Photo by Tonje Thilesen
Photo by Tonje Thilesen

When did Sabeen Mahmud’s life change?

It is the summer of 1989. She discovers a Macintosh computer or – as a friend of hers put it – she “intellectually fell in love with the idea of computing”.

It is 1997. She is considering several offers to move abroad. One evening, she accompanies her mentor Zaheer Alam Kidvai and his wife to meet their friend Dr Eqbal Ahmed, the famed scholar and anti-war activist, who has just returned to Pakistan from the United States. Ahmed takes her aside. One private conversation later, she decides to stay home.

It is the winter of 2013. A friend calls to convince her to go out on New Year’s Eve. On that most overrated of nights, she has a great time. It is the night she discovers her love for going all out, for really hanging out, dancing madly and singing out loud.

Or perhaps it is a day much before all of this. Mahmud is four, maybe five. Mahenaz Mahmud, her mother, lets go of her daughter’s hand so she can cross a road by herself. It is the first of many steps and journeys that Mahmud, the daughter, makes, as she begins to discover the world – and herself – with a perpetual sense of childlike wonder.

Mahmud would grow up to lead the kind of life that few can emulate. She became genuinely creative, someone who brought a finely honed design aesthetic to everything she used or did. She was a designer and a curator, an artist, a doer who saw a problem and found a solution. If she wanted to make friends, she would open The Second Floor (T2F) and, in the process, give Pakistan’s creative and artistic lot – actors and singers, comedians and qawwals – a space to unleash their talents on to a truly unsuspecting world.

She was all of this and she was none of this. She hated labels.

Also read: Sabeen Mahmud — The unquiet one

It seems ironic, then, that 2015, the year she was ready to move on from those descriptions of her, saw her get associated with those forever. “Over the years, I had said to her and I don’t know why I had thought this but I had told her that, ‘One of these days you’re going to get a bullet in your back.’ I had told her this at least four or five times over the last five, six years,” Mahenaz Mahmud recalls.

There is a strong ring of prescience about these words. Mahenaz Mahmud knew her only child would not stop speaking out against whatever she felt was wrong. “I wouldn’t say Sabeen was fearless,” says Jibran Nasir, a Karachi-based activist working on sectarian and religious harmony. “[But her] ability to get over those fears was remarkable,” he adds.

There was no single ‘Aha!’ moment in Mahmud’s life; no easy way to explain how she became who she was. That is because her entire life was a series of ‘Aha!’ moments, of constant discovery and evolution informed by an undying sense of joy.

They were together in late December 2014 outside Islamabad’s Lal Masjid, at protests seeking the arrest and prosecution of the mosque’s chief cleric, Abdul Aziz, over his public statements supporting terrorism. Nasir recalls how on the first day of the protests, Mahmud sent him a text –“Bacha, kya scene hai?” (What’s the situation, my dear?) – and asked him if she should join him. The very next day, she was outside the mosque.

She was as open to the idea of talking to militants as she was in love with the idea of saving people from them, says Nasir. As someone who understood the meaning of community, she wanted to engage with everyone as a manifestation of an unconditional love for people, he adds.

A few months later, Mahmud was at it again. Her friends were pleading her to change her mind, yet she made T2F available for a panel discussion on Balochistan after it was called off at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) under pressure from the state and was held in Islamabad without its main speakers – Mama Qadeer, who is the chairman of Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, and Farzana Majeed, the general secretary of the same organisation. But at T2F, the panel would not just include the two speakers but the discussion’s agenda would also contain all those topics the state does not approve of — missing persons, discovery of mutilated bodies and the separatist movement.

On the morning of April 24, 2015, Mahmud told her mother: “I have spoken to so and so, but they said no problem. I haven’t spoken to this person because I know he will say no. But I am going ahead with it.” Mahmud spent the day working on Dil Phaink, a quirky installation based on Karachi’s street culture, to be exhibited at London’s Southbank Centre a few weeks later. She was totally engrossed in making the exhibit come through.

She also told people she had not received any threats.

Her instinctual bias in favour of an open dialogue kept her going. When Mahmud spoke that evening, she was clear that the event was not a one-sided talk, and asked for a civil exchange. “This is a very sensitive issue,” she said, “and some people might have said things that others could find difficult to digest.”

“We are not here to agree to everything but if we disagree we must express that without being vengeful and aggressive,” she added.

Less than an hour later, she was dead.

Wall mural at T2F | Arif Mahmood, White Star
Wall mural at T2F | Arif Mahmood, White Star

There was no single ‘Aha!’ moment in Mahmud’s life; no easy way to explain how she became who she was. That is because her entire life was a series of ‘Aha!’ moments, of constant discovery and evolution informed by an undying sense of joy. Only a clichéd life has life-changing moments and Mahmud’s life was anything but clichéd.

Perhaps the clue to her personality is not in her own life but in that of her mother’s.

Mahenaz Mahmud had a sheltered childhood in Dhaka, raised by a nanny in a well-off household. When she moved to Karachi, she was edgy and hesitant in public spaces, unable to get onto a bus amid the crowds piling on board. She decided that she did not want her own child to ever feel that same fear and anxiety while navigating a public space. So Mahmud was not taught to fear the streets. More importantly, she was not taught that people on the streets were different from her. How could she think otherwise when she was always with the people on the streets?

Also read: Revisiting a confessional jigsaw

As a three-year-old, Mahmud squatted at mechanic workshops with her father. She would carry a notebook, jotting down everything she heard. “She knew all the different tools — spanners and screwdrivers and hammers,” Mahenaz Mahmud says in a voice so similar to her daughter’s that it feels like Mahmud herself is telling the story of her own childhood.

Her much vaunted love for public spaces and her ability to forge connections were not the product of her reading or academic research or even activism. These were a part of how she lived. She was not a voyeur of Karachi life; it was part of who she was.

Like most children, Mahmud was unconditionally loved. But she also had something far more useful: the freedom to explore her possibilities without having to worry about a conventional career. This conscious decision by her parents – who instilled both street smarts and a moral compass in her – gave Mahmud the licence to do whatever she wanted. Even when her parents were around, she had full charge of her life. She often ventured out into her neighbourhood on her cycle without a watchful parent following. If she had to go for an after-school activity, she was told to find her own way back.

Her much vaunted love for public spaces and her ability to forge connections were not the product of her reading or academic research or even activism. These were a part of how she lived. She was not a voyeur of Karachi life; it was part of who she was.

Mahmud was also free to decide how to go about her studies. If she had not properly studied for an exam, her mother would not force her to make last minute preparations. She, instead, would tell Mahmud to go out and play cricket. When she needed someone to play cricket with, she would gather a team of boys and men from the neighbourhood – labourers, watchmen, cooks, drivers, anyone nearby – and set up to play on the street. She was an only child but she was taught to never be something as inane as ‘bored’ — there was far too much to do in this world.

And until the day she died, Mahmud was always trying to reach out for the next thing. Her life evolved without limits, free from the “well, you can be independent but…” line of parental reasoning that cuts so many creative lives short. She could do anything, learn anything, and be anything. “Amma, thank you for the tough love,” she told her mother many years later. “I knew you were always there.”

As a teenager, Mahmud was working, had friends thrice her age, and an ear for Pink Floyd and qawwalis. She found a mentor in Kidvai, and a place in his home where she discovered music, Urdu literature and poetry. As an adult, she learned how to swim, took her first vacation to Nepal, chased her cat Jadoo, sang along to Bollywood songs and used the word ‘crush’ earnestly and frequently. “She was always falling in and out of love with things and people, whether it was a cute boy or some food,” her friend Yasmin Khan recently reminisced in an email to Mahenaz Mahmud. “She was severely dil phaink (quick to fall in love),” her friend Rahma Muhammad Mian says. “That was the most beautiful thing about her.”

And despite all that made her different from others in her age group, “she was a regular girl,” says her friend Raania Azam Khan Durrani. “She was a really normal girl,” says Durrani, sitting at a table where she would have served dinner for Mahmud on April 24. “She was super intelligent because she used to read and spend time to inform herself.”

Photo by Essa Malik, White Star
Photo by Essa Malik, White Star

Children are irrepressible forces of nature. They ask better questions, as New York-based humorist Fran Lebowitz said. “I must take issue with the term ‘a mere child,’ for it has been my invariable experience that the company of a mere child is infinitely preferable to that of a mere adult,” she once wrote.

Children are full of possibilities: their dreams have not been torn to shreds, careers have not been thrust on them, their imaginations can run wild. They find joy in colours and magic in flowers and cake. They laugh as much as they want, without caring what anyone says. Much of this happiness and curiosity is drummed out of children, slowly and surely, until they become jaded adults.

Mahmud never gave up on her childlike sense of amazement, not until the life was drummed out of her by the assassin who shot her a few hundred yards away from T2F. She approached life with the glee children have when they find a new hiding spot, or when they learn a way to build things, or when they insist that an apple does not have to be coloured red; it can also be purple.

This limitless, free-floating existence allowed her to create, build and plan with the same kind of imagination that children possess. That, perhaps, explains why her work – from corporate presentations in the 1990s to the Creative Karachi festival in 2014 – always stood out.

Her curiosity was never stifled. As a child, Mahmud one day clambered up next to her mother while she was on the phone, insistently asking, “What is f*k?” — a word she had seen written on a wall. Most children would have been slapped and told to rinse out their mouths with soap. Mahenaz Mahmud, who did not want words to become a source of mystery for her daughter, told Mahmud what it meant. One day, as she saw the quantity of medicines her then-unwell grandmother had to take, Mahmud earnestly asked: “Is *nani a drug addict?”

Also read: Anatomy of a murder

One afternoon, Mahenaz Mahmud told her young daughter how important it was to respect plants. Soon after their talk, visitors to their house were trampling over the garden bed. Mahmud was outraged. “How could they do this?”

Her anger at social injustices was hardwired. It often surfaced, for the world to see, when she participated in public protests but it was part of her moral code, not restricted to standing up for a particular group or cause. “Sabeen was terribly kind, and sensitive to others,” her friend Aassia Haroon Haq says. “She was easily moved to tears, especially for the downtrodden … she needed to stand for what was simple and right.”

That did not make her an activist, a term often used to describe her now and the one she would have scoffed at.

While much has been made of Mahmud’s political colour-blindness and tolerance, she was acutely aware of how people saw her. As a child, she realised her life was very different from her peers at Karachi Grammar School; that she was far more independent and more of an adult than anyone around her. “She wore it as a badge of honour,” Haq, who first met Mahmud at school, recalls. “She saw the expectation of adult conversation as wholly natural. If anything, I suspect she found those who lived more conventionally as the ones who were strange.”

Her anger at social injustices was hardwired. It often surfaced, for the world to see, when she participated in public protests but it was part of her moral code, not restricted to standing up for a particular group or cause.

Mahmud’s parents did not bubble wrap her childhood. Facts were laid out to her plainly: there was little money, at times — or less money, for sure, than most of her classmates had. So her sweaters came from Bohri Bazaar; they were not purchased during a shopping trip to London.

“Oh your bike is like this, oh your this [thing] is Pakistani,” Mahenaz Mahmud recalls Mahmud telling her about her classmates’ jibes. “I used to say, ‘Okay fine, what do you think? Where are they from? They think that your belongings are not good enough because they are local… then where do they come from? We are all Pakistani.’ In this way, I always gave her the confidence to deal with such issues. We would talk things through.”

Kidvai recalls Mahmud telling him that the school never made “anyone feel like they were Pakistanis.” She regretted that she was unable to speak Urdu well – though her Urdu became nearly faultless in later years of her life – because her school had not stressed on the language. “She hated [her school] like crazy,” Kidvai says. After school, she went to Lahore to study at Kinnaird College so she could finally “meet Pakistanis.”

Mahmud avoided exclusive, elitist spaces such as Sind Club on principle. She could not understand the rationale for their existence.

Sometimes, her pet peeves – entitlement, bad design and stereotypes – would coalesce. On Instagram, she once posted a photo of an invitation to speak at the American Consulate in Karachi on Challenges Faced by Professional Women in Pakistan. “Who the eff produces an entire invite in bloody italics?” she captioned the photo. “Also, so fed up of this ‘challenges as a woman’ narrative. I don’t face any professional challenges as a woman. Entitled, lazy and dumb people are my only challenge. #GROWL”.

But Mahmud did not spurn the privileged, the entitled, the Sind Club members, either. She believed in tearing down barriers, not just in the physical sense but also in the social sense. She could talk to everyone – and not in a superficial or ostentatious way. Those who have had a conversation with her often describe the experience as disarming because of her steady gaze, uninterrupted attention and, in later years, the willingness to understand someone whose views were diametrically opposite to hers.

Those conversations – over cups of tea, bread pudding at Pompei, in nooks around Karachi – were routine for Mahmud, though in some cases they brought people back from the brink of financial ruin or even existential angst. Her intensity broke down most barriers. “You couldn’t keep your distance from Sabeen,” says actor Nimra Bucha who became friends with Mahmud soon after their first meeting. “You didn’t have to hold back [anything from her] and that is why so many people felt close to her,” Bucha says. “I call her a friend but the effort [in making the friendship work] was all hers, not mine … she had this relentless energy.”

All of Mahmud’s friends feel their relationship with her had the same intensity. She made everyone feel special and loved. And she wanted that kind of love in return. Her flirtatious heart – born out of that dil phaink nature – wanted someone else’s heart to match.

And she brought that same intensity to her work ethic. “She would get into something and get totally involved with it,” Kidvai says, recalling how Mahmud once perfectly soldered a piece of metal while working at his company even when she had no training in soldering.

In death, Mahmud has become a symbol, a convenient Facebook background photo, a solemn, unsmiling visage to accompany activist slogans, a 'JeSuisSabeen' Twitter hashtag. Her image is plastered onto placards and walls.

From the way cables at her workplace were neatly wrapped to the manner in which she maintained her calendar and notes, her life had a level of organisation that would be an “OCD’s wet dream”, as Mian puts it. But her obsessive compulsive disorder did not come with the kind of stress or anxiety that most people have about sorting their days out. “Zen is such an overdone word and it is so misunderstood but she was very present in the now,” is how Durrani describes Mahmud.

Mahmud’s emotional intelligence was a work in progress. “I have worked on myself” Mian quotes her as saying. Her famed empathy didn’t come about overnight and she was not always perfect or constantly smiling. She had moments of frustration and anger at people who had taken her for a ride or who had tried to get her to do things for free. She had to learn how to work well with a team, to process and talk through situations, to lose herself in music and heal her soul. “She was super smart; she would analyse situations but not complicate [them],” says Durrani. “She was not a very good negotiator but she was giving. She was ready to share and manifest good energy.”

Mahmud had to learn not to have dug-in positions. In the last months of her life, she had become a lapsed vegetarian. She did not like Bollywood films but her newfound love for cheesy hit songs made her the owner of a custom-painted “Tu Mera Hero” number plate for her car. “She loved the word badtameez (disrespectful),” Durrani says. “She thought it was the best word. She felt she was one of those badtameez people, not in an ill-mannered way, but badtameez with her emotions.”

Also read: Person of the Year 2015

Mahmud was, her friends say, a lot of fun to hang out with. She liked staying with small groups of people, animatedly telling stories, dancing and singing. “She was always laughing with people, not at people,” Durrani says. At home, she would listen to music, discuss ideas and theories with her mother and often work till late in the night. She wore structured kurtas or shirts from the Japanese retailer, Uniqlo. “She didn’t like expensive things and institutions but she had expensive tastes — she liked to travel,” says Bucha. “She did not live like a yogi.”

One of her last obsessions was the American television show, House M.D., starring Hugh Laurie as a self-obsessed, Vicodin-popping, medical genius. It sparked in her an interest in the brain, psychology and counselling. Mahmud was planning to study all these things in the fall of 2015.

And, as Bucha says, “she wanted to get closer to her friends” — to have more time with them; to have more things to say to them.

There is no more time, and no more things to say. Mahmud’s absence is already making itself felt.

A qawwali session held at T2F on Mahmud’s birthday posthumously | Arif Mahmood, White Star
A qawwali session held at T2F on Mahmud’s birthday posthumously | Arif Mahmood, White Star

There was some white space on the Dil Phaink installation and Mahmud and Durrani kept wondering what to do with it. They could not decide. The words “To Sabeen, With Love” ended up being there when the installation finally went up at the London exhibition after her assassination.

At T2F, it often feels like she is about to make an appearance. At events, people note her absence more than they did when she was still alive. She gave a lot of people the opportunity to showcase their work and ideas at T2F and almost all of those people miss her immensely. “I think it was the promotion of people’s dreams,” is how Mahenaz Mahmud puts it while explaining the love and respect her daughter has earned through her work.

And, in a constant tribute to her, T2F continues to live on, hosting its eclectic range of events — from stand-up comedy shows and film screenings to talks on literature and politics.

But her absence extends far beyond the lane that houses T2F.

There are only a handful of people who feel Karachi’s pulse and channel it into their work. She was one of those few. She was both moved and amused by the things she saw on the streets of Karachi. She would travel and see other cities – she loved London in particular – and wanted for Karachi what those cities had.

If nothing else, she made it a bit easier to live in Karachi, just by being in the city and continuing to work there — and she did this not in spite of what the city has become but rather because of what it is. “She made [the city] look okay,” Bucha says.

In death, Mahmud has become a symbol, a convenient Facebook background photo, a solemn, unsmiling visage to accompany activist slogans, a #JeSuisSabeen Twitter hashtag. Her image is plastered onto placards and walls. She has become a larger-than-life phenomenon, a woman who everyone can project their thoughts and ideals on. It is the near-deification of someone who disavowed all those labels and would have laughed at the platitudes trying to turn her into a Pakistani Che Guevara.

But her memories – not her legacy, not the many things she did or said, or is thought to have done or said – are alive, preserved by the men and women who cannot even begin to comprehend her loss. They cannot look at parts of their houses the same way they did when she was alive and was often a lively presence in them. There is a chair Mahmud would perch on during weekend nights while eating fried noodles with her friends. There is a sofa she stretched out on at home. There is a book-filled chamber where she spoke to her mentor.

And her friends still refer to her in the present tense. She is certainly alive in her thoughtfully chosen gifts, her messages and emails, in the lyrics she would sing aloud as she drove through Karachi.

This was originally published in Herald's Annual 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.