What one person learned in the company of this historian
In January 2013, I emailed Suhail Lari sahib a photograph. It was of one of the 22 benches dedicated to people at Pakistan Chowk. This one bore the names Yasmeen and Suhail Lari.
“Thanks you are doing great work, please continue,” he replied, “but what made you put our names on the bench…” Answering a question like that would have needed a lifetime, so I left it pending.
When I graduated after studying architecture, I had decided that I did not want to take the usual route that went through a typical studio. The only thing I knew was that I wanted to work with Yasmeen Lari. And so I joined The Heritage Foundation of Pakistan, which she had started with her husband Suhail in 1980. This piece is not, however, about my experience there, but how I got to know Suhail sahib, a historian who wrote over 60 books on our heritage and culture. In fact, this is a final farewell letter to him. He died of coronavirus on December 5.
Email dated March 27, 2020: “Do you know anyone who has sung Amir Khusro’s early Urdu composition Man Kunto Maula (13th Century) better than Abi Sampa and Allama Iqbal’s great Urdu poem Shikwa better than Natasha Baig. I listen to them all the time along with Paul Robeson’s Ol’ Man River and Madonna’s Don’t Cry for me Argentina and AR Rahman’s Kun Faya Kun. Best, Suhail.”
I had introduced Suhail sahib to Dream Journey Project and told him that my workstation qavvali at the moment was ‘Har Lehza Ba Shakal Aan’ by Farid Ayaz & Abu Muhammad. Our exchange intensified as we talked about Amir Khusrau’s philosophy and the question of existence which landed us on Raza Kazim’s brilliance. His was the most analytical mind he knew in Pakistan. Suhail sahib talked endlessly about the birth of the Sanjan Nagar Institute of Philosophy and Arts.
Email dated July 27, 2020: “I hope you are well. Regards, Suhail.” I updated Suhail sahib quickly about my research and constant negotiations with the city and we decided to meet. Sitting in his computer room brought back memories of working at The Heritage Foundation. That one hour took us through Karachi for his mind was a visual dictionary. It was from him that I first heard stories of PECHS Girls School and the dynamic Begum Majeed Malik, Mohammadi House and Qamar House and how they set up the first art gallery, Karachi Artist Gallery, in 1964 in Mohammad Ali Housing Society. This became a place like his Oxford residence where poets and writers such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Shakir Ali, Sibte frequented. I remember Suhail sahib described the farshi design and rows of books which formed a back rest. “It thrived as an art gallery and a meeting place for intellectuals. Scientist and educationist Salimuzzaman Siddiqi would participate in cooking food for the open house on Sundays.”
I didn’t belong to his world of the past but I connected to his stories to understand Karachi’s complexities. These stories were important to me, and he was a connector. He sat for hours in the TV room, behind his computer, showing me a world, which wasn’t a part of my growing up. My most important visual memory is seeing Nusrat Bhutto in her black turtleneck shirt playing with Persian cats and Zulfikar Bhutto sitting casually in the gardens of 70 Clifton, both lovingly photographed by Suhail Lari.
Suhail sahib and I spent days at Makli. We use to leave Karachi at the early hours and stayed in Thatta for weeks to document and collect visual data. The usual routine was to wake up at 6am and photograph the necropolis, document each corner and link it to history through referencing and research. I wish I had spent more time reflecting on all the documentation.
Suhail sahib, I wish more young people knew you. And spent time lighting that cigarette. You were a story teller. Goodbye, my friend.
Marvi Mazhar is an architect and started the Pakistan Chowk Community Centre in Karachi in 2016