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

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


My Nana, Bashiruddin Khan, was a middle level zamindar much lower in the feudal hierarchy than Khan Sahib nor, indeed, did he have a title. However, he claimed Pathan ancestry like my grandfather’s family. I remember very little of him but I was told later that he was very fond of children and he was indulgent towards me. I was a very mischievous child who loved to throw things down the window into the house of Dullah (real name Abdullah) who was a julaha and one of the hangers-on of my Nana. However, my Nana gave his children a comfortable life. His wife, my Nani, came from one of the most illustrious Muslim Pathan families of Shahjahanpur and stories of her father, a deputy collector as well as a feudal grandee, were my mother’s favourite stories. Both Nana and Nani were very gentle and kind people and treated everybody nicely. They had four children, two sons Waseem Ahmad and Naseem Ahmad and two daughters, Rukhsar Begum and Umme Latifa Begum. I have no memory of my uncles but I have met my aunt, Rukhsar Begum, several times. My mother tells me that her eldest brother Waseem believed, like most zamindars, in extracting revenue from peasants by force. For this reason, he often hired goons who carried a formidable stick (lath) and followed his orders. However, the peasants approached my Nana who would immediately stop this kind of violence preferring to get poorer year by year than evict peasants from their homes and fields. These stories, also confirmed by Rukhsar Khala’s son and my cousin, Anwar Jamal Khan, made my Nana revered almost as a saintly character. My mother often said I resembled him in my inordinate care for servants. As already mentioned, I do not remember my uncles but I do remember Waseem Mamoon’s son, Moeen Ahmad Khan, whom I called Shabbu Bhai, since he came to stay with us. I also have a fleeting memory of my younger Mamoon’s daughter, Shaheena, in the context of a quarrel I had with her about some toys when I must have been three years of age. However, I am not sure if this is not a planted memory since my mother used to mention it to make her point that Shaheena was something of a harridan even when she was a toddler. The only cousins I later interacted with in life were Rukhsar Khala’s sons, Anwar and Khalid. Anwar Bhai came to live with us and still meets me off and on. Khalid Bhai lives in India but I have met him several times. It needs to be mentioned that Rukhsar Khala married in one of the feudal families of Malihabad which was about forty miles from Shahabad where she lived. From the stories Anwar Bhai and my mother tell me, the Pathans of this town were very proud of their propensity to quarrel, seek vengeance, murder and use choice invectives. They were racists too which meant that they were inordinately proud of their Pathan ancestry and looked down upon all other races, ethnicities and castes (except Syeds). As most of their peasants were Hindus this racism may appear as religious bias in the writings of Malihabadis (such as that of Josh Malihabadi when he describes his fellow townsmen). However, it was for racial rather than religious reasons and extended to Muslims too. In any case they were not too particular about observing the requirements of Islam in Malihabad. They made strong liquor at home and were not above abducting peasants’ daughters. The most shocking thing about his father’s family, however, comes from Anwar Bhai who told me how, at the age of seven or so, he actually witnessed how slave girls were abused by his grandmother and how they, in turn, cursed her. Anwar Bhai, not otherwise critical of his family or of feudal values, still shudders when he thinks of the inordinate cruelty of his ancestors towards these helpless girls who must have been sold to his family during famines or abducted. However, while Anwar Bhai still remains proud of his Pathan ancestry I was too appalled by its unrepentant racism to accept it consciously so I renounced and rejected it as I narrate below.
She did not even attempt to stop his Lucknow visits directly though she taught herself Urdu poetry so that her conversation was no less scintillating with well-chosen couplets from the masters of Urdu poetry than those of the most accomplished courtesans

The most colourful stories about her maternal family, however, comes from my mother. As mentioned above, my Nani’s father, Motiullah Khan Khaleel, was a a very rich feudal magnate, a jagirdar of Shahjahanpur, as well as a deputy collector. He died when his only son, Ahsan Ullah Khan Khaleel, my mother’s Mamoon, was only twelve. The boy had four elder sisters, one of whom being my Nani, but all of them let him have the whole estate. As usual, the boy collected some hangers-on as courtier-cum-friends, who initiated him into the pleasures of wine and women. At the age of twenty or so his sisters got him married into an impoverished Pathan family of impeccable lineage. The bride was very young by today’s standards being only about fifteen or sixteen. However, what my mother stressed was that she was strikingly beautiful as well as intelligent. In fact, my mother swore she never saw a woman so captivating as her aunt (Mumani). Soon enough the mesmerizing bride got such a hold over her wayward husband that her word was almost law for him as well as the domestic staff. However, the young jagirdar could not leave off all his bad habits despite being besotted with his lovely wife. One day, however, she passed an order to the clerk-cum-accountant, Munshi Ji, that she would herself send out the wine to the mardana. Her orders were delivered in a queenly manner, despite her girlishness, and so different alcoholic drinks were brought into the zenana in the evening. The young wife then sent out the best French wine for her husband and the cheapest rum and other such drinks for his hangers-on. She indulged the men a few times and then sent them lemon drink by which they knew that dinner would be served. In this way the huge expenditure on the choicest drinks for the hangers-on was cut out and Mamoon’s own drinks were curtailed. Moreover, Mamoon discovered that if he ate his dinner with his charming young wife, he was served another drink or two of the best wines during the meal. The lure of this was such that, though he lost face by not eating in the mardana with the men, he actually started having his dinners in the zenana. This also cut down the daily expenditure on the dinner which was of the nature of a feast earlier.

Of course, true to his feudal habits, Mamoon did not stop his habit of enjoying the company of the courtesans of Lucknow. He went to that city on one pretext or another though he did stop inviting them to his house when his wife was in residence. His wife, to whom the driver as well as most of the domestic staff, except the Munshi Ji, were faithful, knew all about her husband’s philandering but never confronted him. She did not even attempt to stop his Lucknow visits directly though she taught herself Urdu poetry so that her conversation was no less scintillating with well-chosen couplets from the masters of Urdu poetry than those of the most accomplished courtesans. One evening, when she had gone home for a few days, Mamoon invited a very young and lovely young dancing girl from Lucknow who was considered a great beauty and who normally held court hardly ever deigning to visit anyone except the very rich and powerful. In Mamoon’s case she relented and actually came to Shahjahanpur in Mamoon’s own black car. However, Mamoon had not reckoned with his wife’s managerial and intelligence-gathering skills since her spies had told her about the goings on. So, just as the wine was poured out in goblets and the musicians strummed their instruments, the Munshi Ji murmured in his master’s ear that the Begum Sahiba had arrived in the zenana. While the master of the house digested this bombshell, the Munshi Ji, at his wits’ end whispered to him again that the Begum Sahiba wished to enjoy the dance and that she was about to take her seat in the upper window behind a gauze screen. Meanwhile, as Mamoon watched helplessly, the alcoholic drinks were confiscated and taken into the zenana from where they were sent out as usual with Mamoon and the dancing girl getting the imported French wines and the hangers-on the locally brewed liquor. When the dancer presented her finishing salaam, she received a summons by the Begum Sahiba and was taken into her presence by her maid. As she bent low saying her adab and curtsying, the Begum Sahiba stood up and, taking her own necklace from her neck, put it around her’s. It was then that she lifted her eyes to look at a lovely face of one who was younger and prettier than herself and who smiled at her most amiably. The pretty girl who smiled at her now motioned her to sit down which she did in a daze and the maid offered her pan and the Begum Sahiba said:

Hamen aap ka raqs bahut pasand aya [I liked your dance very much]’.

She was overwhelmed as she did not expect such praise or courtesy from one of her rich client’s wife and could only salaam again murmuring something like thanks and ‘zarra nawazi hai’ [this is bestowing favour upon one who is no more than a mere particle i.e. it is a great honour]’.

Then she passed orders to her maids that the Bai Ji would be her personal guest and will sleep in the zenana and the master of the house should be told that for tonight there is purdah in the zenana which will continue till the breakfast. The dancing girl, when being shown to her bedroom by the maid said to her in awe: ‘the Begum Sahiba is so young and so lovely. I wonder what Khan Sahib sees in girls like us who cannot hold a candle to her’. This the maid faithfully conveyed to her mistress who smiled ruefully. Poor Mamoon, banished from the beds of both his wife and girlfriend (if this is what she can be called), had to sleep alone in the mardana. He could not even catch a glimpse of the dancer since there was purdah up to the car which carried her back to Lucknow. When he sheepishly gained admittance to his wife’s presence he was commended on his good taste and told that if he held another dance she would certainly enjoy watching it. The implication was obvious. Mamoon was to behave himself when she was away. My mother, who loved telling this story, did not know what happened to the dances later but sadly enough her Mumani caught tuberculosis became wan and pale and, still retaining her loveliness, died before she was twenty-five.

Let me mention one last, somewhat unusual fact before moving on to my own life. It is my name: Tariq Abdur Rahman Khan. The remarkable thing about it is that it does not conform to my paternal family’s pattern for male names which ended on Ullah Khan. Nor, indeed, does it conform to my maternal family’s pattern of male names (Uddin Khan or Ahmad Khan). It introduces a new pattern but again, idiosyncratically, only for myself and Rukhsar Khala’s younger son Khalid Abdur Rahman Khan. So, these two sisters ditched all family onomastic traditions to choose names for their sons and, apparently, nobody did anything about it. Moreover, both my brother (Ahmad Nur us Sami Khan) and sister (Tayyaba Fatima Sami) chose names with Sami, my father’s name in it. The crowning paradox is that, while my family is called the Rahman family, my siblings used to be the Sami family and still are. However, their children have taken the first names of their fathers as their last names which, to a Western reader, would be very confusing (readers who want an academic account for such naming practices may see my book entitled Names published in 2015).

Let me now come to the second clear memory of my childhood. It is of flying above the clouds and being given sweets by an English woman—the air hostess of the British Overseas Airways Corporation plane which flew us—father, mother and myself—from Delhi to Karachi; from Hindustan to Pakistan. This was probably July 1952 and I was three and a half years old. Karachi was a terrible place for my mother, Ammi Jan, who had to live with one of her relatives Yunus and his wife Bitto. I do not remember much of this house except Yunus Bhai’s great motorcycle—at least it looked huge to me—parked in the verandah. I also remember looking out at the street from behind a window with iron bars. This was Pir Ilahi Baksh Colony in Karachi and my father, Abba Mian as I called him at this period of my life, was looking for a job. We also lived in Hyderabad with my father’s sister, Afroz Phuppo, but I do not remember it. I was told by my mother that she hated this period of her life as Phuppo was somewhat unpleasant towards her and she feared for her husband’s apparently frail health.

(to be continued)