Roots And Childhood: Of UP, Warrior Nobles And Ancestral Tales

Roots And Childhood: Of UP, Warrior Nobles And Ancestral Tales
Note: This extract is from the author’s coming autobiography titled Not The Whole Truth: My Life and Times.


Into this Universe, and Why not knowing
Nor whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing;
And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,
I know not Whither, willy-nilly blowing

(Omar Khayyam in Fitzgerald’s rendition of the 29th quatrain)

Where does one begin from? From a large house with a huge tree (beri) with the kitchen in the courtyard below and a kind old man (my maternal grandfather or nana) with a white beard in the outer house (the mardana)? Or the time a little boy of three was given sweets by a tall English woman in a plane which flew through white, fleecy clouds? These are my earliest memories: the first of my nana’s house and the second of my flying along with my parents in a BOAC flight from Delhi to Karachi.

But let me go further back delving into family lore to reconstruct my roots, my family history. My ancestors claimed to have arrived for military service from a place now in Khyber Pakhtunkwa (KP) called Toru. A village called Mahiar was also mentioned in our family tree so my father, Sami Ullah Khan, mixed up the two and called it Toor-Mahiar. They claimed to be Yusufzai Pathans of a clan called Malla or Mulla Khel. The military commander, obviously an adventurer, who first arrived probably in the eighteenth century, was called Alam Khan and is said to have conquered large tracts of the country for some overlord, probably another Pashtun adventurer bent upon carving out a state out of the crumbling Mughal empire. He was given four hundred villages as an estate (jagir) most of which, however, were nothing more than two poor hut habitations. Anyway, whatever the estate was worth, my ancestors squandered it away. They invested in foolish business ventures and, though the family never talks about it, maybe on such gentlemanly pursuits as being entertained by dancing girls. My grandfather, Ahmad Ullah Khan, held the title of Khan Sahib and must have been a crafty feudal in the old tradition who probably took British district officers for the time-honoured obligatory shikars. Only this explains why he remained prominent in local politics all his life as well as an honourary magistrate in Bisalpur, a town in Rohilkhand, U.P, where most of the population was Hindu. He was obviously something of a tyrant too because his sons never called him anything but ‘Khan sahib’ all life. However, despite the negative propaganda of his sons, he could not be as ruthless a tyrant as he is made out to be. One story is that his private servant had done something wrong so, as a magistrate, he ordered that he should receive five lashes or pay a fine of five rupees. The poor man, in utter fright, steeled himself to receiving five lashes as he could not pay the fine. However, he was suddenly released and told that the Khan Sahib had paid his fine. Another thing which my father brought out to prove that my grandfather was very foolish with his money was that silver coins were brought out and spread in the open sunshine to keep them shiny. Some of the servants put on glue on the soles of their feet and walked all over so the coins stuck to them and they could pocket them to enrich themselves. My opinion is that my grandfather was not so naïve as not to see through this rather crude trick. He himself allowed this to happen since he did not mind such little larceny—noblesse oblige if you like. Yet another objection of my father and uncle against their father was that he was not religious. He was officially of the Barelvi school of Sunni Muslims and Ahmad Raza Khan, the pioneer of this sub-sect of Indian Sunni Islam used to stay in their house where he was feasted whenever he came to Bisalpur. It was only when the Maulana was staying that my grandfather prayed behind him otherwise he was irregular in his prayers. As for fasting, Khan Sahib is said to have fasted once in his entire life and that day he made the servants pick up even straws from all over the house. Apparently, my grandfather, though never accused of drinking or debauchery, did indulge in watching the dances of dancing girls. My eldest uncle, Rafi Ullah Khan (Bare Abba) told me a story which goes as follows. My father’s marriage was due and he had clearly told my grandmother that there would be no mujra on his marriage since it was against the shariat (Islamic law called sharia in Arabic and English-language writings). Khan Sahib also got wind of this sneaky mutiny so one day he asked in stentorian tones:

‘Lucknow se kanchaniyan ayen gi ya hamari naak kate gi?’ [will the dancing girls come from Lucknow or will our nose be cut off] he thundered.

Ji’, stammered my grandmother ‘Bacche kaehte hain ye share ke khilaf hai’ [Sir, the children say it is against the Islamic law].

My grandfather said something unprintable and stomped off followed by his two female dogs. The story then shifts to the dogs. Incredible though it may sound, these female dogs only went up to the lobby in the middle where two male dogs took over from them and accompanied them outside to the mardana. Unfortunately, though my grandmother was alive, I never verified the first story about the mujra from her. It was too risqué a matter to ask someone as puritanical as my father though I did ask him about the story of the dogs and this he said was absolutely correct.
Among Khan Sahib’s other idiosyncrasies, one was to keep not only dogs, and six of them for good measure, but also a deer, a monkey and a madman. A maulvi sahib also stayed in a room in the mardana but maulvis kept changing while the others were old boys. My grandfather also carried no money

Another accusation against my grandfather is that he was quite indifferent to his sons’ education. My father told me with pride that he had got a merit scholarship in the 8th class but the Collector (the equivalent of a deputy commissioner in the Punjab) cancelled it as he was a rich man’s son. My father wrote his application in English, which he did not know very well, and went to the Collector and tried to meet him. This was far from easy but at long last they did usher him into the presence of a red-faced Englishman. My father argued in English that this scholarship was based on merit so his father’s position had nothing to do with it. The Collector beamed at the young boy’s intrepidity and effort and gave him the scholarship. So, with this money, my father went to Pilibhit where he stayed with his mother’s family and completed his matriculation. Thus, despite his father’s indifference, my father and Uncle both got their masters degrees (father in mathematics and uncle in botany) from the Aligarh Muslim University. It was this which helped both since they got middle-class jobs while Bare Abba, who never got a formal education, remained dependent on my uncle. This was because the jagir, or part of it, was confiscated and, though some khud kasht zamindari (self-cultivated) land remained, my father and two uncles decided to try their luck in Pakistan. Khan Sahib was dead and they did not think they could live on the much-reduced self-cultivated land the law allowed them.

There are only two stories about my grandfather not being something of an ogre. The first comes from my uncle, Shafi Ullah Khan (Chacha Mian) and the second from my mother, Umme Latifa Begum (Ammi Jan). According to Chacha Mian he went riding on a rather spirited horse though he was not a good rider. The horse ran away with him but he managed to cling to it somehow till the animal, completely exhausted, calmed down and he brought it back at a slow pace. He found Khan Sahib pacing up and down and really worried about his safety. In fact, he went so far as to tell his son that he was deeply concerned. Chacha Mian never forgot it. Ammi Jan was a young bride and had never been formally taught how to cook. However, much to the consternation of everybody, Khan Sahib directly addressed the young bride approvingly and asked her to cook fish for him. My grandmother said not only that this was unprecedented but that the young bahu would now be in hot soup. However, she did add that the Khan Sahib would never actually admonish her as it was against tradition to address daughters-in-law like that. He would, however, not be above blaming the bride’s failure (that was taken for granted) on her (my grandmother). My mother did cook the fish and Khan Sahib ate it and beamed with delight and approval and even took a second helping which, again, was unprecedented.

Among Khan Sahib’s other idiosyncrasies, one was to keep not only dogs, and six of them for good measure, but also a deer, a monkey and a madman. A maulvi sahib also stayed in a room in the mardana but maulvis kept changing while the others were old boys. My grandfather also carried no money. There was a man who did this for him paying cash for any shopping he did. He must have been a brave man because in the partition of 1947 he went out with only a cane in his hand to prevent any Hindu-Muslim riots. As for his wealth, my father told me contradictory things about it. On the one hand he said his father owned large tracts of land and orchards of mangoes but on the other he also said he had divided his estate unjustly with more going to his first wife’s son (Adda) than himself and his siblings. However, the land my father and his siblings inherited must have been considerable too since I found a paper after my father’s death in which it was mentioned that 256 acres of agricultural land and 8.5 acres of mango orchard had been allotted to our family. This is a curious document as it is my uncle, Shafi Ullah Khan, who addresses the deputy commissioner of Hyderabad requesting him to add his brothers (Sami Ullah Khan and Rafi Ullah Khan but, be it noted, not his sister Afroz Begum) to the list of owners and beneficiaries. Moreover, and this is mind-boggling, my uncle also adds that the worth of the land in cash may be reduced by Rs 10, 000 as it was over-valued earlier. Nobody knows what happened to this land as my uncles died before my father and there is no other supporting document. Perhaps it was sold for a song and my father and uncle built their houses from the proceeds of the sale. Anyway, let us go back to the estate of my grandfather. It was also said by people who should have known about it that the management of the land was so bad that there was very little cash left in the house. However, quite paradoxically, my father also maintained, though he remained secretive about it, that they had buried gold somewhere in the house. If the cash was so less where did that gold come from? And what about the silver coins left to the servants’ kind attentions? These questions were never answered by anybody. I have never seen that house in Bisalpur nor do I remember anything about it at all.

I do, however, remember the house of my maternal grandparents’ (Nana Mian and Nani Ammi). It is, as I said above, probably my earliest memory. As I mentioned above, this was a haveli with rooms in a row, a verandah, and two courtyards. The upper courtyard had a well and the lower one had a kitchen and a beri tree which I have mentioned earlier. The house had two parts: a zenana, where the women and the children normally lived; and a mardana, when the men lived. The zenana, which I remember more clearly, had a wall and some rooms on the other side of the wall. The latrine was open and very smelly. There was no water closet. Outside, in the mardana, there were rooms and again an open courtyard beyond which was the huge gate of the haveli. This is where my maternal grandmother, Nana Mian, lived. I do not know whether I remember all these details since the age of three, when I first became conscious of the world around me, or whether I picked up the details when I visited this house with my mother when I was six or seven years old and again when I was forty and then fifty-nine years old. For instance, I remember a ride on a laehru, a two-wheeled cart pulled by two huge oxen, with my Nana. He was taking me to a village which, I was told, was their property as they owned most of the land around it. However, I remember nothing of the village. This memory is probably from my visit to India when I was seven or so. But what could not have been of any later time was the image of an old, wrinkled, dark little woman, my Bua, the woman who took care of me when I was a baby. This must have been from this early period which ended in 1952.

(to be continued)