An Obituary of an Ordinary Life
(This is a biographical obituary of a cousin of mine. It covers part of family and regional history in pre partition India and Pakistan)
Waheed said good bye to this world on Monday 25 Apr 2016. Decades of heavy smoking, unhealthy food and complete lack of physical exercise had led to a weakened heart that he failed to protect through an indifferent attitude to medical advice and medication. His fragile and limited sources of income compounded his difficulties. The middle class's degenerative values, that have hindered the progress of millions of Pakistanis, coupled with inadequate education and vocational skills, served to keep him weighted down on the lower rungs of the social and economic ladder. His ailing heart had been diagnosed, a decade earlier, as too weak to undergo an angioplasty. Over the previous two months, his condition, and circumstances, had become very precarious due to triple fracture of his hip bone that he sustained due to a fall on a slippery patch of street outside his home. He never walked or got up from his bed again. He was taken to hospital but the doctors found him, once again, medically unfit to undergo the necessary surgery to fix metal plates and screws that would have allowed him to be back on his feet. He went to his grave with a broken hip and a broken heart.
I learnt about his demise at 2 P.M when I was finding myself unable to cope with various engagements. I was out in the city on an urgent office engagement; so important in fact that it had prevented me to go and collect my new Honda City car from the showroom. I had told the person in the showroom that I would take possession of my car at 1500 hours. I called him back to cancel the appointment and boarded a coach at that time for Lahore. The funeral prayers, I learnt, were to take place after Esha prayers at quarter to nine at a mosque near his home. My younger brother's driver had come to the bus stand to pick me up. Showing good sense, my brother sent him on a motorcycle to fetch me. We made it to the mosque about five minutes before the funeral prayers. In a car, we could not have negotiated the narrow lanes of ‘Krishan Nagar’ fast enough.
After the prayers when the Imam lifted the veil and I saw his face for the last time. I recalled all the traits of his personality; his usual obstinacy, occasional obduracy and everlasting love, the typical traits of a youngest sibling. We had a lot of shared past. We used to make efforts to meet when the opportunity came. We used to talk to each other about our lives without inhibitions. He moved from Karachi to Lahore some thirty years ago, built a small house for himself in Krishan Nagar, a residential area about three kilometers from my mother's home in Gulshan-e-Ravi, and started working for a carpet exporter. He was making a decent living but never had enough to enjoy a good comfortable life. I used to go to his home with my family whenever I was in Lahore. Initially I used to go in my car but when the traffic increased and travel in a four wheeler on the streets leading to his house became an ordeal, I started going on a borrowed motorbike. Then, due to certain family circumstances, the visits started becoming less frequent and far between, till they ceased altogether. I had not been to his house, nor he to ours, for about five previous years. The last time I saw him was in Karachi on 19th December, 2014, on the occasion of a marriage in the family. We had pledged to meet again in Lahore but then I left for Australia for a long stay and came back in early 2016. Due to other commitments of life, (O how these, ultimately frivolous, commitments never end!), I had gone to Lahore only once since my arrival from abroad and that too for a day only to see my mother, and despite thinking about it, couldn't find the time to go and see Waheed. At that time, he had not taken the fall and was still on his feet, though he had stopped using his motorcycle due to his unreliable heart.
Waheed’s father was the younger brother of my paternal grandfather. Due to incredible age differences in large families, he was my father’s cousin but just about two years my senior, hence our friendship. Because this obituary is a tale of ordinary people belonging to a close knit family, it would be incomplete without going into that part of our family history.
Our forefathers migrated from some part of Kashmir to Amritsar. My ancestry reads as Parvez Mahmood s/o Mahmood Sadiq (siblings Ghulam Sadiq, Mahmood Sadiq, Irshad Hassan and Manzoor Hassan) s/o Ameer Bukhsh (siblings Ghulam Nabi, Ameer Bakhsh, Ghulam Muhammad (Father of Waheed), Ameer Begum) s/o Peer Bakhsh s/o Muhammad Shaikh s/o Saddique Shaikh. It is commonly believed that Saddique Shaikh was a Hindu and migrated from Kashmir. He later converted to Islam. Taking an average of 30 years per generation (Considering early marriages and uncertain order among siblings), this will place our ancestor’s migration close to 1820, a time when the political and social life of Kashmir went through a profound change due to the defeat of its Afghan Durrani rulers by the Sikh army in 1819 and its occupation by Ranjit Singh. The inclusion of the state in the Punjab allowed thousands of Kashmiris to settle in the adjoining areas of the Sikh state in Gurdaspur, Sialkot, Gujranwala, Amritsar and Lahore.
My father had gathered and remembered a good deal of family history but, unfortunately and strangely, even though he was a keen diarist, he never got down to write writing it. According to him, as narrated to me at a young age, some of the family members were simply ‘coolies’ and were called ‘Hato Log’. While carrying heavy loads on their backs along the undulating roads of cities in Kashmir, the coolies would keep shouting ‘hatto’, with a soft ‘t’, Kashmiri for ‘get aside’, so that they could keep moving. Stopping and restarting with a sack weighing a ton on their back must have been quite painful, and so people started calling them ‘Hato Log'.
Most members of our family were petty artisans. The members of my father’s maternal family used to roam the streets of the city polishing tin and copper utensils and were called ‘qali’gars’. Persons of my age must have seen these artisans at work in the cities of the Punjab and elsewhere in Pakistan, with a leather fire bellow to heat the coal, melt the tin and rub it on utensils to give them a new tinge/shine. The vocation has now become extinct, though a few shops may still survive in some remote corner. The paternal branch of my father was of carpet menders or ‘rafoo’gars’ (another nearly extinct vocation), carpet weaving being a cottage industry in Kashmir. Waheed’s father was a ‘rafoo’gar’ but had mastered the various aspects of carpet weaving, a knowledge that served him well to settle early, and comfortably, in the difficult days following the great partition of 1947. On the other hand, this success made him so secure that, instead of educating his sons, he made them learn the fading art of carpet mending. The only exception being his second son who passed his B.Com to became an accountant.
My grandfather, Ameer Baksh died young in 1926, when my father, the second of four brothers, was only four years old. He, along with hundreds of others in Amritsar, lost his to the then untreatable, tuberculosis. His mother and his brother, Ghulam Nabi, also fell victim to the same disease. My grandmother became dependent on her brothers, who had broken through the poverty line by becoming a successful wholesale traders of cloth. They were the only Muslims in a market dominated by Sikhs and Hindus. My grandmother’s living with them allowed her to educate her children. My elder uncle, Ghulam Sadiq, did his Intermediate Science and became a ‘Guard’ in the North Western Railways, the section that comprised the network north of Lahore. He was stationed in Rawalpindi for his entire career. My father and a younger uncle, Irshad Hassan, did their matriculation and joined the Amritsar Railway Workshop as a draftsman and a store keeper respectively. The youngest uncle, Manzoor, who was born a few months after the death of his father, completed his matriculation too and began earning his livelihood in Pakistan after Partition.
My father was very close and helpful to Waheed’s family and they always acknowledged that. In the late 1930s, Waheed’s father had gone to the British colonial city of Singapore and was doing well selling carpets. The Japanese occupied the city in early 1942 and Neta Jee Subhas Chandar Bose began setting up his Indian National Army to fight the British. Not only the Indian POWs but every young Indian in the Malaysian Peninsula was also pressed into this new service. Sensing the danger, and free of any national or political leanings, Waheed’s father left the city, vanished in the country side and settled in a small Chinese village. He was to remain there for the duration of the War, incommunicado with his family, for the next five odd years. He also contracted a marriage there with a local girl and had two children, a girl and a boy. Back in Amritsar, the family assumed that he had become a victim of Japanese cruelty. All his children, the two sons, Rauf and Hameed, and two daughters, Arshad and Rahat, were still very young and school going. In these dire times, my father, who was himself only 20 years old, assumed the responsibility of taking care of the family. He had joined the Railway Workshop and was earning the princely sum of Rs. 46/ per month. The food items were scarce because the British Prime Minister Churchill had ordered the shipment of every conceivable consumable and edible thing for the Allied Army, causing severe shortages in India that led to a catastrophic famine of 1943 in the Bengal. My father had developed useful links with the local administration and would procure wheat flour and sugar for the entire family. He would also ensure that the children of the missing uncle go to school regularly and pay attention to their studies instead of loitering around. Waheed’s elder brother, Hameed, who later became an accountant, would always acknowledge that except for the efforts and care of our father, he would have given up studies.
After the reoccupation of Singapore by the British in late 1945, Waheed’s father was able to send a telegram about his well being. He came back in early 1946 when it became possible for passenger ships to resume service. After his arrival, he broke the news of his second marriage. He attributed it to the need to survive by hiding in a remote village to avoid Japanese mass executions but it brought much anguish to the family. He had planned to go back to Singapore but the political events in the sub-continent, followed by the mass migration of the entire family to Pakistan thwarted his plans. He never talked about his second family but he did once remorsefully recall that his daughter, who was about three when he repatriated, was very attached to him and wouldn’t go to sleep unless he held her close to him.
Partition of the sub-continent was a tragic affair for the people of all faiths. On the fateful night between 14th and 15th of August, 1945, there was a huge fire in part of Amritsar. According to one story, the Hindus and Sikhs torched the Muslim majority locality, much in the same manner as Shah Alam Market was burnt in Lahore by a Muslim police officer when the Sikh and Hindu traders, who had expensive properties and businesses in the area, had refused to leave the city. The other story is that it was a group of Muslim hooligans who had torched properties of the rival faith without first ascertaining the wind direction. Whatever the cause, the result was that the Muslim area, where the families of my ancestors also lived, was caught on fire. The family ran for life without any of the belongings. Luckily, they all made it to the railway station. Those who were unaffected by the fire left later and faced the actual brunt of the Sikh brutality. Not that the family migrated unscathed. One of the sons of my father’s Amir Phupho, who was in Delhi, was never found. His elder brother, my father’s Phupha Abdul Majid, kept looking for him all over the Punjab and Karachi unsuccessfully.
In the arbitrary process of settling the refugees in different areas, and in order to avoid overcrowding in the main cities, my father and his family ended up in Mansar Camp, now AK Regimental Centre, on the left bank of River Indus, opposite Attock Fort. He was to leave the camp soon after to join the Irrigation Department as a draftsman. My Irshad uncle rejoined railway workshop in Lahore. Afater wandering a bit, Waheed’s father found himself in the village of Sukhkho, on the Gujar Khan – Chakwal road. There was no work there and, to support the family, her elder daughter. Arshad, worked as a teacher in the local school. They stayed there for a few months before moving to Lahore. A Kashmiri carpet manufacturer's family from Amritsar had set up a factory in Landhi, Karachi and were desperately looking for someone of his experience to take care of the fledgling factory. They knew Waheed's father from his days in Amritsar and immediately hired him and made all possible offers to induce him to travel to and settle in the alien city of Karachi in the migrant town of Landhi-Korangi. He was to spend the next thirty years in that town, where three of his children are buried. His eldest son, Hameed (the accountant) is very sick and his mortal remains too will also certainly make that this soil their eternal abode.
The contact between these two branches of my family became stronger after partition. Both of Waheed’s sisters were married to my younger uncles, Irshad and Manzoor. One of Waheed’s brothers, Rasheed, was born in Amritsar after his father’s return from Singapore while Waheed was born in Pakistan in 1950. Having worked at low paying jobs in Lahore and Rawalpindi, both my uncles moved to Karachi in the early 1960's to work in the same carpet factory in white collared clerical positions and took up residence in the low cost quarters built by the government in Landhi for the migrants from India.
Waheed and I became friends at an early age but our friendship blossomed when I became a Pilot Office in January, 1974 and was posted to the PAF Base in Karachi. I was working in shifts and had plenty of day time off. I would hitch rides in the public transport and spend time in Landhi with Waheed and the families of my uncles. In Waheed’s home my favourite past time was cooking my favourite dishes. Waheed’s mother, whom I addressed as ‘Dadi Amma’ used to jealously guard his kitchen but would let me loose there. Waheed and I would talk about everything under the sun and stay awake till late in the night. I used to urge him to study further for a BA or B.Com degree but he had given up on studies. While I was there, he got married. I moved out of Karachi in September, 1976. He also moved to Lahore soon thereafter to work for one of the nephews of the owners of the Landhi carpet factory. He worked in the same place for the rest of his life
Waheed is survived by one son and two daughters. His elder son was a special child and died at the age of about ten. The surviving son is, unfortunately, poorly educated, unskilled and poorly employed. His younger daughter is happily married but his elder daughter has had a difficult life. She was married to her paternal cousin, son of Rasheed. The boy is not educated and worked at very low paying jobs. Frequent quarrels resulted in a divorce. Both the boy and the girl were remarried but their second marriages again resulted in divorces. As a result, the elders of the family got them remarried. They have a daughter from their first marriage who is in her teens now.
Because of my father’s industriousness and his belief in good education, we sibling’s and our careers and circumstances continued to rise rapidly, contrary, and unfortunately, to the undistinguished and indifferent circumstances of his uncle’s off springs, resulting in a huge social and economic gulf between our two families that were once very close, and similar, in the long gone past days of pre-partition India.
I feel a surge of guilt, remorse and self-reproach in not seeing Waheed in his last days. I should have shown a better sense of affection, respect and responsibility, and visited him when I had learnt of his fractured broken hip to see if he needed my help. In a way, my father was a greater man than me and I forgot the valuable lesson that he had taught me at an early age. I now
recall a bicycle ride with my father in early 1960(s). He took me from our home in Gumti Bazaar, at one end of Shah Alam Bazaar, all the way via Chuburji and Ferozepur Road to over the Walton railway crossing (there was no overhead bridge at that time). Then he turned right on a dirt road along the railway line towards opposite Kot Lakhpat, where the nascent Qainchee colony was taking shape. (It is called Qainchee, or scissors, because Walton road meets Ferozepur road here at a very acute angle). In the distance, he spotted a ‘Chabri’ frosh and said that he has found the man he was looking for. We reached near and I could see some sweets and toffees etc in the round cane basket. My father embraced the man, who looked extremely sad, gloomy and cheerless. There were hollows on his cheeks and sadness in his eyes. We were taken to a nearby hut where this man, his wife and a small child, evidently his son, lived. My father, with me in tow, sat on a charpai bed. He wanted to speak but words failed him. With his hands he gestured round the hut in a questioning manner. The man looked around and his eyes welled up with tears. My father started crying too. I understood little but started crying myself. The woman probably didn’t understand the gravity of the emotions and kept making tea.
“This is all that I could manage.” the man said.
“Didn’t you go and ask him to return your gold?” my father asked.
“I did.” He said, “But he says that he didn’t take anything and that he has set up the shop with his resources.”
They chatted for a while. Then my father got up, took out some money and gave it to the boy. We slowly rode back.
On the way, I asked my father who the man was. He said that he was a far off relative who had a thriving gold jewellery shop in Delhi. During the partition, when the great mayhem started and the Hindu gangs went on a killing spree of the Muslims, this man left his shop in the care of one of his assistants and ran to save his family, who were killed before he could extricate them to the safety of the Red Fort, where a large number of Muslims had taken refuge. Seeing that the Hindu crowds would vandalize the shop, his assistant packed away as much gold as he could and ran away. Later he would set up his own jewellery shop in Lahore's Gold saraffa Bazaar, refusing to admit that he stole anything from the Delhi shop, whose original owner, grief stricken as he was, went destitute and couldn’t find the energy and resources to start his gold business afresh.
That was my father. Here I am, lamenting my acts of omission in doing what was clearly my duty in helping out a close friend and cousin, when perhaps he needed my help most.
Some people are served a challenging hand in life. Waheed was born at a difficult time for his parents when they were still trying to find their way in a new environment in post partition Pakistan. His father had gone through a series of hardships caused by forces beyond his control and comprehension. They were used to living with an extended supportive family around them. Now they had to fend for themselves alone. There was no one around to guide the children towards good education. Looking forward to becoming a carpet mender is hardly an incentive to determined work hard. A few people do manage to overcome the obstacles and impediments, tossed in their way, to create sense and meaning of their existence. However, most are weak willed and succumb to the overwhelming odds stacked against them. They are unable to rise and extricate themselves, and their families, from the inherited deprivations and privations. They also fail to realize that good education is the key to success and an assured path to a bright, secure future. An individual or a family that is ensnared in the vicious cycle of poverty and mediocrity has either to find supreme physical energy, mental capacity and will power to break free from their meager heritage and build their own legacy, or simply fade away unsung, unknown.
My dear Waheed: Rest in peace. You will be missed.
Last edited by parvezmahmood; 05-27-2016 at 06:13 AM..
Reason: Smepping mistake