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MIRZA GHALIB IN YALE - Author Sara Suleri reads from her new book, Boys Will Be Boys: A daughter’s elegy
by Anjum NiazIt’s an elegy, this time for her beloved Pip, “patriotic and preposterous” – the father Sara Suleri never let the reader of Meatless Days forget: his pedestrian English accent; his irascibility with his brood of six (“You tended to chide us before we were children”). The English professor at Yale gripped us with the cold-blooded murder of the fairest of all Ifat, her sister, (“she dies inside me daily”) and the hit and run death of her Welsh mother: Surraya Mair Suleri, daughter of John Amos Jones, by a rickshaw at Punjab University where she, like her daughter, taught English and was adored by her students.(“I think each of us died in some way the day they buried Mamma”).
Privy to the most intimate memories of the Suleri household embedded in the golden era of Lahore, “Oh, City of Lights, the grave-homes of our mother, sister and now our father”, Sara, robustly engaged us in the intrepid social fabric of the fabulous 60’s and 70’s woven around the changing seasons and her father’s blind devotion to ‘General Zulu’ Haq: “You were quite chummy with that maniacal general”.
A decade and two years later, there she is, in the dim-lit corridor of Yale, waddling along in her black patent flats burdened by the endlessly flowing kurta – a rich silk Wedgwood blue stripes – worn with a loosely fitted chooridar and a scarf carefully clutching her shoulders but girlishly pushed away. Her characteristic bob, parted in the middle, still drapes the sad, sad face.
Sara starts to read and opens the first chapter of her new book, Boys will be Boys: A daughter’s elegy, hot from the University of Chicago Press. It’s a title jokingly chosen by Z.A. Suleri (Z.A.S.) for his unwritten autobiography. The prominent political journalist turned editor died in 1999. He was 86.
Her voice cracks as she recites Ghalib, Iqbal and many more during the next one hour, narrating nuggets from randomly picked pages packed in a graveyard of memories. The 13 chapters, prefixed always by an Urdu couplet: “Pip who loved Ghalib with a passion typical to his nature” are enticingly crafted around her family with ZAS as the chief protagonist.
Deathlike silence prevails in the small room where Sara Suleri Goodyear, 50, celebrates the life and times of her father. “When Pip died, I moaned. I thought some remnant in me had been discarded.” As if to make amends for the fun she poked at him, cruelly taking the wind out of his pompous sails in Meatless Days, the daughter now wants to make her peace. “On Judgment Day, I will say to God, ‘Be merciful, for I have already been judged by my child,” ZAS would chide her.
But her rendition is inaudible, poorly constructed. She appears in pain, her face distorted, lips puckered, head bent, shoulders sagging, Sara halts often as she turns the pages and stumbles over sentences once too often. Her vocal chords suffer, whispering hoarsely while attempting to mouth words. A glass of water is pushed sympathetically towards her to salve her tortured delivery.
“Whatever continents may intrude to interrupt our narrative, the circle of life only seems to grow tighter and tighter,” she continues.
Is her inside weeping? her heart tearing? her soul grieving? None dare fidget. The crowd is mostly Indian.
On Indo-Pa war and liberation of Bangladesh in, Sara says philosophically: “ I watched you, Pip, during the bitter war of 1971. It take me much time to mention that war because of its colossal failures, its unutterable consumption of lives. I am not sorry Bangladesh is in place – it was a stupid idea, anyway , to have an east wing and a west wing of Pakistan, separated by a thousand-odd miles of enemy territory, like a bird without a body.
Sara well remembers how they had to be collecting funds for the cyclone victims to the erstwhile East Pakistan. Nuzzi, her sister, had a cook from Bengal who “told me that the last time he returned to Bangladesh there was another enormous upheavel in the Ganges. Uprooting villages, wreaking havoc where havoc should not have been wreaked. He said he and his family spent days clinging to some trees…I felt ashamed.”
Referring to some photographs of her father from his early days as editor for Dawn which someone had sent to her she says, “When I looked at the photographs of that young man – with a face disturbingly like my own – I knew that if I did not love him already, I would until God’s heavenly Muslim universe had descended and taken him from me for good.”
But she quickly sets the record straight: “A saddening thought. But you were, Pip, always exuberant about your editorials and your articles, even when you did them everyday.”
When all’s over, I walk away, self-contained, a trifle triumphant over the Yale-wallahs: I consider Sara’s discourse my intellectual property right solely as a Pakistani first and a Lahori second. I saw it happen. “She looks so dukhi (sad)” says the young Nandini as we walk out together. Her male companion, another Indian student, has specially come to hear Sara, but leaves disappointed. “Maybe she’s not well…it seems that she didn’t really want to be here.”
Read the book! That’s what I did and could not lay it down. “A Proust in Pakistan, to wander among her own several lives” now gives us a rare peep into the secret life of Pip - a man with human frailties, never mind his self-righteousness.
The aging and ailing Lion as Sara calls her father “adopts” Shahida in the hoary twilight of his life. The woman – crude to the core and scheming to the hilt according to Sara’s accounts, works in the advertising section of The Pakistan Times where ZAS is the big boss , she comes howling with a complaint of sexual harassment. Not only is the alleged abuser (innocent of the crime) summarily kicked out, but “Pip came home with his blushing daughter”, giving Sara and her siblings a “stepsister”!
Sara tantalizes the reader with the ambivalent relationship between the young woman and her father. We’re told how Shahida takes over the life and home of Pip, who badly needed a “companion” and allows this peroxide blonde with a generous bosom to ransack their home – throw “Mamma’s china” out, put up shining cheap curtains, get rid of the gold nib Parker and Mont Blanc that “Papa” loved to write with. She even accompanies him to New York during a UN session and stays grandly at the UN Plaza!
“After you had left, Pip, stepsister Shahida began pestering each of us for ‘por-torni’”, until they finally figured out what the Punjabi wench wanted was a power of attorney to keep ZAS’s Lahore house where she’s set up a Z.A Suleri Trust Foundation and ambitiously appointed herself the President!
Sara regales us with her tale of “Scorch & Soda” (Scotch) that ZAS enjoyed furtively and loved eating “meat sausages” – who cares if they had a bit of pork! “Get rid of the sausages !Hide the sausages!” bellowed ‘Pip’ to his kids when some “religious-looking visitors turned up” at the hospital in London where ZAS was admitted.
As for politics: there was “Bobby Shafto (Nawaz Sharif) fat and fair with his Model Town estates and innumerable mills of corruption”; while Benazir Bhutto “promsied some hope until she married her scoundrel.”
Sara abbreviates “Paki” for Pakistan and “Mozzies” for Muslims throughout the book. They make for an easy read, why quibble?
“Ifat wore rings, just as I do”. Sara can say that again: I have a hard time counting the number of glittering baubles covering all her 8 fingers as she tentatively turns the pages while reading from them.
“Yes Pip, he (Austin) is still my husband…you see me married, domesticated,” Sara addresses her father and recounts her marriage to a widower; a millionaire, a Goodyear (the tyre man); double in age with a daughter “older than I am…I leapfrogged to become a step- great grandmother”. Austin Goodyear owns a yacht called “Mermaid” and a farmhouse in Maine. “Sara make him a Muslim”, urges ZAS from afar.
Who won’t remember Abdul Ali Khan - “a feudal gentleman if ever there was one” as the Principal of Aitchison College. Well the tyrant expelled Shahid (Sara’s brother) for writing “libelious and obscene lyrics about his various teachers. Pip called him over the phone a bull and a pig” when he refused to take Shahid back.
And Zeno – Dawn’s most respected columnist: “would send poisoned darts at Pip and Pip would send them back at Zeno”.
“What was it about Pip’s relationship to friends?” asks the daughter who cannot “recall a single of his friendships that was not somehow trammeled by history.” Of his cousins “Uncle” Shamim and his younger brother Nasim the journalist who later became the UN Ambassador at New York, ‘Pip’ never saw eye to eye.
“Pip your handwriting still can wrench me as your Quran (that ZAS gave when Sara left for the US in 1976) has traveled with me – and will forever – from home to home.”
“Ifat-Tillat-Nuzhat-Sara”, ZAS would yell and each of his daughters would come running: “If possible we would still be running to his side today.”
Except Ifat and Nuzhat are dead and so is ‘Pip’.
“Good night, sweet Pip, flights of angels sing thee to thy rest! You will be back more times than you know. I was always obstinate,” thus ends a daughter's elegy, Boys will be Boys.
NOTE: This article was first published in Dawn, 23 Nov 2003. We have published it here on Jazbah.org with permission from the author.
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