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Tellers of tales in the olden days would preface their stories with a simple remark: should the tale be of what has happened with me, or should it be of matters of the world? In other words, aap beeti or jag beeti? The listeners would then decide what they wanted to hear. This book places both words in its title and does away with the distinction and, in narrating his own story, the author describes his world. Diplomat-turned-author in his twilight years, the late Saad Rashidul Khairi was eminently suited to write his memoirs. He lived through tumultuous times, saw a number of historical figures up close, observed behind-the-scenes wrangles in international diplomatic quarters and witnessed the old world order give way to the new.

Aap Beeti Jag Beeti: Purani Delhi Se Nai Duniya Ka Safar is Khairi’s highly readable account of his life and times. It reminds me of one of the best books of its kind — Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday: Memoirs of a European — not in style, but in scope. Heartbroken by the Second World War, Zweig completed it just before his death by suicide. In spite of the grim realities around him, there is a lightness of touch in the book’s limpid style. “I never considered myself important enough to feel tempted to tell others the story of my life. Much had to happen...,” Zweig begins his book. Khairi could have said much the same. He begins his account by placing himself in the time and location of his birth, but in talking about his circumstances he has a story of the changing times to tell.

The scion of a distinguished literary family, Khairi was the grandson of the highly popular and respectable figure Rashidul Khairi, known as Musawwar-i-Gham for his ability to make his readers melt into tears. Founder and editor of the magazine Ismat, aimed at the education and moral edification of young women, he established a highly successful publishing concern in Delhi, which remains operational to this day under the management of the family. The mantle of editorship was later taken up by his son Raziqul Khairi, with Raziq’s wife Amna Nazli working at his side. In a few broad strokes, the author describes the playful and affectionate side of his grandfather, a view which the world may not have seen. Interestingly, his brother Haziqul Khairi has also written an autobiography, a book no less fascinating but of a different style and covering different circumstances.

Former diplomat Saad Rashidul Khairi narrates his eventful life, but through it tells of his world and changing times as well

Khairi’s mother was also a writer and died young. The loss of his mother at an early age, the overprotective support of his family and vignettes of schooldays take the story forward. Further studies took him to Aligarh and there is a very interesting picture of how it must have seemed to the young man. It is no accident that he was able to see the Quaid-i-Azam and his first-hand account records the Quaid as laughing out loud at a joke and ready to oblige students by specially coming the next day to enable them to be photographed with him.

After moving to Pakistan in 1947, Khairi wanted to join the Central Superior Services and was interviewed by Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy and Iskandar Mirza. In simple and lucid terms, he deftly brings out the contrasting characters of the two. Such short and swift accounts contribute to the documentary value of the book as well as making it an interesting study of various characters.

He writes of the camaraderie and rivalries which sprang up between the various staff members posted to distant stations and the jealousies which led to intrigues. He does not mince his words when he describes how he came to earn the displeasure of his employers as he suffered from health issues. He has not only walked down the corridors of power, but seen many leaders at close quarters, so his account remains engaging.

His diplomatic assignments took him to numerous places and he lists many of them, from Tehran to Nairobi, with interesting details. In a few pages he describes how attempts were made to secure an invitation for then prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan to visit Moscow and how the entire diplomatic manoeuvre was thwarted, with long-term results taking Pakistan towards the American side. He mentions Buenos Aires where, as Pakistan’s ambassador, he moved in cultural circles and became acquainted with Jorge Luis Borges, one of the great masters of the 20th century, but his description is tantalisingly brief. I would have liked him to have narrated more: what did the great Borges talk about? Did Khairi have a sense of premonition that he would eventually lose his eyesight to end up like Borges, becoming “eyeless in Gaza” in the Miltonian sense? Unfortunately Khairi is short on detail in such instances.

He mentions Buenos Aires where, as Pakistan’s ambassador, he became acquainted with Jorge Luis Borges, one of the great masters of the 20th century.

The book’s style is conversational; it seems the writer is engaged in an exchange of views with a few select friends. This may have been caused by the author’s loss of eyesight and ultimate support from others. In spite of the odds against him, he remains relaxed and casual. Khairi speaks of himself without any attempts at self-aggrandisement or unnecessarily drawing attention to feats, which may be real or imaginary, as many others have indulged in when taking up the pen to write their memoirs. Similarly, he speaks of his shortcomings and failures without self-pity or self-justification. He retains his good humour throughout and this makes his book pleasant reading.

In trying to summarise the overall impression of this book, I am again reminded of Zweig, this time of the instance when he brought his life story to its conclusion: “In the last resort, every shadow is also the child of light,” writes Zweig, going on to say that “only those who have known the light and the dark, have seen war and peace, rise and fall, have truly lived their lives.” One can say that Khairi has truly lived his life in the sense that Zweig defines it and, as the record of such a “truly lived life”, his book is invaluable. It carries a brief foreword by his daughter who is a well-known English-language journalist; it would do well if somebody in the family were to render this book into English.

The reviewer teaches at Habib University, Karachi, and has recently edited Manto Ka Aadmi-Namah, a collection of critical studies on Saadat Hasan Manto

Aap Beeti Jag Beeti: Purani Delhi Se Nai
Duniya Ka Safar
By Saad Rashidul Khairi
Maktaba-i-Daniyal, Karachi

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