A Visit to Chacha Mahmud’s House

Dr. Sayed Amjad Hussain searches for what remains of Peshwar from bygone days

A Visit to Chacha Mahmud’s House
Last year I wrote an essay lamenting the loss of our ancestral home in the inner city of Peshawar. “The Magic Latch” explored the state of my mind when the new owners did not pay attention of my pleas to wait another week before bringing down the house that had been our homestead for 150 years. When I visited the place I found a bare and naked piece of land where only a week earlier stood the house that had sheltered a family of nine children, our parents, a number of aunts and cousins. That nondescript modest house was my Shangri-la.

The physical reminders of many old houses and their occupants are gone and the neighborhood has turned into a large shopping area known as Meena Bazar. True to its name the bazaar is glittering and is always crowded with men and women – mostly women – where it is hard to walk without bumping into people. It has become the hottest commercial area in the old city.

Peshawar's Meena Bazaar

Somehow my longing for the place of my birth took me again to the neighborhood to see if there were still some reminders of the past. Strange but at first I could not locate the alley off the main bazaar that was our neighbourhood. It took walking back and forth in the bazaar a few times to locate the alley.

The alley was our playground where we played soccer with a tennis ball. Other times we played marbles, hide and seek and skip, hop and jump. Now glittering arcades occupy the places where once our neighbors lived.

The late poet and writer Johar Mir was a diehard Peshawari who fled Pakistan during the Zia regime and lived in exile in New York City until his death about 15 years ago. Here are a few couplets from his famous poem about the changing face of Peshawar:

Makanon mei dukaneen bun gai hain

Sar-e-Bazar ruswa ho gia hai

Hoi hai roshni itni ziada

Gharoon mein ghupp andhera ho gia hai

“O Peshawar your bedrooms have been turned into shops

Your honor is on sale to the highest bidder,

You have been dragged into public humiliation.

There is so much light around

But our houses have sunk into deep darkness.”

On entering the narrow alley, I could recognize but a few houses. Others had given way to the dull and ugly structures called plazas; glittering poured-cement-and-steel monstrosities built only with one thing in mind: to use every nook and cranny for commercial use.

It was only towards the end of the alley that I could identify some of the old houses. I wondered if the current inhabitants of those houses had any link to the people who had lived there in the past.

In a small branch off the alley there used to be six houses. Two of the houses have already succumbed to the forces of commercialism and have been turned into plazas. At the blind end of the alley, a large family of Farsiwans (Persian speakers) lived in large house.

Pigeons raised by an enthusiast in Peshawar

I knocked at their door and wondered if some of them still lived there. Soon a familiar face opened the door. It was Baig, one of the sons of the patriarch Hussain Ali. A few years ago he lost his eyesight and now he was mostly confined to his tiny part of the large house. Before I could introduce myself, he recognized my voice and threw his arms around me. “When did you come back from wilayat (foreign land)”, he asked. And before I could answer in rapidfire he added more questions about my welfare and the welfare of my family. When we settled down in his one room bedsitter we talked about his father who was a primary school teacher and also a well-known kabuter-abaz – one who raises and flies pigeons. We talked about his living siblings, his uncle Mohsin Ali who went to England in early 1950s and never came back.

I inquired about the neighbours. He said that in addition to their house, there was only one other house in the alley where descendants of Mahmud Bajaz lived.

Haji Mahmud Bajaz was a well-known cloth merchant in the city and ran a large shop in the Bazaar of Cloth Sellers. His only son Aziz was a charismatic and very handsome young man who was more interested in fine cloths, fancy watches and beautiful people. When he would emerge from his home he would be impeccably dressed in white shalwar, silk shirt with gold cufflinks and squeaky-clean Peshawari chaplis. As if to complete the portrait, errant strands of hair played on his forehead. I am sure many a maiden in the neighbourhood looked forward to his passage through the alley by peeking through the bamboo curtains.

Chacha Mahmud, as he was affectionately called in the neighbourhood, was a deeply religious man and was not very happy with his only son’s lack of interest in the family business. After the passing of Chacha Mahmud, Aziz inherited the business but let the flourishing business run into the ground. About fifteen years ago when Aziz passed away I happen to be in the city and I came to the neighborhood to offer my condolence. The family was grateful that I still remembered the old neighbours.

Baig told me that Aziz’s children still live in the same house. I thought I would visit the house and say hello. I also wondered if I could visit the top floor of the house and take in the panoramic view of the city including the iconic Clock Tower. When as children we playing soccer with the tennis ball a forceful kick would send the ball souring high and land on the top floor of our neighbors. So I had been in every house to fetch the ball.

Baig, despite being blind, led me to the door and he struck the latch chain on the door. The latch chains – called kunji in the Hindko language – are meant to to lock the door from the outside. But it was also used to knock at the door, a sort of door bell. Every latch chain produced a different and peculiar sound by which the neighbours knew which door was being knocked at. On hearing the knock, a rope would be pulled from the upper floors that would release the horha trap and unlock the door.

After a few moments a woman’s voice asked who was at the door. Baig identified himself and added that Aghaji Amjad, the doctor Sahib, had come to visit. The door opened a little and I could see a woman in her fifties. I recognized her from her childhood days.

I fully expected to be invited in but she did not. She said her brother was at work and will not be back before late evening Isha prayers. She apologized for not asking me in because in the absence of the man of the house it was inappropriate to invite men guests inside the house. She was reinforcing an old tradition that prevailed in this neighborhood as well in the city. Somehow I had thought that the household women, the 3rd generation of Chacha Mahmud, would consider me as part of the extended family and invite me in. The old traditions however are always in the way of well-meaning visits.

I inquired about the welfare of her family, made some comments about her father Aziz and her grandfather Chacha Mahmud and begged her leave. She said that I should come back when her brother was home. I said that I would try and walked out of the narrow alley into the ritzy Meena Bazaar.

Dr. Sayed Amjad Hussain holds Emeritus professorships in Humanities and cardiovascular surgery at the University of Toledo, USA. He is also an op-ed columnist for Toledo Blade and daily Aaj of Peshawar.

Contact: aghaji@bex.net

Dr. Sayed Amjad Hussain is an Emeritus Professor of Cardiovascular Surgery and an Emeritus Professor of Humanities at the University of Toledo, USA. He is the author more recently of A Tapestry of Medicine and Life, a book of essays, and Hasde Wasde Log, a book of profiles in Urdu. He may be reached at: aghaji3@icloud.com