Could it have been avoided?


‘Dreaming’ (1984) by Tassaduq Sohail

In October, soon after the seventieth anniversary of Indian independence and the partition of the subcontinent, the Pakistani painter Tassaduq Sohail died in Karachi. The anniversary was celebrated with dazzling military displays: the centrepieces in both Delhi and Islamabad were nuclear missiles. Partition is history now, tales grandparents tell, but for Sohail and others who experienced it first-hand, the memories have never lost their force.

In January 2000, after forty years in Britain, Sohail decided to return to Pakistan. A week or so before he left, I got a call. He spoke, as always, in Punjabi and by common agreement we avoided using any English words, a common practice (and not just in the diaspora) that enraged him. It was a test I sometimes failed. Sohail was 17 years older than the country he sometimes called home and sometimes hell. Usually when he rang, he would recite a few lines from the Sufi poets with gaiety in his voice, and occasionally he even laughed at my attempts at Punjabi double entendres. But this time his tone was sombre.

‘I’m going back.’

I was taken aback. There had been no hint of this in recent conversations. ‘Why?’

‘To die.’


‘Everyone has to. I thought it best to be close to my final destination.’

I laughed. His laugh was forced. He didn’t have too many plans or hopes. After forty years, he had no family and few real friends in Britain. The decision to return had been taken with very little consultation. Among the few people with whom he felt a sense of camaraderie were three Jewish elders in Golders Green (‘my three fathers’) who had posed for him and become friends. They look quite jolly in his depiction. He hadn’t discussed his decision with them because one of them was always thinking about moving to Israel, the other two were strongly opposed and it would have provoked a row between them. Suddenly he fell silent, then spoke in a very abrupt tone. ‘Tell me something. Be honest. Do you think any of my paintings would encourage anybody to fight back? I mean anyone. Even a single person? You, for instance?’

It was a puzzling question from someone who had never shown any interest in politics. I said as much. It turned out that he had recently returned from Berlin where he’d heard some English people (‘white people from here’, as he put it) in the Käthe Kollwitz museum say that about her work. He was equally happy for people to dislike his work or like it very much. What he hated was eliciting no response at all. That was really why he was going back. Whatever else, in Pakistan there would be a reaction. I worried that the response might be fatal. His head might be blown off. I didn’t say this because he knew it better than I did.

London Review of Books
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