Sunday, May 2, 2004

Father, dear father

Jaswant Singh

Boys Will Be Boys
by Sara Suleri Goodyear. Penguin Books, New Delhi. Pages 121. Rs 200.

ZA SuleriWHEN ZA Suleri, widely known political journalist of Pakistan, wanted to write his autobiography, he chose Boys Will Be Boys as its title. The autobiography never materialised, and after his death when his daughter, Sara, decided to write a tribute to him, she gave this title to the book.

Suleri who founded the Times of Karachi, remained the editor of Pakistan Times, and for some time was Director to Pakistan’s Military Intelligence Service, and often put in jail by different regimes in Pakistan. He would surely be one of the central figures in the political framework of Pakistan.

Any book that focuses on such a person can be expected to be a window on the political history of that country. He lieved through the formation of Pakistan and was witness to all the political upheavals that have marked its history through the half century of its existence, but if you pick up this book to get a look inside Pakistan, you will be disappointed.

Far from being a mirror on contemporary Pakistan, this elegy of a daughter for her father shows him in his personal details. Political personalities of his time (only a few) figure mostly as passing references. You do get glimpses of events such as the Bangladesh War, the country’s lapse into successive military dictatorships—Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Zia-ul-Haq, and now Parvez Musharraf—or change of governments and the constitution that "unfurl periodically as though these were annual plans."

In her narration, Zia-ul-Haq becomes Zulu Haq and Nawaz Sharif is referred to as Bobby Shafto. Perhaps these nicknames are better known in Pakistan. The current regime which took power after Suleri’s death finds mention because, "I know you would be interested, Pip."

She refers to her father as Pip all through the book. On Nawaz Sharif’s banishment to Saudi Arabia, she quotes her brother to say:"I would far rather live in the Attock jail—with that charming view—than sit in a Riyalh palace with Idi Amin as my chum."

Towards the end, there is a reference to the war of 1971, "its colossal failures, its unutterable consumption of lives."She finds herself too tired to construct a chronology of Pakistan’s history beginning with the unrecountable slaughter that accompanied the Partition of India.

That is almost all there is about politics and politicians in Sara’s tribute to her father. Whenever she wants to write about Pakistan’s politics, she confesses: "A strong urge takes me to write about my loved ones instead." In writing about "my loved ones," she describes her siblings, her mother and above all her father, who presided over the household like an autocrat, and yet was loved by his children with all their pranks and mischiefs.

She described how her mother, a British woman working in the Admiralty during the Second World War met her father at a lecture on the Independence of India and declared: "I could marry that man." And they did get married in wartime London amidst air raids and blackouts.

Sara describes her childhood and girlhood in Karachi and Lahore and her adult life in the united States of America with a touch of humour and passion, and the result is a charming mix of her private history and that of Pakistan. In her account of life in Lahore comes a description of the seasons. In the intense heat of summer, she and her sister would spend the nights sleeping on the wet marble floor with nothing on, and the winter afternoons munching nuts of different varieties.

She describes how she met Austen Goodyear while on a Yaleharvard cruise and how they were married before the tour had ended.

These and several other familial details and anecdotes mark the narrative addressed to Suleri that shows him as a man full of contradictions. It shuttles between Sara’s life in the United States and her upbringing in Pakistan to make the book a charming combination of East and West, a mix of orthodoxy and liberalism.