Ruqaiya Hasan: Born -1931, Pratapgarh, India; studied at Allahabad University (1953); Government College Lahore (1958); Edinburgh University (PhD in Linguistics, 1964). Retired as Emeritus Professor Macquarie University. Passed on: June 24, 2015, Sydney, Australia.
She seemed to be getting progressively better since the life-threatening respiratory infection she’d contracted after receiving radiotherapy for her advanced stage lung cancer (she survived rectal cancer in the 1980s). I had rushed over to Sydney to be with her, not knowing whether she’d still be there when I landed. If she’s still around, I’ll get to see her, if not, I’d be there for my cousin Neil and Uncle Michael, I reasoned. We knew, as did she, that it was a terminal disease but the rate she was improving led the doctors to add a chart to her hospital room stating her expected date of discharge as: “(?) 07/07/2015. Destination: Home”. We knew she wouldn’t be with us long, but at least some months seemed assured.
On May 15, learning that she’d got a malignant tumour in her lungs she wrote to my cousin Waqar: “In myself I don’t feel any worse or better. I am a little disappointed Had hoped that I might kind of go quickly and neatly but it seems this is going to be rather a lingering story. Being optimistic also think that if it is fairly new then perhaps with all the new meds etc. some treatment might be possible. On the other hand remember I am 84 this year as shown on my official birth date. So no one can say this is untimely!” This was typical of her matter-of-fact, no-nonsense, unsentimental approach to life.
My mother Zakia Sarwar got her Australian visa thanks to the efforts of many people and arrived late Sunday night. Thankfully, she got a few precious hours with her adored and adoring older sister, during visiting hours on Monday and Tuesday, shared with other friends. The sisters thought they’d have time together in the days ahead, and Khala Ammi looked forward to my mother’s cooking at home. As it turned out, Ammi didn’t even get to give her the motia ittar (fragrance) she’d brought, the books, and the get-well cards from friends in Karachi. More important than any of that, we try to console her, is the fact that you came, that she saw you, that’s what mattered most to her. Sadly, my sister Sehba and her daughter arrived on Thursday morning, the day after Khala Ammi left us.
It was Wednesday, June 24, just after visiting hours began at 3 pm. Khala Ammi was sitting up in bed, talking to her husband and intellectual partner of over 50 years. A few minutes later, she slumped over. She was gone by the time help arrived.The legendary linguists known to the world as Hasan and Halliday are now minus one. Even as we grieve her departure, we celebrate her life and laugh at jokes she would enjoy. She is blessed to have gone as she wanted — quickly, without lingering or fuss.
I will always remember and be inspired by Khala Ammi’s formidable intellect, her graciousness and generosity and willingness to help others, her insights and wisdom, her acerbic sense of humour. She was always a rebel and an institution builder. When my father passed away in 2009 and there was an outpouring of tributes to him that I started to compile at a blog I created, she encouraged me to archive information about the student movement he had led, rather than just make the blog about him. In the time I spent with her in hospital, I was also awed and moved by the patience, courage and grace with which she dealt with her illness, her refusal to complain, how she retained her sense of humour, mimicking the nurses good-naturedly but always considerate of them, reluctant to call them for anything she could manage otherwise; she would thank them for anything they did for her, ask if they had eaten yet, apologise for bothering them.
Although by nature impatient and highly self-critical, someone who refused to suffer fools, she showed immense patience and grace in adversity. We are all glad she didn’t have to suffer further or linger on – she is blessed to have gone as quickly and peacefully as she did, with someone she loved so much by her side.
I only managed to visit her in Oz when push came to shove, but I am so grateful for the time I had with her, for the time I had with Uncle Mike and Neil who took time off from work and insisted on taking me around “because mum wanted you to see these places”.
Lucid till the end, with her mind all there, she eagerly engaged in intellectual discourse with friends and fellow linguists who visited, although she tired easily. Soon after I arrived, as she got a little better, she was disturbed to hear about an online harassment and bullying campaign by self-proclaimed Shia rights activists. Herself from a Shia Syed family, she never had any tolerance for discrimination or injustice, no matter who perpetuated it. “It is particularly sad and unfortunate,” she said, speaking with an effort, “when those who themselves have suffered historically from persecution, who know what it’s like to be targeted, become the persecutors.”
“She lived well, achieved much, and leaves behind so many loved ones who are so very sad to see her go. All in all, a very successful life,” as Waqar says; he too managed to spend some good time with her, arriving in Sydney last week; he left the day after I did. There’s a certain neatness to all this coming and going that Khala Ammi would appreciate. I got there the day she was emerging from her critical phase. Waqar arrived a few days later, and my mother the following week. Then she was gone.
The previous day, Tuesday, she’d been a bit shaky and Neil was worried about her persistent cough. Sitting on a chair opposite her, I felt sad about leaving and told her I wished I could stay on. She glanced up from her armchair. “Kab tak?” she asked quietly (for how long), then closed her eyes again. I felt the tears coming and left the room to blow my nose.
“Who’s going to do this for me when you leave?” she mused as I helped her get ready for the night later. And then, although tired, she insisted on going for a walk down the corridor using the walker. “I must,” she said. Neil accompanied her. I sat in the room trying to come to grips with my sadness.
She passed on the following day. I flew out the next morning. The uncertainty was gone. There’s relief she didn’t linger on or suffer as she’d dreaded. But there’s also the sadness of knowing I’ll never see her again.
Note: An online condolence book will be made available soon. Below a few of the tributes to her from others including family members and SPELTers:
Nadra Huma Quraishi: When I used to read papers by Halliday and Hasan, I never thought they would become a part of my life. I am honoured to have met her and to have had so much love and support from her. Ruqaiya Apa was an amazing yet down to earth person, extremely gentle and loving. For me she was an inspiration and a guide who believed in me at a time when my self-esteem was at the lowest. I loved spending time with her. She stood by me through a very difficult period of my life and made sure I knew she was there without ever forcing her presence. She was a person I was really sad to leave when I moved back to Karachi (condensed from her tribute posted on Facebook).
Mariam Asim: Really sad to hear about about the demise of your great aunt!!…she was an incredible woman and a great intellectual,…her contribution to the field of Linguistics are immense and i really enjoyed reading the husband wife duo’s remarkable contributions to the field of Discourse Analysis and so many theories by “Halliday and Hassan”…. May her soul rest in eternal peace ,…hers was truly a life well lived !!
Ayesha Kidwai (Centre for Linguistics School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi) My condolences, Beena, actually from the whole family. I didn’t know that she was your aunt. She was very well regarded and one of the subcontinent’s most recognised linguists. I am glad that you and your mother got a chance to say goodbye and that she could “cease upon the midnight with no pain”.
Haris Gazdar, economist, my cousin from my father’s side: A most wonderful person, a big heart and the sharpest of minds, a natural teacher, a thinker’s thinker. It is a privilege to have known her, to have asked questions, to have heard her answers, in measured words, wisdom peppered with witticisms like so many hidden treasures. And there will be more questions yet that will remain unanswered.
Haider Raza (Beru), family friend: What a fantastic celebration of human spirit she was, a trail blazer…it is time to rejoice her accomplishments and celebrate a life fully lived. May her soul rest in everlasting peace.