In the passing of a friend, the first hope is that he is in a better place than the prison of a frail body. Talat Aslam’s death is one of those rare transitions that shook many of our worlds. The prayer for him to be at peace springs eternal in many who have seen him gracefully, guilelessly navigate the antechamber of mortality that he always understood to be the paradox of the human condition.
Death stalks us as the only certainty in life, especially as we all endured the pandemic facing different stages of loss and anxiety, but it is in life’s contingent embrace, in the tango we perform with it in our relationship with others, that a man or woman becomes truly exceptional. For Tito, as he was known to all his friends and colleagues, that grace and ineffable wit in the face of trauma or challenge, was his signature trait. He was corrosively unwell for many years, in different degrees, but it never transformed his nature, or even soured his daily responses.
He knew of adversity as an old friend but rarely flaunted its acquaintance. It was his consistent, daily humorous stoicism that defined his person, as that man who will get on with the business of life no matter how panicked he felt at the challenge, whether it was an impossible deadline at work, or the exit of a friend from his life, or even a serial confrontation with his own body’s mortality.
What are the things he loved doing? The list is so long that even a renaissance man would pale at the uniquely “Tito” repertoire of passions and accomplishments.
Journalism was a joy to his mind, his razor-sharp intellect, which he exercised like an Occam’s guillotine on the gratuitous or the speculative, irrelevant or the insubstantial. Yet what marked him as a truly great editor in a sea of mediocrity was his Tolstoyan grapple with the social detail, the nuance and the faces, motivations, contexts that triggered episodic reports we now see daily in the media and just as quickly forget. The reports he edited at the Herald in arguably its best years, were in fact often curated gems with a back story, resonating with a layer of voices and histories that were never linear or binary in the way they processed information.
His integrity and value-system, both as an editor or as a writer, was never broadcast with the hero’s flourish, but with the gentle touch of a true conservationist of excellence in all its written glory and form.
Facts were not enough for his analysis. He wanted the human side of the story, with all fifty shades of granularity, not just two sides of a black and white story. That is why each editorial exchange on a cover story would close with one sentence every single time when he handed it to me: “here’s the collected special report. It’s an epic. Now you pare it down.” The onerous task of paring a tome down was made digestible for me because it was peppered always with two things at least. A repertoire of joke headlines, often eye-wateringly hilarious, and a self-effacing apology at its inevitable overspill.
His integrity and value-system, both as an editor or as a writer, was never broadcast with the hero’s flourish, but with the gentle touch of a true conservationist of excellence in all its written glory and form. He fought the battles he could, and navigated the ones he could not, but never took himself too seriously, to the extent that he invariably blushed in the limelight. And never valourised his own person except in a number of familiar parodies of his own self. As a writer too, his attention to detail bordered like on the obsessive. Every word mattered, every sentence, every comma, every hyphen, as a reflection of his sheer love for the craft and the English language.
But while journalism defined most of his adult life, it was just one of his passions. He was from a generation that actually read, not just newspapers in curated algorithms but read books, yes, full books, including old district gazetteers, which we would argue over late into the night.
A love of music, both local and international, animated his rich inner world, from the days of the now vintage vinyl to the cassettes we used for playback, then the CDs no one loved and now, of course the joys of live streaming. Tito was a quiet connoisseur of many arts, including commercial Hollywood, Pakistani, Indian cinema as well as arthouse movies, but it was the anthropologist in him which could never be kept far from the surface. It was not because he had chosen to read anthropology for his degree at University College, London. It was because he was passionately interested in the study of what makes us human, in all our quotidian failings, bargains with mediocrity and myth-busting glory. He was a habitual and effortlessly brilliant recorder of social change, capturing the evolving or decaying rhythms of urban life in all its illusions and layers, colour and grime. His sojourns took him through both the street life of a teeming, unpredictable city, with its edge of risk, but also the rhythms of semi-rural Punjab, which fascinated him in all its complex demographic scatter over at least a few centuries.
He was from a generation that actually read, not just newspapers in curated algorithms but read books, yes, full books, including old district gazetteers, which we would argue over late into the night.
In all renditions of the relentlessly prosaic, his skill and imagination rendered the ordinary into an object of reinvented purpose, even beauty. A small tin tea kettle could transform into a magic receptacle of an entire family’s origin story. Or an over-cooked, leathery chicken tikka from Khairabad Hotel, which we regularly had for late lunch, could become a crow who trolled Chundrigar Road bankers in another life. The entertainment stream, curated artlessly, was endless. To this day, I expect to text him randomly for a Netflix recommendation or a film comment, or just a shared laugh. His voice, so part of my inner world, my judgement filter, was always there in my head, no matter how or when we met. It is still there, and will never go away, just like Tito, the Talat Aslam everyone depended upon.
Our journey mingled inexorably when I became editor of the Herald in 1988, for ten years. Every single day of those tumultuous years, I never really used my editor’s office because it was such a joy to work next to Tito, in the dusty open-plan barn of an office. I may have been his boss, but it was Tito who was my anchor. May you never stop laughing, my old friend.