Remembering Chris Abbas

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

A YEAR ago, on Feb 19, 2009 Christian Zainab Abbas “slipped into the past”, to borrow her own phrase from a poem she wrote five months before her death. Ever since I had wanted to write about Chris, as I had always called her since she walked into my office at

Dawn with an article she had written for the paper several years ago.

But writing about Chris when she was dead was more difficult than writing about the living Chris. It was always a pleasure to talk to her. She helped her interviewer along by giving new and interesting insights into her life and herself.

For months I couldn`t figure out what aspect of her life I should dwell on. She had such a rich personality with many dimensions and there was so much to celebrate about her — as a teacher of young children transforming their lives, an artist who delighted her friends with personalised hand-painted cards on new year, a poet who turned to poetry when she gave up her paints, a writer with commitment, an ardent supporter of noble causes, a family person, a caring human being for all who knew her and an inspiring role model for those who were on their way to achieving `seniority` in age as she had — and I always felt overwhelmed.

I feel the same a year later about this wonderful woman who was so dignified though not proud, independent yet making you feel desperately needed, so creative but down-to-earth in her approach. Her introduction to Pakistan came as the wife of Ghulam Abbas, one of the most outstanding Urdu short-story writers who graced the literary scene in South Asia.

She met him in London where he was on a stint with the BBC and married him in Karachi in 1952. In a few years she had won recognition for the many-splendored roles she played. The creative instinct in her found expression in her art, until her eyesight was affected in the twilight years of her life. She took to writing poetry and had two slim volumes published before her death.

As I chatted the other day with Mariam, the Abbas`s daughter, and sifted through Chris`s papers which have been so carefully preserved, I instinctively knew what I wanted to write about — the love for humanity that Chris had in abundance and her respect for life. These are rare qualities in our brutalised times. Of course the violence upset her a lot as she would shake her head and express her consternation or write a poem (Lal Masjid and suicide bombers are addressed in her poetry). But she never surrendered her own humanism.

It was this sentiment that had prompted her several decades ago to become a regular blood donor with the Lion`s Blood Bank for years until, as she wrote in her unpublished memoirs, “the blood sac filled so slowly that they advised me to stop”. But she felt disconsolate by what she perceived as a lack of concern in people. Her observations on her husband`s reaction when he learnt she had volunteered to donate blood on a regular basis are profound.

“Abbas happened to be in the house at the time. I have never seen him so upset and angry. `What`s he wants your blood for?` he roared … `Your blood belongs to me.` Abbas grabbed me by the arm. `I forbid you to go,` he stormed. This was perhaps the only time I out and out defied him. `My blood is my own and I shall do what I like with it,` I said.

“Muslims seem to be greatly possessive about their bodies, a fear of parting with any part of themselves or their loved ones … Sri Lanka does a great export in eyes for transplant. I am told that their religion assures them that such donations bring reward in the afterlife. In Pakistan where there is a high rate of blindness, the people owe much to the Sri Lankans.”

So it was not at all unexpected that Chris Abbas willed her corneas for transplantation. “After she breathed her last, we informed her doctor at the Layton Rehmatullah Benevolent Trust Eye Hospital. He arrived without delay. He removed her corneas and it was a job very neatly done. The procedure took less than five minutes and there were no tell-tale marks left behind,” Mariam told me while recounting her mother`s obsession with the idea of donating her eyes to someone who was sightless.

She was also desperate to donate her organs. She had sketched the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation`s Farooq Dewan building and had acted as a judge for an art competition the institute had organised for children to create health awareness. The idea of organ donation became her passion. She was therefore most agitated when she learnt that her kidneys could not be obtained for transplantation — only patients suffering from brain death on ventilators can become donors and give a new lease of life to another with end-stage kidney failure.

Corneal donation carries no such constraint as anyone with corneas in good shape can become a donor. That is how Chris Abbas presented the precious gift of sight to Inzeman, a young lad of 17 who lives in Baldia. Suffering from corneal opacity, the boy had to leave school due to his failing vision. A bleak future awaited him. Today he can see clearly and plans to return to school next term. Inzeman and his family talk fondly and gratefully of the benefactor they never knew but who gave the youth the sight he needed to start life afresh.
Chris Abbas`s fervent desire to be remembered after death has come true. Today a part of her lives on in Inzeman`s eye to derive joy from the rich colours of the sunset and sunrise, the blooming flowers and the clouds she wrote about. It certainly gives a good feeling when one is not so `possessive` about one`s body, as Chris had described Pakistanis as being.