|Tuesday, December 16, 2008|
My grandfather was a spoiled young man. His mother died during childbirth and he lost his father at the age of 12, leaving him heir to a sizable fortune. Abbaji, as I later came to call him, responded to privilege by getting thrown out of 6 different universities. I am told that he was asked to leave Bombay University after he emptied a full commode on top of I I Chundrigar’s head.
Partition and 1947 were not kind to Abbaji. My father remembers tense nights in Patiala waiting for Sikh raiders, rifle in hand. His instructions were to shoot his mother and sisters first.
When the time came to flee, they joined millions of others taking trains out of India. But when their train pulled into Lahore, Abbaji was so sick that he refused to get off, asking only to be left alone to die. He stayed on the train until it reached the final stop at Jhang where he was offloaded by coolies. My grandparents settled there.
Abbaji had been educated by an English governess. My father went to school in Jhang squatting in the dirt, writing on a takhti. Having finally figured out the value of education, Abbaji drove his children hard: my father made it to Government College in the year 1952. At that time, Abbaji’s entire income was Rs500 per month out of which he gave Rs300 to my father and his elder brother, both of whom were at GC.
In 1955, my father was one of seven Pakistanis to win an engineering scholarship to England. His first few years there were rough, but by the end he had figured things out. One night he was attending a function for new students when he heard a pretty young lady ask where the bridge club met. He offered to take her there, and that is how my parents met.
My mother was born in Vienna, also the privileged child of rich parents. That wealth and its attendant privileges disappeared over the course of World War II.
When the war ended, my mother’s family was sheltered in what is now Slovenia. As the Balkans descended into chaos, her family decided that they would be killed if they didn’t escape. On the day after Christmas, 1945, my mother and her family loaded a horse cart with their most prized possessions and made their way down to the Austrian border. The bridge which marked the border was guarded so they planned to simply make a dash for it and hope for the best. Luckily for them, the guards were too busy celebrating to notice and all of them survived. In 1947, my mother’s family moved to England, where my grandfather had contacts from his pre-war days who were willing to give him a job.
My parents married in 1959 and their first child, my eldest sister, was born in England in 1960. In 1962, they decided to move back. My father’s mother wanted to disown him for marrying a non-Syed, non-Shia, non-Muslim, non-Pakistani girl. Abbaji told her that she now had a new daughter.
After the move back came another 5 children, four of whom were born in Wah Cantonment where my father worked in the Ordinance Factory. In 1965, he had just moved to a better paying job when war broke out. He volunteered back the same day.
In 1969, my parents moved to Lahore which is where my younger brother arrived. In 1981, they moved overseas, finally returning to Lahore in 1993. A month later, my father’s sister was killed in a tragic road accident, leaving behind an orphaned son. My mother announced that henceforth he would be her seventh child.
I mention all of this personal history for two reasons. The first reason is that in a week’s time, my family and I will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of my parents’ wedding.
Second, I cannot in all honesty say that I have faced anything like the tragedies and traumas which my parents confronted. I hope I never do. But the point is that humanity survives and thrives all the while. My parents are not public heroes, only private ones. Pakistan is full of people like them, people whose stories would be remarkable only if more people knew about them.
Our generation likes to feel that its problems are unique, and we are no different. Pakistan is full of merchants of doom these days, only too happy to believe that the end is nigh. I beg to differ. We spend so much time bemoaning our fate these days that we forget the resilience of the human spirit. Yes, times are tough, but the human race is tougher. I know that not just because my parents told me so. I know that because they showed me so.