The grey, but welcoming café and bar at the Institute of Education in London was a regular haunt of Professor Amin Mughal — one of Pakistan’s leading Progressive intellectuals who went into exile during the Zia era. It was a summer evening in 1996 when Mughal was, as usual, sitting there and chatting with a group of academics and students. An aristocratic, portly man with a broad nose and wavy hair combed back entered the place. After spotting Mughal, he joined us at the table. The gentleman was referred to as Nawab Sahib during the conversation by Mughal. As the evening progressed one could see the enormity of knowledge and the vastness of experience reflected in the views of Nawab Sahib when he spoke effortlessly on history and politics.
Some months later when I met the gentleman again, I found him to be a little uncomfortable on being called by the title of Nawab. He said, “Please don’t call me Nawab Sahib. Khan Sahib would do if your tradition makes you hesitate in calling me Sayeed. It is hard to convince Mughal now to stop calling me Nawab because he seems to have grown old. My wealth is not the land my ancestors owned, but my own political views and participation in political movements that make me a common person. In fact, I am very proud to be a leftist.”
Since then, I occasionally met Sayeed Hasan Khan in London, Karachi and Islamabad. I also read with interest his pieces on international political developments in Dawn, that he sometimes co-wrote with Kurt Jacobsen. Once I had the privilege to share a conference panel with him about South Asian political history. A few months ago, it was a delight to receive a copy of his memoirs Across the Seas: Incorrigible Drift, published in 2013 by Ushba Publishing International, Karachi.
Khan was born in 1930. He witnessed the Second World War, the Partition of British India, anti-colonial liberation movements, European social democracy, the Cold War era at its peak, the Vietnam war, the fall of the Soviet Union, the rise of Islamic radicalism, Indo-Pakistan conflict and the states of martial rule in Pakistan. His memoirs bring to life more than 82 years (until 2012) of political history of a large part of the world — from the United States and Europe to South and East Asia.
He has a knack for blending the private histories of some of the most influential people and their families with larger political events and processes. His flashbacks and flashforwards bringing in people, places, occurrences and ideas while explaining a series of events chronologically make his expression rich and absorbing. However, in a few places it becomes demanding for a reader who has little prior knowledge of some of the people or events being discussed.
Khan spent most of his life in Pakistan and the United Kingdom with some years in India. However, he travelled widely and there will be few who would have personally met so many luminaries — leaders, diplomats, writers and journalists. He was associated with international socialist movements when young and worked closely with those involved in British left-wing politics. He provides an invaluable insight into the 20th century and contemporary British politics and the developments in Europe — from Scandinavia to the Continent — after the Second World War to this day.
Across the Seas also offers interesting observations into the days leading to the Partition of South Asia, the days immediately after, and the behaviour of the leadership at that time. He relates personal anecdotes and analyses political decisions, comments on the characters of otherwise larger-than-life individuals, and describes how the British viewed the freedom struggle.
In today’s paradoxical world, we live in a global village of consumers knowing much about brands from other countries, but little about the suffering and struggle of their masses. Khan’s memoirs bring back the days when people were proud global citizens living in solidarity and not merely international consumers.
The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 30th, 2017