Wednesday May 18, 2022

Grief in the time of pandemic

December 13, 2020

Sixty years and a bit more. An implausible stretch it would seem in one lifetime. But that is how long I had known Suhail – Suhail Zaheer Lari. And losing him in the time of Covid-19 has left me with a sense of bereavement that I am not able to comprehend. A heartbreakingly real tragedy is playing out in a virtual sphere, reinforcing our intimations of mortality.

The last time I spoke to Suhail, on the phone, was when he was in ICU. He frantically wanted to be rescued from there. Yasmeen WhatsApped a photo, taken from across the glass window and wrote: “He hates the ICU”.

Now that I am attempting to share some thoughts on the death of an old, old friend, I have to sift through stacks of images and memories. But this can only be a very partial and selective reference to an individual who deserves a proper and separate appreciation, including as a historian and writer. In fact, I may not be aware of all his activities.

Suhail and Yasmeen have been among the nicest and the most gracious people I have had the good fortune of knowing so well. Yasmeen Lari, of course, is nationally recognised as an architect and conservationist and has won prestigious international awards for her work. Actually, she stands out for her humility and propriety.

Suhail and Yasmeen made an exceptional couple. Very loving, very collaborative. They could be dubbed as a ‘power couple’, considering their stature and influence. Sadly, Yasmeen is herself affected and is unwell. We will have to wait for the dark clouds to disperse before she can meet her loved ones and friends.

In that sense, our lives at this time are all afflicted in some measure with distress, uncertainty and bereavement. This pandemic has filled entire societies with dread. As if some supernatural power has pushed entire countries into a state of unrest and turmoil. At personal level, we all have our burdens to bear.

Look at what is happening in Pakistan, as our political confrontation is reaching its climax. Today, in fact, is D-Day and the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) is set to stage its rally in Lahore in defiance of the various prohibitive measures enforced by the authorities. It promises to be a fateful showdown and a test of Maryam Nawaz’s charismatic leadership.

There is little doubt that the PDM campaign has unnerved the PTI government. A cabinet reshuffle that makes Sheikh Rasheed the interior minister just two days before the Lahore rally is not easy to decipher. While the argument that the ‘jalsa’ would worsen the pandemic situation has ample weight, the prescribed SOPs are generally not being observed in the country.

Besides, political unrest has erupted in many countries in the time of the pandemic. There is this farmers’ movement in India, where Covid-19 has played havoc. America has remained on edge throughout the year. Anti-government protests have continued in Belarus, the largest in the country’s history. There have been riots in France. Unprecedented protests are continuing in Thailand. There have been violent protests in Poland.

I could add to this list but the point is that this has been a year of unusual stress and discord. Lockdowns and isolation and loss of lives and livelihood have generated a pandemic of mental health. People are finding it difficult to deal with upheaval in their lives.

In this environment, the death of an old friend is bound to stir deeper thoughts about life and its uncertainties. An unbroken relationship with friends that goes back to your adolescence and youth is a gift that can truly enrich your life. I have emotionally benefitted from a number of such affiliations.

In Suhail’s case, the time that I remember fondly was when I, a veritable dropout, had started my career in journalism in the sixties. It was at Yasmeen and Suhail’s house that I would meet some of the prominent people of that time, including politicians, artists and writers. It was really an exciting time.

I like to think that Yasmeen and Suhail, as a young couple, were presiding over a salon which, in the words of one dictionary, is “a gathering of people under the roof an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation”.

Suhail was an avid photographer and he had documented those times. I had the occasion to wade through his archives stored in his computer. His two coffee-table books of a selection of black-and-white photographs, published in recent years, tend to illustrate my own memories.

There is ‘Meri Mitti Kay Log’ which also records the rise of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the lives of ordinary people he had awakened. The other is ‘Meri Society Kay Log’, with portraits of the people snapped in Suhail’s house, many of them very distinguished. I am there, a boyish visage in a dark turtleneck.

Suhail was also writing his memoirs and posting its chapters on the net. Writing about his student days and the literary scene in Karachi at that time, he talked about his visits to the British Council library, which used to be my refuge.

He wrote: “Ghazi Salahuddin and I competed for the number of books we read, and signed in pencil at the end of each book, leaving comments in them to show how clever we were”. Well, I don’t remember writing in the books but sometimes we would leave chits for each other. Such as: ‘Suhail, I think you should read this book again’. I remember that it was ‘Dubliners’ by James Joyce.

Suhail had added: “Our main interest at that time was the Angry Young Men of English literature who expressed disaffection with the established socio-political order, namely …”. Here, he gave a list of some books.

This was such a long, long time ago. The world has totally changed, though our disaffection with the prevailing socio-political order could hardly soften with the passage of time. And now, like time, Suhail has passed away.

The writer is a senior journalist.