own school bag, carry her own things everywhere and clean her own room,” she said. “I nurtured this plant, this small seedling, gave her the space to grow and develop her own interests.”
Sabeen grew up to become someone who was insightful, sensitive, perceptive and mindful of the way she chose to live her life. “She would always get to the bottom of everything. She didn’t skim surfaces if something caught her attention.” And when she lost her loving daughter at the age of 40, Mahenaz shared how she came to terms with it. “She died without a whimper. I am assured that she is in a safe place and nothing worse can happen to her now.”
Sabeen’s mentor Zaheer Alam Kidvai remembered her as someone who loved with her entire being. “Bohat kum log hotay hain jo ishq kertay hain [There are very few people who love with their entire being]. She was surely one of them,” he said, speaking to The Express Tribune in his drawing room where Sabeen is very much alive.
“The only child who knew nothing about class, caste or how to distinguish between them,” he recalled. “[She] loved jazzed to bits.”
Sabeen came to Kidvai when she was 14 years old and their conversations began when she turned 15. Kidvai blamed Pink Floyd for bringing the two together and then later he led her towards qawwali. “Jab pagal hojati tou bilkul hi pagal hojati [When she fell in love with something, she would completely lose herself],” he said, smiling. And T2F was something she felt for just as passionately. “She wanted to have an informal place for diverse groups of people to come together and watch others talk,” he said. “Sadly, others don’t see that it is essential for the city.”
Kidvai recalled how adamant Sabeen was to ensure T2F stayed affordable. “When some people suggested charging Rs1,000 to enter the café to make sure it runs smoothly, she was the one who pointed out that no student would come then,” he said. “Thoughts for others always engulfed her.”
For Kidvai, Sabeen was a genius on many levels but also peculiar. “To be a great hero, you need to be a human first. First, you will face many problems but what really sets you apart is how well you play. And she played really well.”
What she left behind to inspire others is her drive ‘to do it’, said Kidvai. “That is the most essential part and the thing [ideology] that she has left behind for young people to embrace,” he said.
A loving friend
Sabeen taught us how to love the city she grew up in and if you speak to her friend, Marvi Mazhar, she tells you just how.
“She left us a space,” Mazhar, the new director of T2F, told The Express Tribune. “It’s her gift to the city. We must all come forward and embrace it. Treat this place like your own child. Its landmark lies in the fact that we should create dialogue. It’s where freedom of speech comes from.”
Mazhar, who is an architect by profession, stumbled into holding the reins of T2F after Sabeen’s death. Initially, Mazhar offered to help just to make sure the calendar was rolling. In November last year, she was appointed director by the board members. “Initially, it was just too soon for people to accept [her death] and the void was there. Had we decided to close this place, there would have been another death in the city.”
There cannot be a more befitting tribute to the founder of T2F than a weekend of celebrating music, arts and poetry under the open skies of Karachi. In honour of her memory, T2F is holding once again Sabeen’s brainchild, the Creative Karachi Festival 2016, at Alliance Française.
Sabeen called it a ‘fun-raiser’ and a ‘party in the park’ when she held the first festival in 2014.
This time, as many as 160 artists have come forward to support T2F. Creative Karachi offers film screenings, conversations on arts, musical performances, Jupiter watching, storytelling and art exhibitions.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 24th, 2016.