Of Patriotism, Poetry and Honour

Zeinab Masud remembers her father’s life of dignified service to Pakistan

Of Patriotism, Poetry and Honour
It was exactly one year ago. Seattle was luscious in early springtime bloom and I was reluctantly packing my bags to go to Karachi for two weeks. Reluctant because after a dreary north-west winter, Seattle was finally stirring to life and the warmth of an otherwise elusive sun gladdened the senses. But across the world, my Abajan was unwell and so I prepared to go home to Karachi’s cosy, chaotic embrace.

Before I left, I looked around at the new townhouse we had just moved into and at the ominous array of unopened boxes. I told myself: it was just for two weeks. I would soon be back in Seattle to continue settling in to my new space. But those two weeks turned into several months in Karachi and I spent the summer of 2018 watching the day-by-day weakening of my very brave father.

Mahdi Masud

There I was, back in my father’s Karachi apartment. A space full of gorgeous light and memories of love: the kind of riches money cannot buy, his adored array of books, priceless photographs and momentos from countries that he had served in.

Abajan sat waiting for us in his coffee colored arm-chair. This was one year ago when I had the luxury of knowing that Pakistan was still home and Abajan was still there.

As I sat with him, sensing his increasing frailty, I couldn’t help reflecting on the successful and vital life he had led, on the warm and happy home our parents had created for my brother and I. It was a home that could be trusted to keep us safe,a father who exemplified decency and practiced moderation in the life he led.

My parent’s union began years ago, when a young and handsome student of diplomacy at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, Mahdi Masud, wrote to his cousin Nigar Raza on pale pink note paper, asking her to be his wife. Nigar realized that her “tree-vaulting, horse-riding, running away with the dhobi’s cart” days were over. She said “yes”.

The Shah and Shahbanu of Iran as they return to Tehran after a visit to Pakistan. Author's parents in line to receive them

In the diplomatic service, they did Pakistan proud. Their home was warm, welcoming, filled with impassioned dialogues of poetry and politics. From foreign dignitaries to family in need, everyone was important in my father’s home.

My father’s life was a lesson not just for his children and grandchildren but for the world. In 1952, a young Mahdi Masud topped the examination results of the Central Superior Services. But it was not just the accomplishments themselves which shaped him. It was the treasure trove of knowledge which he carried with him over the years. It wasn’t enough to have scored a brilliant exam result.

Abajan used his wisdom with care and times with him were moments of enlightenment. Whether it was American politics or Mughal history, Ghalib or Byron, evenings in my father’s presence enriched our minds, our souls. His photographic memory was brilliant.

1953 - engaged, while at the Fletcher School, to Nigar Raza, daughter of poet Syed Aley Raza

Our dining table conversations were never about money, land or wealth, (we had none of that), they were centered on life, philosophy, books and ‘shair-o-shairi’. Mini ‘mushairas’ could break out at whim. With little sign of ending anytime soon.

Abajan had jokes for all occasions and he reveled in humor, at times even when it was at his expense.

He’s been the main character in many of my light-hearted articles where I’ve spoken at length about his love of sweets, ‘chupkali’ (lizard) phobia and tendency to fly over speed breakers during his driving days. ‘Dear Ole Dad’ as the articles referred to him, always chuckled the loudest when he read these pieces with him as the central figure. His particular favourite was the incident where an earthquake was jolting phase five residents out of their beds and as my mother tried to drag me (very pregnant) and my father out of the house, Abajan said “Biwi, woh Mackintosh toffees zaroor saath rakh le na!” (Wife, do keep those Mackintosh toffees with you!) And all the while, Phase five was swaying in a fairly terrifying manner.

Extensive travel added to his arsenal of anecdotes. Abajan served as Ambassador to Jordan, Kuwait, Belgium, Germany, the E.E.C and NATO. He also served with missions in Washington, Ottawa, New Delhi, Colombo and the U.N. Abajan rejoiced in the diversity of cultures he experienced and taught us to do the same, merely by leading by example.

My brother and I both enjoyed being in homes in different countries, different continents. We learned to embrace the new, the foreign. And when it was time to move on, we trusted our parents with the new paths they pointed out, the different places we had to embrace as home. We saw my father’s willingness to be open to the unfamiliar and we learned to trust.

A man of discipline and a devoted patriot, his nerves were harshly put to test in 1971 in Calcutta. He was arrested by India and held for several months. It was a frightening and unpredictable situation but my father kept his composure, his calm.

Decades later, he told his family that he would keep reciting poetry to himself during those dark days.

Softly murmuring his favourite couplets while his captors made sure that for several months, no sunlight reached his, by then, weary body. He kept his mind and soul intact with his immense love of beautiful verse. And those verses stayed with him till the end of his days.

Over the years, his brilliant memory allowed him to regale his family and friends with the choicest of couplets. My parents rejoiced in the company of visitors from both far and near. During our various postings, my father’s home warmly welcomed the family and friends who stayed with us and my childhood memories are full of familial bonds which only strengthened over time.

Sadly in his last few years, my father was deeply lonely. His children were not in Pakistan and the social buzz of Karachi was whirling on, while an elderly man found the space around him to be an increasingly cold and lonely one.

The demise of a parent is heartbreaking under any circumstance and for anyone. In this particular case, my brother and I battled the fast dawning realization that our very strong, extremely disciplined father was losing his grip on life and on his cherished independence. His great memory and flawless recitation of poetic verse was still there but only because of his huge determination to make sure that it stayed so.

s my father grew weaker, the verses he recited grew shorter and Abajan would look down after quoting some lines, his gaze, modest and careful.

He appeared shy in the face of his gradually waning, once brilliant memory. His great will was no longer able to overpower the weakness of his body, as it had done over the past some years. And so I watched. The day-by-day decline of this amazing grace, where will surrenders to the passage of time. His back had bent further, his cane was no longer enough, he needed human support. His appetite declined and his frame grew frailer.

And as I watched, I remembered everything he stood for, the clarity and morality with which he had lived his life. And as I watched, I saw that despite his fragile state, his incredible love for, and patience with his young grandson remained strong, unwavering. With a twinkle in his moist eyes, he would watch my son and his four friends create an uproar with their X-box games.

With utmost respect, he would ask my son, a young child, if he had had a good day. He wanted to make sure that his grandson was comfortable. And all this while, my father was aware of the fading light that surrounded his own elderly self.

A devoted grandfather, my nieces and my son all felt the secure, deep love of their Ajam, their Naana.

I had arrived in Karachi on the first day of April, a day before my father’s 91st birthday. We celebrated with a cake and a couple of family members. But the mood was somber as we could see that my father was valiantly struggling to stay strong, to keep going. From his exquisite collection of carefully kept shirts, he had chosen to wear a pale pink one. Always elegant and impeccably dressed, I saw him bend down, feeble but determined to blow out the solidly standing candle.

My father’s infallible ethics stayed with him till his last breath. Throughout his Foreign Service career and after, he remained true to the Pakistan he served, the government he worked for. His dealings with his fellow men were equally honest. As clear as crystal water. He would say that he worked for Pakistan, never a particular political party. He could not be purchased. This was true. The price didn’t exist.

When he slept, our mother (not prone to frequent compliments) would say “there lies a man with a clear conscience.”

The sheer consistency of his honest dealings was impressive. It wasn’t just that he did not falter, but that he did not consider faltering.

His patriotism was pure, shining. There is no other way to describe it. At his final resting place, the flag in green and white is carved in stone. Testimony to the land he loved so dearly. Years ago, when a wise friend introduced me to my husband-to-be, she said “Yeh shareeef baap ki shareef beti hai.” I cannot, in any way, compare to the immense honesty and dignity of my darling Abajan but I am happy to bask in the glory of his untainted reputation, his unblemished name.

That is more than enough reason to hold my head very high.