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ZA Suleri: A daughter remembers

 

 

 
Khalid Hasan
 
 

 

ara Suleri Goodyear teaches English at Yale and has done so for years. Her first book Meatless days was elegiac, and so is Boys will be boys which the Columbia University Press has just published. The name is not hers but her father�s who chose it for the autobiography he never wrote. ZA Suleri, whom his six children called Pip, their acronym for �patriotic and preposterous�, is portrayed with love and indulgence, peppered here and there with impatience over his imperious style, by a daughter who left home because she wanted to carve out a life of her own.

When her first book was published, she was still Suleri; about ten years ago when she was nearing forty and quite happily single, she surprised herself by accepting a proposal from Austin Goodyear (yes, the tyre people) who had a daughter from an earlier marriage older than Sara. Being the man of business he was, his proposal did not come one summer evening when the full moon was hanging in the sky and he was down on one knee waiting to slip a ring on her finger. It came as a prenuptial contract drawn by his lawyer that was complete in every respect except the bride�s signatures. Sara read it over the breakfast table and said yes, adding that he should get on with the arrangements before she changed her mind. They were married a couple of days later and still are; something, she writes, that would please her father. However, contrary to her father�s ardent wish, she has been unable to make Mr Goodyear join the ranks of the faithful, for he remains a good Christian who loves his yacht Mermaid and his large farm in Maine where he is often overheard swearing at his sheep.

ZA Suleri was Sara�s father and to most of us our fathers are heroes, even when we find them exasperating at times, as she did hers. She writes tenderly about him and her mother, a Welsh girl Suleri met in London in 1945-46, who died in a tragic accident in Lahore where she taught at the Punjab University. She also movingly invokes the memory of her sister Ifat who was criminally run over by her husband in Lahore for reasons that remain unclear, her sister Tillat, her stepsister Nuzhat (who died of a stroke some years ago), and her brothers Shahid and Irfan. She also writes about Lahore, a city she is nostalgic about, and not only because her parents and her sister Ifat lie in its earth.

However, there are some troubling bits in the book, such as her constant use of the ugly word �Paki� for Pakistani and the name she calls Muslims � �Mozzies� � which I at least have never heard or read anywhere. It is not possible that Sara doesn�t know how offensive �Paki� is. Recently, the Washington Post used it in a column by Al Kamen and when I pointed it out Kamen phoned me to apologise, saying he did not know the offensive nature of the word, and gracefully apologising for its use in his next column. If Sara has used these words playfully � and she seems to have � it shows a lack of sensitivity that is surprising in a person who writes with such subtle poignancy and who has so much poetry in her.

While I am at it, I might as well point out some mistakes of fact that Sara makes. In 1965, Suleri was made head of Inter-Services Public Relations, not �director of the Intelligence agency� and put in a full colonel�s uniform (on seeing which for the first time, the late Brig Mohammad Usman�s orderly came rushing into his GHQ office and said that he had just seen a � naqli kernail�). I should add that after a few briefings, foreign newsmen in Pindi began to call Suleri SSW, short for � Shastri�s Secret Weapon�. Begum Akhtar, Sara should know, never sang at the Open Air Theatre in Lahore, nor did the Sabri brothers perform there because qawwali was not part of the All Pakistani Music Conferences organised by Hayat Ahmed Khan. Nur Jehan was never called �Bebe� nor did the Pakistan government confer the title of malika-e-tarrunum or �melody queen� on her. The song Mera sohna sheher Kasur ni she sang in 1965 not 1971. Also the Punjabi word sona does not mean �golden� but �beautiful�. Sara also confuses the 1965 and 1971 wars though I readily concede both were confusing affairs. The book is interspersed with Urdu verses or single lines of verse but the translations, without exception, are inelegant and often wrong. Surprising in an author who is such a fine poet and prose stylist.

Zeno, Sara should have known, was not �a columnist� who was an �arch enemy� of her father, but the much revered Muhammad Safdar Mir, the Pakistan Times� culture and literature columnist. I must also assure her that Madam Nur Jehan never had a facelift in Switzerland or elsewhere. She was just beautiful. Again, � falsas and jamans� are not spring but sawan or rainy season fruits. And it was not Ghalib but Zauq who said that he would exchange his entire poetic output for that single verse of Momin that Sara quotes.

At the end of this slim book, Sara wonders why her father�s country did not take time to recognise the passion with which he loved it. The fact is that ZA Suleri remained closely aligned with almost all governments, just and unjust, military, quasi-military or civilian-dictatorial. He passionately supported every martial law, every impostor, every strutting general from Ayub onwards. Had he been alive today, he would without doubt have been the greatest of Musharraf�s supporters. I always wondered how he was able to act as cheerleader to every dictatorship and still keep writing about the Quaid-e-Azam and his concept of Pakistan. Nothing could have been more abhorrent to �my leader� than military rule, which always found in Suleri its most ardent and enthusiastic justifier. Suleri was imposed on the Pakistan Times twice, each time by military rulers. When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto fired him live on the air in his December 20, 1971 speech to the nation, we who worked under him against our will began to dance at PT and Imroze.

Suleri did more harm to a free press in Pakistan, to civil liberties and the idea of a representative government in all the years he was in positions of editorial authority than any other individual one can cite. Every authoritarian government needed a Suleri and every authoritarian government got him. When Yahya Khan came to Washington in 1970, I had a sharp exchange with him at a Pakistan embassy reception. He was going round asking everyone what they did. When he came to me, I told him that I was the Pakistan Times correspondent in Washington, then added (because Suleri had just been imposed on us as chief editor), �But I am not one of Suleri�s boys.� Yahya Khan glowered at me, � Bachoo,� he said, using one of his favourite words, �If you are not Suleri�s boy, you will be nobody�s boy.� Next day when I went to see HK Burki and others accompanying Yahya at press counsellor SN Qutb�s home in Bethesda, Burki told me over a gin and tonic, � Toon fikr na kar, ainaah nahin rehna.� (Don�t you worry; these guys are not going to last). When I returned to Lahore, both Yahya and Suleri were still very much there, but I must say it to Suleri�s credit that he did not fire me but ordered that my byline not be printed. He also asked me to continue my column �Of this and that�, but under a penname. So, if anyone remembers those days and wonders who �Gypsy� of the Pakistan Times was, it was I.

In any case, all that is in the past. I am sure if Suleri had not been Sara�s loving father but her editor, she would have revolted against him the same way we did. Since Suleri was so fond of Ghalib, let me end this column with a line from the poet: Dhanpa kafan nai daagh-e-ayoob-e-brehangi. (Covered under my shroud are the shame and stigmas of my nakedness).

 (Friday Times)

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