What we have lost

June 7, 2020

Asif Farrukhi was willing to work for change rather than just write about it


The sudden death of Dr Asif Aslam Farrukhi has left me, and so many others who knew him, with a sense of terrible loss. He was not just an author, translator, reviewer, teacher, public health professional and an enthusiastic organiser of literary and cultural events – he was much more than the sum of these parts.

Asif devoted his life to the advancement of books and literature. He was a voracious reader and he read authors from all over the world. This reflected his basic belief in the universalism of literature and the commonality of the human experience. Many people are enthusiastic readers but Asif was different - he didn’t just confine himself to writing and reading, he was able to make our world just a little bit better by working tirelessly to encourage thought and dialogue and by being part of forums which encouraged reading and intellectual engagement.

One of his most significant achievements was his role in founding the Karachi Literary Festival (KLF) along with Ameena Sayyid and Oxford University Press (OUP) in 2010. This event transformed the cultural life of Karachi: it was an event that was open to all, entry was free and it was perhaps the most democratic and vibrant literary event I have seen anywhere in the world. KLF was about discussion and dialogue but mainly it was about books, about stories, about communication between human beings and across centuries. It was the place where youngsters coveted books rather than the glittering wares on display at busy shopping centres.

From an early interview, on securing first position in FSc 

And Asif was always there at mushairas, discussions, book launches. He was there at T2F, the community space project started by the late Sabeen Mahmud of Peace Niche, interviewing authors, presiding over readings and recitals. I first met him at the Herald because he used to write for the magazine. Later, when most of the editorial staff left with the editor Razia Bhatti and started an independent magazine, he wrote for us at Newsline. What I remember best is his enthusiasm, he wrote regularly and he was always so excited about his work and what he was reading.

One could often forget that such a prolific man actually had a day job. He was a public health professional and after working for the Aga Khan Community Health Program. For many years, he worked for the Unicef. No doubt he made the world a better place through that work as well. When Habib University was set up, in 2104, he joined the faculty and became the director of the university’s Arzu Centre for Regional Languages and Humanities. And in this too he probably made the world a better place by being able to educate and inspire through his work there. The outpouring of grief from his students gives one an insight into what a key figure he proved to be not just for their intellectual development but also by being an example of compassion and humanism.

Asif Aslam Farrukhi devoted his life to the service of literature and culture. He was working, always working, for this cause. He was an important figure in the cultural healing of a wounded and volatile city, and he was able to spread this healing to other parts of the country as well. So many of us who knew him never really imagined a world without him, without his byline, his enthusiasm, his presence at various events…

The reason that so many people have felt his loss so deeply is that we have lost not just a talented and hardworking individual and decent human being -- we have also lost somebody who was a key figure in Pakistan’s cultural and literary revival, somebody who was willing to work for change rather than just write about it. What we have lost is the hope for a more thoughtful future. What we have lost is a committed and articulate advocate for books and writers, for cultural interaction and intellectual exchange. We have lost a great deal.

The author is a columnist, former BBC broadcaster and producer, and one of the founding editors of Newsline

What we have lost: Asif Farrukhi was willing to work for change rather than just write about it