Aur bataiye – ‘Tell me more’ is a polite invitation to keep talking. I can hear Sara Suleri’s voice, naturally husky, made deeper with years of cigarette smoking, and perhaps more recently, with pain and other medications.
She’d send her love to Pakistan whenever I’d call before flying out from Boston, where we had both ended up around 10 years ago – she after retiring as Professor Emeritus of English from Yale University. I had transplanted myself from my home city Karachi, where I was editing Aman Ki Asha or ‘hope for peace’ between India and Pakistan.
“Dream on!” I hear Sara say. And yet, she had agreed, it’s important to keep on going. She was 100 per cent supportive of this, and the push for a regional approach – the South Asia Peace Action Network, or Sapan, the more recent endeavour, launched last year with a wonderful group of intergenerational, cross-border peacemongers.
Sara’s name is on Sapan’s Founding Charter calling on South Asian nations to institute soft borders and a visa-free South Asia, to allow freedom of trade and travel to each other’s citizens, ensure human rights and dignity for all, and to cooperate in all areas, including public health, culture and legal reform, education, and environment.
Her South Asian roots remained strong despite all the years away. If asked, she’d identify herself as Pakistani, “never American-Pakistani”.
Knowing Sara Suleri from her roots
When I’d call Sara after returning from Pakistan, she’d be eager to know what I did, where I went, who I met. On my return in February 2020 ‘B.C.’ — Before Covid – I flew back from Islamabad, having recently visited Lahore where Sara grew up and where I lived for a little over a decade in the 1990s. She was 23 when she left the city in 1976. I was just a little older when I moved there from Karachi in 1988.
Sara spent most of her adult life in America but made frequent visits to Pakistan until health issues prevented her to travel back to her home country. Her last visit may have been at the Second Karachi Literature Festival in 2011, guesses her sister Tillat, younger by five years.
There’s a recording of the event online. A more filled-out Sara than the gaunt one I know read from her chapter on her older sister Ifat from her iconic book Meatless Days.
Walking across the Charles River Bridge on a cold February afternoon, I called Sara. With Covid rampant, meetings were impossible. Over the landline – she had stopped using her cell phone – I sent her the fragrance of the Lahore spring and nargis flowers.
In September 2020, Sara sold her Boston apartment and transplanted the contents to Bellingham, a suburb of Seattle. She made it a point to call before leaving. There was a finality about the goodbye. We wondered when we’ll meet again.
It was a big move, but she could now be near Tillat in Vancouver, Canada, an hour-and-a-half drive away. They were excited about being so close to each other. Earlier, Tillat could visit Sara in Boston only a couple of times a year.
There was no way of knowing when the pandemic would end or that it would drag on for so long. Soon after the move, the borders closed again. Sara and Tillat, so near, and yet so far.
Since the border reopened last summer, Tillat could be with Sara every week for several days. Comfortingly, she and other family members were by Sara’s side when she took her last breath at home on 20 March. She was 68.
It was Asma Jahangir’s passing in Lahore that brought me close to Sara Suleri in Boston.
Sara, said Tillat, “actively sought the company of Pakistani women”. The observation echoed the first line of Meatless Days, which said, “Leaving Pakistan was, of course, tantamount to giving up the company of women.”
It was at our mutual friend Dr Sughra Raza’s Beacon Street apartment that Sara and I met in passing some years earlier. Sara lived upstairs in the same building.
Since her husband Austin Goodyear’s death in 2005, Sara had been talking about moving to be near friends after retiring from Yale. She was visiting Sughra in Boston when the latter mentioned that an apartment on the floor above was for sale.
“I’ve bought it”, Sara announced when Sughra came home from work that evening.
They had developed a close friendship since their first meeting in Cincinnati in 1991 at the home of Dr Azra Raza, Sughra’s older sister, an oncologist and writer who hosted an Urdu mehfil series at home. She had introduced Meatless Days to all her siblings.
“Someone has said about two writers meeting, that they looked at each other, and in the reflection of their eyes saw their own identity”, Sara would say later.
‘Meatless Days’ — memory, tragedy, wit
The effervescent Sara they knew was different from the tall, ghostly, quiet, somewhat intimidating presence I first encountered at Sughra’s place. Later, I was privileged to discover for myself the “warm, sensitive and brilliant woman, delightful person and genuine friend” as historian Ayesha Jalal describes her in an email from Lahore.
When we first met, I was too embarrassed to tell Sara that I never finished reading Meatless Days. The cover of my copy featured the photo of a beautiful woman, elegantly dressed in a gharara with a maang tikka on her forehead. She was looking down at a little girl holding her hand — Sara’s older sister Ifat who was killed by a hit-and-run driver.
The horror of that tragedy transcends time. It’s at the heart of Meatless Days. It was Sara’s elegant, personal-political memoir, first published in 1989, and that which I finally read a few years ago. She presented me a copy of the latest edition, painstakingly signed with her left hand, for her hand writing had been immobilised by a fracture. Later, a botched surgery damaged a nerve. She had hoped she would be able to write again, but that never happened.
She signed another copy for our journalist friend Raza Rumi, who was visiting Boston for the Asma Jahangir memorial that we organised. Unlike the flighty me, he read Meatless Days at the age of 19. Re-read it several times for its “literary magnificence as well its resonance for dislocated Pakistanis”, he said. “Her wit, one-liners, and totally unique way of looking at the world never stopped amusing and inspiring me,” added Rumi.
After Asma’s sudden departure on 11 February 2018, it seemed that everyone wanted to come together to mourn and celebrate her. Raza connected me with some young Pakistani lawyers at Harvard University who wanted to pay tribute to Asma. More friends joined us.
Unexpectedly, Sara reached out to me. She wanted to participate. Given her general ill-health, I was apprehensive. Can she do it; will she be able to address a large gathering? — were questions I asked myself.
Asma’s memorial took place on Saturday, 17 February 2018 at the Weiner Auditorium, Harvard Kennedy School. Sara arrived as the hall filled up. She was in a wheelchair, attendant in tow. She sat quietly listening to the other speakers – Amartya Sen, Ayesha Jalal, and other luminaries. Then she stood up and walked slowly to the podium.
Despite her frailty, she held the audience, riveted it with anecdotes drawn from her long association with Asma in Lahore. There were poignant pauses and audience laughter. She spoke of Asma’s sincerity, courage, and authenticity – traits that applied equally to Sara herself.
“I was a bit airy-fairy, and Asma would tell me to put my feet on the ground – I am walking on the ground. And that is exactly what I needed,” she said. The laughter was fitting, given how much fun Asma was. That, too, was something they had in common.
This was perhaps Sara’s last public appearance.
A couple of years later, she hosted a mehfil at her Boston apartment to discuss the book she co-authored with Dr Azra Raza, aiming to introduce a new generation to the joys of Ghalib. During the year-and-a-half they worked on the project together, they were “joined at the hip,” said Azra.
A Tribute to Ghalib: 21 Ghazals Reinterpreted (Penguin-Viking 2009) was the second title after the first one went out of print. “I preferred the first one, Epistemology of Elegance because it was mine,” said Sara, drawing laughter. Azra said that the two people who impressed her the most in her life were women — Sara Suleri and Quratulain Haider in India, both with much in common. She tried her best to get them to meet, but Sara didn’t get the visa.
Beena Sarwar is a journalist, artist and filmmaker currently based in Boston. She tweets @beenasarwar. This is a Sapan News Service syndicated feature.