Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Who else wants to emulate OB

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There is one great role model for the kind of travels I undertake. I have known him since the late 1960s, if I am not wrong. He was the late great, unbeatable, unmatchable, inimitable Obaidullah Baig. There can never be another person like him.

I am not certain about the year he started his TV documentary series titled Sailani kay Sath, but I think it was about 1969. We had only PTV and what a high standard it maintained. And there was OB (years later, he became OB to all of us his admirers and friends), very handsome square-cut jaw, thick-rimmed glasses and grey safari suit – grey because it was, remember, black and white TV.

OB would be in some fantastically outlandish place that seemed to come out of a novel by Arthur Conan Doyle, microphone in hand (cordless mikes had not yet been invented) facing the camera and in his gravelly voice telling you about places and things that you could never imagine existed. From the wilds of Balochistan across Sindh, Punjab and Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa (then North West Frontier Province), he showed this country to us ignorant compatriots. Every episode was a fantasy journey.

More than forty years is a long time and I forget most, but I simply cannot lose images of OB in Rannikot Fort, Hinglaj, Temple, Kot Diji and Lahut Lamakan. I sat on the edge of the sofa watching and listening wishing I could somehow fall off my perch and enter the world that OB showed us.

Now, OB was a producer at PTV and he had this idea of telling us about a Pakistan we did not know. But he was no ordinary documentary maker. He was a man of boundless knowledge. He was extremely well-read and very, very knowledgeable about Pakistan, its culture, history and wildlife. I may be forgetting a few more subjects he was a master of. The fact remains that OB was arguably the most knowledgeable person in Pakistan about Pakistan. And that does not mean his expertise was restricted to this country alone.

When he made the Sailani series it was not just a show of pretty sights. It was a lesson in history, geography, geology, ethnography, what have you. And the language he spoke, oh, that was perfect as perfect Urdu can ever be. There was no interspersing with words of English to show us how learned he was.

I am surprised how difficult it is for ordinary people to follow perfection and mastery. The so-called documentary makers who came after OB moved on are not even mediocre. They are only capable of showing us picturesque sights: pretty flowers quivering in the wind, a close up of flowing water, birds flying across a blue sky etc. Not one of these fools wanted to be a follower of the great OB.

But I did. After the army, living in Karachi, I started, quite by chance; to travel in the Sindhi wilderness which I soon realised was the kind of country in which OB would have been at home. When I first went to Rannikot Fort in February 1980, it was déjà vu: I had been there with OB a decade earlier.

OB became my Khizr. I followed in his footsteps from place to wild and desolate place across Pakistan. I started to read because I wanted to know some of what he knew. And, let me confess, from a very ignorant ex-captain, over five or six years, I knew a little bit about the country.

I had been writing for IUCN The World Conservation Union since 1987 and on one of my trips to Karachi, my dear friend and editor of long years, the late and much lamented Saneeya Hussain, said OB was with them. I went to OB’s room with stars in my eyes and it was like I was an old friend of his.

A more completely humble and unpretentious person I could not have imagined. We sat there and talked and talked. OB was the kind of person who could tell you how he met a brick lying on the road and make this the most interesting yarn in the whole world. There was nothing that was boring with him.

In 1998, when I made my first PTV series Nagri, Nagri Ghoom Musafir, I clearly copied OB. I spoke Urdu without English (though my accent left much wanting) and I always tried to tell an interesting tale about the place we were showing. When we met after the series went on air, OB and Baray Bhaiya approved. Now that is another peerless person and personality, the unmatched Qureshpur who was addressed as Baray Bhaiya by OB.

OB was a man of great largesse of the spirit. He always encouraged. It was not him to say so and so was doing badly and they should see his great work as an example. Never. In our Land of Mediocrity no one followed that greatest exemplar of perfect travel and history documentary making. The loss is entirely ours.

But OB, he was always genuinely happy about anyone doing a good job of work. Once I made some adverse comments about a friend of mine who speaks one word of Urdu followed by a short deluge of English interspersed with more Urdu in his TV documentaries of absolutely no worth. OB winced. He said nothing. His was a far too lofty character to descend to pettiness.

On 22 June 2012, my friend Adil Mulki (who models his own travels on OB’s) called from Karachi to say he was on his way to attend the funeral of that great man. I was in a state of shock. OB and I had last spoken almost a year before that. For some months previous to the death, I had persistently tried to call his home number, but it never connected. Only later I learned the number had changed. And now after he was no longer with us, I also learned that cancer had deprived us of him.

These poor morons who now pretend to be making documentary films have not seen the work of the doyen of Pakistani documentary making. They will never because they are too full of themselves. And when you are this way, there is little room for anything else, especially knowledge, to get in. They can never ever improve.

Among all the Pakistanis OB is a man I have much admired. He is really my hero and I have shamelessly tried to emulate him.

Related: Sardar Naseer Tareen: A Man for all Seasons

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 24 June 2013 at 12:03, Blogger Unknown said...

Good read of a great man.....

At 10 July 2013 at 11:12, Blogger Faati said...

He was the most loving person ever. Thank you for writing such a beautiful piece about him. You captured his persona perfectly. However, you do know that he would have probably scolded you for the words "poor morons" you used for the upcoming documentary filmmakers.

At 10 July 2013 at 20:37, Anonymous Saleema Nasreen said...

No doubt he was a great man , full of knowledge and courage. Kullu nafsin zaiqatul mout... May Allah grant him the highest levels of jannah. Ameen.

At 13 July 2013 at 16:47, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Faati, OB could never say a harsh word to anyone. He was to big for such a thing. I did use morons for the current lot of documentary makers and as I note, OB winced. He did not like it; but it was not he to censure me for my indecorum. That was the man OB was. Those of us who do not know him, miss so much of life.

At 25 July 2013 at 23:03, Blogger Faati said...

Yes, sometimes he did wince. I think it was because he felt that the current lot was trying to get famous, fast. I watched a lot of local travel shows with him and the lack of research irritated him. There was a show about Hunza. Plenty of glorious shots of Karimabad and the Baltit Fort. At some point the host decided to talk about the fort's history and ended up talking to a middle aged caretaker, who wasn't really certain about the fort's history. I think in those few minutes OB named at least 6 people that could (read; should) have been lined up for a more informed answer. I don't mean to rant. OB wasn't perfect but he came pretty close. As his youngest daughter wrote in a tribute for him, "Baba was magic." He sure was.

At 26 July 2013 at 17:53, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Faati, those whose lives were touched by OB got just a bit of that magic. He was just too good.

At 28 September 2013 at 01:57, Blogger Unknown said...

a great man Sir Obaidullah Baig, loved his style and work all the way . thnx for posting this tribute


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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

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