It would be a disservice to try to recapture Najam Sethi’s captivating tales that he recounted on Saturday, the second day of the sixth Karachi Literature Festival. Since I neither have the charm nor the storytelling acumen of Sethi, so rather than inexpertly reiterating his stories, it behooves us to inquire further about the man himself, his actions, and how they fit into the constantly changing political landscape of Pakistan.
He was an activist at a young age, protesting the violence committed against East Pakistan during 1971 at the Pakistani High Commission in his Cambridge days. His activism also led Sethi to explore the Baloch cause, and he devoted significant time to his stint in the Hyderabad prison with the Baloch leaders of the day: Khair Bakhsh Marri (all-action Marxist) Ghous Bux Bizenjo (the negotiator) and Ataullah Mengal (the in-between). Sethi refers to his time at the prison as “a cultural and linguistic learning experience”.
But it is that activism that has gotten him trouble from Bhutto to Nawaz, civilians or the military, authoritarian or democrat. Once when he was taken out of solitary confinement, he refused to be flown to Islamabad to meet Bhutto. This was in the 1970s when he told his captors nonchalantly that Bhutto “will be thrown out in a couple of years”. At another time, armed goons stormed his office during Nawaz’s second stint in power and he just jumped off the roof to another building.
There was of course the late Benazir Bhutto, whom he had a love-hate relationship with. Sethi spoke of how he saw the intrigue, military pressure, Nawaz pressure, the Zardari antics, and how an ‘open and accessible, but suspicious, naïve and arrogant’ young woman was at the centre of it all. A rocky plane ride from Cartagena, Colombia to New York provided for both compassion and confrontation from the leading lady.
Altaf Hussain made a cameo, and Musharraf both angered and misunderstood Sethi, but his candour and willingness to admit being wrong made up for it. But ultimately, the talk was less about the corridors of power and more about how Sethi flitted between them and prison. He recalled how every leader had a Friday Times editorial in hand, annotated in red, and aggressively inquire about what was in it. Only the truth as he saw it.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 8th, 2015.