Standing erect and guarding the house like a proud warrior, right in the center of my maternal great grandparents’ house, this giant of an old peepal (Ficus religiosa) tree is still fresh in my happy childhood memories.
My maternal great grandfather, Khamiso Khan Mahar, had fled his ancestral village in the Chak area of Shikarpur in his prime youth along with his elder brother, my paternal great grandfather, Ahmad Khan Mahar. Abandoning their reasonable landholding to their three younger brothers, they vanished from the scene one day.
Stories vary about their flight. Some in the family say that they were great freedom fighters, involved in the anti-Raj activities and the district administration had sent them into exile (Tarri Paar). Others suggest that they had committed a terrible crime and therefore ran away for fear of being apprehended—given the history of the Mahars of the area, the latter scenario looks more likely.
Be that as it may, the younger of the two brothers, Khamiso Khan, left Chak, left Sindh, in the late 19th or early 20th century, ran all the way to Lucknow and did not return until he was sure that the British had left the region and his crimes, whatever they were, were all forgotten and forgiven.
Upon his return, Khamiso Khan chose to settle in Rohri. I am not certain whether he had purchased the house he now lived in or it was allotted to him in lieu of the property he had left in Lucknow. However, it was an enormous single story structure with a huge courtyard. Right in the middle of that courtyard stood this magnificent peepal tree.
For the sake of convenience, let us call the dwelling ‘The Peepal House.’
The Partition of India, while bringing the sweet gift of freedom to the people of the subcontinent, had caused a lot of misery to millions in many other ways, most distressing of which was the pain of being uprooted from the land that had fed and nurtured and sheltered their generations in its warm bosom like a loving mother.
I do not know for how long the previous owners had lived in house. However, the size of the tree suggested that it must have been there for hundreds of years, and the peepal being a sacred tree for Hindus, the previous keepers had taken good care of it.
The tree had a dense canopy. It was around 50-55 feet high with a very wide trunk, not less than ten feet in diameter. Its shade cool and soothing in the summers.
Our area, just outside Rohri, was not yet blessed with the marvel of electricity at that time. During summers, under the shade and around the trunk lay a number of charpoys (wooden cots). I remember seeing everyone enjoying the cool, comforting cover of the peepal tree in the hot, sweltering afternoons of Rohri.
The partition had occurred only a couple of decades ago. In the late 1960’s, in the Peepal House neighborhood still lived some non-Muslim families who had decided not to desert their homeland.
One such family was that of Mamoo Dulli. In our culture, as we know, anyone who is a few years older than you is either Mamoo, Chachoo (uncle) or mami, chachi (aunt). Mamoo Dulli, who had been a Hindu, originally Dulli Ram, had decided to convert to Islam rather than leave his ancestral home. After the conversion, he became Abdullah but everyone addressed him with his old moniker, Dulli. His wife’s name was Tikki. Rumor had it that Mami Tikki had not converted and still worshipped her deities in the seclusion of her house. It was a well-kept ‘open secret.’ Everyone knew it but nobody talked or cared about it and respected her privacy.
One of my most unforgettable memories of the tree, however, is associated not with Dulli family but with another neighbor.
Sharing a wall with the Peepal House, there lived an elderly Anglo-Indian – probably of Goanese or Portuguese descent—Christian couple, Mamoo Prem C. and his wife, Mami Begum. I do not remember Mamoo Prem C. now. Maybe he had passed away before my birth. However, his wife (or widow), Mami Begum was found most of the time of the day in the Peepal House.
In her late 60s or early 70s, Mami was a heavy set, dark red skinned woman with a likeable nature, snow-white hair, a silver tooth and a lone long white hair on her chin. She spoke Sindhi well but with an accent. Being funny and entertaining, she was very popular among the young girls in the neighborhood.
Every day, after finishing her morning chores at her house, she strode into the Peepal House like a bonafide family member, chose a charpoy in the coolest shade under the tree and set up her court. From her throne, she would issue orders from time to time, which were duly, and gladly, complied.
Soon after her arrival in the morning, young women from the house as well as from the neighborhood would surround her, enjoying her jokes and laughing loudly at her funny life experiences. This went on well past sunset when she chose to retire to her house until the next morning.
One day, while I was still very young to go to school, I went to visit the Peepal House with my mother. It was a fall mid-morning. Men had all gone to work and only womenfolk were at home. Not finding a child of my age in the house, as I was wandering aimlessly in the house alone looking for an object to play with, I heard giggles and muffled laughter outside. Understanding that something funny was going on which I should partake too, I got out and saw young adolescent neighborhood women making a circle around a charpoy under the tree.
My curiosity grew manifolds. Quickly pushing aside the girls, I entered the circle. Unfortunately, I was instantly spotted and quickly scolded and pushed outside the circle. All I remember seeing is that on the charpoy sat Mami Begum. With her trousers lowered down to her knees, leaning forward and pointing at something below her underbelly, she was delivering a lecture, most probably on the female anatomy, to the befuddled but attentive audience.
Since I was shunted out the scene before I could comprehend what was going on, I do not remember much. What I understand now, however, is that probably those days, in the absence of a formal sex education that is how elders trained young folks in the ways of the world!
After that incident, I could not see her in the eye and tried to avoid her, for whenever she saw me, with a squint look in her eyes and a mischievous smile, Mami Begum would say “Toon dadho shararti ahen. Maan tokhe thaheendam.” (You are very naughty. I am going to fix you up.)
That never came to pass.
One day, many moons past, while I was on a routine weekend call with my folks back home, all of a sudden my mother said, “Baba, do you remember Mami Begum, Mamo Prem C.’s widow?
I said yes. How could I forget her?
Her voice got heavy with emotions. She said, “She passed away last week”.
My mother did not know the story of that autumn mid-morning and I did not make her any the wiser about it. I could not tell my mother that Mami Begum owed me something.
Quietly, I recited the Istirja, and in a low voice, said, “May her soul rest in the eternal peace!”
About ten or so years ago, while visiting Pakistan, I went to the Peepal House to enquire about the health of my mother’s youngest, but ailing and elderly, maternal uncle, Mamoo Hussain. I saw that an unattractive concrete matchbox of a house occupied the place where once stood the magnificent tree.
The identity of the house, the Peepal tree, was the first casualty of the war for survival and growing family needs. The family, unconscious of what they were losing by removing that old marker, must have gained a lot of real estate for their use and a great deal of money from its wood.
Mamo Hussain knew that his days were numbered. Therefore, he talked mostly about deaths in the family in my absence. He did not say a single word about the tree.
A couple of weeks so ago, about one and a half hour’s drive from where I live in Austin, Texas, the City of San Antonio authorities retired a huge 250 years old tree – they did not use the word ‘cut.’ They used ‘retired’ – after failing in every effort to save it from falling and causing damage to human life or property. In the presence of a number of city’s dignitaries, the tree was laid to rest with due honors.