Roots And Childhood: Growing Up Adventurous

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


We did not have birthdays in our house. I, for instance, never had one till my sister Tayyaba grew up and gave me one. However, Ahmad’s first birthday was celebrated. This must have been the time when Baba was away and Samundar Khan was our cook. Samundar Khan was a highly proficient butler and a fairly good cook. He had a bicycle which he used to ride home to Abbottabad on the weekend and the rest of the week he was his usual, dignified, polite self. He could create delectable desserts even when sugar was rationed. For Ahmad’s first birthday he made a cream cake. Everybody who came in with toys was delighted with the cake. But Samundar Khan, who was also one of the highest paid cooks in PMA, had to go when Baba returned—something which I regret to this day.

The year after Ahmad’s birth Ammi again went off to the CMH leaving me to Baba--or was it Samundar Khan--once again? This time it was a lovely spring (April) evening when I was told I had a baby sister. It was Ramazan and they had fried peas and the sky had been washed clear and the trees were full of blossom and fresh young green leaves. Such was the enchanting day when I saw Tayyaba, a baby with eyes completely shut, next to my mother. I was told that Ahmad said: ‘je ka’ [what’s this?] when he saw her first but I do not remember hearing any such remark myself. So Tayyaba also came home and mother was ever so busy. However, my father took the responsibility of looking after Ahmad at night so, even though partly, my father did share a baby’s care with my mother which is something most South Asian men of his generation did not do. By this time Shabbu Bhai too must have gone and there were no stories any longer.
I was quite adventurous even at that young age. Every time the donkey man brought a load of firewood—they burnt wood to cook food then—I jumped onto the donkey’s back and no fall could deter me from these rough rides

During this period we bought a radio (Bluepunkt I believe) which mother had really struggled—fought would be the right word—for. I was delighted with the children’s Sunday programme but Ammi loved the songs and, above all, the dramas. I had been listening to songs while playing at the house of one of my earliest friends, Javed Athar, son of Uncle Athar. His maid servant Munni, who lived like a member of the family in their house, listened to ‘Radio Ceylon’ which relayed songs. Munni, who was older than us, loved these songs. She was reputed to be a formidable housekeeper who would give no food to Aunty Athar if she didn’t toe the line. She later got married and went away. At home, though my mother did listen to songs, it was the stories and the plays she delighted in. These were broadcast at night when she had finished her work. Her work was really grueling even when she had a cook because of the two small children though, as mentioned above, Ahmad slept with Abba. The radio was an immense pleasure of her life and I was glad it was there. I too loved the plays such as ‘Qazi Ji’ by Shaukat Thanwi, the ‘Geeton Bhari Kahani’ (story full of songs) and the dastans’ which were broadcast from it. Even Abba listened over the hookah despite all his pronouncements about these entertainments not being cosher. My mother, strict in her prayers and fasting though she was, loved entertainment far too much to listen to her dour husband. In fact, despite his show of being the master of the house, she was very much in command. So, she made him listen to the stories and even enjoy them though he did not confess as much. Indeed, I rather suspect that, only in order to save face, he made a show of reluctance but actually enjoyed them as much as anyone else. As for my mother, she loved fun and she said so and, therefore, made the best of the situation.

I was quite adventurous even at that young age. Every time the donkey man brought a load of firewood—they burnt wood to cook food then—I jumped onto the donkey’s back and no fall could deter me from these rough rides. I also ventured out all alone to climb the hill on top of the Kakul village where there was a picturesque little white mosque which could be seen glittering like a little Taj Mahal in the clear winter sunshine. I remember someone gave me an orange and at one place I felt quite lonely and unprotected but pushed on and climbed up to the mosque. The view below me was breath-taking. I came down elated and narrated this tale to a very unsympathetic audience—Ammi and the servants. They all told me how children are abducted and this deterred me for a while but I went up the mountains in company, and also alone, as long as we lived in PMA. My father might have been roped in to give me a piece of his mind but it must have been so ineffectual an exercise that I do not remember it.

Another memorable thing which happened during our stay in this hut was that we were nearly struck by lightning. Though nights were cool even in the summer at that altitude of 4, 400 feet, we had no fans at that time and were sleeping out that night. Suddenly it began to thunder. We pulled the beds in and within a moment lightning struck a tree and splintered it in pieces. Incredibly enough, I remember sleeping in the lawn even afterwards. The winters were cold and it snowed sometimes. These were occasions for much fun. The children and their mothers came out as soon as the men went to their offices while the coal fires roared in the houses. We pelted each other with snow as the flakes swirled down from the grey skies above. It was quiet and almost mysterious as the flakes settled down hiding everything under a silvery white fluffy coverlet like freshly spun cotton. I loved the snow and prayed for it. I loved making snowmen too and, as mentioned earlier, made ice cream with increasing sophistication every winter if it snowed.

My friends of those years were Tariq Ahsan, Javed Athar, Tatheer Naqvi and Tariq Zafar. Both Tariq Ahsan and Javed Athar remained my friends throughout my life but Tariq Zafar’s father was posted out of PMA and I never heard of him again. Tatheer’s father, Major Naqvi, was also posted out and later one of Javed’s sisters—he had six of them—married Tatheer. Also, one brother of Tatheer, called Tanweer, became a lieutenant general in the army and headed the National Reconstruction Bureau during General Musharraf’s military rule. I met General Tanweer only one but never met his younger brother, Tatheer, who settled down in Chicago. Tatheer was a bully and often tried to humiliate me. Tariq Zafar once joined him once when we were walking back from the school. This bullying did not, however, traumatize me but I was happy when they left PMA. For some reason, possibly this little bullying but do not consciously recall that, I learned the art of fisticuffs (boxing would be too pretentious a word for it). In addition to that I learned what we called freestyle fighting which basically comprised just hitting the opponent with fists, hands, legs and in whichever way one could. Though rather thin I became an intrepid fighter whom nobody could dominate or bully by the time I was thirteen.

It was during this period that I exchanged some tennis balls for a comic book with Javed Athar thus getting a taste for comics which remains with me till now. These comics were slim booklets with pictures illustrating a story and came in several versions. There were the classics which were based upon the novels and stories of English and also some European literary classics. The other category was about Western romances (the dell series) about cowboys and red Indians (the terms native Americans or First Peoples were unknown to us). Later I also read superman, superboy, superwoman and supergirl comics which were about people who, having come to the earth from a dead planet, had the ability to fly as well as superhuman strength. Then there were the Archie comics which were basically about the adventures of American teenagers with Archie as the hero. The first comic Javed Athar gave me in exchange for tennis balls was Romeo and Juliet. Being completely hooked, I even bought one or two with my meager pocket money of which I received no fixed monthly amount but which came when I asked for it or on festive occasions such as Eid. The last memory of this hut, my childhood house, is about telling Javed Athar daily stories of our contemplated move to another hut—this time a full one entirely our own. The move took place at last and I found myself in a full hut with even bigger lawns than the last one and even more fruit trees than any place I had lived before. This was when I moved from childhood into boyhood. The year was probably 1960 and I was eleven years old.