‘The meaning of life’ – Umber Khairi in TNS, May 31, 2009

Column ‘UK Calling’ in The News on Sunday, May 31, 2009

Dear All,

I think I am having a mid-life crisis.

I suppose that if I were a man, I would by now have had a hair transplant or acquired a nubile y oung wife or girl friend or bought a flashy sports car or a few packs of blue pills… But since I am not a man, I have done none of these things, instead I reflect, increasingly often, on life and death and mortality.

I see my face in the mirror as it acquires more worry lines and wrinkles and I realise that I can now recount and measure past events in my life in decades rather than in days, weeks or months. I realise that I have known many people who have died violently in the turmoil that has punctuated Pakistan’s recent history. And I realise that so many people I took so much for granted as part of a certain landscape are now exiting this life, one by one.

The death of Dr Sarwar last week also brought home to me the realisation that I have failed to fully make use of any time I could have spent learning more about interesting, politically-committed individuals like him. I had heard of course, about his days as a student leader but never really tried to learn more from him about his struggle or the political climate of the early 1950s. I kne w him as my friend and colleague Beena’s dad, as somebody whose student politics and integrity my mother spoke admiringly of, as a friend of my khaloo’s.

What sort of journalist am I, I ask myself? Why do I waste opportunities to learn th e stories of people like Dr Sarwar (and so many of my parent’s friends) who been part of tumultuous periods of history and who have tried to live their lives according to certain principles or ideals?

When Justice Sabihuddin died suddenly a few weeks ago I had a similar feeling — not because I knew his family but because he was such a well-respected individual, whose integrity was praise d by so many people for whom I have great respect. When I read the piece that Baber Ayaz wrote on him in Newsline, this sense of loss was intensified. Baber Ayaz’s loss was personal but his piece unde rlined the fact that in the sudden death of his friend we had all lost a great deal because we were now minus someone deeply committed to principles of law, justice and progress. I worked briefly i n The Herald magazine in the twilight of the Zia era, and I realise now how very privileged I was to inhabit the same space as so many remarkable individuals, so many of whom have now passed on. There were in Haroon House in those days both the Sabihuddins (Ahmed and Ghausi), there were some of our most outstanding (and yet remarkably understated) journalists: Razia Bhatti, Ameneh Azam Ali, Saneeya Hussain and Najma Babar. There were also there at that time well-known lawyers like Makhdoom Ali Khan and Iqbal Haider, and various other individuals who are now well-known in politics or who are working for human rights or social justice. They were all there then, and so many of them have passed on.

I was privileged because my life’s path crossed theirs but I realise only now by reflecting on this how much we tend to take associations like this for granted, how little I appreciated each person’s individual story, each one’s ideological or professional commitment.

My mid-life crisis is really that I have started to entertain suspicions that I have not fully availed of all the opportunities that came my way to somehow contribute to making this world, in some way, a better place. I have not made sense of my experiences to create anything that appeals either to the intellect or the spirit or which in any way institutionalises or makes accessible learning and education.

I suppose life is all about trying to learn, trying to improve oneself, and about constantly trying to make sense of human life and society. At the end of the day what truly matters is human endeavour, and the ability to communicate with other individuals, to attempt to learn and understand their unique stories, to try to forgive and reconcile, to try to understand one’s own as well as other’s limitations.

My musings are not anything new — individuals have been struck down by similar thoughts over the centuries, and perhaps — as so many European painters pointed out — such musings are all themselves a sort of vanity.

But I do feel humbled by these reaffirmations of one’s essential mortality, and by my lingering suspicions that I should somehow be a better, more useful person and more understanding person.

And really at the end of the day what matters is human beings, time spent together, laughter, understanding, appreciation…. all our formalities, petty jealousies, social aspirations and capitalistic conformities are but a waste of our time.

At least that’s how it looks from the mid-life crisis vantage point.

Best Wishes

Umber Khairi


One Response

  1. I’m SO glad you are posting the photo of Doc’s clinic – as they say, this picture is worth a thousand words: it showed a man who stuck to his principles and who carried on helping the humble, those most in need, and didn’t succumb to the glitzy world of “society doctors”.

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