The pull of one’s homeland or place of birth is innate with most of us and is deeply rooted in our being. History is replete with stories of voyagers, soldiers or caravanners hurrying home after long stretches of absence. Currently, these scenes are repeated at various US airports when children and loved one’s rush into the arms of returning soldiers.
My first exposure to national pride by another nationality was on an Alitalia flight to Rome almost 60 years ago. As the plane touched down, most Italian passengers spontaneously cried out “Roma, Roma, Roma!
Pakistanis traveling home on Pakistan International Airline don’t show passion, but their hearts are full of love for their homeland. Once, in my younger and exuberant days, I was to take PIA from Athens to Karachi. I was so overwhelmed by the proximity of a national symbol that I kissed the plane before entering the cabin. People have been known to kiss the soil after stepping off the aircraft.
Sir Olaf Caroe was one of the last governors of NWFP (now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa). During his tenure on the frontier, he developed a deep affection for Pashtuns and their homeland. He learnt Pashto and became extremely proficient in it. Also, he wrote a definitive book The Pathans on the history of Pashtun people. While discussing the pull of one’s home, Caroe writes:
But to him (who returns home to the Frontier), the unmistakable change of atmosphere is felt at Margalla, forty miles before crossing the Indus and close to the site of ancient Taxilla. Here he will smell the scents of home-land as a voyager putting out from France knows he is in England when he sights the cliffs of Dover.
I am familiar with that feeling rather well. For many years, when returning to Pakistan for my annual visits, I would prefer to land in Islamabad and then take Grand Trunk Road to Peshawar. Just as Sir Olaf wrote, the sight of the Indus and the nondescript bazaar of Khairabad hamlet on the western bank of the river invoked an intense feeling, like the one that returning voyagers of yore had when returning to England. At Khairabad, a bare 50 miles separated me from the city that nourished and nurtured me for 22 years of my life. Half a century later I still cling to the thought that one day I will return and stay.
My friends have at times criticized me that while I am a devotee of Peshawar, I don’t live there. The simple answer is that the Peshawar that I envision, in the words of the late Khalid Hasan, is the city of the mind and not a physical one anymore. It is a changed city and is still changing. I look for familiar places and it is hard to find them. Like an archaeologist searching for missing links to a bigger story, I often fall short of connecting the past with the present.
When returning to Pakistan for my annual visits, I would prefer to land in Islamabad and then take the Grand Trunk Road to Peshawar. Just as Sir Olaf Caroe wrote, the sight of the Indus and the nondescript bazaar of Khairabad hamlet on the western bank of the river invoked an intense feeling
We take pride that the fertile land of Peshawar produced innumerable icons. It is amazing that the old city, barely a 2-mile square, produced an array of men encompassing all walks of life. There was Abdul Rahman Peshawari who migrated to Turkey and became one of their heroes. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid rich tribute to him while addressing the Pakistan Parliament a year ago in February of 2020. Then there were Ahmad Shah Bokhari aka Pitras Bokhari and his younger broadcaster and poet brother Zulfiqar, Yousaf Khan aka Dilip Kumar and the famous Kapoor family.
The list is long and fascinating but alas, most of them while making their name and fortune away from the soil of Peshawar, seldom looked back. They did not spend any intellectual or monetary capital to strengthen the culture milieu of the city that made them into what they turned out to be.
In the Kapoor family, however, there was a tradition (related to me by Ahmad Faraz) that whenever a member of the clan built a home in India, they poured a bag of Peshawari dirt into the foundation.
For many other insufferable Peshawaris, Sahir Ludhianvi’s following ashaar from his poem dedicated to his alma mater Government College, Ludhiana, resonate strongly:
Mein jahan bhi raha, Yehein ka raha
Mujh ko bhoole nahin hain yeh daro baam
Naam mera jahan jkahan puhncha
Saath puhancha hai iss diar ka naam
[No matter where I went in the world, this (institution) remained with me
If my name was known far and near, so was the name of this (institution)]
In 1995, I had the unique opportunity to talk with Dilip Kumar in Toronto at his grand-niece Dr. Abida Osman’s home. It seems that he also carried Peshawar with him all his life. He told me stories from his childhood – some well-known, others not. One such story, not previously known, was about the police firing in Kissa Khwani Bazar on April 23, 1930 that killed close to hundred protesting citizens. Yousaf, at the time a 10-year-old, found himself in the middle of the melee. A desi police officer yanked him from under a shop front and dispatched him home with a slap on his back. A stray bullet would have ended the story right there in the Street of Story Tellers.
My friends have at times criticized me that while I am a devotee of Peshawar, I don’t live there. The simple answer is that the Peshawar that I envision, in the words of the late Khalid Hasan, is the city of the mind and not a physical one any more
Asadullah Khan is a world-famous equestrian who had spent many years in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the 1970’s and 1980’s. In Peshawar he lived in a small house in the Hashtnagri area of the old city from where he went on many an equestrian expedition into the northern mountains of Pakistan. Later on, while he lived in Kentucky, he kept Peshawar in his heart and soul. Once I asked him if I could bring him anything from Peshawar. His reply surprised me. He wanted me to bring him a worn-out horseshoe of a kind that were rather common on the roadsides when there was enough tonga traffic in and around the city. I found a paper-thin horse-shoe with nail-holes still encrusted with local dirt. He displayed it in his home at a place of honour.
There is another lover of Peshawar, a man of English, Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi letters by the name of Satyapal Anand. Born at Kot Sarang in Pakistani Punjab, he was educated in Rawalpindi and Nowshera. He married a Hindu girl from the family of his mother who lived in the neighborhood of Ander Sheher in Peshawar City. He considers himself Peshawari and took the memory of Peshawar with him to India after the Partition and subsequently to America where he taught English literature. As is my wont, I asked him if I could bring him something back from Peshawar. He said without hesitation, “a fistful of Peshawar dirt,” – and that I dutifully did. He was so ecstatic on receiving the gift of dirt that he wrote an endearing poem about the fistful of dirt from what he calls his janam bhumi.
The tug and pull of soil are undeniable. Whereas some of us are able to hide it, others wear it as a badge of honour. At the same time some people die in foreign lands thinking all the time of their homeland. A famous couplet of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last king of the Mughal dynasty, says it all. He died in Burma (now Myanmar) where he had been exiled by the British after the mutiny (we desis call that the first War of Independence):
Kitna hai badnaseeb Zafar dafn ke liay
Do gaz zameen bhi na mili koi yaar mein
(How unfortunate is Zafar
That he was denied a few yards of his native land for burial)
The late Daud Kamal was an award-winning English language poet. His short poem “Anchor” encapsulates the longing to return to one’s roots:
Anchor your dreams,
Neither in stars nor in the sea,
But in the earth,
Where ancestral dust sharpens,
The taste of ultimate sleep
Dr. Sayed Amjad Hussain is an emeritus professor of surgery and an emeritus professor of humanities at the University of Toledo, USA. His is also an op-ed columnist for the daily Toledo Blade and daily Aaj of Peshawar