I have been a news junkie as far as I can remember. My father was very keen on getting us into the habit of reading newspapers. His short-lived routine was to get us to read headlines from the English language newspaper, The Muslim, which was quite popular in our part of Punjab in the distant days of Zia’s dictatorship.
That short-lived daily routine ingrained a newspaper reading habit which has not quite left me forty years down the road. One section of the newspaper which I began to read closely was the editorial page. The weekend section of the paper was quite diverse in its treatment of topics. Iranian revolution was quite a topic in those days and Suroosh Irfani was there to dissect its twists and turns as was Dr Tariq Rahman with his occasional short stories (how many of you know his first outing was as a short story writer).
Yet, somehow, columnists interested me most. The name of GM Asar stands out quite clearly in my memory for his literature-inclined columns. The column, I think, was titled the Margalla Notes. Then onwards, I have been remained wedded to columnists. This led to some new columnists which included Mohammad Idrees, Khalid Hasan, Khaled Ahmed and Ayaz Amir.
In fact, Ayaz Amir was my favourite and I used to buy the weekly Viewpoint which featured Ayaz Amir’s columns. When I began house job at the Ganga Ram Hospital Lahore, I had the opportunity to spend my spare time at the British Council and the American Centre libraries which opened an entirely new world of columnists to me. There, through reading the UK press, I discovered Bernard Levin, Matthew Parris, Simon Jenkins, John Pilger and Paul Johnson. In particular, I eagerly awaited John Pilger’s column featuring in the weekly New Statesman & Society. Pilger offered an alternative take on mainstream stories which was quite heady.
The battle of ideas was on through op-ed writer and columnists. On the left the New Statesman and Society and on the right The Spectator jostled for a slice of readers. In The Guardian, the diversity of opinion was on fuller display. Polly Toynbee on social policy and George Monbiot were more to my taste with passing age.
Even then, I felt the inventive use of English language belonged more to the right. Of interest to me in this regard were Simon Jenkins and Matthew Parris. Simon is a graceful and sharp writer. Polemical yet accurate, he does not waste a word neither does he overwrite. Parris is in a different league. A Rhodesian by birth, he has carved out a place for himself in the commentariat of Britain over the span of two decades. I have followed his writing from his days as parliamentary sketch writer for the Times. Long associated with The Times after quitting his political career as the conservative MP, Parris combines good writing, nuanced political commentary informed by travelled eyes and international upbringing.
Among Pakistan columnists Ayaz Amir and Ardeshir Cowasjee were a class act. Amir’s command of language is impressive though his consistency of analysis is often uneven, in line with the fluctuating passions of the populace. Despite this, his columns are a treat for the beauty of language. Cowasjee was sharp and strong-worded and more civic-spirited. Among India columnist MJ Akbar, Khushwant Singh and Nihal Singh were my favourite. Of all these columnists, Khushwant Singh was most wide-ranging.
It would be an injustice not to mention Zafar Iqbal Mirza, popularly known as ZIM. At the office of the Viewpoint, I observed up close his method of column writing. The ease with which he would tap out his famous Lahori column is a hard act to follow, knowing other columnists who go through an agonising creative process before a column shapes up.
Among the new breed of columnists, there are fresh voices worthy of an increasing number of followers. Yet there are many things that distinguish Pakistani columnists from columnists of Britian or the US. Most of Western columnists write on a range of issues with equal felicity and verve. Howard Jacobson comes readily to my mind even though he is no more a regular columnist after The Independent jettisoned many of its star writers. Most of our columnists write on explicitly political issues in contrast to the Western writer who often venture beyond political to personal and cultural topics.
As my dear scholar friend Adnan Sattar never tires of pointing out that we are so politicised that political lives overwhelm us, crowding out our emotional and personal lives. This is so true when I look at the roaster of our new columnists.
I did not follow much of the American column writing world expect occasional forays into the weekly The Nation. There Christopher Hitchens was the star for a long time. It was only when the Express Tribune offered the New York Times with its daily edition that got introduced to a new world of US journalism.
On NYT, Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd and Roger Cohen constitute as stars but US column writing requires a separate discussion.
In short, column writing at the end of the day is about consistency of vision and politics, clarity of ideas, grace and brevity of expression. Together, these elements constitute the enduring loyalty of your readers.