I first encountered Hazel Selzer in the archives. She could not have been more than four, but still figured prominently in a list that attributed her with a political opinion based on what was perceived to be her father’s political stance: anti-Nazi. Her brother was three. This document was the “nominal camp roll” for the parole camp at Satara – one of the several sites where the British Indian Government had interned foreigners with transnational connections in general and Axis links in particular, during the Second World War.
The Selzers – Hermann and Kate – were German-Speaking Jews holding Polish passports. Both were doctors by profession and had fled Europe on the cusp of Hitler’s rise to power. Their children – Hazel and Michael – were born in Lahore and were consequently designated subjects of the British Empire. With the German invasion and takeover of Poland, the senior Selzers became stateless people – deemed “enemy aliens” by the colonial state.
Hazel and her family were kept behind barbed wires for almost the entirety of the war and for a while even after the cessation of hostilities. This experience of growing up in subcontinental camps – of being on the receiving end of prejudiced and arbitrary state action – left a lasting imprint on the earliest memories of her childhood that she can recollect.
Now that I encounter her almost eighty years later, I find her in the middle of an act of conjuring images and voices from a deeply personal past that also happens to be weaved into a larger history – of war and empire, loss and belonging, trauma and reconciliation. As objects and ephemera provoke reminiscences and thought, Hazel dives deep into the sea of tenacious and fragmented memories – of growing up, Jewish, in a beloved house, in post-war and post-Partition Lahore, in Pakistan.
Guests, not citizens
This is a beautifully written memoir that starts with the story of a perceptive young girl who kept a diary and wrote letters back home in Lahore as she navigated her way through a school in India that was meant for educating Americans. Consequently, she grappled with several competing identities – both aspirational and domestic like European and Jewish, and also accidental yet intimate such as Anglo-Indian and Pakistani.
Hazel poignantly narrates what it meant to be born white in a brown city. She does this by talking not just about boundaries and hierarchies – of accent and attitudes, but also about connections that transcended conventional norms and defied hard and fast categorisation. Hers is a story of departures and returns and yet there is a certain mooring – urban and affective – that ties her early life with postcolonial Lahore over and over again.
And yet, one cannot help but note that most of her “growing up” happened outside Pakistan – in Mussoorie, London, and Canberra, until the Selzers, threatened by the changing political climate, permanently moved out of their hometown in 1971. Hazel herself asks this question in the book and notes that perhaps there is no satisfying answer. What cannot be taken away from the specificity of her experience, however, are two things: a sense of being perpetually in transit and a profound feeling of loss and longing for a city, a home, a place, and a possession – all acquired through that chance-directed event called birth.
The book is divided into two parts, neither neatly chronological, and both reflective – perhaps for the better. The very structure of her memoir makes Hazel contemplate, with her readers, her self-imposed role as the family archivist, the reasons for her strained relationship with her brother, and the question of why her parents decided to send them both abroad to receive European education and manners under the aegis of what she calls “a network of [Jewish] foster care” administered by close and distant relatives, knowing well that it created an unbridgeable gap within the family.
In 1971, as it was made clear to them that as Jews, they could only be “guests” from whom the benefit of hospitality could be withdrawn, and never full citizens in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the senior Selzers emigrated to Israel while Hazel and Michael settled down in the UK and later in the USA. The second part of the book is really Hazel’s quest for closure – a build-up to her 21st century rendezvous with the city that cannot be taken out of her: Lahore.
It is precisely this part of the book that prevents it from becoming a “simpler story of a childhood home” in Hazel’s own words. Her preparation for obtaining a Pakistani visa, having been to Israel several times in the past, and the associated anticipation and uncertainty before travel is recounted almost in the manner of a thriller.
Tentative but significant
“What do our passports know about who we are?” Hazel asks, as she pauses and reflects on “border anxiety” – the fear of being denied entry, of being turned down, of only having a precarious claim to belong – susceptible to the vagaries of ambiguous official interpretations: of the law and of people. She reminds us that in zones such as the immigration queues at airports, all of us are aliens in some measure or the other. Our passports do not belong to us but to the states ruling over our mobility.
She is in fact able to return to Lahore, not once, but three times between 2011 and the Covid-19 pandemic. Between these visits in different capacities, she is able to reconnect with her estranged brother after thirty-eight years – Lahore serves as a bridge – but this is hardly a fairytale, and, as though paying homage to the spirit of our polarising times, they have a fallout over politics again: this time over the rise of Trump.
Hazel, who now hosts a progressive left-leaning radio talk-show, previously did not see eye to eye with her father regarding his growing Zionist views either, but at least they had been able to rejuvenate a filial bond—something that has not been the case between the two siblings. When does a memoir-writer stop writing? Hazel doesn’t provide any answer but concludes her memoir shortly after raising this question.
The great merit and perhaps also a small shortcoming of this book is its tender tentativeness – of both prose and purpose. It makes the reader pause and reflect but does not always deliver on its promise: one would expect a lot more of Lahore and Pakistan in this memoir – especially given its title – but both fade out of the narrative by the early 1950s, with Hazel and Michael leaving for England, much before the family’s permanent relocation in 1971.
Nonetheless, this is a significant historical testimony and a remarkable account of a city that now exists only in memory and of an astonishing life that could only have been lived in the mid-twentieth century. The many photographs of documentary value accompanying the text and Hazel’s exquisite leafages that adorn the pages as illustrations add verve and poise to this book. It speaks in the tongue of and about a certain cosmopolitan flair that is on the verge of disappearing from our increasingly globalised and fragmented world.
This memoir certainly deserves a large readership. Yet, not many people will know about this book, and I am afraid fewer will read it now. However, Hazel’s writing is also meant for posterity – generations yet to come if this world as we know it survives – who will certainly find great value in ruminating with her and derive pleasure from reading about her extraordinary life lived in interesting times.
Some, like me, perhaps, will also find Hazel’s story resonating with this poem by Perumal Murugan that I first read in college, a few years ago.
Don’t be in haste
to ask anyone
about their hometown
There might be people
who cannot tell you their hometown
There might be people
who dream about their hometown
There are, perhaps, people
who have forgotten their hometowns
There are, perhaps, people
who have left behind their hometowns
There could also be those
who stay, yet don’t live
there could even be those
who were chased away
by their hometowns
It is possible
there are also those
who have no place
to call their own
(Translated from the Tamil by Aniruddhan Vasudevan)
A House in Lahore: Growing Up Jewish in Pakistan, Hazel Selzer Kahan, Self-published.