Tuesday, Sep 27, 2022

To Go On, Defiantly

Sabeen Mahmud was shot. But she will not be concluded.

In this picture taken late Friday, April 24, 2015, sandals lie on the floor of a car surrounded by broken glass in the damaged car of a prominent women's rights activist Sabeen Mehmud following an attack on Mehmud in Karachi, Pakistan.  In this picture taken late Friday, April 24, 2015, sandals lie on the floor of a car surrounded by broken glass in the damaged car of a prominent women’s rights activist Sabeen Mehmud following an attack on Mehmud in Karachi, Pakistan.

There’s something about Sabeen Mahmud that just does not fit. She didn’t fit in life, she does not fit in death. She will not fit anywhere below either. She can’t be contained in concise structures, labelled and boxed in comfortable templates. She can’t be concluded.

It was impossible to have grown up in Karachi wanting to own a café or bookstore one day and not known the person who had gone ahead and done just that. The Second Floor is an irregular space combining books, coffee, art, conversations and Sabeen’s patent brand of madness.

I first became friends with her when she asked me during an interview if I would like to go cycling on Valentine’s Day as part of her “Nakam Ishq” endeavour. Over the course of the time that I knew her, she regularly managed to create trouble, teach, inspire, fight, create, listen, mentor and question. She refused to settle, to get comfortable. She was always restless.

When I last saw her, I was terrified by her stillness. It didn’t fit. She was covered in a white shroud that folded around her too neatly. She lay in a space that was created for anything but this. That does not fit. Neither does her absence, sudden and cripplingly unfair.

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Last Friday, I was at a dinner with her when we heard about a mutual friend’s father being gunned down. She was sitting beside me.

Sometime during the following panic and despair I found myself replying to an email from work. I then put my phone down mid-activity and murmured to myself in disgust. She overheard and told me to go ahead. I was almost apologetic when I admitted that I had no idea how to address violence as an anomaly in my daily life. She had nodded and, after a few seconds, remarked that going on despite violence is defying its purpose. “That’s the least we can do, continue to defiantly go on.”

We went on to discuss shootings in the city. This was the last time I was going to speak to her. A week later, she was shot dead.


Violence in Karachi comes with its own subsets of ritual. If it is a prominent murder, everyone starts talking. Phones ring incessantly, television screens are bright with voyeuristic, breathless reporting, there is a race to assert conspiracies in 140 characters or less, expert opinions come out of the woodwork until one’s social media feed is bursting at the seams.

No one is listening, though. There is noise, intrusive and obnoxious. It drowns out the sound of grief, the process of mourning and any cries for justice. Death is trending, until it is replaced by a catchier hashtag.

Sabeen is trending. She fills up social media feeds, the airwaves and conversations. Her death is being condemned, she is hailed as a champion of free speech, celebrated for her fearlessness, her activism and herrelentless strife. She lives on as a heroic symbol.

She does not, however, answer calls.


She won’t be sitting on the swing in my courtyard. No one will vehemently argue about career choices. No one will come up with outrageously named “bun kebabs”. Hugh Laurie will never be revered enough anymore. She won’t stop by working spaces in her cafe with sudden bursts of inspiration. Her loved ones will not wake up to handwritten notes from her, the door to their rooms will not open suddenly to announce her presence, she won’t fill up spaces with her contagiously manic energy, her sage calm or a heady mixture of both. She won’t be going home to her mother. There will no longer be a gravitational force to centre a space for dialogue in this city. No one will dare as much as she did. No one will fight, shout, sing, protect, love, teach, inspire the way Sabeen was able to do.

The magnitude of a life lived so ferociously was reduced to five measly bullets. This just does not fit.

We bury too many, too frequently. We let go too soon, we forget, we move on and we settle for our losses. Even the ones that are irrevocable. The ones that don’t fit the cycle of senseless violence.

The writer is head of the creative department at the Dawn Group of Newspapers, Pakistan.

First published on: 28-04-2015 at 12:00:58 am
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