Roots And Childhood: Imagining Ethnicity

Roots And Childhood: Imagining Ethnicity
Note: This extract is from the author’s coming autobiography titled Not The Whole Truth: My Life and Times. Click here for the third part


I received deep love from my mother but she was also critical and much given to nagging me and also Abba (I dropped the honorific Mian I used with his name as it was not the fashion in my peer group) for good measure. My father’s affection was shown through caring but not open demonstration of affection or even praise and approval. I remember, however, how he offered me his hat when I was feeling sick on the winding mountain road of Havelian. I think I did vomit and he must have thrown away that hat.

Another incident etched upon my mind is how he came to welcome me to the army truck when I came back from the school and took me home and there—Lo! and Behold! Was a treasure of beautiful pictures which I could paste on cardboard boxes. Another time he got a contrivance which showed me pictures of various kinds though there were only four sets of picture cards. I never demanded toys except once. This must have been when I was about four years old and it was in Lahore. I saw a tricycle and I actually demanded it of my parents. My father might have told my mother that it was too expensive though I have no memory of this. I do have a memory of my temper tantrum at their reluctance since I lay down in the street and acted frantically. This worked for they bought it for me and I rode it and later my younger brother, Ahmad, also used it. I was also affectionate towards my father since I remember running to greet him in one of our childhood huts. However, he was often irritable and I did not appreciate his humanity and basic decency at that time of my life.

Moreover, because of my mother’s diatribes against him, I started resenting my father as a boy and it is only now that I know that he was a decent man despite his choleric temper and control of money. I do not know whether the quarrels of my parents had a bad effect on my mind or not though, as I never saw any physical violence, it is probable that they did not. In any case we were also happy despite these quarrels. I loved the open spaces and the lovely trees and flowers and the birds which chirped in the hedges.
My parents talked of their lineage and blood (zat). Their boasting of their Pathan ancestry made me oppose all notion of ethnicity and caste and, in fact, any claim to racial or class superiority, altogether

I also loved sitting before roaring log fires on winter evenings while mother and father talked of their home—their watan—in U. P. They talked with nostalgia the pain of which I could not feel at that age. Indeed, since it implied the condemnation of the local languages (Hindko and Punjabi) and local cuisine I felt that my parents were prejudiced. From these observations I generalized that all immigrants from U. P (Hindustanis is what they called themselves) were prejudiced towards Punjabis, Pashtuns and Sindhis. This is true but my child’s mind was unaware of the psychological pressures of ‘exile’—even if that ‘exile’ is willingly chosen—and the imperative of marking boundaries for the self. I also had little evidence of the prejudice of the Punjabis and others for ‘Hindustanis’ or ‘Mohajirs’ but I knew that this must exist. Personally, I had no prejudice against anyone but was a little uncharitable to the prejudices of my own family.

My parents talked of their lineage and blood (zat). Their boasting of their Pathan ancestry made me oppose all notion of ethnicity and caste and, in fact, any claim to racial or class superiority, altogether. I could not have been more than fourteen years old when I announced that I would never use Khan with my name. Khan means chief and is used not only by Pashtuns but also the Baluch and others who claim superiority of lineage. This was a symbolic act. The pathans of India used it not simply to announce their imagined roots but actually to draw a protective wall of arrogance and pride in a land they ruled where the majority of the population was Hindu or, in some cases, Muslims who had converted from Hinduism to Islam. It was, so to speak, an announcement of assumed superiority which is what I objected to.

My parents, however, waxed nostalgic about their homeland. They talked of mangoes and how it was a fine art among the ashraf of U. P to distinguish the taste of one variety of mango from another. My father narrated how his father, the dreaded Khan Sahib, turned this into a solemn occasion when he would hold court passing around pieces of mango to be tasted. Lack of appreciation of a good variety would bring the severe reprimand of ganwar (village yokel) upon the unfortunate bungler. The result was that I sided with the poor yokel rather than the snobbish feudal lord. Indeed, once in a fit of temper, I called my forefathers ‘robber barons’ right in front of my father. He was incensed but I do not remember any corporal punishment. I still feel the same but I also understand that I was unsympathetic to norms of behaviour which had nostalgic value, a sense of distinction and identity and cultural significance for my parents. However, I did not always impose my egalitarian values upon them. Mostly I listened while the stories went on enjoying the atmosphere of fun and cordiality all around.

Another point of raillery and not quite such innocent fun was the talk about families. My father’s family was obviously more aristocratic than my mother’s but mother’s mother came from a very aristocratic background. My father made fun of mother’s small town, calling it a village sometimes, but he was always extremely respectful towards her parents. Indeed, he praised my maternal grandfather for being a sweet, kindhearted gentleman—high praise from one who did not normally praise people least of all his own father. While I enjoyed the duel about families, I made my point of view that families did not matter, quite clear. But all this did not happen in early childhood—I am anticipating.

What I enjoyed most was hearing stories from my parents and Shabbu Bhai who had come from India to study in Pakistan. I listened so intently to these stories about lions who ate little lambs (or kids), about animals whose tail could hide hosts of people, about princesses and kings, about girls in boy’s clothes, about Ali Baba and his forty thieves and Sindbad the Sailor at night when all was quiet. It was the hour of pure delight. Shabbu Bhai sometimes cut the long story short and I would not brook such shirking. I corrected him at once filling in with the precise details he had omitted. This amused everybody and they said I did not need the story tellers. But I did and the world of imagination they created is my priceless treasure from childhood.

I do not remember more of this early period except visits to a European doctor of my mother’s in the mess car—a vehicle PMA officers could hire on payment—and climbing mountains with my parents. It was on one such adventure that I, having stumbled and fallen down a steep mountain, made the classic statement: ‘Bare jor ka pahar hai’ [this is a powerful mountain]. The fact that I lisped, using ‘j’ instead of ‘z’, became a standing joke in the family. It was repeated to my amused embarrassment whenever my parents were in a tender mood towards me.

Sometime, when I was very young, we moved to another hut (number 30), again a half portion, to the East side of the officer’s colony. A little away to the north lived Ahsan Ali Khan, instructor in the ‘modern subjects’—social sciences actually. He was a political scientist which, of course, I did not know. His wife, Akhtar Jamal, was an Urdu short story writer and he himself was a poet. They had a son called Tariq Ahsan and gradually he became my best friend. But my earliest memories of Tariq are of a naïve little boy with a funny gait—he rather threw his legs backwards when he walked. It took me time to discover that he had a heart of gold.

Behind this hut were open fields with maize or other vegetables and there were huge lawns and a gnarled old mulberry tree which I climbed. It is this hut which is associated with my childhood memories. Shabbu Bhai was studying to become a doctor and he was fourteen years old! For me he was a grown up since I was only seven or so and I followed him about with much admiration. But he must have left early because I do not remember him when my younger brother Ahmad was born and that happened when I was seven. But before Ahmad’s birth something else happened which is etched on my mind as if it were yesterday.
‘Which is your qaom?’ enquired my new friend.
‘Urdum’, I answered without hesitation inventing one immediately. I had an idea of a qaom—an ethnic group or clan—and my family would say ‘Pathan’

In 1955 I was sent to some junior class, maybe it was KG 1, in Junior Burn Hall school. Up to this time I had been taught almost entirely by my mother. She, being a U.P. zamindar’s daughter, was not given any formal education beyond the Quran nazra which, of course, meant that she learned to read the Arabic script without understanding the meanings of words of the language. With this knowledge she taught herself Urdu and started reading popular magazines meant for women. So, when I was growing up my mother received the magazine Zebunnisa every month. She also read novels of Urdu, the Urdu ghazal and as many publications in Urdu as she could find. I do not know how but she had also learned some basic English and arithmetic. So, it was she who taught me English, Urdu and basic arithmetic. But when I was about four or five she wanted me to go to school and the most expensive, English-medium one at that. This was Burn Hall, run by Roman Catholic missionaries, which was the most prestigious in Abbottabad and, indeed, one of the elite schools of the country. But Burn Hall was expensive and my father argued that ordinary, Urdu-medium schools were good enough as he himself had studied in one of them. I do not remember this argument except one word, Baanaat, which was some sort of school and, for my mother, stood as the symbol of the worst form of schooling possible and, therefore, just the sort of place her husband could think of. Much later I found out that this was, indeed, an Urdu-Arabic kind of school meant probably for girls (bint means girl in Arabic). In any case, like most battles, my father lost this one also and I was admitted to Burn Hall by him. I was taken to a class room with many boys and girls and felt completely lost and disconsolate. The teacher, Miss as we called her, paired me off with a girl and somebody said we had long necks. As both of us were skinny and very fair it is possible that our necks seemed to stand out but such logic was not accessible to us. I am sure the girl was just as miserable about this aspersion as myself. I was thoroughly miserably and complained about it to my parents. Then I fell ill and the fever was diagnosed as typhoid.

My mother was frantic as I was rushed from one doctor to another and all proved incompetent. One day I was lying in the mess car as it stood in a place which had giant eucalyptus (sufaida) trees stretching out to the blue heavens. My mother gave me grapes--one by one, one by one, ever so gently—and her tears fell on my face. Then I heard her praying for my health and my father must have brought glucose for I remember drinking it. I remember very little of how I recovered but I was not forced to go back to school. I studied at home till I was grown up enough to enter in KG-3.

Another time I was in the CMH was when I was operated upon for tonsils. I often had a sore threat and fever so the doctors advised this operation. I remember counting numbers till I lost consciousness. When I came to, I had a terrible pain in my throat. Across my bed was a cadet who was so kind to me that he even carried me to the toilet that night when I was too weak to walk. We would talk and I read my mother’s Urdu magazines with romantic stories. I did not fully understand the plots since I was completely unaware of sex and did not know what romance actually meant. But I was a voracious reader and my Urdu as well as English were well above the average so I enjoyed the stories. My parents visited me and I had ice cream to eat. It was not as bad as they made it out to be.

At the age of seven, after having saved me from it as long as they could, my parents finally sent me to school. This time I was sent to the cantonment Girls Public School which must have been the compromise solution between my parents. This was an English-medium school all right but was not so expensive since it was run by Pakistanis and not Europeans. The day I was taken for admission I read the book lying on the teacher’s table upside down so fluently that everybody laughed with approval. Mrs. Hafeez and Mrs. Gondal were my earliest teachers and we had to sing English poems in chorus. There used to be an assembly in the morning and if one did not have a clean handkerchief one was in trouble because Mrs. Ghani, the principal, was a martinet of the old school who believed in the adage: spare the rod and spoil the child. During the breaks we used to sit by the grassy banks under the pines. Boys talked of smutty things which bewildered me and I made only one friend—a boy called Tariq who took me to his house during the Ramazan and whose family laughingly declared that I was to be given lunch because I could not be fasting.

This seemed like an insult but I was not fasting and the chapli kabab and nan were tempting so I enjoyed the meal.

‘Which is your qaom’ enquired my new friend.

Urdum’, I answered without hesitation inventing one immediately. I had an idea of a qaom—an ethnic group or clan—and my family would say ‘Pathan’. I immediately built up a new badge of identity with reference to my language, Urdu, and satisfied the friend. I do not know why I did not say Pathan since it was much later that I consciously decided to renounce this badge of identity. Possibly I might have felt that I would then be asked whether I knew Pashto and, since I did not do so, I would not be believed. Anyway, I said Urdum which, however, was a fictional badge of caste identity I did not use later. Indeed, I avoided all badges of identity as a grownup.

Most of my studies were still under the supervision of my mother. She also tried to teach me the Quran nazra. I was only on the first sipara—the word is Persian for thirty parts—when my parents decided that I was overburdened with too much work and postponed (as it turned out forever) my Quran study for a later period. This is a very unusual decision and one which my parents, orthodox Barelvi Muslims though they were, must have found difficult. In fact, now that I think of it, I understand how much they loved me and cared for me since both my younger brother and sister as well as my own children later were all taught the Quran nazra. Indeed, I have never heard of a Muslim child of my background not being taught this so my case was rather unique especially because I was never formally taught the whole of the Quran nazra by anybody though, as I will mention later, I rather forced my father into teaching me the pronunciation of Arabic.

I wanted either a pet dog or a cat. My father told me that his father had many dogs but both my parents could not countenance a dog in my case. They did relent when I settled for a cat instead. And one evening my father returned from Pindi with a small, lovely little kitten which had scratched him very much. I remember my delight with this lovely white kitten with the green eyes and an enchanting little mew and gave it milk which it lapped up with its little red tongue. I named it Bela, the name of a sweet-smelling flower. Bela grew up to be a big white male cat and would lie purring in the winter sunshine as the rest of the world went about its errands.

I used to make soaps and huts and buses all day long during the winter holidays the year my younger brother was born. Ammi Jan went to the hospital and I was looked after by the cook and my father. The cook then was Qalandar Shah or Baba as he was called. He was a respectable Syed from Thandiani and my father had a lot of respect for him. My father, who was apt to throw out servants after shouting at them at the least offence, rarely shouted at Baba and never threw him out. He stayed with us a long time and he was the only one who went away, perhaps when he fell ill, and came back after a year or so and was taken in again. So, Baba cooked for me and my mother’s whereabouts were kept secret as a mystery from me. One day my father took me to the CMH and there, next to my mother, lay two babies. I do not remember what I felt then but I am told that I was not in any way hostile to them. One day the babies came home and everybody, most of all my mother, seemed to be completely taken up by them. I was left pretty much to my own devices and made some more soap. Then one day when it was very cold there was much sobbing and the sick baby girl, Nur us Sabah, died. They took her to be buried and all the aunties were trying to console my mother. The other baby stayed and I called him Ahmad when I called him anything at all.

(to be continued