Where the heart dwells

Their lives were uprooted in 1947. Decades later, three Pakistani Americans look back, reflect and tell Daneesh Majid their stories

Where the heart dwells
Prior to the British Empire being ousted from its most prized colony in 1947, the splintering of the Indian Subcontinent along religious lines resulted in a Hindu majority India and a Muslim majority Pakistan. To this day, human bonds between citizens of both countries remain hostage to dogmatic rivalries. Although I was growing up overseas, manmade boundaries and stringent visa policies could not restrict my inner diplomat from establishing cross border people-to-people ties.

For a Hyderabadi Indian Muslim, there is a linguistic and Islamic affinity with Pakistanis. Notwithstanding the former commonality, Pakistanis ask why my Deccani sounds funny. In turn, I respond, “Why do you sound like a nawab reciting Ghalib to charm a lady into becoming his fourth wife?”

Jokes aside, the similarity ends there. To me, their flamboyance, martial spirit and extroverted nature resemble that of my countrymen up north. After all, the Radcliffe Line separating Lahore from its sister city Amritsar is political, not cultural or religious. Plus, the Urdu language and culture were not implanted from an alien planet, but came from Indian cities like Lucknow and Delhi.

A young Altaf Hussain and Benazir Bhutto
A young Altaf Hussain and Benazir Bhutto

On American soil, boundaries cannot prevent South Asians from befriending those whom their respective governments deem enemies

Besides relatives who have rarely visited after having migrated to Karachi in the 1960s, the closest thing to meeting ‘Pakistani’ brethren in India are my friends’ Lahori and Sindhi grandparents. They bought nothing but memories and mental resolve to rebuild their lives after being uprooted from what became Pakistan.

However, on American soil, boundaries cannot prevent South Asians from befriending those whom their respective governments deem enemies east (or west) of the border. Three ‘enemy’ acquaintances of mine each exude the flair of feudal U.P, the ethno-linguistic finesse of Delhi, and nostalgia of an undivided Punjab. One is a former Karachi Deputy Mayor who personifies the term Mohajir. The other is a Rampur-born Dilliwala. Another once lived close to the ancestral home of Junoon guitarist Salman Ahmad’s mother.

For better or worse, the events leading up to August 14 and 15, 1947 impacted their lives across different countries and continents.

The garage of the Nawab of Rampur, circa 1911
The garage of the Nawab of Rampur, circa 1911


Dilliwala by ancestry, Pakistani by birth, Mohajir by political affiliation, American by nationality

Stepping into his rural Maryland drugstore, the bifocal spectacle-clad Mateen Yousuf looks more like a Professor. With his intellectual air, he could well have been one - if he had shared his father’s disdain for politics. Differences between politicians turned his ordinary parents’ beautiful city into a bloody battleground.

They were inhabitants of the walled city Shahjahanabad, right by the Kazi Ka Hauz water tank near four interconnected streets; one of which still leads to the majestic Jama Masjid. Today this locality outside Chandni Chowk is renamed Kauz Kazi Market. Amidst the barbaric chaos that engulfed Delhi, masked burglars pillaged every haveli they could loot, including that of Dr. Mateen’s grandparents. Luckily when the British army intervened to quell further violence, they got transferred to a refugee camp where railway migrations were facilitated. Stories of trains containing charred, mutilated bodies were rife. Since rivers of tears and blood flowed through Delhi, the sight of the sea from the crowded sleeper car instantly quenched their thirst for a new home.

Karachi, their new coastal haven, had arrived.

As the Yousuf family reestablished itself through various business ventures, politics would once again shape their destiny. Born and raised in the Garden West neighborhood of the city, Mateen Yousuf was quite the scholar at Karachi University. Working towards a Bachelor in Pharmacy degree, he excelled in other subjects like Islamic history, political science and geology.  During the late 70s, a student movement, All Pakistan Mohajir Students Organisation, emerged to combat what they perceived as marginalisation of Urdu-speaking students at KU. In 1984, the group evolved into a mainstream political party that fought for the rights of Mohajirs - Pakistanis whose families migrated from India during partition. The Mohajir Qaumi Movement rechristened itself as the Muttahida Qaumi Mahaz after 1997. Spearheading this faction was the controversial Altaf Hussain, whom Yousuf refers to as ‘Altaf Bhai.’

Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala in the First World War
Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala in the First World War

Being an APMSO chairman, Dr. Mateen was among the many victorious candidates that the MQM fielded for the 1987 local elections. Subsequently rising through the ranks as the Kacchi Abaadi Committee Chairman (the body which oversees slum settlements) and Finance Committee Chairman, he was elected Deputy Mayor of Karachi.

Before narrating his family’s trajectory, he clarified “I belong to Pakistan, my parents to India. I am a Karachi-born Pakistani.” While his parents do not live in Delhi anymore, Delhi lives in him through his language and manners. Hence, I inquire if there are any fond memories of their old home passed on to him. He loquaciously replied, “Not really because my parents were still kids leken woh Dilli ka tehzeeb, Dilli ki taxali zubaan unho ne apne bachchon mein achcha muntaqil kiya woh adaab-o-rasm-o-rivaaj, adaab-e-nashe se barkhaas, aur hifz-e-maratib bhi. (they transmitted the culture, dialect and etiquette of Delhi to their children)”.

The Hyderabadi in me thought “khaali peeli itti fasi Urdu kaiku?” but as an Urdu literary connoisseur, the chaste language sounded pleasant. As he recounted why he left Karachi for America, I saw it as evidence that history somewhat repeated itself.

On June 19 1992, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the security establishment launched a campaign to cleanse Karachi of its ‘anti-social elements’ (meaning MQM). Due to the alleged MQM conspiracy to have Karachi secede from Pakistan, extrajudicial killings and arrests were carried out against the party.

Mirza Nazim Baig, saying 'hello' to his Pakistani-American grandchildren
Mirza Nazim Baig, saying 'hello' to his Pakistani-American grandchildren

In 1992, Dr. Mateen left his Nazimabad home and lived in safe houses like a fugitive

Upon receiving a phone call at his Nazimabad home, a voice told Dr. Mateen to leave his home, with the crackdown underway. For one month, he lived in different safe houses to avoid arrest and death like a fugitive, before returning to the Nazimabad house. Prior to another longer stint on the run, he put both hands on his wife’s and their infant child’s head, telling them “We may not even meet in this lifetime.” As government raids became fiercer, sometimes spending nights in cars was a luxury.

Life without his wife and child got tough, so a covert reunification was the only recourse. This involved many rounds of a driver picking them up at a designated spot and dropping them off at another. The pick-ups and drop-offs with different drivers and multiple locations continued for hours before they reached the small apartment where Dr. Mateen was waiting.

They spent 10 months there without seeing the sky.

Before Operation Cleanup subsided, a friend invited him to the U.S.A. With a valid visa from his previous trips as Finance Committee Chairman, Uncle Sam provided temporary refuge.  The party stressed that those who evaded the crackdown should stay in exile. When inquiring about how long he should spend in the country, the party suggested four years. During that time he aced the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board Examination. Three kids and a few years later, his green passport turned navy blue. This was like another partition after Partition.

Like his Dilli nature, politics is not something he could shake off. In the capacity of a central organizer for the MQM USA, he seeks to enlighten people about Altaf Hussain’s vision. Now as a citizen of a society with due process, the party partisan figures out how democratic ideals can be applied to Pakistan.

Mohammed Saleem, with his grand-daughter Asiya
Mohammed Saleem, with his grand-daughter Asiya

"Bloodthirsty swordsmen attacked the train, prompting them to hide in another compartment"

I ask if he would ever visit Delhi and he emphatically responds, “Yes, even as a kid I wondered about my forefathers’ home leken ab unke puraane ilaakhe aur imaratein bhi ujar gayi hoongi (now their old areas and buildings would have been withered away). And of course, he also quotes some lines that prolific Delhi wordsmith Meer Taqi Meer recited at a Mushaira when an elitist Lucknowi audience belittled the prolific poet’s origins:

“Kya bood-o-baash pooch ho purab ke saakino humko gharib jaan ke hans hans pukar ke? Dilli jo ek sheher tha aalam mein intakhaab; rehte the muntakhib hi jahan rozgaar, usko falak ne loot ke barbaad kar diya hum rehne wale hain uss ujde diyar ke.”


The Pakistani ‘Patriot’ from Patiala

“I do miss India,” says Mohammed Saleem.

The current Indian political landscape has called into question the nationalist and anti-nationalist credentials of its citizens. Saleem sahaab’s nostalgic fondness for his birthplace (or “janambhoomi” as he puts it) verifies his nationalist bonafides, right?

Except the bloodbath around his family’s newly completed house on August 14, 1947 turned him into a Pakistani overnight. Similar incidents turned many Hindus and Sikhs turned into refugee Indians too.

“Dad still remembers things from age 10 better then what happened 10 minutes ago,” mentions Saleem sahib’s son Saqib in his Punjabi-twang-ridden Urdu.

Hearing Saleem sahib vividly recall the gruesome violence in his predominantly Sikh neighborhood, one would think it happened yesterday. Born in the town of Bassi Pathana outside Patiala, the verbal portrait he painted of a syncretic, peaceful Punjab could inspire tolerance among South Asians today. Before munching on the coconuts and raisins at the nearby Gurdwara, Mr. Saleem used to utter the phrase Bismillah. Vaisakhi and Eid were like national holidays in the then princely state of Patiala. Also unique to the princely state was the Chakdari system, where land used to be bestowed upon influential feudal landlords on a nominal rent. His parents made a living doing carpentry on these lands.

This cohesion came to a riotous halt when Partition was announced. Since his closed enclave of a neighborhood was hard for bombs and bullets to penetrate from a distance, only Sikhs with swords could wreak some havoc near his home. Bloodbaths and screams were aplenty. To sooth wounds, neighbors used chili with oil - given the rarity of nearby hospitals. When Saleem sahib’s brother broke his arm, his family made the 50-kilometer trip to a Patiala hospital - unscathed. Besides the medical advice, the Sikh doctor, being a dear friend, tearfully implored them to leave Bassi Pathana soon. Upon returning to their home, people with mutilated tongues and gashed bodies flocked by the new house. Many of them were children and women.

Mateen Yousuf, in his pharmacy
Mateen Yousuf, in his pharmacy

It was time to leave India without packing their clothes. The only clothes they took were the ones they had onfor the five-mile walk to Sirhind, to catch the train to Lahore. The journey to Pakistan was not exactly smooth because when their car halted, bloodthirsty swordsmen attacking the train prompted them to hide in another compartment. Suddenly, Saleem sahib heard a military officer tell the belligerents, “no one is here.” It is as if the bodies visible from the train window in the Beas River foreshadowed the death which they narrowly escaped.

The trials and tribulations had begun when the train reached Lahore. The paltry amount of food at the station only fed women and toddlers due to shortages. From Lahore they went to Malwar where he sold cigarettes on the streets for a few weeks to help earn enough money to travel to Mandi Bahauddin via Lala Musa. After completing his schooling in Mandi Bahauddin, he eventually enrolled in the Rawalpindi Air Force College in 1963 before going back to work in his father’s wood-cutting and carpentry business in Lahore.

Bollywood provided quite the connection to his one-time homeland. He remembers the time when people slept on mattresses outside Lahore cinemas, one night before a Dilip Kumar release. The youth even had tailors stitch the shalwar that Dilip Kumar donned in Aan. I ask if he was one of those eager youth who braved the long lines and crowds, and who adored Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand. He fondly reminisces, “Nahin. Abbu karne nahin dete the. Aur Dev Anand, jab woh jawaan tha, hum bhi jawaan the! (no, Father wouldn’t permit us. And Dev Anand, when he was young, so were we!)”

Such nostalgia begged the question of whether he harboured a desire to visit. In 1984, the elusive visa finally arrived. For the past three centuries, at the Rauza Sharif shrine in Sirhind, the annual Urs festival brings pilgrims from Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. The thought of roaming the old stomping grounds a few miles away after the festival filled him with a childlike joy.

But the 1984 riots in India had thrown a wrench into his plans. And when sons Saqib and Hussain eventually settled in Northern Virginia, America became a new third abode and the desire to visit his first one subsided.

However, when in Boston, he met a fellow Bassi Pathana native, Bachchan Singh, to whom he gave directions to his old home via phone when Singh traveled to India. With a beautiful granddaughter in his lap alongside the photo of his old home, he has created a little Patiala for himself in Virginia.


The Resilient Rampuri

When family acquaintance Mirza Nabeel Baig graciously arranges for me to speak to his father Mirza Nazim Baig, he confirms my assumption that he is of Mughal ancestry.

Even though his Delhi-born parents shifted to Rampur and only returned to their city during summers, the Baig family has left somewhat of an imprint on Old Delhi. Among the cloistered lanes of Pahari Bhojla and the Chitla Darwaza, containing the neglected tomb of Delhi Sultanate’s only female ruler Razia Sultan, is a shaded alley called Saeed Gully.

This was named after Mirza Nazim’s maternal Uncle, Saeed. But it is birthplace Rampur which he sharply recalls. Their property could have very well rivaled that of a Mughal minister’s property. A big boundary fence enclosed the estate from all four sides.  Entering from the big gate there was a path that leads to a deodi. After passing the deodi the zenana khaana was surrounded by a lush garden adorned with mango trees. The deodi separated the female-only zenana khaana and the two mehmaan khaanas on the right for guests.  From the two mehmaan khaanas was a gorgeous view of a wheat-coated field next to a barn that housed horses and carts.

On those carts, his father would bring back mangoes and ghee from Rampur. Aside from the Rampuri mangoes, the local shops in Pahadi Bhojla contained heavenly appetizers - sawale, namak pare, kalmi bade and laung chudi ke kabab. Many of these delights would even be enjoyed around the Qutub Minar for picnics.

Across the estate lived a Christian named Douglas. “In those days Hindus sent us sweets during Diwali and during Bakr-Eid, we sent meat and gifts to their houses as well.” Such nostalgia begs a question as to whether he owned the notorious Rampuri knife, he laughs, “We had a servant named Baanq-e-Miya who kept a Rampuri knife. Woh ghiss ghiss ke chota sa hogaya (it wore down to a small size).Whenever fighting with someone, he would pull out the puny knife and say chaakoo maar doonga (I’ll stab you).”

Despite such abundance, Nazim Uncle’s father decided to leave India for Pakistan with violence already facilitating a mass population exchange between the two countries. The hard decision to leave behind such wealth was the easy part, as migration itself almost got them murdered.

A pall of gloom had crept over them when they reached the Ghaziabad station from Rampur. As the family stepped on to the platform, malicious eyes and stares had followed them all the way to their haveli, compounding the difficulty of leaving home. Their abundant means allowed them to take a flight to Lahore, but only after a close shave with death.  While flight arrangements were being made, trips to the Laal Qila station were being made in parallel. The only time any member would step out of the house was to inquire on flights and trains to Pakistan.

One day when a family elder got wind of a flight, a van to the airport was arranged. Passing by the Sisgunj Singh Sahib Gurdwara in Chandni Chowk, Sikhs wielding swords and kirpans ran towards their van. Because their weapons could not beat them out of the car, kerosene was poured all over the vehicle. When the first flame engulfed the vehicle, Muslims from the nearby Sunehri Mosque broke the windows and helped them out. After this terrifying incident, an extended family member in the military arranged for protection until the family successfully boarded the plane for Lahore.

His brother and father had to hawk their glimmering rings and cuff links to take care of initial expenses in Lahore. Initially they stayed with their relatives in Moti Mansion on McLeod Road, but the refugee resettlement committee allocated a house to them smack dab in the middle of Lahore in the Qila Gujjar Singh. Baig sahib then moved to Karachi to complete high school before enrolling in S.M. College there. Like many South Asians, Dubai was the next destination. Since a childhood friend had established a base there and visas were cheap to come by, he packed his bags.

He did odd jobs that entailed operating embroidery machines, and these provided some income during his struggling phase. But it was this job that would bestow upon him the technical know-how as a manager of a machinery logistics and construction company.  However, even prior to the struggle phase, things did not come easy. There were nights spent in small outdoor spaces as bedrooms… and rocks became pillows.

In a region that prematurely cuts the cord even with its diligent, enterprising expatriates, Mirza Nazim Baig still has a visa. “The U.A.E. is now my home and until they throw me in the sea,” he proudly exclaims.

And he has not looked backed to Rampur, Delhi, or Karachi since then. According to him life should be enjoyed, not squandered dwelling over the past. He does fondly reflect on the past - without living in it, of course.

That too, with his elder sister who still lives in Delhi. Much before Partition, she married into the prominent Hamdam Dawakhana owning family. Of the many visa application attempts to visit Delhi, only one was successful in 1984, prior to his nephew’s wedding. He ultimately prayed at Jama Masjid north of his Pahari Bhojla stomping grounds, which to him was another world while he was growing up. Plus he saw the Bhool Bhulaiya and many mandirs as well.

Subsequent visa rejections, though, have unfortunately prevented him from his grandnephew’s wedding. He optimistically jokes, “If my adopted country will not let me go, eventually the one I was born in will relent for my great-grand nephew’s wedding.”

Thankfully in the U.A.E. and the U.S.A., excessive visa regimes have never prevented further reunions between the siblings.

I ask if he has any message for his fellow Indians as a Pakistani. He replies, “In my company I manage 75 people. Five or six of them are Pakistani. Five or six are Bangladeshis and the rest are Indians. We get along well with each other, no complaint, no nothing.”

Like Mirza Nazim Baig emphasised, life is too short for dwelling on the past.

It is high time that both countries’ Foreign Ministries realise this. I would not venture to another city to have coffee with my next-door neighbor, so why do I have to travel to another country to meet a Pakistani?