An Indian-Gujarati friend of mine, with whom I share my enthusiasm for the Gujarati community of Karachi, has written something about me that needs only marginal correction. Writing in the Hindustan Times of May 12, 2014, Aakar Patel observed: “In a profile of his by a Western writer, I was alarmed to see that the columnist Khaled Ahmed, one of my heroes, actually paid one of the groups to keep them off his back. Such, then, is the lot of the writer of opinion in Pakistan.”
Off my back? The best way I could do that was not write at all. I have, in fact, done much worse to ruin my image. I have gone and touched the feet of my prospective killers, as unfortunately recorded by Karima Bennoune in her book Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism (2013). She recounts how I went to Samanabad in Lahore and — it goes without saying — went for the foot of a now-terrorist organisation member offended by what my paper, The Frontier Post, had printed: an FIR saying the organisation’s founder used to molest madrasa children. The now-terrorist organisation was then in the Punjab government coalition and doing terrorism on the side.
It worked. So I got used to touching foot. It is like apologising abjectly to the judge after committing contempt of court: don’t argue. Many years later, I misread the signs and wrote something in The Friday Times that provoked a once-terrorist organisation to send me a legal notice for defamation. I was immediately grateful on receiving a notice and not a bullet in my head. After looking for a lawyer who would defend me in court and not finding a single one — all were either in sympathy with the said organisation or scared of it — I decided to do what had become habit: touch foot.
The first time I touched foot I was editor of the paper, so the decision was taken quickly enough. The second time, my editor Najam Sethi, the bravest man in Pakistan, who printed everything I wrote, had to go with me to a location near Chauburji in Lahore and see how I did it. Seating myself on the floor next to the Big Leader, I extended my hand and touched his knee (the foot being hidden beneath his imposing girth) before admitting guilt and pledging never to badmouth his organisation again. The effect was immediate. I was to live.
Aakar Patel took continued…