Requiem for an ordinary life

In remembering a beloved relative, Parvez Mahmood ended up telling the story of his family - of survival under colonialism, war, mass migration and the glaring inequalities of independent Pakistan

Requiem for an ordinary life
Waheed bid farewell to this world on Monday, the 25th of April, 2016. He was my father’s cousin and my dear friend. Decades of heavy smoking, unhealthy food and complete lack of physical exercise had led to a weakened heart that he failed to protect - through an indifferent attitude to medical advice. His fragile and limited sources of income compounded his difficulties. The regressive middle-class values that have hindered the progress of millions of Pakistanis, coupled with incomplete education and inadequate vocational skills, served to keep him weighed down on the lower rungs of socioeconomic ladder. His ailing heart had been diagnosed a decade earlier as being too weak to undergo an angioplasty to open up his clogged arteries. Over the previous two months, his condition and circumstances had become very precarious due to a triple fracture of his hip bone that he sustained due to a fall on a patch of street outside his home - that usually remained slippery from a lack of cleaning. He never walked or got up from his bed again. He was taken to hospital but the doctors found him, once again, physically unfit to undergo the surgery involving metal plates and screws that would have allowed him to be back on his feet. He went to his grave just like that - with a broken hip and an ailing heart.

I learnt about his demise at 2 p.m. I had recently come back after a year abroad. On this particular day, I was finding myself unable to cope with my various engagements. I had been out in the city since morning on an urgent business engagement to conclude a contract.

Axis propaganda from the Second World War encouraged Indians to help defeat the Allies, who included the British colonial empire
Axis propaganda from the Second World War encouraged Indians to help defeat the Allies, who included the British colonial empire

Back in Amritsar, the family assumed Waheed's father had become a victim of Japanese cruelty

Our lives had taken starkly different trajectories since our friendship began over five and a half decades ago, when we were starting our lives and were living under very similar conditions.

I cancelled my engagements and boarded a coach for Lahore. I travelled with a saddened and gloomy heart. The funeral prayers, I learnt, were to take place after Isha prayers at a mosque near his home. My younger brother had sent his driver to pick me up. Showing much good sense, he had dispatched him on a motorcycle. We made it to the mosque about five minutes before the funeral prayers. In a car, we couldn’t have negotiated the narrow lanes of the lower middle-class neighbourhood of Krishan Nagar in time.

After the prayers the Imam lifted the veil of the burial cloth and I saw for the last time the face that I had known so intimately. I recalled all the traits of his personality; his usual obstinacy, occasional obduracy and everlasting love - typical of the youngest sibling. We shared much from our past; some of which I can recount here, some I dare not.

Japanese soldiers execute blindfolded prisoners of war from the British Indian Army
Japanese soldiers execute blindfolded prisoners of war from the British Indian Army

This obituary is a tale of ordinary people belonging to a close-knit artisan family, about their socioeconomic transformation over the relatively small timeframe of five decades, the scattering of their various branches and the role of education in quickly lifting a family from ignorance and poverty to far higher standards. It would, therefore, be incomplete without going into our family history.

Our forefathers migrated from Kashmir to Amritsar to avoid economic hardship. Kashmir and Punjab were two separate independent states at that time, with well-defined boundaries - the former ruled by Abdali/Durrani Pathans and the latter by a fiercely strong Sikh statesman. My ancestor Saddique Shaikh belonged to the Hindu faith, and he was the one to migrate from Kashmir and convert to Islam. Accounting for an average of 30 years per generation, this places our ancestor’s migration close to the year 1820. This would be the time when, following the defeat of its Afghan rulers by Ranjit Singh at the battle of Shopian in 1819, the political and social life of Kashmir went through a profound change. Incorporation of the state into Punjab allowed thousands of Kashmiris to settle in the nearby areas of the Sikh state in Gurdaspur, Sialkot, Narowal, Gujranwala, Ludhiana, Amritsar and Lahore.

Crowded refugee trains depart from Amritsar in 1947
Crowded refugee trains depart from Amritsar in 1947

My father had gathered and remembered a good deal of family history but, unfortunately and strangely, he never got down to writing it even though he was a keen diarist. According to him, as narrated to me at a young age, some of the family members were simply ‘coolies’ and were called ‘Hat?o Log’. While carrying heavy loads on their backs along the undulating roads of cities in Kashmir, the coolies would keep shouting ‘hatto!’ with a soft ‘t’ - Kashmiri for ‘get aside’ - so that they could keep moving. Stopping and restarting with a very heavy sack on their back, sometimes supported by a rope around their head, this must have been backbreaking work. Those who heard them started calling them ‘Hat?o Log’.

Most members of our family were petty artisans such as ‘qali-gars’ (utensil polishers), ‘rafo-gars’ (carpet menders), tailors and jewelers. The members of paternal branch of my father’s family were ‘rafoo-gars - the weaving of carpets and shawls took the form of a cottage industry in Kashmir. Waheed’s father, like his elder brother (my grandfather) and their father before them, was a carpet ‘rafoo-gar’ (mender) but had mastered the various aspects of carpet weaving itself - knowledge that served him well to settle early, and comfortably, in the difficult days following the Partition of 1947. On the other hand, this success made him so secure that instead of educating his sons, he made them learn the fading art of carpet mending. He and his sons didn’t value the promise of good education. Lacking education and profitable skills, they were neither able to make a comfortable living nor to provide a good education to their own children. The only exception was Waheed’s elder brother, Hameed, who passed his B.Com to become an accountant. A promising start though it was, he, too, did not study further.

My grandfather, Ameer Baksh, died young in 1926. My father, second of four brothers, was only four years old at that time. My grandmother, Shahmali alias Wazir Begum, became dependent on her brothers, who had moved on from being ‘qali-gars’ to become successful wholesale traders of cloth. In fact, they were the only Muslims in the city’s cloth market, which was dominated by Sikhs and Hindus. Living with them allowed my grandmother to educate her children. My elder uncle, Ghulam Sadiq, passed his Intermediate Science and became a guard in the North-Western Railways - the section that comprised the railway network north of Lahore. My father and a younger uncle, Irshad Hassan, did their matriculation and joined Amritsar Railway Workshop. The youngest uncle, Manzoor Hassan, who was born a few months after the death of his father, completed his matriculation and began earning his livelihood in Pakistan after Partition. The offspring of all the four brothers were to go on to higher levels of education and economic success.
Luckily, our family made it to the railway station. Those who tarried faced the brunt of Sikh brutality

I occasionally imagine that had our grandfather lived out his normal span of life, his children and grandchildren - including me and my brothers - who have done well in life (and are even able to reflect back on life and write this article), would probably have followed careers in carpet mending or jewelry, or at best, in accounting and ledger-keeping.

Waheed’s father was the younger brother of my paternal grandfather. Due to incredible age differences in large families, Waheed was my father’s cousin but just about two years older than me, hence our friendship. My father was very close to Waheed’s family.

In the late 1930s, Waheed’s father moved out of Amritsar, first to Delhi and then to Calcutta, in search of better opportunities. From Calcutta, he boarded a ship and landed in the British colonial city of Singapore, where there was a sizeable Indian community. He did well there, selling carpets to the British soldiers stationed in the island city and to the large number of naval and merchant sailors visiting the busy port. The world, however, suddenly spun out of control and took a turn for the worse. World War II broke out in 1939. The Japanese occupied the city in early 1942 and Netaji Subhas Chandar Bose began setting up his Indian National Army (INA) to fight the British. Formed with the assistance of the Japanese empire, the INA targeted primarily Indians who sought to defect from the British Empire. Not just the Indian prisoners of war, but in fact every young able-bodied Indian in the Malay Peninsula was pressed into this new force.

Housing built in Landhi in the 1950s for Muslim refugees arriving in Karachi
Housing built in Landhi in the 1950s for Muslim refugees arriving in Karachi

Sensing the danger, and free of any national or political leanings, Waheed’s father fled the city, vanished into the countryside and settled in a small Chinese village. He was to remain there for the duration of the war, incommunicado with his family, for the next five odd years. He also contracted a marriage with a local girl and had two children, a girl and a boy. The marriage saved his life by allowing him to melt into the local village population.

Back in Amritsar, the family assumed that he had become a victim of Japanese cruelty. All his children born till that time, two sons Abdul Rauf and Abdul Hameed, and two daughters Arshad and Rahat, were very young and of school-going age. In these dire times, my father, who was himself only 20 years old, assumed the responsibility of taking care of the family. He had joined the Railway Workshop and was earning the princely sum of Rs. 46 every month. Food items were scarce because the British Prime Minister Churchill had ordered the shipment of every conceivable consumable and edible thing for the Allied Army, causing severe shortages in India that led to the catastrophic famine of 1943 in the Bengal. Being in government service, my father had developed useful links with the local administration and would procure wheat flour and sugar for the entire family. He would also ensure that the children of the missing uncle went to school regularly and paid attention to their studies instead of loitering around. Waheed’s elder brother Hameed, who was the only one amongst his siblings to get educated and became an accountant, would always acknowledge that were it not for the efforts and care of our father, he would have given up studies.

After the reoccupation of Singapore by the British in late 1945, Waheed’s father was able to send a telegram to his family about his well-being. He came back in early 1946 when it became possible for passenger ships to resume service. After his arrival, he broke the news of his second marriage. That brought much anguish to the family. He moved to Delhi soon after, in connection with his carpet business. He had planned to go back to Singapore but the political events in the Subcontinent, followed by the mass migration of the entire family to Pakistan, thwarted his plans. He never talked about his second family but he did once remorsefully recall that his daughter, who was about three years old when he repatriated, was very attached to him and wouldn’t go to sleep unless he held her close to him.
Before Hindu crowds could vandalise the shop, the assistant took as much gold as he could and ran. Later he set up his own jewelry shop in Lahore

The Partition of the Subcontinent in 1947 was a tragic affair for the people of all faiths. For over three months, there was arson and bloodshed in the whole of Punjab. The soul of the calamitous events is admirably captured by Amrita Pritam in her laments titled ‘Ajj Aakhaan Waris Shah Nu.

Law and order broke down in Amritsar very quickly. Friends and neighbours turned on each other. Hall Bazaar in Amritsar was destroyed by fire, as were many other shops and markets. There were knife attacks on a daily basis. Homemade bombs were lobbed against unsuspecting passersby. Our family ran for life with a few of their belongings. Luckily, they all made it to the railway station. Those who decided against an early departure faced the brunt of Sikh brutality.

After migration to Pakistan, Waheed’s father landed in the village of Sukhkho, on the Gujjar Khan - Chakwal road. I am hazy about his reasons for moving to this out-of-the-way place, but it must have been the lure of carpet weaving that took him there. There was, however, no work there and to support the family, his elder daughter Arshad (my future chachi) worked there as a teacher in the local school. They stayed there for a few months before moving to Lahore. A Kashmiri carpet manufacturer from Amritsar had set up a factory in Landhi, Karachi, by the name of Bokhara Palace. He was looking for someone of experience to take care of the fledgling manufacturing unit. They knew Waheed’s father from his days in Amritsar and immediately hired him and made all possible offers to sweeten the deal - including spacious free accommodation - and entice him to settle in the alien city of Karachi, in the migrant town of Landhi-Korangi. His double trauma - from his ordeal during the Japanese occupation of South East Asia and then soon after, of migration in the 1947 Partition - was finally over. He was to spend the next thirty years in that town, where four of his children are buried.

The contact between these two branches of my family became stronger after Partition. Both of Waheed’s sisters were married to my younger uncles, Irshad and Manzoor. Waheed’s elder brother Abdul Rasheed was born in India after his father’s return from Singapore, while Waheed was born in Karachi in 1950. Having worked at low-paying jobs in Lahore and Rawalpindi, both my uncles (Waheed’s brothers-in-law) moved to Karachi in the early 1960’s to work in the same carpet factory in white-collar clerical positions. They took up residence in the low-cost quarters built by the government in Landhi for the migrants from India.

Waheed and I became friends at an early age. His parents used to visit Lahore from Karachi every year and the two of us, being of the same age, would play and roam about together. Our friendship blossomed when I got commissioned in the Air Force in January 1974 and was posted to Karachi. I was working in shifts and had plenty of time off. I would hitch rides on public transport and spent time in Landhi with Waheed and the families of my uncles. His parents were living in a three-room apartment on top of the office block within the factory. It was an airy place.

My Arshad Chachi (Waheed’s sister) and her family, who were residing in the same building as my family, would visit her parents in Karachi every year during the school summer break. In 1962, when I was ten years old, she took me along. The Landhi-Korangi area was sparsely inhabited at the time. No public transport connected the locality with the city and it would be completely deserted after sunset. There were very few buildings from the Dar ul Uloom up until DHA Phase I. Without a bridge over the Malir river, the road across was frequently submerged, forcing vehicles to stop on either side until the water receded. I was there when the first GTS bus ran from Saddar to Landhi. We all went on the roof to witness its arrival and could see the bus from miles away across the then barren landscape. The people were happy that they could avail a cheaper passage to the Saddar and Bohri Bazaar shopping areas.

One serious disadvantage (with far-reaching adverse consequences) of living in Landhi was that the area had no good schools or colleges. Sadly, the situation in this regard has not improved since then. Living in the city centre of Lahore, my brothers and I went to the best of schools, which catapulted us to higher standards of life within a generation.

The small single-storey houses, constructed for the migrant families and given away practically for free, were all similarly built and had pre-fabricated corrugated roofs. Very few of these houses are now in their original state, with most of them having been converted to double-storey structures. Subsequently, Waheed’s family - including his four brothers and two brothers-in-law (both my younger chachas) - were to get six of these houses allotted to themselves. My brothers and I still stay with them when we visit Karachi.

During my posting in Karachi from early 1974 to late 1976, my favourite activity in Waheed’s home was cooking my favourite dishes. Waheed’s mother, who I addressed as ‘Dadi Amma’ (grandma) used to jealously guard her kitchen but would let me loose there. I would make my favourite dishes, especially bitter gourds (karelas) stuffed with minced meat, which everyone would eat with relish. Dadi Amma was very particular about cleaning her house. She would have all her carpets rolled, furniture shifted and the floors washed every day. We couldn’t understand the need to do it everyday but no one could argue with her. Everything was dusted properly and not a speck of dust was to be found anywhere. She would keep her wardrobes in perfect order. I still admire the cleaning lady who came to work there for her patience.

There were scores of carpet weaving looms in the factory, where children, women and men worked at paltry wages. The factory would come alive at about eight o’clock and would remain active till late in the afternoon. There was a small pool in the factory to store water for the extensive scrubbing and washing of new carpets. The two of us would frequently take a dip in this rather deep pool. I enjoyed swimming there far more than in the palm-lined swimming pool of the Officer’s Mess in the airbase.

Waheed and I would talk about everything under the sun and stay awake till late in the night. I used to urge him to study further for a B.A. or B.Com degree but he had given up on studies. While I was there, he got married. I moved out of Karachi in September 1976. He also moved to Lahore soon thereafter. His parents moved with him and died in the early 1980s. They are buried in Lahore. I continued to visit Waheed very often at his home with my family. He was working for one of the nephews of the owners of the Landhi carpet factory. He worked in the same place for the rest of his life.

Waheed is survived by one son and two daughters. His elder son was a special child and died at the age of about ten. The surviving son is, unfortunately, poorly educated, unskilled and poorly employed. His younger daughter is happily married but his elder daughter has had a difficult life. She was married to her paternal cousin. The boy is not educated and worked at very low-paying jobs. Frequent quarrels resulted in a divorce. Both the boy and the girl were remarried but their second marriages again resulted in divorces. Consequently, the elders of the family got them remarried to each other. They have a daughter from their first marriage who is in her early teens now.

Because of my father’s determination and unwavering belief in good education, we siblings and our careers and circumstances continued to rise rapidly; in stark contrast to the undistinguished and indifferent circumstances of his uncle’s offspring, resulting in a huge social and economic gulf between our two families that were once very close and similar to one another in the long past days of pre-Partition India. One clear indication of this schism is that while two of my uncles got married to two of Waheed’s sisters a generation ago, no such unions have taken place among the children and grandchildren of my father and the offspring of his uncle (Waheed’s father).

I feel a surge of guilt, remorse and self-reproach in not seeing Waheed in his last days. I should have shown a better sense of affection, respect and responsibility and visited him when I learnt of his fractured hip. In a way, my father was a greater man than me. In his youth, he had taken care of his uncle’s family and later he gave me another valuable lesson. I recall a bicycle ride with my father in early 1960s. He took me from our home in Pani Wala Talab all the way via Chauburji and Ferozepur Road, over the Walton railway crossing (there was no overhead bridge at that time). Then he turned right on a dirt road along the railway line opposite Kot Lakhpat, where the nascent Qainchee Colony was taking shape. It is called Qainchee, or scissors, because Walton Road meets Ferozepur Road here at a very acute angle. In the distance, he spotted a ‘Chabri’ seller and whispered that he has found the man he was looking for. We approached and I could the man selling some sweets and toffees in a round cane basket. My father embraced the man, who looked extremely sad, gloomy and cheerless. There were hollows on his cheeks and sadness in his eyes. We were taken to a nearby hut where this man, his wife and a young child lived. My father, with me in tow, sat on a charpai bed. He wanted to speak but words failed him. With his hands he gestured round the hut in a questioning manner. The man looked around and his eyes welled up with tears. My father started crying too. I understood little but started crying myself. The woman probably didn’t understand the gravity of the emotions and kept making tea.

“This is all that I could manage.” the man said.

“Didn’t you go and ask him to return your gold?” my father asked.

“I did.” He said, “But he says that he didn’t take anything and that he has set up the shop with his own resources.”

They chatted for a while. Then my father got up, took out some money and gave it to the boy. We slowly rode back.

On the way, I asked my father who the man was. He said that he was a far-off relative who had a thriving gold jewelry shop in Delhi. During Partition, when the great mayhem started and Hindu gangs went on a killing spree of Muslims, this man left his shop in the care of one of his assistants and ran home to save his family. Unfortunately, the family was killed before he could move them to the safety of the Red Fort, where a large number of Muslims had taken refuge. Seeing that the Hindu crowds would vandalise the shop, his assistant packed away as much gold as he could and ran away. Later he would set up his own jewelry shop in Lahore’s Suha (gold) Bazaar, refusing to admit that he stole anything from the Delhi shop - whose original owner, grief-stricken as he was, went destitute and couldn’t find the energy and resources to start his business afresh.

That was my father. Here I am, lamenting my acts of omission in doing what was clearly my duty to help a close friend and cousin, when perhaps he needed my help the most.

Waheed played his part on the world’s stage for 67 long years. He had his little triumphs and failings, like we all do. He wasn’t one of those who yearn to live in the comforts of a moneyed life and are prepared to work to acquire it. He had small ambitions and little desire to soar high. He was content with what he had achieved in life. He was devoid of jealousy and never eyed anyone else’s assets. He once borrowed some money from me and despite my refusal to take it back, returned it to my mother’s home. He said that he didn’t need it, though I knew that he always had some financial holes to fill.

Some people are served a challenging hand in life. Waheed was born at a difficult time for his parents when they were still trying to find their bearings in a new environment in post-Partition Pakistan. His father had gone through a series of hardships caused by forces beyond his control and comprehension. They were used to living with an extended supportive family around them in Amritsar. Now they had to fend for themselves alone. There was no one around to guide the children towards a good education. Looking forward to becoming a carpet mender is hardly an incentive for hard work. A few people do manage to overcome the obstacles and impediments tossed in their way to create sense and meaning of their existence. However, most succumb to the overwhelming odds stacked against them. They are unable to rise and extricate themselves from the inherited deprivations and privations. An individual or family that is ensnared in the vicious cycle of poverty and obscurity has either to find supreme physical energy, mental capacity and will-power to break free from their meagre heritage and build their own legacy, or simply fade away unsung, unknown.

Sadly, Waheed and all his three brothers died within one year from mid-2015 to mid-2016, the elder two in Karachi and the younger two in Lahore - the cities that they had made their abode after migrating. His sisters, both my chachis (aunts) had died earlier, a few years ago, and are buried in Karachi. My father and all his brothers also reside in the Heavens. Of the Peer Bakhsh line, I, one of his numerous great-grandsons, am the eldest male offspring alive. A whole chapter of history stands closed.

My dear Waheed, rest in peace. You will be missed.

Parvez Mahmood retired from the Pakistan Air Force as a Group Captain. He is now a software engineer

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: