Yaadayñ: Ummi, Abi and Me

Posted on October 18, 2008
Filed Under >Zakintosh, History, Society
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Rewind to late-1944 to 1945 (give or take 6 months … for I am just guessing). The Second World War is in full swing. My father, a doctor, has had to enroll in the Army. The three of us – Abi, Ummi, and I – are constantly on the move from camp to camp.

Abi’s short postings take us into cantonments from Jhansi to Campbellpur – places now in two different countries but made famous by their queens – and several others towns I can only vaguely recall. For some details, however, my memory is almost photographic: I can recall every face at our table – even the orange floral pattern on the sari Ummi was wearing – when the cook, Salamat, came running in to warn us that Sultana Daku was about to attack. Of course, like most things associated with Salamat, it turned out to be a figment of his opium-inspired imagination. I guess why I haven’t forgotten the incident is because I have been forever chided for asking “Will he sign my autograph book?”

I am 4+ years old and always the only child at all of these places, as far as I can recall. (Wish I had asked my parents why that was so … for it does seem odd to me now.) This lack of peers makes me spend most of my time around the same things that the grown-ups around me enjoy: books, magazines, music, poetry … and sitting with them, trying to make sense of their discussions.

Traveling with us everywhere, among Abi’s uniforms, Ummi’s saris and ghararaas, my favourite embroidered chikan kurtaas (and my own uniform) is my box of Meccanos #0/#1 and a small crate of Abi-Ummi’s books. Apart from Ummi’s stack of Ismat issues and Kohé Qaaf Kay Peechhay – a book of children’s stories from which she read to me – I can recall 4 of them even 60+ years later: There is a Deevaané Ghalib, for which my mother has made a slipcase in papier-maché and decorated with dried leaves. On one large leaf is her attempt at a pen-sketch of Ghalib that she is very proud of, until one of Abi’s colleagues assumes the sketch to be Jesus. (He thinks the book is an Urdu translation of the Bible and is being kept, like Qurãns, in a jüzdaan). The other books are Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, Feroze-ul-Lughaat (Farsi), and a Platts’ Dictionary that was gifted to Abi by someone at one of the camps. The latter 2 are still with me :-)

My lifelong habit of travelling heavy is obviously inherited from my parents, for there is also another ‘essential’ and much cared-for set of items that weigh a ton and go everywhere with us: A black trunk that contains an HMV wind-up gramophone and a small music ‘collection’ (78 RPM records), neatly stored in 2 metal boxes, painted dark green. Inscribed on them in white paint: WEST / EAST. The first holds some records by Caruso, Gigli, Chaliapain, McCormack, and Debussy’s Claire De Lune by someone. Imagine how often I must have heard all these names to be familiar with them at that age! The second, a bigger box, is populated by our own classical music’s demi-gods: Fayyaz Khan, Karim Khan, Bai Kesarbai, Omkarnath Thakur, Enayat Khan. It also has a thin balsa wood partition that keeps these giants segregated from mere mortals who sing “light pieces”: K. L. Saigal, Akhtari Bai, Kamla Jharia. There’s even a Talat Mahmood (his very first: Sab Din Ayk Samaan Naheeñ Tha) – included, I suspect, more because of Abi’s almost-paternal love for his younger cousin than for the song. (Ummi enjoyed the song, but it just wasn’t on my father’s musical hot-list … although he got all teary-eyed and mushy whenever we played it!)

At one or two camps, where we stayed relatively longer, Abi made friends with a few people equally interested in English literature, Urdu shaaeri, and music. The well-known humourist, Dr. Shafiq-ur-Rahman, was my father’s junior at one camp and was always a barrel of fun when he came over, with my mother and others teasing him about some new nurse or the other he would fall for on a fortnightly basis. (This, I narrate not as much from memory as from tales retold.) Shafiq chacha and my father had everyone rolling with laughter as they used crazy words, such as Posheedah Ghünchee for Chhipkalee). There were humourous verses, too, a few of which, including a ghazal with a funny qaafiah (“ch, ch” = “tsk, tsk” – by Abi) appear in Shafiq Chacha’s book, Lahrayñ. This scanned image of three of its couplets is from Abi’s bayaaz.

Three other people who stayed in touch over the years were Khan Chacha, Badshah Chacha and Gupta Chacha. The first two came to Pakistan and our family ties continued beyond their deaths and those of my father and mother. Sadly, Badshah Chacha (whose eldest son laughingly claims to have been conceived at our house) died very early. Khan Chacha was around for quite a while and continued visiting Ummi and me regularly after my father passed away in 1963. Despite the fact that these two chachaas were part of my life as I grew up in Karachi – and were extremely affectionate and caring – it was “Gupta Cha,” left behind in India, whom I inexplicably missed most.

Fast Forward: It’s January 1946. The war has been over for months. We are in Delhi, where Abi has rented a space and set up a small clinic, which he hopes to expand. He has asked for a release from the Army and is waiting for it to arrive. Ummi is busy all day, putting together crockery and stationery, even embroidering a floral K on new bed-sheets and pillow-covers for the 2-bed ‘overnight hospital’ they hope to build in the small space behind the clinic some day.

Our flat above the clinic is small but frequently filled with poets and writers, because Abi is the Joint Secretary of Anjumané Taraqqiyé Urdu. (The other ‘joint’ being a young Jamiluddin Aali). I have vague memories of Ustaads like Jigar and Seemaab on one or two occasions and a clearer one – from what may have been the last week in that house – of a very young Habib Jalib, whom I remember because of his beautiful voice, long hair, and the super-shiny :-) white sharkskin shervaani.

We are just beginning to settle down but Abi is suddenly asked to report for another year and is shunted off to medical camps in Baghdad, Cairo, and Jerusalem. Keen on Biblical History – it is from him, again, that I get my passion for it – these postings thrill him as he visits hundreds of legendary sites. Take a look at a picture of Jesus’s traditionally claimed birthplace from Abi’s album.

Abi even visits Karachi during his to-ing and fro-ing and is impressed by what was then a lovely, friendly and exremely clean city. Here’s a view that I also found in his album of Elphinstone Street (now Zebunnisaa Street, named – oddly, methinks – after the daughter that King Aurangzeb kept imprisoned for years). Times change! The city has changed in every conceivable and inconceivable way, but I still love it, madly!

The air in our Dilli house is beginning to fill with the talk of Pakistan. My mother’s cousin, Ziauddin Kirmani (ZDK) is constantly heard arguing for the Muslim League, while my father and a few of his politically active Congress-supporting friends argue for a united India.

Interesting factoid: ZDK edited and published, from Lucknow, a paper called Pakistan … well before the name was coined for this country. Later, he also authored a biography of the Prophet, The Last Messenger with a Lasting Message – An Unconventional Study (recently re-published by his son, Tariq, and available at T2F). I’d strongly recommend it to those looking for a fresh approach, interesting references related to early Islamic history, and succinct biographical sketches of the Prophet’s contemporaries … but I must warn readers that certain sects have been upset about a couple of portrayals. The book is intriguingly dedicated “to those who seek the truth and are prepared to face it”.

Soon, my father leaves for his new posting, packing Ummi and me off to to my maternal aunt in Calcutta, where her husband works for the Sea Customs. Also in Calcutta (now Kolkota) lives my paternal grandfather (of whom everyone I know is scared to death) … more about him in some other post … so it is a treat for all of us that my uncle is soon posted to Budge-Budge (now Baj-Baj), an oil pier 20 miles up the Hooghly. The distance from central Calcutta, though short, is mercifully not entirely conducive to my grandpa dropping in too frequently.

1947 arrives with bloodshed and riots in Calcutta, turning the Hooghly occasionally pink. My only playmate – Sattar, a family servant’s child brought up by my aunt and just a bit older than I – spot a body or two floating up-river with the tide. We even have a rather gruesome encounter with a severed head, once.

My uncle, Asad Ali, and his close friend and neighbour, Shaukat Chacha, are employed in the Sea Customs because of their hockey prowess. They talk each day about how close “we” are to attaining Pakistan. My uncle and aunt are extremely fond of me. They have no child of their own and are like my second set of parents. I even call them Ammi Jaan and Abbu Jaan, titles generally used to address one’s own parents. In contrast to my parents, they are such fanatical Muslim Leaguers, they even alter my name. Not legally, of course, thank goodness. But in my books and notepads I am made to write Mohammad Zaheer Alam Kidvai Jinnahi! One of these books I still own: It is Vol. 2 of Hafeez Jallandhari’s Shaahnaamaé Islam, which I used to once recite full throatedly to anyone who’d listen, thrilled at the descriptions of the bloody battles and the ‘heroic’ deeds of the early Muslims. Until I grew up

It’s August 1947, now. Pakistan is a reality. Where we are is relatively safe but from conversations and the BBC news over the radio we hear that things are bad everywhere. Our family has to move out and head to Bombay from where we are to travel to Karachi, since Abbu Jan has ‘opted’ for West Pakistan. I suspect that the decision to not move to East Pakistan – so much closer to Calcutta and an obviously easier/safer move – was taken partly because my grandpa was migrating to Dhaka ;-) (Did I forget to tell you that my daada was also Abbu Jan’s elder brother? Not too confusing a relationship, actually. Just a case of an uncle and a nephew, only 6 years apart, marrying 2 sisters!)

Abi is to meet us in Bombay and take us ‘home’, to Delhi, while the others sail away to Karachi. I can hardly wait to get ‘home’.

The long journey takes us through three train changes and a circuitous route which, for the life of me, I cannot recall. On the last leg of the journey we are told that, now, there are riots everywhere and trains are being stopped and attacked. People are being killed by one or the other party, depending upon your religion and theirs, casting aside the veneers of pretense about professed humaneness and love that followers on both sides boast incessantly about in less challenging times. I guess in order to not scare me and 2 other slightly older kids in the compartments the elders don’t talk about any of this much. Or about anything. Their silence – specially that of Ummi and Ammi Jan, generally non-stop talkers :-) seems eveb scarier to Sattar and me.

At one station we have a surprise in store: A uniformed, beaming-as-always Gupta Cha bounds into the carriage and travels with us all the way to Bombay. At one point – when the train is stopped by a Hindu mob – he leans out of the window and announces that he and his large family travelling with him are Hindus and the only occupants of that compartment. Uniforms didn’t get questioned, even then!

Allow me to digress, but this reminds me of a joke that became popular at the time of Ayub Khan’s 1958 Martial Law. A man standing at the Indo-Pak border sees a horde of rabbits scurrying across to the Indian side from ours. He manages to stop and grab an old hobbling rabbit and asks him what they are running away from. Desperately trying to wiggle out of the man’s grasp, the old rabbit says that the Pakistan Army has ordered the capture of all horses for its use. “But you’re a rabbit”, says the man. “Yeah. But …”, says the squirming rabbit, “have you ever tried to argue with a soldier?”

The other family in the compartment, obviously Muslim (one of the women has been reading a small Qurãn which is hidden away each time the train stops) looks worried. Gupta Cha walks up to the old man among them and says something, then summons a railway guard and takes a brass T-shaped key from him and locks the door from inside. Silent glances are exchanged. One of the women starts to weep. Ummi walks over and sits with her for the rest of the overnight journey.

We reach Bombay, safely. Or, at least half the train does. The second half has been de-linked in some ambush somewhere. I piece this together from hushed conversations. A lot of the luggage, too, is gone. Abbu Jan informs us that many compartments are chalk-marked ‘MT’. I wonder for hours what ‘MT’ could mean, before realizing that he said ‘empty’. My uncle and aunt lose nothing, though. All their stuff arrives safely, including their gramaphone and large record collection.

Ummi has just a small trunk of clothes that’s been in the carriage with us. I tow an empty army-issue bistarband (“because it’s Abi’s!”) and a small but heavy trunk with a couple of toys, a plate that I cherish to this day (it’s segmentation seemed almost satirical years later in the wake of the 3-way partition, so it got dubbed among us cousins, who often fought to eat in it, the Partition Plate), a few small books, and the latest Khilona magazine. There are also 3 records (wrapped safely in a towel): a children’s song by someone about a Dahi baday vaali, Omkarnath Ji’s Kedam kee chhaya, and Caruso’s La donna è mobile (all of which I loved listening to, every opportunity I got, to the bemusement of my elders).

Ummi and I are expecting to see all our stuff in Delhi, soon. I can’t wait to get to our asli gramaphone, the one in our drawing room, with the huge golden horn … and the strangely intriguing machine that Abi has inherited from his mother, one that plays music off amberol cylinders, of which we only have 4 (they are never touched, except when I plead really hard for listening to one of them). I am mesmerized as I hear and watch those cylinders that seem somehow more magical than the black records.

We meet Abi and find out that the house in Karolbagh has been looted and burnt. “My toys and the cylinders, too?”, I ask, worried. But Ummi is now sobbing uncontrollably and no one is in the mood to answer my silly question. Soon, I cry, too, as Abi tells us more about the house. Although I am sure I did not really understand much, I do glean that our landlord, Rauf sahab, has been kidnapped and presumed killed. His wife – who was visiting someone else at that time – is missing.

Jump briefly to a scene ahead: 4 years later, we discover Mrs. Rauf in Karachi. Abi finds and recognizes her at a Police Station near Guru Mandir, where he is called “to sedate a mad woman”. She had travelled across with other relations, we learn later from the people who come to ‘claim’ her back, and has gone raving mad over the years.)

Abi tells us he has spoken with senior persons in the congress party, specially Dr. Syed Mahmud (Nuzhat’s maternal grandfather), a close friend and associate of Pandit Nehru.
Naana Jaan (as we called him) was much loved an admired by Abi, who had dedicated his book of essays and stories – Naee Paud – a few years earlier to him in remembrance of the student days at Aligarh when Nana Jan was a greatly admired activist.

Everyone has advised that we head out to Pakistan and return ‘once the dust has settled.’ (Vazira Zamindar’s excellent book, The Long Partition, indicates that not only did many feel this way but some, in fact, did return to their old homelands). I am stumped today, as I think back, at the naivete of all the Congress and Muslim League leaders, none of whom seemed to have had any inkling of the level of tragedy that this act of separation – still debated within our own country (and criticized, without even an attempt at understanding the reasons, in India) – would assume.

(To be continued)

Originally published at Zakintosh’s blog, Windmills of my Mind

29 Comments on “Yaadayñ: Ummi, Abi and Me”

  1. October 18th, 2008 8:49 am

    Yadoon Ke Baraat. Awesome and Emotional ….

  2. Viqar Minai says:
    October 18th, 2008 10:58 am

    sab kahaaN kuch lala-o ul meiN numayaaN ho ga’eeN
    KHaak meiN kya sooratayN hoN gi jo pinhaaN ho ga’eeN

  3. Shamoun Idrees says:
    October 18th, 2008 11:18 am

    Awesome read… thanks for sharing a part of your history. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and look forward to the next part.

  4. GHAUSIA says:
    October 18th, 2008 11:24 am

    I am looking forward very much to the next installment, this was a beatifil piece

    It is sad that we have lost the love of reading and are not giving that to our children

    That is the greatest tragedy of it all

  5. October 18th, 2008 1:10 pm

    Brilliant story! So lovingly told. Cannot wait for the next segment. Is there a book in the making?

  6. Kareem says:
    October 18th, 2008 2:12 pm

    wow.Loved it. Want to hear more about your encounter with Sultana Dakoo. How did that end?

  7. Ali Dada says:
    October 18th, 2008 6:04 pm

    Wow, what a complicated and boring story.

    So, is the author in India or in Pakistan and still wants to be an Indian?

    I fail to understand why supposedly ‘many’ who wish to be Indian don’t simply pack up and move away? Why drag us and try to connect the rest of us to their old, tired, pathetic rants?

  8. Zakintosh says:
    October 18th, 2008 10:23 pm

    Re: So, is the author in India or in Pakistan and still wants to be an Indian?

    I live in Pakistan. But this does not mean that the old family ties and memories of India are required to be wiped out … just as many readers of this blog who – often for practical reasons – have emigrated from Pakistan and continue to live with happy tales of their past here are not expected to blot Pakistan out from their minds.

    Re: I fail to understand why supposedly

  9. ASAD says:
    October 18th, 2008 11:57 pm

    Loved this. Great writing. Thank yo for sharing. Waiting to read further installments.

    I used to love playing with Meccano. I wonder if they still make those things!

  10. D_a_n says:
    October 19th, 2008 2:50 am

    good good stuff this…enjoyed this post thoroughly and waiting for further installments…

    read with a smile throughout..

    am not very long in the tooth as they say but spent much time at my Dear departed Daada and Daadi’s feet listening to stories about ‘the old country’…their friends…and the rest of the family…the ancestral house…and listen to them as they spoke to each other in farsi sometimes and read the books that they had kept for so long….(May Allah have mercy on them…they have been gone for long and are missed)

    I remember how I used to get my Daadi to tell me over and over again how she and her rather large and extended family managed to escape at breakfast time from a Mob with the help of their Sikh neighbour who bundled them into a truck with a ‘tarpaal’ over its flat bed and drive them to safety….(Daada Abu was in the army and was off on duty in the Punjab somwhere i cant recall)…
    I never get tired of hearing stories of what it was like pre partition and how it was to settle into a new country! :) …. and here I dont even like to change apartments…..

    @ Ali Dada…

    I wonder now…did you actually read this post? and if you did…..and still commented the way you did…I do have questions regarding basic comprehension levels that you possess….
    or maybe your upset by refernces to pre-partition life because your one of those Geniuses that think sub continental history begins in 712 AD with a certain MB Qasim making the rounds of Sindh?
    keeping in mind your prevous comments in recent memory…espcially your racist and sad comments about Pakistani’s in B’desh….all I can say is that I should charge you for wating my time!

  11. Adnan Ahmad says:
    October 19th, 2008 11:21 am

    banti jaatee hein gohur kitni hee bhooli yaadein
    ye mera dil hey key tthehra hoowa gehraa duryaa

    ummr guzree key teri dhun mein chala thaa duryaa
    jaabajaa ghoomta hey aaj bhi paagal duryaa

    Mehmood Shaam

    Thanks for sharing. Mention of Dr. SR is as fascinating as the Deeda-a-Beena playing Badminton with Eva Gardner in Lahore one quiet evening.

  12. October 19th, 2008 11:29 am

    Half way into the second paragraph, i thought to myself.. Shafiqur Rehman must have something to do with this story. And he indeed turned up in the article. Can you write an article on Shafiq Sahib as well.

  13. Baba Pakistani says:
    October 19th, 2008 12:27 pm

    Aah. So many beautiful memories of the days gone by.

    The Bistar-band. Now that is something to write a post on. What a great contraption that was. I think if someone revives it and markets it right it will be a smash global hit!

  14. Dr Muhammad Farrukh Nawaz says:
    October 19th, 2008 2:11 pm

    Excellent and well kept memories.In my view time has not been changed but people have changed.Good to rewind the time.

  15. MQ says:
    October 19th, 2008 9:34 pm

    Good story. Nicely told.

  16. Ghazala Aziz says:
    October 19th, 2008 11:55 pm

    @ Zakintosh, have read and re-read this post at ‘windmills –’ and am now eagerly waiting for the next episode :-)
    Being a post-partition Pakistani,I may not have first hand knowledge of these events but they do evoke very emotive childhood memories. My mother was a boarder at Indraprasta College in Delhi and she’s often told us stories of how the college was surrounded by armed thugs wanting to kill this muslim girl but was rescued by a hindu friend, a ‘Saigol chacha’ of my nana’s ( he was the trade commissioner for the Indian Government in Shanghai at the time). That was just one of many other stories heard from both my parents.
    As for that wonderful contraption – the ‘bistarbund’ – WOW what a fantastic piece of luggage that was. We used to have 2 of them till the mid 1970s but don’t know what happened to them thereafter.
    @ Ali Dada, I find your comments inane and and completely incoherent. I normally wouldn’t be as forthright as @D_a_n but I tend to agree with his comment regarding yours. You really haven’t read the post -or if you have then your comprehension is severely compromised! Don’t be such a spoiler – enjoy and let others do the same.

  17. zakintosh says:
    October 20th, 2008 12:49 am

    @ lutf ul islam

    I hope someone who knew Shafiqur Rahman Sahab better than I did – especially in his older years – will undertake the article. He has left behind a rich legacy of stories (and also translations which fewer people know about. My favourite among them being that of Saroyan’s The Human Comedy

  18. October 20th, 2008 12:01 pm


    I will eagerly anticipate your article. I have read all his books including the Insani Tamasha. Loved all of them. There are a few pen sketches of him in circulation. One by his neice and one by a friend. But much more needs to be written about this gentleman writer.

  19. Gopi says:
    October 22nd, 2008 2:50 am

    Such an interesting piece. Incidentally, the Zaibunnissa Street in Karachi is named after Zaib-un-Nissa Hamidullah, the firebrand editor of the Mirror who gave such a hard time to Ayub Khan in the last years of his presidentship. She was an Anglo-Indian (Bengali father and British mother) but married into a Punjabi family. Check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zaibunnissa_Hamidullah.

  20. zakintosh says:
    October 22nd, 2008 5:32 am


    Thanks for the Zaibunnisa ‘correction’. I know that was what was proposed and has been recorded by many. However, when some people raised an objection to naming it after her and said that her friends and family had ‘pulled strings’ to have this done, the authorities responded by pulling Priness Zaibunnisa out of their hat :-) … but I guess your version, since it is now supported byWikipedia, stands. I have annotated my original post accordingly.

  21. Nihari says:
    October 22nd, 2008 9:44 pm

    Such a sweet article…Not recommended for diabetics

  22. Zakintosh says:
    October 22nd, 2008 10:21 pm

    It’s been written by one …

  23. H.S.A. says:
    October 22nd, 2008 10:43 pm

    This is such a wonderful story. One does not know what to say because there is so much to say. And so many other stories to wait for. But the story is so so very rich and with so many wonderful ideas that one is stunned into silence and wants to just go back adn read it again. So let me do that.

    By the way, is that third picture really of one of the three chachas. Khan, Badshah or Gupta?

  24. Ali Dada says:
    October 23rd, 2008 6:31 pm

    To those who criticize me:

    I was referring to:

    “indicates that not only did many feel this way but some, in fact, did return to their old homelands). I am stumped today, as I think back, at the naivete of all the Congress and Muslim League leaders, none of whom seemed to have had any inkling of the level of tragedy that this act of separation – still debated within our own country”

    Anyways, the author’s reply to my post is adequate – at least the author realizes not to be ambigious in the future (we Pakistanis really must be clear or not write/say anything at all).

    To those who criticize my comprehension skills – chal chal, aagay bar (comprehend this!).

  25. G A Hamdani says:
    October 23rd, 2008 7:39 pm

    beautiful and really looking forward to the next one

    Note to author: those who do not wish to understand wiki never understand and win surf keeray nikalain gay… Best to ignore them!

    When do we get the next installment?

  26. Farrukh says:
    October 23rd, 2008 11:59 pm

    this is a great read. But every generation has it’s memories and all memories seem equally wonderful in retrospect. That is why nostalgia is nostalgia.

  27. zakintosh says:
    October 24th, 2008 7:42 am

    @HSA: It is Gupta Cha

    @Ali Dada: “at least the author realizes not to be ambigious in the future”

    My intent was not to be ambiguous, so it isn’t a realization that came up as a result of your pointing it out. However. this is not my first language and clarity may frequently get affected.

    However, this unambiguous statement of yours (“we Pakistanis really must be clear or not write/say anything at all”) I do not endorse for
    (a) “we Pakistanis” makes it seem as tho we have a special burden because of the mere accidents of birth and circumstance (and, as a coro;;ary, it could imply that non-Pakistanis may be unclear aat their discretion). Everyone should TRY to be clear in what they say … unless, often, the purpose is to be ambiguous.
    (b) as for your generous option to ‘not write/say anything at all’ … Who has the authority to make such a commandment? Most religious tracts (despite the adherents of each one claiming the work to be Divine) are ambiguous in portions – hence so many interpretations and schools of thought (and court cases and mayhem).

  28. daniyal nagi says:
    October 27th, 2008 3:33 am

    Excellent,very well written,has taken me back to the stories of partition,I was told by my grandparents.
    Dr.Daniyal Nagi

  29. April 6th, 2010 6:46 am

    this is a great read. But every generation has it’s memories and all memories seem equally wonderful in retrospect. That is why nostalgia is nostalgia…..

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