R.I.P. Zahra Khala

Published: June 4, 2013 - 15:26 Updated: June 4, 2013 - 15:28

I remember a black and white photo from my childhood — laughing boys and girls of varying ages, perpetually frozen in mid-stride, playing musical chairs at a birthday party in our long narrow garden in Karachi. Some adults are visible in the background. At the centre of the photo is a tall, striking woman in a stylish trouser suit, sunglasses pushed back over shoulder-length hair curled at the ends. She stands clapping by the circle of chairs, laughing, fully engaged with the children. That is Zahra Khala. When she stops clapping, the children scramble to sit down but there’s always one chair short, so one child has to go ‘out’. And so it goes, until the winner is declared.

As children, most of our parents’ women friends were ‘khala’ (aunt) to us. Zahra Khala was a particular favourite. She never talked down to us, was always interested in what we were doing and what we thought. We were smitten by her easy-going charm, forceful personality, deep, melodious voice and
ready laugh.

We were also fond of her quieter younger sister, Meenu Khala, who was also quite tall for a Pakistani woman, although smaller than Zahra Khala who carried off her imposing height and build with aplomb.

My father, a medical doctor, knew their parents from his native Allahabad. Both families came over to Pakistan some time after Partition. Zahra and Meenu called my father ‘Sarwar Bhai’. We didn’t see much of Meenu Khala after she moved abroad, but Zahra Khala remained a frequent visitor to our house for many years.

She shared a particularly close bond with my father and although the families eventually drifted into different social circles, meeting less frequently, the closeness remained. She and my mother would meet at art exhibitions, poetry readings, and music and dance recitals. During my father’s last illness four years ago, Zahra Khala came often to visit him, to share a laugh and a cigarette.

My mother remembers returning from the beach one evening with a group of friends, discussing appearances, and talking about how people only see superficial appearances. Zahra argued that people never even look down to notice other people’s feet, so anyone who dressed well and walked with confidence could be barefoot and even the most posh hotel wouldn’t deny them entry.

“We were approaching the Intercontinental Hotel, then the poshest hotel in Karachi (in the 1960s). One friend dared Zahra to prove her point by going in barefoot, and she unhesitatingly agreed, saying that if no one noticed, he’d have to buy everyone coffee. We parked, and went in,” says my mother, smiling at the memory. “Zahra went barefoot, leaving her shoes in the car. No one noticed. See, she said, if a poor-looking barefoot person had come up, he wouldn’t have been allowed in.”

That was Zahra Khala, full of fun and confidence, but also mindful of social inequalities and injustices. 

I was probably seven or eight years old when she married Shahid Hussain, a dashing Pakistan Air Force officer. She was older than the traditional Pakistani bride, and I vaguely remember the air of disapproval around their wedding — although my parents supported them. Shahid Uncle, tall and handsome, with strong, arched eyebrows, was much older than Zahra Khala, and had been married before. It wasn’t the ‘done thing’ to marry a divorced man. Zahra Khala was least bothered by such social norms. 

The last decade has seen an escalation of violence against enlightened and educated Pakistanis, in what seems to be a tacitly agreed upon culture of impunity for such assailants. How many more liberal, enlightened, progressive, democratic-minded people must Pakistan lose before we reach the breaking point?

After Shahid Uncle died of a heart attack several years later, Zahra Khala singlehandedly and determinedly brought up their two young daughters, also responsibly looking after her own mother.

She had been active in Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, and was a chief polling agent in the re-elections to be held in that constituency, NA 250, the following day.

Her murder is the latest in a string of such attacks on liberal, educated, democratic-minded Pakistanis. A tacitly agreed upon culture of impunity allows criminals to act at will. This culture of impunity must end. Zahra Shahid’s killers, and those of so many others before her, must be brought to justice.

This story is from print issue of HardNews