If you want to have fun, you can do worse than snuggle up with a copy of Lynette Viccaji’s memoirs, Made in Pakistan. A respected teacher boasting a long history affiliated with prestigious Catholic education, Viccaji is the mother of three talented children, one of whom — Zoe — is a musician of national renown. The book is about Viccaji’s life and, if one wonders why anyone would be interested in reading 200 pages about an Anglo-Indian schoolteacher and virtually full-time mother, it happily does not take long to figure out why.

Viccaji was born post-Partition and begins her narrative by describing post-colonial Karachi in vivid detail; everything from modes of cuisine and language to Victoria garrys [horse-drawn carriages] is deftly sketched by her witty pen. In spite of giving plenty of detail about important historic elements such as Goan culture, old Karachi sites such as Garden East, and relatively harmless — albeit distasteful — social harassers (mailas), her tone remains light and engaging and her sentences are constructed with an ease and grammatical precision that bespeak a lifetime of engagement with reading and erudition. Her warm, earthy sense of humour comes across as the prime trademark of her text; regardless of whether she is writing about problems with batty domestic gardeners or her budding thespian ambitions concerning Jesus Christ Superstar, she successfully runs the gamut of hilarity from tongue-in-cheek to downright slapstick. Most memoirs are applauded for being serious and faithful — Viccaji’s goes a step beyond by keeping one consistently entertained.

Prior to marrying Adi Viccaji who faithfully served the Pakistan Tobacco Company for a number of years, Viccaji attended St Joseph’s College in the old, glorious days when its mystique was arguably even stronger. She regards the nuns and her teachers with a mixture of awe and affection; indeed, almost all alumnae of that notable institution would assert that they merited no less. A loyal and caring individual, she comments tantalisingly on her social relationships with other notable Karachiites such as Durriya Kazi, one of her closest friends. Kazi, who now heads the art department at the University of Karachi, is the great-granddaughter of Maulana Mohammed Ali Jauhar and Viccaji also mentions Kazi’s mother, from whom the Kazi girls inherited their considerable artistic talent. The author demonstrates an almost eidetic memory for detail and can remember details such as the Kazis’ pink car (prosaically named Pinky) and the lemon meringue pie that she had at their home. Meanwhile, the account of her own marriage reads like a deliciously humdrum adventure, perhaps because Viccaji — being an inherently adventurous spirit — embraced both the challenges and joys of life with equal enthusiasm.

A memoir that is warm and full of earthy humour, captures a vanished city and elevates the idea of identity

It is difficult to do justice to one’s maternal feelings in a memoir, but the author manages this with characteristic aplomb. Zany Zoe and cherubic Cyrus light up the pages as their mother recounts their sundry adventures at school, playing with neighbours, taking care of animals and doing harum-scarum, madcap things that may have put more than a few grey hairs in her coiffure. By the time her daughter Rachel arrived, Viccaji may have become more adept at handling domestic crises. However, there is no arguing that the scene where she wakes from a much-needed nap to find that Zoe has clumsily sheared off half her hair is nothing short of priceless. It is a credit to the Viccajis’ parenting that they did not stifle the creativity of their children in any way, and their good-humoured tolerance would put many modern couples to shame.

Viccaji lived in a variety of diverse locations, including the charming old Jehangir Kothari House in Saddar with its elegant marble floors and less elegant, but ubiquitous, cockroaches. She wistfully recounts how the Karachi of her youth was a far safer place, where terrorism hadn’t reared its problematic head, and though she is careful not to openly criticise the Zia regime, one can read between the lines to see how that time might have appeared repressive to her. Her strong links to Karachi’s Christian community (and individuals such as Sister Zinia Pinto, Bishop Anthony Lobo and Cardinal Joseph Cordeiro among others) fundamentally helped shape her identity as a Pakistani. Though she herself ends her memoir by noting that identity is “too narrow a word”, credit should be given to her for helping to broaden the horizons of Pakistani writing, and indeed, Pakistani identity, by means of her writing.

My experience with making salted tongue four years ago bordered on the macabre. ... Not only did I have to throw the whole lot out, I was worried that stray dogs or cats would try to eat them and be poisoned, so I had to wait for Cyrus to come home and request him to bury the bodies behind the house. He complained that he felt as if he were participating in some demonic ritual. — Excerpt from the book

But to place her in a minority-box and put her on the mantelpiece of Pakistani history and society would be doing her an enormous injustice. Viccaji’s special gift lies in her ability to make the ordinary seem extraordinary, and it is this that unflaggingly sustains the reader’s interest throughout the book. Beneath the surface of a life peppered with friends, children, in-laws, servants, colleagues and students, lie universal human emotions such as respect, tenderness, indignation, loss and dignity — all described with sincerity and depth. Through her panoramic eyes we can appreciate Saddar when it was less crowded, Goan music of a time prior to the mass-migration to the West by Christians, train journeys that were alternately scenic and hazardous, and the struggles of a dedicated high school teacher who never lost her capacity to smile in the face of considerable challenges.

Perhaps the only major criticism I can voice regarding this gem of a book is that it lacks photos. Given the richness infusing Viccaji’s descriptions, a set of well-chosen photographs spanning the various decades of her life would have enhanced the presentation and content of the book. Since she needs no excuse to quote John Keats’s lovely ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ at the drop of a hat, perhaps she herself would be the first to quote Lewis Carroll’s famous statement regarding the futility of a book without pictures or conversation. But to be fair, while the pictures may be missing, Viccaji’s extended ‘fireside chat’ with the reader leaves nothing to be desired insofar as verbal descriptions are concerned.

The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

Made in Pakistan
By Lynette Viccaji
The Royal Book Company, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9694074641

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 4th, 2018