Some years ago, Time magazine ran a cover story asking, “Do the good die young?” It’s what comes to mind now, with the news that Zaitun Kasim — known as Toni to almost everyone — left us a few hours ago.
Toni Kasim was a good person, and she died much too soon. Is there a cosmic bargain that bestows certain individuals some unique gift, in exchange for a shorter lease on life?
It’s a simple word, good. An almost impoverished adjective, surrounded as we are by superlatives nowadays. Awesome — to inspire awe — is reduced into the verbal equivalent of a fist in the air, greeting the most mundane of actions. “Fantastic”, “extraordinary”, “wonderful”, “amazing”, is applied like a cheap neon highlighter to people and places and events which are at best, footnotes.
But it’s a word which fits Toni, for she was many different shades of good.
She was good at what she did. Over the years, Toni’s involvement in civil society reforms has not so much blossomed as it has spread its roots deep and wide: human rights, gender and sexuality, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, political accountability. Like many activists, she had a grasp of the theory, the issues, the politics, and the policies. She also had an eye for the minute and the absurd. She once said “It drives me crazy when the papers report ‘six people were injured in the accident, including one woman.”‘
Toni somehow found time for art. She made it, she watched it, she wrote about it and she courted the company of its most talented members. She was once a member of a Tamil-language theatre group, which saw no contradiction in using languages other than Tamil in its productions. She sang with an a capella group. She was a diligent Cameronian Arts Awards and indie film judge; a reviewer of films and theatre for this website.
She was good to the people around her. The best measure of a person is perhaps the company they keep, or rather the company which keeps them. Toni’s friends can speak for themselves, and some have already, in blogs and notes posted online. Suffice to say here, is that as her illness surfaced, she faced it holding the hands of others who reflected her goodness back to her.
She did good. Toni, who bore more than a passing resemblance to Elaine of Seinfeld, was an energizing presence wherever she went. Working in a field that offers little financial security and even less prestige in our doctor-lawyer-copywriter world, Toni made things happen. It may be hard to pinpoint the exact life she changed, the policy she overturned, the Article of the constitution she strengthened, the misrepresented Koran verse she restored meaning to. But to all who knew her, there is little doubt that Toni’s work, and the way she lived her life, lifted our world.
In Toni, we saw something exemplary. We found, in her many parts, what was lacking in ourselves. But rather than feelings of inadequacy, she filled us with a sense of the achievable, because she was not ‘awesome’, or ‘fantastic’ or ‘amazing’.
Do the good die young? Or does their passing, at any age, seem too soon, their time with us too brief, the loss too big?
To pockets of family, friends, loves around the world, in the arts community, and the local and international world of advocacy, the time was too, too brief. We have a palpable loss that finds itself shaped as a woman with curly black hair, dangling earrings, a big hug and an even bigger heart.
First Published: 04.06.2008 on Kakiseni