The story told here is of my father; an individual representing the lives of an entire generation on both sides of the political divide in a harrowing era. This story is about ‘Midnight Children’ who had hoped for a heavenly land of bliss after the colonial masters left the Subcontinent but found an Empyrean absurdity in the land of freedom. Hundreds of thousands of Indians from all walks of life had struggled for about a century to get rid of the yoke of British colonialism. Sadly, the day of freedom, when it finally arrived, was drenched in blood. Savagery and social upheaval had been let loose by the demons of religious discord.
The period around the second decade of the 20th century was a tumultuous time for the Subcontinent. The Jallianwala Bagh incident took place in Amritsar in April 1919, the Khilafat and Non-Cooperation Movements were launched in 1919-20 and the Malabar rebellion occurred in 1921. While the rise in political consciousness of Indians due to these events set the stage for Indian independence, it also, on the other hand, irrevocably accentuated the Muslim-Hindu divide, setting another stage; that for the division of the sub-continent along religious lines. The violence unleased in the fateful twenties continued unabated with growing ferocity, culminating in the grisly bloodshed of 1947. Even Mother Nature was bitter in unleashing the influenza epidemic in India in 1918 that took nearly 12 million Indian lives, nearly 5% of the population.
My father was born in Amritsar in 1922 amidst this turbulent period.
My mother had migrated from Amritsar to Lahore as a young girl and her family had to toil their way through a difficult period. I wrote about her struggles in this space about four years ago on the eve of her death. However, I couldn’t generate an appropriate emotional disposition to write about my father. He has been, and still is, too large a figure for me to accurately capture him in words.
My paternal family of Kashmiri artisans was concentrated within Amritsar’s walled city in Lohgarh and Chitta Katra localities. My father had lost his own father at age three to tuberculosis, a persistent affliction until Streptomycin was discovered in 1943. Though he had no recollection of his father in later life, yet he once wished that he was alive, and cried bitterly in his memory. That was under severe adversity in an alien city, soon after the Partition mayhem, as is described in one of the following paragraphs.
My paternal family, like many others during that time, endured several deaths due to tuberculosis in quick succession in the mid-1920s. My grandfather, his elder brother and a younger sister all perished within a short time due to the deadly disease. My father was deeply affected by these fatalities and he didn’t get married till he was 28; the age at which his father died. My grandmother raised her four sons with diligence under severe economic constraints. Her brothers, themselves lower-middle-class traders, supported her financially till the children grew up. She educated her children up to matriculation, enabling them to eke out a decent living.
My father started his professional life soon after completing his matriculation in 1943, joining the drawing section of Amritsar railway workshop as a ‘tracer’ at a grand monthly salary of Rs. 47. WWII was raging at the time and Winston Churchill had ordered shifting of large quantities of grain from Bengal to his troops on the war front. Shortage of food items coupled with poor distribution networks had created a man-made famine, primarily in Bengal but affecting the whole Subcontinent. My father maintained a well-kept diary for the period from his railways days through his migration to Pakistan. Brief entries that he made during that time describe his constant struggle to procure sugar and wheat from government-run ration stores. He kept a constant supply not only for his own family but also for his close relatives. Once, when the shortages must have been acute, he even brought 4 sers of sugar from his office canteen. There was shortage of paper as well in the country, and he would pilfer drawing sheets from the workshop, convert them to notebooks and give them to the school children in the family. Yet, he loved life. In his diary, he has written about several visits to the shrine of Zahra Pir Ji and participating in Hindu festivals. He often travelled with friends by bus and train to Gurdaspur, Lahore and Rawalpindi. He also wrote about his youthful crushes and obsessions – writing a diary and leaving it for posterity has its fallout!
My paternal family, like many others during that time, endured several deaths due to tuberculosis in quick succession in the mid-1920s. My grandfather, his elder brother and a younger sister all perished within a short time due to the deadly disease. My father was deeply affected by these fatalities
In March 1947, communal relations in the city took a turn for the worse. Innocent people were stabbed, homemade bombs were hurled and women were paraded naked. His close relatives were injured in one of these incidents in his locality of Chitta Katra. He and his younger brother survived a bomb thrown at them while returning from office. Internal migrations started to take place. He himself became part of a motley crowd that had gathered one evening to attack a Hindu locality as reprisal for attacks on Muslims, but they were dissuaded by one of the elders. The diary for this period is a sombre read.
On 14 August 1947, he left Amritsar for Lahore under very trying conditions in an overcrowded train. He, along with many others, was taken to Manser Refugee Camp (now AJK Regimental Center), opposite Attock Fort on the left bank of the River Indus. They stayed there for a couple of months before dispersing to wherever they found permanent shelter. I will not describe those events here as I have written in detail about his migration to the newly created country in a separate piece in this magazine.
In Pakistan, the family struggled to settle down to a normal life in the newly created Pakistan. He travelled to Multan and Sahiwal in the hope of finding a job but was unsuccessful. Nowhere in his narrative of these trying times is he despondent. However, when refused a job at Multan, he broke down and started crying. He wrote that he wished his father had been alive to provide material support. The turmoil in his peaceful life, as in that of his family and the nation, must have made him completely helpless for him to recall his father whom he didn’t know and who had died 22 years earlier. However, he didn’t give up hope and survived this trying time with his spirits intact.
Shortage of food items coupled with poor distribution networks had created a man-made famine, primarily in Bengal but affecting the whole Subcontinent. My father maintained a well-kept diary for the period from his railways days through his migration to Pakistan
Unable to find a job, he joined his maternal and paternal uncles to start a cloth business in the small historic town of Sukho, 20 km east of Gujar Khan. Some members of the family had gone to this village in search of houses vacated by migrating Hindus and Sikhs. The venture didn’t succeed, with the two uncles -who I grew up to love and respect- quarrelling over the leftovers. They themselves had migrated empty-handed and had little to rely upon to support their respective families.
My father finally found employment in Punjab Irrigation Department in December 1948 and was posted to Balloki Headworks, enabling him to build up his life afresh. Though his struggle to find a decent living would continue, he had overcome the darkest period of uncertainty. He went on to raise eight sons with utmost diligence. From a struggling household through 1960s, his sons and grandchildren rose to serve and do business in all continents of the world. Between them, they live in the best residential areas, drive good vehicles, and own aluminum factories, leather tanneries and various trading warehouses within the country and abroad. It would be a satisfying endeavor for any individual.
One of the most painful experiences in life is to watch one’s parents enter old age and wither away. It is all the more agonizing if they have to deal with some terminal illness. My father died rather young at the age of 63. He was very strong-willed and active till the very end.
Three years before his death, when I was deployed by PAF to the Saudi Air Force, I had gone on Hajj with him, driving 1,250 km from Dhahran to Madinah with my mother, wife and elder daughter; and return a similar distance from Makkah to Dhahran via Taif. He made the ten-day trip cheerfully.
In February 1985, I was posted to Kohat Cantonment when my father decided to visit me. He travelled from Lahore to Kohat in public transport, stayed a night and went back the next day to be in Lahore for the national elections; travelling nine hours each way. Yet by November, he was reduced to a skeleton, had lost more than half his weight and was bedridden.
In October of 1985, he first complained of uneasiness followed by pain in the left side of his stomach. An ultrasound revealed the presence of a growth in the left kidney. A few further tests later, doctors started calling it by the ominous sounding name of Left Renal Cell Carcinoma; in simple language, cancer of the kidney. It was of a rather aggressive variety. Doctors advised immediate surgery as every single day would have made it lethal. I learnt about it the same day and left Kohat after arranging for leave for two weeks. He was to undergo surgery in an attempt to remove the affected kidney.
He was operated upon but the growth had spread so much that removal of kidney could not be accomplished. The cancer started affecting his nerves, causing severe pain. The cancer grew rapidly, first across the stomach and then started spreading towards the right shoulder. I could actually feel the growth expanding under the skin, an inch or two every day. He was losing weight rapidly and had negligible muscle mass left. He had also lost his appetite. Doctors thought that he didn’t have more than a few weeks to live. He died within a month of the surgery.
Had he lived, he would have been happy and amazed to find several doctors, engineers and business graduates among his prosperous grandchildren; fruits of his belief in the transformational power of good education
In the hospital, nurses administered him morphine injections every six hours to ease his pain. However, the effect would wear off within about two to three hours. When I requested – in reality, begged – a doctor to give him another injection after three hours of the previous one because it was becoming unbearable for me to see him suffering, he told me, rather bluntly, that if I couldn’t stand it then he could give me a bit of morphine. Thankfully, within a week, the cancer destroyed his nerves to the extent that he stopped feeling any pain. Ever optimistic, he thought it was a good sign; we knew otherwise.
He had been a pillar of strength for me but now he was literally melting away before my eyes. It was heartbreaking watching him cry with pain. Those two weeks were the most agonizing of my life. I had never felt as helpless as during that time when I knew that he had a few days to live and could do nothing to relieve him of his pain. My brothers and I would sit next to him in the hospital for hours; sleepy-eyed but without any thought for food or rest. All I could do was clench my hands, fight my tears and hope that his misery would end as soon as God willed. He stayed in the hospital for about ten days. I stayed glued to his side as I wanted to be with him, and also because he wouldn’t let me go away. In many ways, I was the closest to him. I left to rejoin my duty when he was discharged from hospital and he returned to his Creator within a few days of leaving hospital on the 11th of November. May he rest in eternal peace.
He was a great believer in my abilities. When I started reading Urdu novels and love stories in primary school – something frowned upon in the early 1960s – he was happy that his son was developing reading habits. He taught me to solve equations in class five, when that was not even part of my course syllabus. He wouldn’t let us miss school under any circumstances and made us do our homework regularly. He would cycle my three younger brothers to Islamia School in Barafkhana Chowk, go on to his office on the Mall, and then return the same way. Though he didn’t have the financial or social status to do so, he desired that I study in Aitchison College. When he learnt that a comparable public school in Sargodha run by PAF took admission on merit, he immediately replied that his son would get selected. When I went home on leave from school, he would be the happiest person in home and would ask my mother to cook dishes that he thought I liked. He would be cheerless when I went back from leave. He would bring cartons of mangoes, and sacks of honey melons and oranges for the family. He would celebrate small occasions for his eight sons; distributing coconuts when they cut their first tooth or laddoos when they spoke their first words. He would take us on muharram and Eid Milad processions in the streets of walled city Lahore. He would always go to the Badshahi Mosque for Eid prayers, a tradition that we brothers still observe. We had our meals together; something that we still do in our families and when we gather. He would help my mother in the kitchen or when washing clothes; again, a habit that we brothers still follow. He raised us well. None of us smokes or drinks – except for my partiality to wine, when visiting Australia.
He has been gone for 36 years but has never been out of my thoughts. He told me on his death bed that he is very satisfied that his sons are well educated and on the way to success. His constant effort to provide quality education to his sons had started bearing fruit. By then three of us brothers were in armed forces, one was a manager in a pharmaceutical company and another was a bank manager. We had overcome our financial difficulties and were looking ahead at a brighter future.
Had he lived, he would have been happy and amazed to find several doctors, engineers and business graduates among his prosperous grandchildren; fruits of his belief in the transformational power of good education.
Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: email@example.com