Profile: Obaidullah Baig, Urdu Scholar and Television Host
It may be a travesty to mention General Zia-ul-Haq with Obaidullah Baig, but during General Zia’s martial law, the darkest era in the country’s history, Baig appeared as a genuine ray of light on Pakistan Television (PTV) to engage and challenge our intellect with the iconic 20-question game, Kasauti, which virtually immortalised him. The wit and repartee between this soft-spoken anchor and his co-host Quraishpur in the ’70s, and Ghazi Salahuddin in the ’90s, now seem characteristic of a generation who believed that good manners and good-upbringing were displayed in language and intonation of speech and that a love of knowledge – not materialism or brazen self-promotion – was a value which maintained top priority.
Obaidullah Baig was a man who wore several hats; he was an Urdu scholar, novelist, columnist and television host, a ‘renaissance’ man, who had a highly developed taste in art and literature and was a treasure-trove of information and knowledge. He worked with PTV and Radio Pakistan for most of his life, made numerous documentaries, specifically on environmental issues, and was awarded the President’s ‘Pride of Performance’ in 2008. He also penned two novels in Urdu, his first when he was only in his twenties. Describing his literary merit to Newsline, a close friend of Obaidullah Baig called him an Urdu writer par excellence. “His two highly readable novels Aur Insan Zinda Hai and Rajput, whose plots are uniquely interwoven with the history, politics and prejudices of South Asia, are the solid pillars on which his fame should forever rest. He was much larger than Kasauti,” he said.
“One of the most remarkable things about Obaidullah Baig is that he was not just a first-class media person; he was a literary person, with a strong interest in literature. And when these two things go together, you are the best kind of media person there is,” said Mr Aslam Azhar, a former managing director of the PTV, on the phone to Newsline.
Obaidullah Baig passed away on June 22, 2012, leaving behind a wife and three daughters.
“You see these flowers here?” Baba asked me as I crouched by his side, on a refreshingly brisk early December morning in Rawalpindi. “When they grow up, they will turn into butterflies and flutter away!” Noticing my four-year-old face register disbelief, he added, “Just imagine!” And that became a phrase which I always associated with Baba. Russian and German armies marching into 1939 Poland, Jim Corbett stalking man-eating tigers in the Sundarbuns, Queen Sheba in the court of King Solomon – he painted my imagination with vivid hues of fact, fiction and historical documentation. His colourful storytelling, coupled with his complete love for knowledge, would lead us to pull numerous volumes of books, maps and newspapers from his beloved bookshelves, as we effortlessly spun from one historical account into another. We would only pause for fresh supplies of tea or news on the radio. And then start all over again.
Nestled in a home with a hundred pets (mostly birds), engulfed in the still fragrance of thousands of books, my sisters and I inhaled a million life lessons. As we grew up, we slowly began to notice his fame. But it was his private personality which held us in wonder. For instance, his ability to make people feel loved and appreciated amazed me no end. In his presence, people felt important. He was genuinely interested in what anyone had to say and he never disregarded an opinion or an idea. Social standing or financial ranking made no difference to him. He met everyone with such enthusiastic joy that it was hard not to be drawn to him.
Enthusiastic joy is what he expressed in the simplest acts of everyday life: a puff on his cigarette, a sip of tea, a slice of mango. Enthusiastic joy is what I found in his complex philosophies; his belief in the Divine and constant respect for all other faiths. He took such unadulterated pleasure in the most random things. He encouraged us to watch live broadcasts of sporting events even if they fell at odd hours of the night; we were allowed to take a day off from school to watch boxer Mohammad Ali’s match, we would wake up at 4:00 am to witness the changing of the guard at Mazar-e-Quaid every August 14 and we were encouraged to sing along, loudly may I add, every national song that graced the television screen.
A few weeks ago, while he and I were browsing through the bookshelves at home, he pointed out a book that he had read over and over again. “I finished re-reading it just before you arrived,” he said and handed me Not A Nice Man To Know by Khushwant Singh. “Surely, it’s not about you,” I joked about the title.
He smiled, that special, blissful smile and asked me to pass him his cup of tea.
– Maryam Obaidullah Baig lives in Dallas, Texas and works in the fields of art and performance.
How do you write about a man who has been essential to your life from your very first breath? Technically, there’s a lot I can say. He had a brilliant, beautiful mind, he championed the environment, he even wrote a couple of books. To say I looked to my father for an answer to everything, and expected him to have those answers, would be an understatement. Everyone knows that he was a living encyclopaedia and probably assumed that his child would know that too.
For his family, he was more than just the sum of his achievements, of which there are many. He was the guy with over 200 pigeons, at least a dozen chickens, plus other birds in his backyard. We saw nothing unusual about the amount of birdlife we housed, or the fact that their names, dates of birth and death, number of offspring and so on were meticulously recorded in a notebook. In fact, as a child, birdless homes bewildered me. As did dads who did not treat their children like miniature adults. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that Baba was a one-off.
He accomplished incredible things, sure, but his wonderful qualities have often been pushed into the background by the more glamourous aspect of his career. He was the most giving person I know. Be it a bar of chocolate for his wife on his way home from work, or a rare edition of a famous book that someone expressed an interest in, Baba always bore gifts for all. He never said no, which could be a bit of a problem at times, but mostly was a boon, as our craziest schemes, and most outlandish ideas were met with enthusiasm, and almost always encouraged.
In the last few weeks of his life, the word that has most often been used to describe Baba is ‘gentle.’ He was gentle and kind, and I believe this sprung from his love for God. When you truly love God, he had told me once, you automatically love what He loves. It was what I found most amazing about Baba – he never had an unkind word to say to, or about, anyone, regardless of their behaviour towards him. He placed each and every person in the world on a mantle of equality, no one better than the other.
To me, Baba lived a charmed life. He cheated death on more than one occasion – forgetting to board a flight from Gilgit that disappeared in the ’80s and giving up official duty that would have otherwise meant he would have been on the plane carrying General Zia-ul-Haq that exploded in the skies. He traveled widely and received only love and respect. To put it mildly, to me, Obaidullah Baig was magic, and though the body may be gone, the magic lives on.
– Amina Baig is a sub-editor at The News.
Obaidullah Baig – to me he was just plain old Baba. The receiver of all my letters – and not just any letters, but letters that held all my secrets. Often when he left for a trip, I would hand him an envelope and make him promise to open it only after he boarded the plane. I would get a call from him as soon as he reached his destination. The first thing he always asked was, “beta, tum theek ho?”
It did not matter what I wrote in the letter; I could be complaining about air pollution, or a personal matter, but it was important enough to warrant a letter from me and his response would inevitably follow. He would promise that we would talk about the issue over chai once he got back. And he always did. He never told me what I should or should not do, but always presented two paths – the wonderful gift of choice. And if I picked the wrong path, not once did I hear an “I told you so.” Instead, my father would say, “You made the choice, now you have to bear the consequences on your own. It will make you stronger.” He believed that one learns from ones mistakes. He taught me, most importantly, not be judgemental, to be a fighter and to love – always to love.
He held my hand through some of the toughest phases in my life, and now that he has moved on to the great Serengeti in the sky, it’s impossible for me to reach out for his hand or for his love and support. But I know wherever he may be, he’s watching over me, egging me on to live and to love. He was everything a father should be and more. He was my best friend, confidante and strength. He will be sorely missed.
– Fatima Adarsh is a former broadcast journalist and currently a full-time mother.
This article was originally published in the July issue of Newsline under the headline “A Beautiful Mind.”
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