Your friend Suyin just died.
I received the text on 2 November, 2012. Long ago, she told me she wanted to be buried in her family’s cemetery among relatives in Chengdu, but her funeral was going to be in Lausanne. No one notified me. The papers were full of obituaries calling her a fellow traveller and a forgotten writer, raking up her political errors like fallen leaves. I looked for redeeming words: when they came they were sparse. About a fortnight later I was to fly to Karachi to take part in a conference. My last two trips to Pakistan had been to attend international festivals, but this time I’d be speaking, and reading, at a gathering of Urdu writers, in my mother tongue – that language of mine Suyin loved without understanding it, that she’d tried to reach through translations of its poetry.
The first time we met, she asked me to listen to its music in my inner ear before I sat down to write. Yes, trapped between tongues like her, I did what she couldn’t. I reclaimed another self in my forgotten language. A few months before her death, I wrote a handful of stories in Urdu: the journal they were published in was going to be launched while I was there. I’d wanted to tell her but the silence between us – what would she, with her profligate flair for metaphor, have called it? A sea? A forest? – had grown and grown until I couldn’t cross it.
Suyin and I had very different experiences of leaving home. She was born in Hunan, studied medicine in Belgium, went back to China as a midwife during the war. She practised as a doctor in Hong Kong and Malaysia, from where she wrote her way back to China. Her sweeping memoir – of a Eurasian House Surgeon and single mother who falls in life with a Western journalist – she wrote as fiction to disguise real names, including her own. It became a hot film and we still hear its theme – ‘Love is a many-splendored thing’ – though she hated the song and ‘Love’ doesn’t figure in the title of her book at all. Although each book of hers departed entirely from the patterns of its precursor, she had become Han Suyin, elegant postcolonial diva avant la lettre, icon of the new, nonaligned Asia, thorn in the side of the dying British Empire and the American Right. Later, she was Maoist China’s most unlikely mascot, once she shifted genres to become a memoirist and historian of China with the multi-volume sequence of books about her life and times. These started with The Crippled Tree, a story of her Chinese father and her Belgian mother, often narrated in their own voices. I visited her twice in her flat in Lausanne. She rarely stayed long in one place. But she carried China around wherever she went, her sense of allegiance and belonging, and China kept calling her back.
I’d left Karachi when I was thirteen and only returned to Asia twice, to India and Bangladesh. Europe was my playground. I spent weekends in Paris and Milan, Barcelona and Perugia. I read French and Italian more fluently than I did Urdu. But when we first met in 1986 I was full of a longing for those places I’d left behind and had learned to love only from a distance. Two years before I’d been to India, and found a connection with its air and water that had never broken, or at least that’s how it felt when I came back. But after we met, I too became more nomadic. First in my head and then my feet followed. I finally reached Pakistan a decade after that first encounter. I told a journalist there: ‘I’m comfortably homeless in six languages and at least as many countries.’
But I changed, I kept on changing. I wonder what she’d say if she could see me now . . .
Why be so colonially infected as to think you must CHOOSE? You do not choose. You are you, under a thousand masks, vestments, divestments, guises, disguises . . . why can’t you be a Pakistani who happens to live in England? And go back to Pakistan for your roots? Even if they are unsatisfactory. China has a proverb: YOU LOVE YOUR MOTHER, EVEN IF SHE IS UGLY. Pakistan may be ugly in English ways, but she is your MOTHER.
She wrote these words to me on 20 December, 1986, a few months after our first meeting. Then, and for years after, I found her at times denying that pain of unbelonging she’d addressed, book after book, for the first twenty years of her writing life. Exile, she came to decide, voluntary or otherwise, was a privileged indulgence. It was if a new world order had forced her to put all intimate anxieties on hold, in tribute to a burgeoning future century. Or had I just read in her work what I had wanted to see there all those years ago? Under her tutelage, displacement became distance for me: I assumed the role she wanted me to play, voluntary emigrant and third world writer, living and commuting between mental and material territories. Only later – much later – I went back to my birthplace. And then I began to make friends with my past.
- December, and already dark at four. I got off a plane at Heathrow, and went by train and taxi through the traffic-jammed Edgware Road to my empty, freezing flat.
An hour later I was at a thirtieth birthday party.
‘I’ve just been home to Karachi,’ I said to a writer friend who put her arms around me.
‘Home? You still call it home? I’m surprised!’
‘You love your mother, even if she is ugly . . .’ I heard Suyin whisper.
But Pakistan, which might annoy me at times, isn’t ugly to me. It isn’t nostalgia any more: it’s an eternal present. I am the son who comes and goes as I want to, the vagaries of two-week visas on my British passport notwithstanding. I am the friend who, day and night, is in virtual contact. In September, when at the age of sixty I announced my resignation from my university job to wander around before I got too old, I went back to rethink my life in Islamabad’s green hills. In Karachi I went on a drive down the winding lanes that took me to my old house, in a part of the city I no longer visit often. And when I did finally work out my notice, I flew to Karachi again, as soon as I could, thinking I’d stay longer, beside the seas. Then on an impulse I left behind my friends and the sea and the jumping fish and my illusory homecoming for six weeks of a London winter. As if to remind myself that London was still where I worked and where, at least for now, I had to keep on living.
They say that migration is like a death, and arrival otherwhere a second birth. Pakistan is my second rebirth. The first took place when I was twenty-nine, fourteen years after my forced landing at London’s Heathrow. After a trip to India, I went back to university to study psychology and philosophy; I immersed myself in texts by exiled and displaced writers, wanting to write about reclaiming lost motherlands, trying, perhaps, to repair – in what my teachers called unconscious phantasy – the irreparable sense of loss I felt.
In March 1986, just before I became thirty-one, I came upon a black-and-white photograph of Suyin, by Ida Kar, in black and white, in a directory of world literature. I hadn’t realised she was so beautiful. And there, below her image, her biography and bibliography, was her statement:
European and Americans writers write with great beauty and perception about Asians. I write as an Asian, with all the pent-up emotions of my people. What I say will annoy many people who prefer the conventional myths brought back by writers on the orient. All I can say is that I try to tell the truth. Truth, like surgery, may hurt, but it cures.
Information enough to lead me immediately to her novels and her autobiographies. The bookshops and libraries were well stocked with them. She turned the stereotypes, the Cio Cio Sans and Suzie Wongs, inside out. In my book the Westerner died and the Chinese woman survived, she’d say with a cackle, exhaling a huge puff of smoke. After years of politically-curated distance she’d managed to go back to her motherland and since then she had refused to belong to one place, one ideology or one creed. And yet, book after book, she rebuilt that motherland for herself – her voyages of return encompassed both past and present. For months I tumbled through her novels and her memoirs, one after the other, entranced at times by her poetry and at others maddened by her sentences: witty and terse, whimsical, tangled and even verbose. But I remained entranced.
She wrote her first and still most famous book as an act of grief for a dead lover – as if that process of mourning had somehow, if only for a moment, replaced the absence of a land with the loss of a beloved person, called Mark in her book, though in real life his name was Ian Morrison – he was killed in the Korean war. There was more, though: in her writings she created not only a country but an entire continent, blurring boundaries between Cambodia, Malaya, Thailand, Nepal. She named that world the New Asia, and even from my Western distance it was where I wanted to belong. And then I found myself face to face with her, on a sofa in my living room, just a few months after I read her work.
Soon after that I gave up postgrad studies to embark on a double path: writing stories when I could, for my own sake; reviewing books for money and later teaching for a place in the world. Suyin had begun work on an enormous biography of Zhou Enlai. She seemed to have abandoned fiction for ever. She liked my stories but indulged that predilection of mine as if it were a naughty little habit – writing tales, today, in the light of what was happening to the world we lived in, was trivial, while what I really ought to be doing was serious research and informative literary lectures on the Asia-international circuit. She’d put projects my way and one of those led to my first real public appearance in Hong Kong at the age of thirty-five, in a conference she masterminded and presided over, about the new literatures of that continent she’d made her imaginary homeland, before China took over her head and heart.
I too had my rituals of grief to perform on paper. I had seen, from a distance, the death of hope – Bhutto’s hanging, Zia’s brutal military regime with its overlay of fake religiosity – and I had nightmares, felt survivor’s guilt because I hadn’t been there or part of any of it. But I had no ambition to write a postcolonial epic or auto-ethnography. All I had as my materials were lost loves, lost hopes, lost homes. I had no sweeping grand narrative, only fragments. But no one was going to deter me from writing what I wrote in a quiet place, fractured, liminal, unanchored and unmoored, writing my way out of the dark room
From the outset of the 90s I began a journey, via Hong Kong and Dhaka, Bombay, Jakarta and Ubud, that took me to Karachi in 1996. But I wouldn’t go back before I published that book of stories I’d completed almost by accident. (Like the proverbial prodigal, I didn’t want to return until I’d ‘done something’.) Suyin publically recognised me for the first time, in the foreword she wrote for the book, as a storyteller. Privately she said she had wanted me protected from the artist’s life because artists were fragile and writing fiction was often a pathway to disappointment and despair.
I don’t know if I told her how much, when she read my early stories and told me to discard polemic or a canvas unsuited to my quiet voice, I had learnt from her words. My book hadn’t come out of reading or study – it had emerged from the places of my life, the histories and the travels and the blighted love affairs, the premonitions of death and the crises of global war as they affected the ground we stood on. And in her fierce friendship, her sometimes aggressive interventions into my life, I’d learnt to see much more than I ever would have otherwise. After one of our arguments about some direction I took against her will, she said: ‘I speak this way to you because, to me, you’re a little bit like a son.’
With my first book, and as I worked, much harder, on the next, a slow unravelling of our tie began. As my own sense of a place in the world grew, I could no longer understand her passion for China with quite the sympathy I once had. She refused to see both sides of the story after the Tianamen disaster, and created a counter-narrative. For years I held her intransigence responsible for the unravelling tie, but I can see now how I wanted her be who she no longer wanted to be. I wanted her to return to writing introspective fiction. I wanted her to be the cosmopolitan New Asian she’d been in her prime, not an apologist for a duplicitous regime or an old-style Chinese conservative. I wanted her to admit to feelings of exile and loss, while I still followed the party line she handed me: We are not divided. We are multiple. There is no unbelonging. There are no borders.
And yet if she hadn’t had to work through the dilemmas of dispossession there would have been no public persona, no sweeping statements, no grande dame of the Chinese Revolution. But that was her public role. The Suyin I knew had left home long, long ago and could only inhabit temporary shelters. Even the language she wrote in was her third. Suyin admitted to crushing loss. Suyin survived it all. Suyin was a superlative.
Even in our wholeness there are fractures. I’d compose letters to her:
‘Suyin, there are divisions. There are – to use one of your favourite words – contradictions. Contested belongings. No composites, no continuous wholeness: only an illusion, a yearning, a longing.’
I never wrote them or if I did I left them unsent.
I had felt the divisions during the War on Iraq. I felt them when I was called upon to answer for my religion and defend my race. That heady feeling of the expanding literary margin was greater now: the solidarity with the crowd that protested the war extended the boundaries of genre and text.
January, 2013. I was in Islamabad, a city I’d only visited once before (although, like Suyin, I let every city of my country lay claim to me). The capital was under siege: there was a march by people protesting everything, led by a cleric who’d returned from Canada, and the eternal dissident Imran Khan. But I was used to disorder by now. We would cross the barricades to give our talks. And greet the audiences who’d struggled across the city to meet us. On the night before I left, my friend R, a famous poet, turned to me and mocked me because I didn’t recognise the taste of bitter gourd.
‘You’ve become so English. You see it all through tinted glass. You don’t even know what it feels like to live here.’
The conversation turned to bomb blasts; how those of us who lived abroad were safe from them in our cosseted cities. I didn’t mention what had happened in London’s streets in 2005, how in the aftermath young men were stopped and searched for no reason except their swarthy skins and dark beards. Instead, I held up my hand in irritation, to display a finger that had been scarred by a flying splinter of glass in a London bomb explosion in the 70s, those days of IRA wrath. That night R went home and wrote a blog about how she wished I’d try to stop belonging to Pakistan, because I didn’t.
One night in Bangkok Suyin declared, to someone who asked her where she lived: ‘I’m homeless.’ Gore Vidal, eminence grise of American letters, who himself lived half a world away from his root in Ravenna, turned around and called her a rude, ungrateful woman. Why? Where did she owe gratitude, in his mind? But there was something in his entitled sense of being in the world that disturbed him when she, the mascot of Maoist China, spoke of not having a home.
I saw Suyin several more times on her brief visits to London.
We made long distance calls. She posted me a manuscript, a mystery novel she’d written to entertain herself after slaving over the marathon biography of Zhou. She wasn’t going to write about China any more. She still wrote letters but less and less frequently. Her mystery novel was only published in a French edition.
She signed it for me one afternoon in her favourite pub on York Street, Marylebone. It was January, 1996. We joked over cigarettes and the lager she loved, and for some odd reason scribbled notes to each other on paper napkins. Those notes keep falling out of her books when I take them off my shelves to reread.
My contradictions grew when I went back ‘home’ on a lecture tour later that year, returning to Karachi after more than two decades to see the streets of my city bristling with ethnic strife and inter-party warfare. After the euphoria that accompanied Benazir Bhutto’s return to power, her brother, whom I’d known when we were students, was shot down in a public rally in suspicious circumstances.
Reclaiming Pakistan had made my fragile anchor slip away and my feet were sliding on wet sand. My terms of belonging had changed: I was not whole. I wasn’t a Westerner of foreign origin. I was not someone who, to quote Suyin, ‘happened to live’ abroad and went back for my roots: I was someone who had left behind a homeland and never found anything to replace the empty patch. Wherever I was I’d always look for a part of myself in the city I’d been sent away from. As I wrote then: all my mirrors of belonging have cracked. I came back to London and began to write my most difficult, tangled stories. My second collection came out, after a long struggle. I’d learnt, as Suyin had told me long ago, that writing wasn’t a gentle recreation. She didn’t call on some of her last trips to London – she said she’d thought I was too busy to see her. Perhaps it was life, or Pakistan, or my father’s death that distanced me. I no longer remember.
The last time I saw her was when a century was ending. Her century. She was eighty-two and I, forty-four. We met for a pizza on Baker Street. Her husband was there. She was resplendent in red, as ever beautiful and loquacious, but in the company of a third, some of the intimacy was gone, replaced by that transparent barrier Asians of all cultures raise so naturally: Gender. Age. Diffidence. Difference.
As the millennium descended, she was slowly leaving the world behind. No writing, no letters, no travels. Her books were out of print. She no longer had anything to say about China: disenchantment? A shattering of dreams?
Long ago, walking down a snowy street near her Lausanne apartment, she’d told me: ‘I want to die with not a breath unshed. With empty sleeves. I’ve given away almost everything I owned.’
When I spoke to her – was it 2000? Or 2002? – she was tender; yet again, she said, she’d mislaid my phone number. Halfway through the conversation I realised she was no longer talking to me, but to someone else she thought I was.
She didn’t call again. I often thought of her and told myself I’d ring. Somehow, I never did.