Writing History, Thinking Change: In Memory of Hamza Alavi

I met Hamza Alavi after he returned to live in Karachi, following the death of his wife and his retirement from Manchester University. I think it was the summer of 1996 or 1997 and I was home from graduate school in the U.S. My father had sent him a book review I had written of an ethnography of muhajirs, and urged me to visit the renowned sociologist. Hamza bhai was a near of kin, and I mention this because he once wrote to me an email explaining to me how precisely we were related. I think this mattered to him in these last years of his life, although I am certain he would have extended the same encouragement and intellectual generosity had I not been a relative. This probably mattered to me as well for I am not sure if I would have had the courage to have visited him otherwise.

I remember driving through the mad traffic of old Karachi to his familyís beautiful Gandhi Garden house, once situated in one of the most elegant pre-Partition localities of Karachi but now encircled by teeming, compact apartment blocks and roadside encroachments. I suppose it is well-known that he came from a prominent Gujrati-speaking Bohra business family, and his uncle, Hatim Alavi, the former mayor of Karachi, was an important political figure in Sindhi, and in particular Karachiís, history. Hatim Alavi was active in Congress and the Khilafat movement in Sindh, campaigned for the provincial autonomy of Sindh, and became close to Jinnah as he inaugurated the Sindh Muslim League (see ëThe founding fathers of modern Karachií in Karachi: Megacity of Our Times, OUP 1997:138-140) I have to say that I personally never heard Hamza bhai refer to his uncle, and instead it was his father, a less prominent philanthropist and educationist, that he mentioned as an inspiration, and recalled in his autobiography that being sent to one of the schools run by his fatherís education trust as being formative in the development of his social conscience (http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/sangat/HAMZA.htm). However, writing to me about my dissertation on the immediate post-Partition years, he pointed out that ëI was 26 years old at the time of partition, old enough to see what was going on around meí (21 Jan. 2003), and I do wonder how his proximity to the career of his political uncle influenced his historical interest in the Khilafat movement and the emergence of Pakistan. After Partition Hatim Alavi became the Chairman of the Pakistan Finance Cooperation and made a significant contribution towards the inception and working of the State Bank of Pakistan, an organization that Hamza bhai also made a substantial contribution towards. There does not have to be any link between family history and oneís intellectual and political insights, but I do regret now not interviewing him more substantially about his recollections of pre and post-Partition Karachi, and I do hope that those that knew him better will share some of this familial history.

When I visited him that first time he had only recently moved back to Karachi, and it seemed that this had been an extremely difficult move for him. Despite being an eminent scholar his books from Manchester were held up by Pakistani Customs for months, he missed the partnership of his wife, he felt intellectually lonely without the academic community he had spent most of his life amidst, and he was not keeping good health. But despite all these setbacks, once we began to talk about my studies and ideas for a dissertation topic, the passion of his project of the time ñ the Khilafat movement ñ drew him out. He tried to convince me to take it up as a dissertation topic for he felt that Indian historiography had not done it justice, and he himself had a particular argument to make regarding this period of history and its relationship to the Pakistan Movement. It is most unfortunate that he leaves this work incomplete, and once again I do hope that other historians close to him and with whom he corresponded can elaborate on some of his ideas on this period of history.

After that first visit I tried to go to see him every time I was in Karachi. He had set up his office in one of the rooms of the house, and I remember being touched by sentiment of the room ñ bookshelves climbing up to the old high ceiling, the piles of papers and books stuck in the bars of the low windows, the room of a person still very much busy reading and writing. He would complain about his age, his poor health and his insomnia, but at the same time always seemed to have so many projects in progress. He also didnt seem to have a secretary or an assistant to help him and seemed capable on his own with the computer, printing out numerous articles for me, emailing and so forth. I know this kind of computer facility seems ordinary today, but most persons his age in Pakistan and elsewhere would not necessarily have adapted to this technological transformation of the academic world.

On my various visits he talked to me about the histories of the Subalternists and how much he liked their work, his severe criticisms of Ayesha Jalalís Self and Sovereignty, his recollections of doing research in a rural setting with his wifeís partnership, the desperate need for Pakistani scholars to work in Pakistan, and his heartfelt encouragement that I should return to Pakistan to teach. We began an email correspondence when my father told him about my sense of isolation in Amsterdam. He obtained my email to tell me he was sending a letter of introduction to his friend Jan Bremen, so I could meet some people in the University of Amsterdam. After that, via email he would then send me articles and commentary. When the events of 11 September 2001 unfolded he wrote me an email describing watching the tragedy on television that day, but now I can no longer locate that email. When I wrote to ask him of his assessment of those global developments vis-a-vis Pakistanís predicament, he sent me his article on the history of US aid to Pakistan, as well as on the role of oil in regional politics. I thought they were critically insightful and forwarded them to various email groups I was part of. In turn I began to forward to him articles by various scholars and political commentators on the developments that were taking place. He once wrote that he really appreciated them. When I sent him an article by Edward Said that had appeared in the New Left Review, he reminisced about his involvement with precursor of NLR, the Universities and the Left Review. He wrote, ë ULR No.1 was a prestige issue with articles from my late friend Isaac Deutscher and other dignaties of the Left in those days. I contributed an article that went into ULR No. 2 under the pseudonym of ìGordon Hendersonî for in those days I was hoping to go back to Pakistan! The name was the product of the convoluted thought of my friend Raphael Samuel of Oral History fame. They were good and exciting days.í (12 October 2001).

The last time I visited him, in March 2003, I mentioned to him that I had come across a reference to his essay on the postcolonial state in The Magical State by Fernando Coronil and would like to read that essay. He told me that he had completely reconsidered his argument in that essay and that the reason why his collection of essays to be republished in a single volume was held up was because he wanted to rewrite them in light of his rethinking. He was still working on his Khilafat book and at the same time had committed himself to writing a bunch of articles for local newspapers. These were all extraordinarily demanding projects, and I realized then that it was amidst all of this that he had taken the time to read my dissertation and send me an extensive, and one of the most valuable commentaries on my dissertation. As much as I look forward to including his questions and thoughts in the revision of my dissertation manuscript, I regret that he was unable to finish his own elaborations on some of the most poignant questions of modern Indian history.

Often in conversations with friends, comparisons between Eqbal Ahmad have come up ñ two very different personalities who established international reputations for their outstanding intellectual and political integrity. But what brings them together in my experience is the generosity with which they met particularly young people, without notions of hierarchy or ceremony. They sincerely hoped to inspire and encourage future generations to pursue critical enquiry and develop an anti-imperialist vision that could challenge simple reductive religious formulas for understanding our past and our ever precarious present. We need to not just celebrate, but actually build on their legacy.

Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali
Post-Doctoral Fellow
Intíl Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM)
Leiden, The Netherlands

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