April issue 2013
Rebel With a Cause
It’s hard to come to terms with: impassioned, brave Lalarukh Ansari is gone.
I first met Lali, as she was widely known, in 1972 at the Karachi University where she was enrolled with Najma Jamil, who was to later become my wife. Both were in the final year of their Masters in Journalism at KU. Both were attractive young women and fervent members of the National Students Federation (Rashid Group) which was affiliated with the pro-China Communist Party. Lali was the more radical of the two, to the extent that she would even object to Najma wearing a sari or high-heeled shoes to the university. When I asked her what was wrong with that, she declared, “One should de-class and dress like a working-class woman; not as member of the bourgeoisie.”
That was the time when the charm of Mao’s Cultural Revolution was still around as an equaliser of people. On one occasion, Lali worked in a match factory for two months to see first-hand the plight of the women workers there and help them set up a union to fight for their rights.
As it happened, Najma subsequently moved towards the pro-Soviet Communist Party, and Lali blamed me for it. But no matter how much she disagreed with friends, she never moved away from them as long they accepted her as she was, with her passionate defence of all the causes she espoused — from socialist ideology to the tenets of the Church of Scientology. And whatever she did, she did honestly and with complete commitment, even to her last days.
She was an equally passionate journalist. After completing her Masters, she joined the Pakistan Economist, a weekly magazine ably edited by Major (R) Ibnul Hassan. Maj. Ibn, as he was popularly known in journalist circles, once told me, “Lali is honest and a hard-working journalist but she is too strongly committed to leftist politics.” I asked him whether that had any bearing on the magazine, which as a policy supports capitalism. Maj. Ibn laughed and said, “No, I was only referring to her staunch political leanings.”
“Lali was honest to the core,” said her ex-husband, Zahid Husain, when I called him in the US to condole. And he was right. Lali would not mince her words, no matter what the circumstances. Once she was sent by Maj. Ibn to interview a senior National Bank official — a right-wing intellectual — as part of a story she was doing. During the discussion, he said to her, “I think we have met. You came to me once to understand some aspects of Maoism.” Lali retorted, “We don’t go to right-wing opportunists to learn Maoism.” Understandably, that was the end of the interview.
Lalarukh worked as a reporter with me at Sun, a daily newspaper which pulled down its shutters for the last time in 1979. Unlike many other women journalists in those days, who qualified as ‘pom pom darlings’ — to borrow a phrase from Urdu short-story writer, Ismat Chugtai— Lali was never reluctant to cover hard-core crime stories. She was often in the forefront of assorted rights crusades, among them the Freedom of Press Movement, and even courted arrest at the time when Maria, her first-born, was not even a year old and her husband Zahid Hussain was already in jail.
Subsequently, she moved to the evening newspaper Daily News, and following that to the weekly Mag and later the women’s monthly, She.
Through it all, Lali remained committed to the socialist cause. In fact, Lali and Zahid Husain’s marriage also stemmed from their comradeship. Both were not only in love with each other, but also with the idea of a socialist revolution. But like many other socialist workers, disillusioned with the movement in the late eighties and early nineties, and perhaps because of the vacuum in her life, Lali started seeking another cause to espouse. When one of her close friends introduced her to Scientology, Lali drifted towards this cult/religion. She genuinely believed that through Scientology, she could help people resolve their problems. Meanwhile, as Zahid became increasingly involved in his career as one of the country’s leading journalists, the marriage came under growing pressure. In 1997, Lali migrated to the US to work full-time in the Church of Scientology in Los Angeles.
While that was the final blow to her marriage, and Lali’s children moved with her to the US, they remained close to their father and followed other pursuits. And they were both with Zahid in Los Angeles when, on March 20, the ever-smiling Lalarukh succumbed to her battle with a deadly brain tumor.
When Zahid told me in Islamabad that he was going to the US to be with her and the children because she had only a slim chance of survival after a three-week stint on life support, I could sense the pain in his voice. People drift away from each other for different reasons, but love does not.