Stayin’ alive: How Yasser Latif Hamdani fought Covid-19 and brain tumour to write Jinnah’s biography
If you want to learn about how to be mentally strong enough to write, edit and publish a book, despite all odds, ask the guy most likely to fail at it. My husband, Yasser Latif Hamdani, battled a life threatening epileptic fit, brain surgery, and recovery that lasted two years. Then, he was in the middle of a Pan Macmillan book proposal to chronicle the life of the man who is said to have “cracked India”.
While he was working on the final edits of his manuscript, he was shoved into a second, more dangerous, emergency brain tumor surgery, compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic. This is my story of Yasser’s publishing journey and an ode to the stubborn human need to tell stories that challenge our ideas of heroes and villains.
When we met, Yasser was only twenty. He and I both repatriated to Pakistan after college in the US. At that time, his quirks were tolerable and borderline-cute. Soon enough, though, I realised my husband had, in fact still has, a phobia of oblivion. This is problematic. I don’t know anyone who solved the fear of being forgotten. But Yasser has always been very articulate and full of idealism.
It has been this never-surrender attitude that has made him fight important battles, like the time he fought for years as a lawyer to get the ban on YouTube in Pakistan lifted. One of his pet phrases is, “You are dead wrong.” Yasser is a compulsive Twitter user (@TheRealYLH): someone who believes that unless he broadcasts on this platform, he will be irrelevant. Without his appearance to solve the moral question of why Pakistan has a right to exist, he feels, all the “dead-wrong people” will be right.
My husband and I have been together twenty years — college romance and all. Now, we are parents to two young women, who are prepping for college. Yet, even twenty years later, I feel that I cannot even plot our lifetimes on a graph. One day we are going to be stayin’ alive, the next not at all.
As I write this piece, we are propped-up in our wooden-headboard bed on soft orthopedic pillows. Since the beginning of the pandemic, this is how we have mostly been — both glued to our Macs.
Despite the chatter of our teenage daughters in the next room, and the smell of bread wafting from the kitchen, things aren’t as homely as they seem here in Islamabad’s suburbs. I am like an ashy volcano, telling everyone to keep away from me for their own good. Yasser has been tender and jumpy at the tiniest sounds since his brain surgery. We don’t want to be here in bed, like an old, sick couple, but we both feel very old. Yasser’s brain cells have rebelled against him. Whatever remained of his courage has been effectively crushed by the pandemic.
The only thing we know to how to do is to type away in a trance, like the violinists on the sinking Titanic.
Everything is broken
“I need to finish this book on Jinnah before I die,” Yasser said.
In my inner monologue, I call him a drama queen, but I also flick a single tear that is making its way down my cheek. Yasser was diagnosed with a five-centimetre oligodendroglioma, a grade-two non-cancer brain tumour, back in 2017. I think he knew he was running out of time well before we saw the golf ball-sized shadow in his CT scan.
Yasser is in his time-tunnel again and has gone back to his document. He is writing a biography of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan.I go back to writing about the man who is writing about the man. My life is a meme.
I adjust his ortho pillow and mine too — I have chronic neck spasm, possibly fibromyalgia, and he is recovering from his “awake” craniotomy. We share my weak nursing care between us. It is intense, but what else can one expect in such a situation: a writing retreat in Cannes?
Calling the make-a-wish foundation
The Aga Khan Hospital in Karachi did not permit more than one attendant during Covid-19, so I was alone when they wheeled him into the operation theatre for the second tumour resection. Dr Athar Enam is a fine artisan with his fingers, opening and closing skulls, fixing brain tissue for a living.
He wanted to minimise Yasser’s chances of dying mid-procedure, which we could do by keeping him talking during surgery; it would also ensure Dr Athar didn’t snip off an essential area of the brain, like the optic nerve right there in his left temporal. And so, Yasser was awake to the six-hour long horror of instruments scraping out the tumour in his skull.
Meanwhile, with no shoulder to lean on, I waited in his room, staring at his white Puma hospital slippers. I had an acute feeling, then, that everything was indeed broken.
So, you see, this annoying ortho pillow I write of is a metaphor — Band-Aid on a leprosy patient. It is a sop to the horrible mess of pain, suffering, grief, loss and rage. It is a rage that has neither a source nor target, and it is the one thing that fuels us both. It is why Yasser is typing away beside me, giving meaning to the futility of it all by doing the bravest thing I have seen anyone do — try.
No pain, no writing
The prime paradox about success is that you can’t succeed without asking those who have failed. Yasser has done both — failed miserably and succeeded superbly. It just depends on whom you ask. I want to take him out on a date and finally ask him what I didn’t ask him on our first date,at a Subway restaurant in San Jose in 1999, “Why do you write like you are running out of time?”
I want to know why, but the answer scares me more than the question. What if it has nothing to do with death and taxes?
Why would Yasser allow his head to be opened again and again, like a piggybank on a rainy day, just so that he can be stapled back together and plod back to his writing? If he does survive death, coma or paralysis, manage to string a few meaningful sentences together and bag a big publisher, does that mean he wins? If he wins, what is it that he has won?
Is winning stayin alive, Bee Gees style? Or does winning hinge on that last precious thing you want to do before heading to the gallows? Even Yasser’s foes call him a fearless fighter, because he has that ineffable something with which to dare death.
At this point, Yasser interrupts my writing to say, “What’s the point of writing anyway?” He tosses to the side, puffs on his uncharged e-cigarette, and goes to sleep. I fix his pillow again.
Light and shadows
As Yasser’s wife, I have usually found myself in the shadows and have struggled to forge my own identity. I am “YLH’s wife”. People follow that introduction up with some reference to my professional title. I have oscillated between admiration for him and rage against him. But between these two axes, we have shared so much — baby toes, school drop-offs, vacations, Pakistan Day flag-hoisting on our roof every year, walks in the rain, inspirational poetry, rock concerts, and his ability to always make me laugh.
One thing has never changed between us — we both love Pakistan in a child-like way. Our sense of identity has remained as if permanently glued to us. No, we are not patriotic like we were twenty years ago. The jingoism of youth has grown into something more mature.
He has become a constitutional lawyer and author, and I have become an outspoken feminist. Considering our middle-class parents and the classist environment, we manage fine. In fact, Yasser has done more than manage; he has refused to give up. He wants to see a secular Pakistan; he has wanted to fix revisionist history, and he has wanted apologies from manipulators of the historical and political narratives
The obsession with Jinnah
You can’t talk to Yasser without inevitably getting into the Cabinet Mission Plan, Viceroy Louis Mountbatten, and the debates around Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah — replete with exact dates and details most people would skedaddle from. Any conversation with him will tell you that this is not a special interest, but, rather, a life-long passion. Yasser’s study of Jinnah, who is often accused of splitting India, began with the South Asian blog, Chowk.com — the first social media website that allowed the wall between Indians and Pakistanis to fall.
Being on Chowk.com gave us the liberty to hold up our Pakistaniat against the interpretation the world had. Chowk.com was a wonderful platform to bring everyone from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh together, but in its own way, it was our first brush with cyber-bullying too. We have often been made to feel like we should spend all our time making an earnest apology for Jinnah. We find this unacceptable. I grew up very secure in my Pakistani identity, and my father revered Jinnah as much as Yasser did.
When life gives you lemons
In 2012, Vanguard Books asked Yasser to put his Daily Times columns on Jinnah into a more coherent structure that could subsequently be published as a book. The result was Yasser’s first book on Jinnah — Jinnah, Myth and Reality. For the first time, his clamorous headspace transitioned into scholarly work.
But obsessions don’t come cheap. There are social equity issues, relationship strains and a conference circuit that can’t wait. But these things have never mattered to Yasser. For him, it was about winning a battle of some kind, for the soul of Pakistan. Much of the fallout from his choices, as a result, has rebounded on to me. One troll asked me to euthanise him. People have thanked him for speaking truth to power. Friendships have faded along the way.
Between 2003 and 2017, Yasser’s tumour was silently pressing against his right temporal lobe, slowly growing, like mould on a bathroom wall. It caused years of incremental shifts towards generalised obsessions, heightened anxiety, mood alterations, loopy doubts, paranoia, and depression.
So then, there have been two Yassers that I have had to live with: The one who allowed his mental health to get the better of him, and the one who didn’t. He could swing between both: A selfless, driven historian and lawyer invited to be a fellow at the Asia Society and Harvard Law School, and a nasty, baby-man with a juvenile lack of self-awareness. On any given day, I could be visited by either of them. It was dysfunctional, daunting, and, often, empty. But there were clear moments of contentment: Sunday mornings, plane journeys and Eid.
Towards 2017, something shifted. Yasser began listening to me more and less to the voices in his head. He hasn’t stopped asking me to fix things for him, but even now, his only shield against endless fear and doubt is the written word.
‘Show us what you’ve got’
In 2017, right after his first brain surgery, Yasser was invited to Harvard University as a Law and Human Rights Fellow. He would be investigating how Pakistani minorities, particularly the much-targeted Ahmadi community, could find equal rights under the Constitution.
Before he left, he had a deal for his second book, finalised by his publishing agent. Before surgery, Yasser had been drifting aimlessly. After surgery, it seemed like everything in his life was aligned and came into sharp focus — the shift was too abrupt. But he did well, surviving the first surgery and then going on to the Fellowship and also completing his first draft on Jinnah — A Life, for Pan Macmillan.
In early 2019, Yasser sent me the first draft of his new book. It was a page-turner, keeping me hooked well into the night. I found the draft to have clarity of thought and a persuasive argument. Here at last was a book that humanised Jinnah as a man with intellect, decisiveness and will, but, most importantly, with flaws. It was early morning by the time I reached the last page of Yasser’s book, but all I could do was smile. Science had permitted Yasser to get his disease to work for him.
Not for long.
The man who couldn’t stop editing
Back when Yasser was making edits on his first draft of Jinnah — A Life, I bought him a book on obsessive-compulsive disorder called The Man Who Couldn’t Stop. Yasser couldn’t stop obsessing about a few million combinations and permutations in the edits.
Not being able to stop means a variety of things. It means, for example, that there is a problem with serotonin levels that help convert anxiety into release or resolution. It’s a Ferrari accelerating on a highway with lots of sharp bends.
The book almost never got done. Yasser would call me and say, “I can’t do this anymore.” He wanted to withdraw his book because he just couldn’t go on editing parts that he felt strongly about; it would put his mind in a spin about the Jinnah question. He kept insisting that if he published the book, something terrible would happen.
The tumour came back. And while we waited for yet another MRI to confirm or dispel our fears, the world went to hell.
Publishing during Covid-19
When you face an awake craniotomy the second time around, the only normal thing to do is to try and slow down. Instead, Yasser heard the news and decided to keep pushing on. Covid-19 had entered Pakistan, and with the Prime Minister admitting on national TV that it was highly contagious and worse than any common flu, we pleaded with the surgical team and the Aga Khan Hospital tumour board to delay the second surgery.
In addition to the emotional burden, it was a logistical nightmare. How were we supposed to drive a few thousand kilometres from Islamabad to Karachi? Flights were grounded. How would we plan the recovery period without house help or nursing aid? How would I handle him alone, given the risk of Covid-19 exposure from family or friends? Yasser would be very immunocompromised. Also, second surgeries are far riskier. What would happen if he fell into a coma or, god forbid, died?
I finally got all the logistics and medical decisions figured out. Everything was sorted, except the poisonous ball growing in my throat.
What of the dream book project? Well, when life seems starkly and suddenly shorter, you want to leave something tangible behind. That much, with Yasser, was evident.
The need for speed
I wrote to Yasser’s agent about the risks involved in the second surgery.
The subsequent steps were not going to be easy to discuss. We had to talk about final proofreading, the cover, and, now, appointing a nominee for the contract, in the event of Yasser’s death.
The new contract was made. I was nominated to make decisions if Yasser didn’t make it. The surgery dates were brought up, so that everything was on a war footing. We signed the consent forms at the hospital and said — okay, let’s do this.
Yasser screamed a lot, they later told me. A team of nurses and attendants held him down. They asked him to be strong and bear the pain, but he begged them to stop the surgery, sew his head up again and send him to me. I received a call from the operating theatre mid-surgery. It was Yasser.
“My head is open. It hurts a lot, Aishi.”
I sobbed, “It won’t hurt forever, Yasser.” The surgery took longer than its planned duration. Alone, I prayed for his life in that room. I dozed. I doodled. I thought of all the embarrassing Bollywood songs he sent me. And then, I finally heard from the operating room.
“Your patient is in the recovery room.”
The third day after he came back home from the hospital in Karachi, Yasser was readmitted to the ICU for dehydration. I had to drag him into the private ward myself and carry his entire weight into the car — sick people can be like a ton of bricks.
He was a mean boy again. It was the dehydration causing the electrolyte imbalance.
That mean boy wasn’t mine, but just because you know that someone can’t help being mean doesn’t make enduring the meanness any easier. I was uncontrollably sobbing because the stress had broken me down over that post operation week. It was just the two of us in Karachi trying to nurse him back to health.
Pain, nausea, pain, nausea — the endless vicious cycle continued. Eventually, I lifted him over my shoulder and dragged him to the car and the private ward of AKU Hospital. That ICU intervention, nurses later confessed, saved his life.
After he settled in the ICU, we exchanged notes on our individual nightmares.
Mine: I left you in a body bag in Europe.
His: I delayed chemo and radiotherapy. I died within a year of glioblastoma.
Mine: All I had left were your WhatsApp voice notes.
His: I dreamed that the Jinnah book didn’t get published.
We are back home in Islamabad on May 20, 2020. Jinnah — A Life has finally been published. Yasser’s agent has sent a video of how it looks: so fresh I could almost smell the paper.
It felt like a beginning. There were no more questions about why anyone would spend all his time writing like he was running out of time. No more questions about interviewing the loser so I could learn about winning.
It has not been Yasser’s obsessions alone that have driven this book across the finishing line. It is how he has chosen to approach his fears, even during the hellish nightmare of a global pandemic. He has always chosen words, the law and a genuine curiosity for the truth. Today, the author of Jinnah — A Life is more than his temporal lobe tumour. Through the author’s pen, Jinnah lives again.
The Pan Macmillan edition was released in print a few days after Yasser’s fortieth birthday on June 5, 2020.
This article was originally published by Scroll.in and has been reproduced with permission.