If you go by homes, Sohail Lari’s abode describes him perfectly. It is a veritable treasure trove of books, which overwhelm the first time visitor with their sheer number, stacked as they are in every nook and cranny, and even piled on the floor. The love for books, Lari says, came from his father Judge Z.H. Lari. “He wasn’t able to give much time to his children due to his busy schedule, and instead gave us books to read as he had a huge library.” The house is simply furnished; the luxuries of life having assumed second place for its owners in favour of more important things, such as giving a roof to the poor or documenting and restoring heritage buildings for posterity.
The force behind the Heritage Foundation, along with his wife Yasmeen, Lari says it has taken years of hard work to make people realise the importance of preserving heritage buildings and monuments as people a few decades back were simply not interested. Perseverance has paid off and today the Heritage Foundation is recognised in Pakistan and abroad for its work.
But Lari still describes himself as a failure. “When I was in class 8 I wanted to be a poet, but my classmate and friend Mustafa Zaidi (alias Tegh Allahabadi) was a better poet so I gave it up.” He also wanted to paint but Enver Sajjad, another class fellow in Lahore, was better than him.
Instead, he has ended up a historian, photographer and co-founder of an NGO leading the fight to preserve the monuments of our history. One could say Pakistan got the better end of the deal here.
Migrating from India with his family, Lari went to Lahore in 1950 and did his matriculation and intermediate from FC College, and then BA Honours from Karachi University in Economics. “My father wanted me to study law but said if I got admission in Oxford I could choose any subject. I then wrote to the Education Officer in Pakistan High Commission in London, in 1958, who said there was no admission available for three years in Oxford. In those days you applied through the embassy.”
Stymied, Lari applied some lateral thinking. He read Isiah Berlin, the greatest British political thinker of the 20th century, who taught in Oxford University, and is famous for his book Two Concepts of Liberty. Berlin had written a criticism of Tolstoy’s War and Peace titled Hedegehog and the Fox, and Lari wrote a commentary on his book and sent it to him. It worked: Berlin found it interesting enough to invite Lari to visit him in Oxford.
“When I arrived at his house, Berlin was playing croquet with the world’s richest man, Lord Rothschild, in the garden. He told me during tea that I had been admitted in the B.Phil programme and advised me to choose philosophy, politics and economics which were known as the modern greats in those days, emphasising that these subjects made one ‘learn to think’.
Lari later married Yasmeen, who is considered the first female architect of Pakistan, who was also his cousin. She was studying architecture in London when he was there and they would meet regularly. Remembering those days with a nostalgic smile, he related an incident when Nehru and his sister Vijay Lakhsmi, who were their neighbours in India before partition, were visiting London and Lari had invited them to Oxford to give a lecture. Lakhsmi informed him that she had met his father in Karachi before coming to England and was told that he and Yasmeen were to be married soon. Phones were not common then so they had no way of knowing what their parents had decided for them. “It was totally arranged and we were married a year later and continued with our studies. I was elected the head of Oxford Majlis which was formed in 1930 in which every week someone important was invited for a lecture, and I got to know many heads of state that way.”
In Lari’s opinion education alone doesn’t play an important role in a person’s life. It merely opens a path that one then has to walk on oneself. When he returned to Pakistan in 1963 after completing his B.A. Honours, known as ‘Tripos’, he joined the corporate world. As he had also worked on slum dwellings in his Karachi University days with Gen Azam Khan, Lari continued with this as well thus paving the way for his heritage work.
There were two buildings, Mohammadi House and Qamar House, which housed offices in those days. His wife, Yasmeen, worked in Qamar House and they would meet everyday for lunch in the famous coffee shop in the other building where he had his office, coming across artists who worked in advertising companies, their only means of earning a livelihood in those days. They would complain that there was no art gallery for them to show their paintings, and so, Lari opened a gallery for them known as Karachi Artist Gallery in 1964 in his house in Mohammad Ali Housing Society. This became a place similar to his Oxford residence, with poets and writers such as Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Prof. Ahmad Ali, Adrian Hussain, Sibte Hasan and artist Shakir Ali visiting regularly. “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,” recalls Lari.
During his corporate period Lari did not have time for writing, but continued his research work and photography; a passion that had endured since his university days. “I took photos of my family and then I helped Yasmeen by taking photos of her projects, and, of course, of my friends and people I knew. I have amassed a rare collection of photos through the years; these were used in a coffee table book, Meri Mitti Kay Log, published last year. I also discovered negatives of Quaid-i-Azam’s photographs in the trash can when we were restoring Flagstaff House. They have never been printed. This was the time when certain influential people wanted to pull down the house to build a shopping mall and we resisted it and became unpopular, along with our Heritage Foundation which had taken off. Preserving heritage was not a concern and the then ruler, Gen Zia started taking interest in the heritage buildings when Yasmeen became a member of the Majlis-i-Shura, and persuaded him to include it in the agenda.”
Through the years, due to the foundation’s endeavours, laws have been passed to preserve 600 outstanding buildings which otherwise would have been pulled down. “Funds from abroad for the preservation of historical sites have helped us tremendously, and work on the Makli graveyard will begin soon.”
With more free time after retirement, Lari decided to write a book: An Illustrated History of Sindh. In his view history was falsified in Sindh and he wanted to correct the facts as the locals followed what was written in the Chachnama, a book on Sindh during Raja Dahir’s days. Lari researched and documented these facts from Arab and Sindhi books and sources. “I then wrote a book on paintings titled History of Muslim Painting. Studying the paintings of different countries connected to the silk route, I discovered that nationalism was not known then, and paintings reflected the history of dynasties only. Nationalism came into being during colonial times.”
Sohail Lari has no regrets that his two sons and daughter have not followed in their parents’ footsteps. “My children live in America, working in their professional fields, and we encouraged them to do what they wanted.” In a way, he says, it is a boon as he and Yasmeen can focus totally on their work which requires a lot of concentration, time and dedication.