Beyond Borders: Remembering Sara Suleri

Beyond Borders: Remembering Sara Suleri
“Aur bataiye” – tell me more, a polite invitation to keep talking. I can hear her voice, perhaps 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 ten 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, hope for peace – between India and Pakistan. 

“Dream on!” I hear Sara say. And yet, she agrees, it’s important to keep on keeping on. She’s a hundred percent 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 inter-generational, cross-border peacemongers. 

Sara’s name is on Sapan’s Founding Charter calling on Southasian nations to institute soft borders and visa-free South Asia, to allow freedom of trade and travel to each other’s citizens, ensure human rights and dignity for all their citizens and to cooperate in all areas including public health, culture and legal reform, education and environment.

Her roots to the region remained strong, despite all the years away. If asked, she’d identify herself as Pakistani – “never American-Pakistani”.

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 around 23 when she left the city in 1976. That’s how old I was when I moved to Lahore a decade later.

Sara spent most of her adult life in America but made frequent visits to Pakistan, until health issues prevented her travel back. Her last visit there was probably at the Second Karachi Literature Festival in 2011, thinks her sister Tillat, younger by five years. 

I found a recording of the event. A more filled-out Sara than the gaunt one I know reads from her chapter on older sister Iffat from her iconic book Meatless Days.

Walking over the Charles River on a cold afternoon, over the telephone line, I send her the fragrance of the Lahore spring and nargis flowers. 

Sara moved to Bellingham, a suburb of Seattle, to be near Tillat in Vancouver, Canada, an hour-and-a-half drive away. They were excited about being so close to each other. When Sara was in Boston, Tillat could visit a couple of times a year. 

Who knew a pandemic was lurking? In March 2020, Canada closed the international border with the USA due to Covid-19. So near and yet so far. 

Since the border reopened last summer, Tillat was able to 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 March 20. She was 68.

It was Asma Jahangir's passing in Lahore that connected Sara Suleri to me in Boston. 

Sara, says Tillat, “actively sought the company of Pakistani women”. The observation echoes the first line of Meatless days: “Leaving Pakistan was, of course, tantamount to giving up the company of women.”

It was at our mutual friend Dr Sughra Raza’s apartment in Boston by the Charles River that Sara and I met in passing some years earlier. Sara lived upstairs in the same building. 

Since her husband Austin Goodyear’s passing in 2005, Sara had been talking about moving to be near friends after retiring. She was visiting Sughra in Boston once when Sughra 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 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 their 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.

The effervescent Sara they know is different from the tall, ghostly, quiet, somewhat intimidating presence I first encounter at Sughra’s place. Later I will be 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.

For now, I’m too embarrassed to tell Sara I never finished reading Meatless Days. The cover features the photo of a beautiful woman, elegantly dressed in a gharara, a tikka on her forehead. She’s looking down at a little girl holding her hand. 

 Meatless Days is Sara’s elegant, personal-political memoir, first published in 1989. I finally read it.  a few years ago. She presents me a copy of the recently published edition, painstakingly signing it with her left hand, her writing hand immobilised by a fracture. Later, a botched surgery damages a nerve. She hopes she’ll soon be able to write again, but that never happens.

She signs another copy for Raza Rumi, who’s in Boston for the Asma Jahangir memorial we’ve organised. Unlike flighty me, he had read Meatless Days at the age of 19 and has read it several times for its literary magnificence as well its resonance for dislocated Pakistanis. “Her wit, one-liners and totally unique way of looking at the world never stopped amusing and inspiring me”. 

Raza Rumi with Sara Suleri, February 2018. Photo: Beena Sarwar

It’s the second week of February 2018. Raza has connected me with some young Pakistani lawyers at Harvard who want to pay tribute to Asma. More friends join us. 

Unexpectedly, Sara reaches out. She wants to participate. Given her frailty and general ill-health, I’m apprehensive. Can she do it, will she be able to address a large gathering?

Asma’s memorial takes place on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018 at Weiner auditorium, Harvard Kennedy School. Sara arrives as the hall fills up. She’s in a wheelchair, attendant in tow. She sits quietly listening to the other speakers – Amartya Sen, Ayesha Jalal and other luminaries. Then she stands up and walks slowly to the podium. 

Despite her frailty, she holds the audience riveted with anecdotes, often drawing laughter, from her long association with Asma in Lahore. She speaks of Asma’s sincerity, courage and authenticity – traits that apply equally to Sara herself. 

“I was a bit of an 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”. The laughter is fitting, given how much fun Asma was. That too is something they have in common.

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 generation to the joys of Ghalib. During the year-and-a- a-half they worked on the project together, they were “joined at the hip”.

A tribute to Ghalib: 21 Ghazals Reinterpreted (Penguin-Viking 2009) is the second title, after the first one went out of print. “I preferred the first one, Epistemology of Elegance, because it was mine,” says Sara, drawing laughter. (A tribute to Ghalib: 21 Ghazals Reinterpreted with Azra Raza and Sara Suleri Goodyear, video, May 28, 2020).

Two people who have impressed Azra the most in her life are both women, writers Sara Suleri and Quratulain Haider in India, both with so much in common. She tried her best to get them to meet but Sara didn’t get the visa.

The author is a journalist and journalism teacher in Boston. She is founder editor Sapan News Network.