If there was ever a man of the strictest discipline and strongest moral fibre; a man deeply respected, deeply affectionate, and just as deeply feared; it could only be my father, Shehzad Ahmad Khan.
Shehzad, also known as Raees Mian, was born in Mankula, Muradabad, the fourth child of Sahabzada Khan Bahadur Mushtaq Ahmad Khan and Malika Husn Ara Begum. As was customary in feudal families in those times, early schooling was home-based. This suited Mushtaq Ahmad Khan’s four children splendidly – they could slip away from a boring lesson on the slightest pretext. It was also to their tutors’ advantage: the family’s Mankula haveli, with its magnificent library, music room, private masjid, and vast grounds bursting with flora and fauna, served as the most wholesome classroom a teacher could ask for.
Even as a boy, Raees Mian wrote daily in his diary, details about the day spent, sometimes in a poetic manner. He was also playfully naughty and would scamper up to his treehouse high up the neem tree as soon as Maulvi sahib appeared, slingshot being flung in all directions to scare him away. Raees loved hanging out with his mother in the kitchen, observing the cutting and grinding and mixing with great interest. Later, in his own home, his culinary skills were transferred to the old khansama jee, Majeed baba. Very nawab-like, the food that was not up to the mark was promptly removed from the table with a roar ‘Barha lo!’
Raees Mian went on to get a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature, Persian and Politics from the University of Allahabad, and a double Master’s in Law and Persian.
When Pakistan was created in August 1947, Raees Mian and his family migrated from India following Quaid-e-Azam’s call. Leaving behind their ancestral haveli, their lands, and their comfortable, familiar lives, they arrived in the bustling port city of Karachi. Shehzad soon moved to Lahore to join the North Western Railway, having already successfully cleared the All India Combined Competitive Examination for recruitment to the CSS (Central Superior Services). Thence began an impeccable career that to date has been unmatched in the history of the Pakistan Railways Service. Then, too, he became a most eligible bachelor, who would win the heart of his cousin, the green-eyed Qamar Ara aka Razia Begum. They were married in 1953 at the Beach Luxury Hotel in Karachi.
Though coming to Pakistan had been a matter of choice for Shehzad, it was not without its challenges. Dispossessed of the family’s traditional source of wealth, he had to adapt to living on a meagre government salary. The lands granted to him and his family in Nawabshah, Sindh, as compensation had been reduced to 500 acres per individual after Pakistan’s land reforms; those too were seized by the powerful local land mafia. Towards his end, he handed over the land file to his conscientious second daughter (me) hoping that some day it would come handy.
In those days, when religion was relaxed and pleasurable, Diwan-e-Hafiz was often consulted in our home for guidance in everyday matters. I remember one time, when a gold ornament of mine went missing, and we were suspicious of someone who might have stolen it. Abba immediately did wuzoo and opened up a page in the Diwan
In spite of the financial difficulties, nobody ever heard him complain, or regret his decision. His wife, Razia, stood by him through thick and thin, firmly supportive and never demanding or wanting more. She would effortlessly be the belle of the ball in a simple chiffon sari and a dab of lipstick; and she would give away in a heartbeat her everyday pieces of jewellery, right off her ear or hand or ankle, to anyone who might need it more.
Shehzad and Razia had four daughters: Shehnaz, Shehla (myself), Ayesha, and Rabia. He adored his girls, and used to call them “Shehzad ki shehzadyain.” He made sure they received the best education available, at the very best of schools, and encouraged them to run, play, laugh, climb trees, capering about with their friends and neighbours – always within the bounds of his strict moral code, of course!
Weekend nights were extra special for the girls: that’s when Shehzad would produce the big, hardbound hand-illustrated copy of the Arabian Nights and captivate his young listeners with thrilling tales. The neighbourhood children would hasten to join the circle on those nights, eager to be transported to other worlds as his deep voice would rise and fall, narrating the story and voicing each character to perfection.
He himself knew all the works of Allama Iqbal by heart, and quoted from all leading Urdu poets during everyday conversations. A master of the Persian language, Shehzad could effortlessly recite from Rumi, Hafiz and Khusro, explaining their layered meanings with such clarity that sometimes his eyes would glaze over, moved by the delicate sadness of the verse. He later published a handbook of Persian poetry, condensing his expertise into a slim volume for the benefit of students of Persian poetry.
In those days, when religion was relaxed and pleasurable, Diwan-e-Hafiz was often consulted in our home for guidance in everyday matters. I remember one time, when a gold ornament of mine went missing, and we were suspicious of someone who might have stolen it. Abba immediately did wuzoo and opened up a page in the Diwan-e-Hafiz; the verse that his finger pointed to was:
Shaadi e yaar e pari chehra baadeh baada e nab,
Keh me laal dawa e dil e ghamgeen aamad
(O beautiful faced one, give me more wine;
You yourself have come to heal my hurting heart)
Abba’s on-the-spot interpretation of the couplet was that it was I myself who had to remedy the loss of the ornament. He urged me to look for it again, and sure enough, I located my ‘misplaced’ treasure!
For his family, he was the centre of their world; a wise and loving father, a kind, gentle husband, prone to the occasional fit of temper, but never without reason. For those he worked with, his ethic and integrity was the stuff of legend. During the 1965 war, Shehzad was called upon to shoulder special responsibilities of transport by railway carriages to war zones and was awarded the Tamgha-e-Quaid-e-Azam for exceptional services rendered.
The Minister made a flippant remark about “all of the Railway men being corrupt.” This was more than my conscientious father could bear, he who had once admonished me for accidentally breaking a glass on one of our train trips because it was company property
However, the story that his colleagues and successors at the Railways would never forget is this: In 1983, when Shehzad was a Grade 21 Member (Traffic) of the Railway Board, he was called to a meeting of senior officers by the newly appointed Railway Minister, Maj. Gen. Saeed Qadir. At this meeting, the Minister made a flippant remark about “all of the Railway men being corrupt”; this was more than my conscientious father could bear, he who had once admonished me for accidentally breaking a glass on one of our train trips because it was company property.
At the Minister’s words, Shehzad angrily stood up, told him that he could not tolerate such thoughtless comments, and walked off from the meeting. The very next day, he tendered his resignation. He had three more years of service left and was soon to be promoted to the highest rank, Grade 22, as the Chairman of the Railway Board. But there was no turning back; Shehzad Ahmad Khan had always been a man of his word, a man of no regrets. Unbeknown to him at the time, his principled stance on that fateful day earned him more respect and admiration from both fellow and future Railways men than the Chairmanship could ever have.
The key to my father’s success in life was discipline. He never missed his daily prayers, nor his Tahajjud namaz – a spiritual rigour he inherited from his father, Mushtaq Ahmad Khan. He enjoyed good health and lived to see the wedding of his oldest grandson, Kamran; on the day of the baraat, he proudly wore the same sherwani he had donned at his on valima, not a pound gained in 50 years.
After Abba passed away in November 2005, his faithful old car, a white, AC-less Datsun, was entrusted to Mina, one of his older grandchildren. Mina reminisces: “The freedom that beloved car gave me when I drove it is still a little jewel of happiness in my heart.”
During Abba’s last days, Mina brought a copy of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ to him at the hospital; it was his favourite English poem. “I read it to him; he wasn’t speaking much then, but he listened carefully. ‘To cease upon the midnight with no pain’ is very much how he slipped away from this world.”
The sense of pride we feel being the daughters of this man and his wife gives us the freedom from trying to prove anything to the world. We strive to live up and propagate in our children those golden standards of living.
Shehla Ahmad Khan is a doctor and genealogy enthusiast based in Lahore.