The human brain is a marvelous storage space. We not only process – at lightening speed – what we see, hear and smell, but we also store that information somewhere in the deep recesses of our brain. A long-forgotten song, a whiff or scent or a long-forgotten sound triggers memory, that comes tumbling down like a mountain stream.
In my childhood, particularly in winter months, each evening a beggar would pass through our neighbourhood. We knew about his arrival minutes before he would actually come to the junction of our small alley with the main street. It was his metal-tipped staff making a peculiar sound on the cobble-stone street. He would pause and in a loud voice would chant a few ashaar of Rumi:
Yuk shabe Majnoon ba khilwate raaz
Guft ae Parwardiggare be-niaz
Azz chira namman tu Mannoon karda ee
Ishq Laila der dilam chun karda ee
(One-night Majnoon in the privacy of his thought
Said, O God who are so self-sufficient,
Why did you allow that I become Majnoon
And why did you put the love of Laila in my heart?)
I never saw the man. Even looking from the window, he appeared a be a mysterious man wrapped in the cloak of darkness. Years passed and I forgot all about the man, his staff and his chant. There was a distance of at least 15 years when once going through the bazaar, I heard amidst the traffic noise of rikshaws, tongas, buffalo-drawn cars and the ding of human conversation, a familiar sound of a staff rhythmically striking the pavement. Tukk…tukk…tukk. I looked and saw a blind man with flowing beard, dirty clothes, and an aluminum bowl in one hand and the wooden staff in the other. His chant was lost the noises in the bazaar, but the sound of his metal-tipped staff striking the pavement rose above the cacophony of sounds.
It was on one of my annual visits to Peshawar that a few friends decided to wander around the city. While approaching the eastern gate of Lady Reading Hospital, we smelled the unmistakable smell of roasting meat. It was the same old tikka-wala who had sold skewers of spicy roasted beef from his perch adjacent to the hospital gate. That was our favorite haunt for a quick snack when we were medical students.
The man was sitting on a chowki, a low wooden stool, behind the long grill of glowing charcoal. There were a few customers sitting on chowkis eating tikkas with tandoori naan. Others were waiting for their order to be done. He was fanning the charcoal with a woven hand fan in one hand and turning the skewers with the other. As we took seats on empty chowkis the man realized there were other customers and while still fanning the charcoals and turning the skewers, he asked, without looking up, “How many skewers?” our friend Nisar said, “Oh about a dozen!”
On hearing Nisar’s voice the fan in his hand gradually slowed down and then stopped. He looked up and a smile of recognition came over his face. “Oh, doctor Sahib,” he said, “it has been a long time I have seen you”. Yes, it had been almost 15 years. But he was able to recognize a familiar voice from the past.
As the houses burned, the call for prayers was chanted as clockwork from the neighbourhood mosque five times a day. Even for a nine-year old boy it was surreal. For many years whenever I heard the call for prayers from that mosque, I smelled the stench of burning human flesh and the screams of trapped people
A whiff of the printers’ ink and I am transported back to my college days and the Ferozesons printers on Mall Road, Peshawar. College magazines are notorious in being late and Khyber Magazine of Islamia College was no exception. On many occasions when we were dealing with deadlines or the magazine was required to coincide with the visit of some important national leader, as editors, we literally burned the midnight oil to get the job done. It was fascinating to work with the typesetters who would literally set the text one letter at a time. And that, too, in a way that the text looked backward on the block but when printed on paper it would look the way I was supposed to. I can say I have the printers’ ink in my blood.
In the days leading up to the Partition in 1947, there was a frenzy of communal killing of Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs at the hands of each other. In our neighborhood of Machi Hatta (now Muslim Meena Bazar) in the old city of Peshawar, there lived a number of Hindu families in a small blind alley called Pantan di Gali (the alley of Pandits). A handful of Muslim vigilantes looted the those houses and then blocked the alley and set fire to the houses. Screams of trapped people could be heard in the neighbourhood. As the houses burned, the call for prayers was chanted as clockwork from the neighbourhood mosque five times a day. Even for a nine-year old boy it was surreal. For many years whenever I heard the call for prayers from that mosque, I smelled the stench of burning human flesh and the screams of trapped people.
Once at a retirement party for a friend I kept hearing a familiar voice but could not recognize the person. And then suddenly it dawned on me that I had known that voice for many years during my surgery residency training. The man worked in the bank I used. Every month when sending money to my family in Pakistan, I would call the gentleman and request him to send me a cashier’s cheque which I would then send to my family by registered mail.
I approached him at the party to introduce myself. No sooner had I said, “Hello Mr. Godin,” he recognized my voice and said, “It has been a long time Dr. Hussain!” Those banking transactions had happened almost 25 years ago, and we only knew each other by our voices. It was such a pleasure to finally meet the man.
In my younger days I was a pipe smoker. There were a few other residents as well as a few staff physicians who smoked pipes. We all used different tobaccos and since in those days one could smoke in the hospital, it was quite easy for the nurses to track us by the aroma of our individual tobacco.
In earlier, more innocent, times when religious and political strife had not caused deep fissures among the neighbours, our neighborhood was peaceful and tranquil. The day would start with the call for morning prayers from the corner mosque. After that one heard the Hindu women from Pantaan di Gali singing bhajans on their way to worship at the canal outside Yukka Toot Gate. Their bangles causing a musical jaltrang when they touched the metal gagars (pitchers) that they carried on their hips. After that the laboured voices of men were heard carrying carcasses of slaughtered animals to the nearby meat market. Then came the sounds of water carrier sprinkling the street closely followed by a man sweeping the street with a long broom.
By this time the day would break a shepherd would collect cows and buffaloes from the neighbourhood and take them to the pasture outside the city. When I hear the cowbells, I am reminded of the morning ritual of animals taken to the pasture. When I hear a bhajan, I am reminded of women singing bhajans in my neighbourhood.
There are a million reminders of the past that take us instantly to a time and place that is far removed from the present.
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. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org