28th March 2022
By Asra Haque
With the passing of author and academic Sara Suleri Goodyear on March 21, 2022, Pakistan’s literary tradition has suffered an irreparable loss. She belonged to a small clique of Pakistan-born writers whose contributions to post-colonial narratives have been critically lauded the world over. Family, friends, contemporaries, critics, fellow writers and fans of her works are revolving between lamenting the loss of one of Pakistan’s greats and celebrating her mark in the world of literature.
Sara Suleri obtained her B.A. Honours from Kinnaird College, Lahore, in 1974 and her M.A. from the Punjab University, Lahore, in 1976. She found the skills and knowledge that Punjab University equipped her with exceptional, and it was that knowledge that allowed her to breeze through her doctorate studies in the United States within a mere three years. In 1983, she graduated with a Ph.D. from Indiana University.
Sara taught at the Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, for two years and then later joined Yale University as Professor of English in 1984, where she taught Victorian and Romantic poetry and post-colonial literatures. She also founded The Yale Journal of Criticism and served as editor for the same as well as The Yale Review and Transition.
Sara Suleri shot to literary fame with her seminal 1989 book Meatless Days, a memoir of her and her family’s life against the backdrop of postcolonial Pakistan.
The deeply private Sara had eluded any and all deep dives into her ‘self’, except what she had revealed of herself in her works. Not many Pakistanis are aware of who she was apart from what the world has already said of her body of work and her academic career. Though it is her dearest and closest friends who talk of a gentle woman who interpreted the world and its occupants with an airiness that would dispel much of the coarseness of reality.
“My memories of Sara will always be deeply precious to me,” Professor Perin Boga, a central figure in Pakistan’s performing and theater arts, ends her correspondence with Voicepk.net regarding her memories of her with these words.
Sara was enrolled in Boga’s English language and literature classes at Kinnaird College in the early 1970s, among the most brilliant students the latter had ever taught. Boga notes that she had a facility with words and a sensibility which were remarkable.
“My close contact with Sara began in the classroom but developed on the stage. We were involved together in several plays which I happened to direct at Kinnaird,” Boga writes, mentioning some performances she fondly remembered: Where have all the Flowers Gone?, a short play on the effects of war on children which was written and directed earlier by Sara at the College.
Boga also describes the lead role that Sara played in Anastasia with great poise and sensitivity. At a later stage, Boga and Sara acted together under an American director, John Alee, in twin productions, The Lost Horizon and Oh Dad, Poor Dad Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m so Sad, for Caravan Theatre, produced at the American Centre.
Boga continues, “This theatrical connection bound us for life and Sara became a dear friend. She made a point of keeping in touch when she went to the United States, where she taught for many years at Yale University.”
In a letter to Boga dated 24th May, 1999, Sara wrote, ‘It may sound trite, but my students are still a great joy to me. I hate all the meetings and committee work that comes with the profession but all the same Yale is a surrogate home for me now. It’s hard to believe that I have taught there for seventeen years.’
In the same letter, Sara writes of mourning the loss of her father, ‘Yes I am still in the midst of mourning, but somehow it is a serene process. I take great pleasure in the fact that my two brothers, my sister Tillat and I returned to Lahore in April. Despite his illness, my father was overjoyed, as alert and talkative as ever. He died two weeks after our departure.’
Boga continues, “Sara never failed to keep in touch. I still have the envelope in which she posted me her poignant book Meatless Days. Later she sent a book she wrote on the poet Ghalib.”
On 6th July, 1993, Sara and Austin Goodyear announced their marriage.
Boga tells us, “By Sara’s own admission it was a very happy marriage. She never failed to send greetings at the New Year, several of the cards showing her life and surroundings with her husband.”
Boga was able to visit Sara in New York in 2015. Her husband had passed away by then and she was seriously ill, but the professor recalls that the two had a brief but happy reunion. “Sara’s passing away at the age of 68 is most untimely. I am certain she would have greatly enriched the literary world with much more of her writing if she had been granted health and time.”
Dr. Nasreen Rehman, a human rights activist, historian, Director of the National Commission on Forced Marriages (UK), and a dear friend of Sara’s, said that given her poor health, her passing was expected. Yet, it did not subdue the overwhelming grief when informed of her death.
In an email to Voicepk.net, Dr. Rehman writes that “Sara’s astonishing brilliance and her gothic wit shone through in unexpected moments over a morning coffee or a discussion on more mundane matters.”
She adds that “Sara was an accomplished stylist in not just her writings, but in everything she did including her sartorial elegance, surroundings and conversations. Her quiet, ‘Acchha ji…’ meaning, what next, and warm tight welcoming and goodbye hugs remain.”
Nasreen was working with Sara on a collection of the latter’s selected writings, which include some hitherto unpublished pieces. Dr. Rehman is committed to the task and has requested Asim Fareed to help her, since he was Prof Suleri’s Teaching Assistant at Yale for a year, and remained a close friend and associate. Sara’s sister, Tillat, has also joined this project.
“To say, ‘I shall miss Sara’, does not capture the sense of being abandoned. Sara was a sea of profound wisdom in an age that has been described by the poet Zehra Nigah as ‘daur-e-khuraafaat’ – The Asinine Age,” Dr. Rehman says, closing her brief but succinct missive. She hopes that the upcoming collection of Sara’s unseen works will serve as a tribute to her literary legacy.
Zarene Malik, a close childhood friend of Sara’s, also spoke of the deceased author’s intellect and exceptional humility with great reverence. Malik, Director New Initiatives at the Lahore Grammar School, was associated with the Suleri family all her life – she was barely five or six years old when she first met Sara.
Malik was closer in age to Iffat, Sara’s older sibling, and the two became fast friends while the latter, born two years too late to qualify for this little sorority, would tag along, much to her sister and her friend’s chagrin.
“We thought she was spying on our conversations so she could tattle on us to her mother, so we’d kick her out of the room,” she recalls. Sara – in awe of her two big sisters like younger siblings tend to be – would remain in their periphery longing to be included. Her wait lasted two years, when she and Iffat finally warmed up to the idea of having the toddler join their ranks.
“We reasoned she couldn’t have been a spy since she never once complained to her mother about us. So, we thought, why not have her be our spy?”
Her mission was simple: reconnaissance.
“We would ask her whether her mother was in a good mood to ask for permission to go out,” Malik tells us that she would perform her duty diligently, alerting the older girls of the target’s movements and working out the ideal window of time for all of them to slip out undetected to get sweetmeats from a nearby store. “I had so much love for her and she the same for me.”
As they grew older, that age difference stopped mattering altogether.
Malik’s trove of memories with Sara is boundless, and each new story she tells of her now departed friend is an insight into one of Pakistan’s greatest intellectuals. She reminisces of her time in Boston while studying at Harvard – she had gotten her own apartment and there was Sara, all the way from New Haven, in a brand spanking new car driven by friend and fellow scholar Fawzia Mustafa.
When asked whose car they had arrived in, Sara, who did not know how to drive, told Malik she bought it at half price at a sale. As for what she planned to do with it, the writer assured her friend that the guilt of seeing her car collecting dust in her driveway would eventually push her to take lessons.
“That car stayed where it was for the next two or three years, and sold off without having moved an inch up until that point. She would do these outrageous things all the time…” the educationist chuckled. “She didn’t care if she would get laughed at; the thought of being serious considering she was a professor of English at Yale never even crossed her mind. It never mattered to her.”
And so it was with a sigh that Malik admitted that the Sara everyone knew and loved was lost some five years ago. A cancer, eating away at her, had left her frail, in pain and unable to travel. And without the companionship of her husband, Austin Goodyear, who passed away in 2005, that period of illness was also one of loneliness.
However, her friends, contemporaries and readers cannot deny that hers was a life made eternal by her brilliance.
“In all of Pakistan, no woman has risen to the same intellectual level that Sara had,” Malik opines, a view shared by friend and fellow academic, Professor Ayesha Jalal.
Jalal is a Pakistani-American historian and Mary Richardson Professor of History at Tufts University, and another dear friend of the celebrated author.
“She was, in my humble opinion, Pakistan’s most talented writer,” she declares without a hint of hesitation in her voice.
She understands what a sheer loss Sara’s passing was to the literary world. A sensitive, perceptive writer with the ability to imbue her words with a lofty weightlessness, her talent was incredibly rare, and Jalal contends that there have been very few like Sara that walked in this world.
“Stylistically, she was unbeatable, outstanding. One of Sara’s greatest qualities was how she interpreted any poem or literary passage, and there was no one who could do it better than her,” the academic stated. “My only regret is that she never wrote a novel… no one could write like Sara Suleri.”
Yet, for all her innate sensibility and empathy, Jalal recalls how innocent she was when it came to the mad, mad world of Pakistani politics, violence and ideological tussles.
“She would call me whenever something happened in Pakistan – you know, the ridiculous things that tend to happen in this country – and ask me what was going on,” Jalal laughs as she recounts. “She would say ‘I just saw this news, tell me what is happening?’ She was quite innocent politically, and yet always on the right side…”
Despite her familial background, Sara was a fiercely progressive thinker, and perhaps she was able to be so because of her inherent empathy.
“She planted a tree for me on my birthday,” Jalal counted off the ways the writer showered affection upon her loved ones. “She was a wonderfully affectionate and loving human being. She wasn’t able to move around much in her last years due to her illness, she would always keep in touch.”
She narrated how a feeble, wheelchair-bound Sara personally attended a memorial in wake of the untimely passing of human rights defender Asma Jahangir. In grief and sorrow, regardless of her burden, the author was always there for her loved ones.
“I had an operation once – many, many years ago – and Sara came with Zarene to see me. She was brimming with love and affection. It’s a memory I can never forget,” Jalal says. “She came to meet me especially, even though we weren’t living in the same city. She made it a point to see and shower me with her concern, love and affection.”
While her closest friends and loved ones wrestle with the grief of losing such a soul so suddenly, they can at least find some respite in the good times they shared with Sara.
Narrating another tale, Malik laughs with a tenderness that only memories can bring. It was monsoon season, and Sara was visiting her. Looking out the window at the downpour and wet earth underneath her freshly landscaped lawn, Malik remarked how much she loved the rain and Sara concurred.
“We had already told the cook to brew some tea since it was monsoon. Sara then wondered ‘Why don’t we have our tea in the rain?’”
Malik asked how they could possibly pull such a feat off without diluting their tea with rainwater, to which Sara proposed that the cook serve them their brew in two teapots. They then sat outside in the downpour, drinking from the spouts.
“We were drenched, soaked to the skin, but we had so much fun. She never took anything so seriously as the world did.”