England Years: Of Books And Babies

"At Cambridge they would take me in MPhil leading to PhD while in Sheffield I was directly in the PhD programme. Thus, I chose the easy way out as is my wont and stayed in Sheffield"

England Years: Of Books And Babies

Note: This extract is from the author’s coming autobiography titled Not The Whole Truth: My Life and Times
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Among the less frequent visitors were Soomro Sahib and some other people whose names I have forgotten. People came from Pakistan and joined us and one of them was Naveed Sahib whose major boast was that he was a ladies’ man par excellence. I also made friends with a Bangladeshi student, Raihan who was also married and his wife, Yasmin, also came to visit us. The flat above us was occupied by Dr Pareira, his wife, Chandrika, and infant daughter. Sometimes we took advice from them about looking after a baby and, of course, all the animated discussions of South Asian politics and putting the world right with Chandramohan playing a leading role took place in his flat. I did very well in my MA and Yasmin met Hana and asked her if I would stay on for a PhD. Then Dave said the same thing to Hana and she told me to go to Heywood. I had always had so exalted an opinion about the doctorate that I had never imagined I could ever get such a high degree. Hana was only twenty-three at that time and quite innocent of wifely wiles but she came up with an argument which I found unanswerable. The conversation went like this:

I: The PhD is a very difficult degree to obtain. There are only two or three PhDs in English literature in Pakistan and I will certainly fail.

Hana: But you say there is no work here and they pay you for studying which is your hobby and nobody has ever encouraged you for just studying.

I: Yes, it is not work. It is just lazing around reading books and they pay you too.

Hana: So, imagine another two or three years of just lazing around. No work. No office. That would be fun.

I: But when I fail?

Hana: Well, then we will see. Most people won’t even find out and our immediate family will be contented with this degree of M A which you have already got.

This was too tempting so I started thinking about it. I dared not say PhD even to myself. It seemed so elusive; so much above my image of myself; so unreal; that I felt the whole exercise would be pointless. But then I would have a decent scholarship and get the chance of reading books for another few years. I was seduced. I decided to do it. Surprisingly, Heywood was most encouraging. However, since I was already late and the British Council was entertaining me only on Heywood’s word, some kind of paper work was necessary. Hence, I wrote a rough proposal on a piece of paper-–the sort of thing no university would entertain now--and I was given a scholarship for two years and admission in PhD in English literature. Dr Bentley did suggest that I should go to Cambridge as my M A thesis was outstanding but I decided to take no chances. At Cambridge they would take me in MPhil leading to PhD while in Sheffield I was directly in the PhD programme. Thus, I chose the easy way out as is my wont and stayed in Sheffield. I chose Heywood as my supervisor and decided to go home before starting work on my thesis. So, in the golden sunshine of October of 1982, I and Hana travelled to Pakistan to enjoy a month and half of holidays. The holidays went fine. Ammi was most careful about Hana’s condition. Tayyaba too was in the same condition. I and Ahmad were admonished if we drove fast or took them on bumpy roads. We were given treats and delicacies were cooked for us.

By the middle of December, we came back to Sheffield. I started studying for my PhD thesis though at this stage I was unsure of what I would do. The topic I had scribbled on the rough note to Heywood was “Homosexuality in English Literature.” However, more than that I was keen to debunk some of the idols of my supervisor and the English literary establishment of the time. One of these idols was D. H. Lawrence. I thought Lawrence was cruel so I called him “The Priest of Hate” while they all associate him with love. I had deliberately chosen this title to provoke the English literary establishment, especially by supervisor, since they all thought much of H. T. Moore’s biography of the novelist called The Priest of Love (1974). This was hardly pragmatic but I was given to argumentation and I did not think supervisors could be so mean as to mind an intellectual debate. In this instance, more due to good luck than anything else, Heywood turned out to be a perfect sport and nobody said a word to me.

I took Dave and Billie for a treat to a pub I had never visited before. There I met a girl who called herself a witch

Hana used to go to the doctor and soon February, the month in which our baby was expected, was upon us. Tayyaba’s son Umair was born and Faiz and Seema’s son, Fahad, was also born but our child showed no sign of appearing. Hana was worried as was my mother whom I rang about it. However, one winter morning, the 11th of February 1983, when the snow covered the ground, Hana told me that she was in labour pains. I called the ambulance and followed by car to the Nether Edge Hospital. She was taken to the labour room and the doctor invited me in to see the birth of our child. As Hana had been given epidural, a pain killing drug, she was not in pain nor did she cry out. As the baby’s head became visible the doctor, an efficient and cool woman, said: “oh your baby has a hairy head.” Then a very small human creature came into the world and cried. The doctor gave it, a tiny girl, to her mother and then to me. I held the little thing gingerly and felt melting with unexpected affection. I felt like protecting it and imagined she had smiled at me.

“Please take care of my daughter,” I pleaded to Hana as if she would be unkind to her. Hana smiled and pointed out how very small – only about four pounds – the baby was. And because of that the little thing was shifted to an incubator. Hana used to press the bell and ask about her – we called her Tania later – every now and then. She says the nurse never got angry, never seemed fed up with her enquiries, and never lost her temper or patience. We were much impressed by the British healthcare system. It was almost completely free and it was both efficient and caring. I was highly supportive of the welfare state.

That evening, I took Dave and Billie for a treat to a pub I had never visited before. There I met a girl who called herself a witch. She told me the outline of her beliefs but I forget what questions I asked her. It was bitterly cold that night though it was not snowing. And it remained cold even when we brought Tania home. We had overheated the house but we thought the baby would be cold.

“This is the time of the greatest problems since the baby can’t even say if anything is wrong,” I wailed to Dr Pareira.

“Well. I don’t know,” he replied sagely, “the problems change but every age has its problems.”

I and Hana, however, felt this was the worst time. Tania was so frail because her mother’s placenta had stopped functioning properly. Maybe she had not taken adequate, nourishing food or missed out on iron tablets since she hated taking medicine. Maybe her father’s untimely death had put a great stress on her. Whatever the reason, Tania was so small and frail that Hana worried incessantly about her. Tania was also prone to stomach ache (colic) so she would sleep less and cry more thus keeping both of us awake. We were completely inexperienced and, although the friends Hana had made (Riaz, Laiqa, Shamsa Baji etc.) did visit us, they too were young and inexperienced. So, one day Hana got so fed up that she said she would go to Pakistan. I agreed but where was the money for the air ticket?

The money came through the time-honoured way we used to treat each other. We emptied out our pockets and the coins bought something we could share. Now Dave, Raihan and maybe Chandramohan pooled in resources and I bought the ticket. However, we and our friends had no idea of bureaucratic red-tape, so we were taken aback when Gay Taylor rang Hana to tell her that the baby had to be entered on her passport otherwise she would not be allowed to exit the UK or enter Pakistan. When informed that we had done nothing of the kind, she kindly asked the consulate of Pakistan in Manchester to wait for us since the flight was only one day later. On the day of the journey, I went out to collect some money for the petrol and the food and got very late. Indeed, I did not realise how late I was but when I reached home Hana came into my arms weeping uncontrollably. I was really touched and felt that we were close. My eyes were also wet and I felt that warm feelings, attachment—love which kept growing—for her inundated my being and I could not speak. This incident brought us closer though it was apparently a very small happening. We drove across the Pennines and reached Manchester late in the afternoon. The consulate staff proved to be totally indifferent. Even worse, the officer in charge started on a wrong note. He asked us for our marriage certificate. This made Hana so incensed that she gave him a tongue-lashing pointing out the contrast between Mrs. Gay Taylor of the British Council and the consulate official.

“How do you expect me to have this baby if I am not married?” she thundered at him as both of us, the official and myself, tried to look as small and inconsequential as possible. The official did not reply though later while driving back I told Hana that such a thing was entirely possible and, not withstanding that this was supposed to be a joke, I got my share of renewed tongue-lashing. At that time, however, I prudently kept quiet. The official was abashed or maybe he thought he had bothered us sufficiently because he registered Tania at once and we drove back across the stunningly beautiful British countryside reaching our house at night. Next day I took Hana to London and she took off for Pakistan.

Soon after her departure I went to study in the British Museum in London where I read the works of obscure English writers like Ralph Nicholas Chubb among others. I lived with Uncle Barni, my father’s friend, and very often walked all the way from the British Museum to his flat about four miles away. In between I came to Sheffield because Laiqa, one of our friends who was then an attractive young woman being courted by a Pakistani friend of ours called Aslam, had arranged a lecture of mine (liberal movements in Islam) at the Sheffield City Hall. This lecture went so well that I became a minor celebrity almost overnight. Later, because of it, I was offered a part-time lectureship in Urdu at Richmond College. However, I left after a few months since I felt it interfered with my work though it was only on two evenings.

It was probably in July when Hana came back. I went to receive her to Heathrow and when she emerged my heart leapt up with joy. She looked fine and along with her was the baby who perked up and looked at everything with much interest. I leapt to the baby but she ducked her head close to her mother. Then she peeked at me from behind her mother and again ducked back.

“She’ll be friends soon,” said Hana with a smile.

And sure enough, in the coach to Sheffield Tania played hide and seek and then smiled and came in my arms. She immediately got hold of my glasses and would have wrenched them off my eyes had I not held them firmly. And so, we came to Sheffield.

I had bought a new car, a Vauxhall, just before Hana had arrived. So, we started taking Tania out on days which were fine. The Peak District is beautiful, especially in the summer, and we loved to go and watch the sunset there. We had many friends now. Riaz was Tania’s greatest fan. She was a very decent kind-hearted girl who became a very good friend of Hana’s. She and Laiqa took Tania for walks and Hana complained that Tania was so happy with them that she did not even miss her mother. Then there was Shamsa Baji who cared for Hana and Tania as if the former was also a child.

We used to hold many parties. People would bring dishes or prepare them where they had cooking facilities and very often at our house. Then there was singing and a lot of talking and joking. Sometimes I indulged in intellectual discussions with Richard, Chandramohan and Dave. These discussions were mostly political or philosophical. I would argue against the selfish individualism of the West saying that it weakened the support systems of the society. Others pointed out that it gave freedom. I agreed with this and even wanted it but I also wanted security and stability. I, did, however, support the welfare state and even talked of establishing a more egalitarian welfare state with the workers owning the means of production and competing against each other. All my English friends, however, disagreed with my critique and especially my scepticism about individualism – actually selfish and aggressive individualism. Richard was especially vehement in his opposition so when I received a letter from him in Pakistan much later agreeing with parts of it, I was agreeably surprised. But this was because his girlfriend had jilted him. I was very sorry when he committed suicide a little later. His first novel had come out and he could have found happiness had he not given up so soon.

Another one of our English friends was Priscilla. She was highly emotional, excitable, and a psychologically disturbed young woman who could flare up at imagined provocations. She was also an aggressive feminist whose marriage had broken up because she did not believe in having babies on the ground that men did not have them. In time Priscilla became a friend of Hana’s and a great admirer of little Tania. She really let her guard down with Hana when I was away confessing that she had missed out on the family. She now hankered for a little baby like Tania. But her life remained lonely. One day I and Hana went to visit Priscilla – I believe this was before Tania was born – and found her door open but the room locked from inside. I thought she had committed suicide. Hana said somebody might have got in and done away with Priscilla. The night was dark, cold and so morbid that we believed the worst. I went in and Hana tried to hold me tight. I pulled myself free telling her to sit in the car and went up the dark staircase. There was nobody there. Then I came out and called the neighbour who, in turn, called the police. The police arrived and decided to jump in from the window. At that time Priscilla came back. We were immensely relieved but all of us asked her about the mystery of the door locked from inside. It seemed that she used another side door none of us knew about and so the mystery was solved. This was one of the last times I took such risks. The last time, as I remember, was when I entered Riaz and Laiqa’s house in the same mysterious circumstances and found her friends sleeping upstairs. With advancing age, I found myself unwilling to take risks.

We travelled all over the English countryside in our car. The journey to the Lake District, which we undertook with Naseem, was very memorable. As I had read so much about Wordsworth, I enjoyed it thoroughly. I also stopped the car where the Bronte sisters lived. The heath around it still had a romantic wildness which reminded me of Heathcliff wandering about crazed for Catherine. I, Hana and Naseem did not like the cold and windy place but they loved Lake Windermere. We sailed on it too and had fun. Later, after Naseem’s departure, we went to Blackpool, Liverpool, York Cathedral, Lincoln Cathedral, Bath, Wales, Cambridge, Oxford and the Duke of Devonshire’s house. We also went to Paris with little Tania. Out of all these visits I remember the ones to Wales, Cambridge and Paris most vividly.

We went to Wales twice but the trip I remember best is with my cousin the late Riaz Khan, my Uncle Shafi Ullah Khan’s son. He had come to take his FRCS examination after his MBBS from Karachi and we invited him to stay with us. As he was not feeling very welcome at Sultan Bhai’s house, he came over willingly. Hana and he hit it off very well because both pretended to watch their weight while encouraging each other to keep eating all the chocolates, ice creams, chips and crisps they could get hold of. Riaz would skip lunch to appease his conscience but made it all up on the weekly binge which was not really weekly. When he went out with me, it was fish-and-chips all the way. Hana did not even pretend to do anything like dieting as she went after Knicker Bocker Glory (ice cream) with Riaz and Shamsa Baji with a vengeance gorging herself on two huge cups of it as, indeed, did her companion. Moreover Chandramohan, when he was staying with us, also brought her chocolates. 

One sunny day I decided that we should go to Wales immediately. It was sunny after a long time so I decided not to let the opportunity slip by.

“Get up Riaz we are going to Wales,” I told him.

“Don’t joke Tariq Bhai,” guffawed Riaz but he got up all the same.

When he came down Hana and Tania were ready. Tania’s little face peeped out of her blankets and bonnet. “Goo! Goo!” she told Uncle Riaz and splattered saliva and the remains of her diet of milk. Hana told him to get some breakfast because we were about to take off.

“How come Bhabi? – But there’s no money,” said Riaz in astonishment.

“There’s never any money,” I told him philosophically, “but I have a card.”

Riaz could hardly believe it. In his house one never went anywhere; and if one did, the programme was finalized at least half a year back and amended a dozen times.

So, within half an hour we were away and in such high spirits too. The cash ran out soon enough but I got the money out of an ATM right on the Welsh border probably in the scenic town of Chester. Wales was so beautiful that we were fascinated with it. At Llandudno the blue sea jutted against the dark greenery of the land as the sun set in flaming red in the west. We went on in the late summer evening for about an hour and then found a bed-and-breakfast at a little Welsh house. Next day we drove through Wales to Cardiff and then by night to Birmingham. Soon after the precincts of the city I suddenly found myself blinded in a mist on the motorway. It was a frightening thing to feel trapped on a motorway where we could be hit by speeding traffic from any direction. Everyone else in the car was asleep. I found myself panicking. But it was only for a moment as the mist cleared a little. Hana and Riaz woke up and were frightened. Then they wiped the wind screen and we sped on to Sheffield. It was early in the morning – by 1 am or so – that we reached home. Riaz’s great adventure was over. Riaz did not take all the examinations and my uncle told him to come back home. He too wanted to go since he was about to marry the girl he loved. So, in December 1983, on a cold, dark, day right on the last day of the year, Riaz left for Pakistan. We had really enjoyed his visit of about six months.

By this time, I finally decided to write a different thesis altogether. Heywood had breezily told me that my thesis—on homosexuality in English literature—was a “hairy monster.” He never gave lengthy comments and I did not want any. In fact, we met formally very less since I did not seek appointments with him. However, he was very insightful so he knew it was impossible to write anything about the whole of English literature as a doctoral thesis. I too agreed and on a cold day in December, as Hana was listening to Faiz Bhai singing a song, I sat down in our small room and wrote a rough proposal about a thesis on homosexuality in the works of E.M. Forster. Heywood warned me that everybody and their aunt had written on Forster and literary giants simply tore people up if they dared to mess with Forster. However, I was adamant that I would do just this. It was December 1983 and I had wasted one year of my PhD in researching an undoable thesis and, even more unaccountably, trying to prove my supervisor and the literary establishment wrong. So, I started reading all there was to read on Forster—there was a lot of it I learned to my dismay—and then took to travellign to Cambridge since the Forster archives were located in King’s College there. I would stay in a rented room in the city and go daily to the archives. Thus, I came to know Cambridge very well as I studied in the archives all day and sat in the library of the college late at night very often. I loved the place and especially the walk to Grantchester and the backs of the colleges. Thus, my thesis was partly written in Cambridge but submitted to Sheffield. In the winter Cambridge could be dark and cold and chilly. 

Having praised Cambridge so much, Shamsa Baji who lived with us at that time as both Faiz Bhai and Chandramohan had departed, also wanted to visit it. So, all of us went in the summer to Cambridge for a day. Hana and Shamsa Baji were full of admiration for the colleges and I, who had always loved the place, felt like I was meeting an old friend. Tania sat on my shoulder – as a picture confirms – while Hana desecrated the medieval grace of the colleges by looking around for Knicker-Bocker Glory of all things. We also met one of Hana’s friends from school, Aansa, in the garden of Newnham College. It was spring and the trees were in blossom. Cambridge had put on its best appearance to welcome us. Cambridge behaved admirably since it did not even rain both Hana and Shamsa Baji went back with a good impression of it.

(to be continued)