My eldest brother bhaijan Salahuddin had a natural talent for making day to day conversations interesting.
He was a gifted raconteur and I spent many youthful hours with him
when he spoke and I listened. The roles, however, were reversed on one occasion when I had returned to
Pakistan on holiday from my duties in the Saudi Arabian desert and was giving an account of my exploits there to some of my
family members including bhaijan. I did not realise that I had been speaking for an hour or more without interruption.
And what is more, this time I was
speaking and bhaijan was listening. When I had finished my account, he said, "Mansur, take a pen and paper and
write down all that
you have been telling us. Now. While everything is fresh in your mind." I was immensely flattered but did not have time
or opportunity to take my mentor's advice. I got married that very week and returned to my desert post three weeks
later. Then life became busy and my young mind became more focused on experiencing the new rather than recounting
the old. Now that I am retired and have time on my hands, my worthy cousin Ahmad has suggested that I should
start writing about my life, continuing the narrative which my father had left unfinished and which Ahmad translated into
English and I published as
"My Life" by Sibghat Jallandhari some years ago. I do not claim to be a writer and what I am presenting here are
glimpses of a very ordinary life which will perhaps be of interest to some of my relatives and friends. Only time will tell whether
outsiders will find anything of interest here.
'Shorts' in the title refers to the new literary genre consisting of pieces of non-fiction of varying lengths which can be read individually. Hopefully they will give a reasonable idea of my life, as well as some pleasure, if read collectively.
I have retained the real names of all my relatives, teachers and mentors. I have changed the names of some other individuals to protect their privacy. I owe a debt of gratitude to so many people that it is impossible to thank them individually. My sincere thanks to all of them and God bless them all.
Shortly before I had opened my eyes for the first time and had a peep at this wonderful world, I was taken to Ferozepur.
It was the done thing in those days.
My parents lived in Hoshiarpur in the Punjab where my father was headmaster of the well-known Islamia High School. My mother's parents lived 88 miles away in Ferozepur where my grandfather was stationed as Chief Engineer of Canals in the days of the Raj. He had a spacious residence with extensive grounds. It was customary in those days for the expectant young girls to go to live with their parents around the time of confinement. The idea was to take them away from the stress of managing their own household and give them a complete rest at that critical time. So, when she was close to full term, my mother was ceremoniously taken to her parents' house to be looked after. I was born in that house like my twin brothers had been two years earlier, much to the joy of the extended family. I went back to Hoshiarpur with my mother after a few days. That was my only visit to Ferozepur as far as I know.
I have only a very faint recollection of our house in Hoshiarpur. My father had to give up his job as he developed cataract in both his eyes. We moved to Jallandhar where he had built another house of which I have fond and vivid memories.
Our house was called Sibghat Manzil after my father's first name. It was a two storey house with a plaque above the front door which opened onto the first street in a relatively new development called Bagh Ahluwalia which lay between the established residential areas of Basti Ghuzan and Basti Sheikh. It consisted of only four or five streets of rather large houses, all of which had generous yards inside but no front gardens. Our house was the second in the street, the first house being a typical raj style bungalow named Hashmat Manzil after my maternal grandfather Mian Hashmat Ali who built it at the same time as Sibghat Manzil was built. There was a connecting door between these two houses which was always open and which allowed free movement of all the members of our extended family between the two houses. I lived with my parents and my siblings - two sisters and three of the four brothers - in Sibghat Manzil while Hashmat Manzil accomodated my maternal grandmother whom we called Barey Appaji (proper name Khadija Khatoon), three uncles named Muhammad Anwar, Muhammad Aslam and Muhammad Khalid, uncle Anwar's wife Aqeela Khatoon, the beautiful teenage auntie Zohra Bano (who died very young) and my brother Mahmood who was Masud's twin and was being raised by our grandmother in order to ease the burden of child rearing from my mother's shoulders.
Barey Appaji's two sisters lived close by. Bar Waley Khalaji (proper name Ruqayya Khatoon) lived in the next street and her nephew who was a major in Indian Army also lived in the same street. Bibi Ji (real name Fatima Khatoon) who was the eldest of the three sisters lived in the first house in the third street. There was constant contact between all the family members and all the children were welcomed in all these houses with open arms all the time. Most of my childhood memories relate to Sibghat Manzil, Hashmat Manzil and Bar Waley Khalaji's house in Jallandhar.
When I was about four years old, I was circumcised along with my twin older brothers and my younger brother. A mass
circumcision so to speak. In those days our elders were certain that circumcision was a religious duty. It was a
badge of identity for male members (no pun intended!) of the Muslim community. We lived in a mixed society in
which Sikhs were easily identified by the knot on the head, Hindus usually had a 'bodi' - a tuft of hair on
otherwise shaven head - and Muslims had to undress to prove their religious credentials. A bit awkward but used
nonetheless during the riots of 1947 to decide the fate of many by murdering gangs.
Circumcisions were carried out by hereditary barbers who had specialized in this field. No anaesthetic was used but their razors were sharp and technique quick as lightening. We were told that we will be able to witness a golden sparrow fly by and by the time we had observed it, it will be all over. And so it was. I do not remember having felt any pain or seeing any blood or any golden sparrow either although I was on the lookout for it. I sat in my father's lap during the operation which took place in open air under the 'berry' tree in our front courtyard. The cut was covered with fresh, almost warm ash from the kitchen (wooden logs were used to make fire for cooking in those days) and we were transferred to our cots which were lined up in Hashmat Manzil. There was a sort of cage covered with fine muslin to keep the flies off our precious assets. We were duly pampered and given a special allowance of money which we kept under our pillows and could use for buying whatever we liked.
"Sohnay, can you get me some 'gulab jamins' please? Here's the money", one of us would say to our servant after every little while and he would oblige straightaway. This sudden elevation to a position of authority made the proceedings much more bearable.
Interestingly I can only recall ladies hovering around us with glint in their eyes and smiles on their lips, both before and after the deed, telling us about the golden sparrow and such like. They seemed highly amused by the proceedings!
A wedding procession, headed by a brass band playing a happy tune, was making a slow progress
through a Jallandhar street. The bridegroom, his face covered by a sehra made of colourful
tinsel and flowers, followed riding an equally well decorated horse which was flanked by
his young friends walking merrily alongside him. Twenty or thirty male relatives and friends
made up the rest of the barat. The ladies of the family and the neighbourhood were watching
the procession from the windows and terraces of their houses. A three year old girl had to
be lifted onto her auntie's shoulder to get a proper view.
"It is master sahib's (the teacher's) barat", she was told, "and he is going to bring
a pretty wife home." She was thrilled at the sight of the barat. She could not have
imagined that fifteen years later the same bridegroom will come with a barat to fetch
her as his third wife, his previous two wives having tragically passed away, and nearly
a century later her third son would be making a note of this event previously described
to him in detail by his elderly aunt.
The marriage witnessed by my mother when she was a child lasted only a year and my father was broken hearted when his beloved wife passed away after giving birth to twins in a difficult labour. One baby was stillborn. The other was underweight. A wet nurse was employed to look after him but he died a year later. My father had lost both his wife and his first born twins.
In those days men hesitated to express their feelings of love openly but he must have loved her deeply because he wrote in his autobiography 'My Life' : "We loved each other but life was not faithful to her."
My father was in his mid-twenties when he became a widower. The family and friends urged him to get married again. Initially he resisted their suggestions but relented four years later and married twenty year old Zubaida Khatoon who was the youngest of the eight children of Sadruddin and Abida. Her older sister, Khadija Khatoon, was married to Mian Hashmat Ali, a young engineer who was a few years older than Barey Abbaji. Having become brothers in law, their relationship prospered. They had quite a lot in common. Both had an English education, were ambitious, had a religious disposition and were focussed on family life. Zubaida Khatoon turned out to be a devoted and loving wife and bore him three children. Salahuddin Ahmad, Zakia Bano and Hifza Bano were born two years apart. When Hifza was only three or four years old, her mother developed typhoid fever for which no remedy was available in those days. She passed away leaving Barey Abbaji to raise the three young children on his own. He was grief stricken but the family rallied round him. They realised that there was a dilemma: on the one hand no well-wisher wanted to suggest another marriage as the stepmothers were notorious for mistreating step children but on the other hand they could not see how a young man could be expected to raise the children, particularly the girls, on his own. After much deliberation it was suggested that he should marry Hashmat Ali and Khadija Khatoon's young daughter Saeeda Khatoon. She knew the children well, had a placid and loving nature and the children adored her. She was only eighteen while Barey Abbaji was forty but this much of age difference between husband and wife was not uncommon in those days. However the relationship between them was too close for comfort - she was the niece of his deceased wife - and it was decided to get a religious edict (fatwa) about legality of the proposed marriage from religious authorities. The religious leaders considered the details of the relationship and gave the marriage a green light.
So it came to pass that the three year old girl who had watched the marriage procession of a relative while perched on the shoulder of her aunt, sat ready fifteen years later for the same bridegroom to take her away from her parental home. The marriage raised the morale of the whole family. She proved to be a devoted wife and a loving mother to the three children who already doted on her. In due course she had four children of her own, twins Mahmood and Masud, narrater of this tale Mansur and the youngest Zubair. Barey Abbaji from having Hashmat Ali as his brother in law, now became his son in law. This would create problems for matchmakers later on, necessitating further 'fatwas' in the future. The story at that point seemed to be heading for a happy ending but fate had another cruel blow to inflict on Barey Abbaji and the children. Our beloved mother, barely in her mid-twenties, contracted the dreaded TB of the lungs which had no cure in those days. The doctors could only suggest plenty of rest, good nourishment and change of air. A chalet was rented for her on a hillside in the summer resort of Murree where she rested during the harsh summer months of the Punjab. She had her young children for company and a distant relative who looked after her needs. I can just about remember that chalet and the excitement of seeing the clouds come into the rooms once or twice. I was three or four year old and could walk downhill to a natural spring from where our 'uncle' used to fetch water.
My next and the last memory of my mother is from Bar Waley Khalaji's house in Jallandhar. She was lying in a bed in the large courtyard and beckoned me to her bedside. She looked pale and weak but was smiling and I did not realize then that she was seriously ill. She had a thread tied round her big toe and I still do not know its significance or why it caught my attention. She was peeling a tangerine with great patience and gave it to me in small pieces. I very much liked being close to her. Shortly afterwards she passed away. I was only four years old at that time.
When I was in my early teens we had become adept at making our own entertainments. Luckily my brothers were very talented. Once bhaijan Masud and Mahmood wrote a short play which we staged on a make shift stage created by dividing a room with a curtain. It was about a married couple. Mahmood put on all the makeup, wore woman's clothes and jewellery and played the the part of the wife. Masud played the part of the husband. All the family members who were present in the house were persuaded to watch it and they included our maternal grandmother whom we called Barey Appaji and her sister Bar Waley Khalaji. The play went well and when I had drawn the curtain in the end, everyone clapped. Then something happened which we had never seen before. Barey Appaji started to cry. When asked she told us that she was reminded of Saeeda Khatoon, her daughter and our mother, because Mahmood with his makeup looked exactly like her. Her sister managed to console her. My own memory of my mom's appearance was hazy. I had a good critical look at Mahmood bhaijan with the makeup on. If she really looked like that, I thought, she was very pretty. I was delighted.
During most of the year, we slept outdoors in the large 'sehan' (front yard) which would be washed in the evening to cool it
down before cots were arranged in it and beds made. The whole family would sit there after dinner and enjoy discussing family
matters, politics, religion, literature or music - in fact anything and everything. We would listen very attentively to these
discussions and it was a valuable source of education for us. Sometimes we would have a sing song or play games. I remember
that one evening there was a sense of excitement as unlce Mohiyuddin was coming to visit us.
He was the only son of my grandmother's older sister Bibiji (Fatima Khatoon) and had come from Lahore where
he worked as a correspondent for a national daily newspaper. Just before coming to visit us, he had been to a special preview of
a film called 'Ratan' which had not been released yet. Good films were released infrequently in those days and attracted quite a
lot of publicity.
Uncle Mohiyuddin had a good audience as everyone from Hashmat Manzil had also come to listen to him. He gave us a brief outline of the story of the film and his impressions of the actors. He had particular praise for the music director, Naushad, who was going to be a star in his view. Like his mother, Mohiyuddin was a very good singer. He sang a couple of songs from this film which nobody had heard before. It was a mesmerizing performance. Mohiyuddin died young. Naushad went on to become a legend in the film industry.
My life has been intertwined with the lives of the residents of Hashmat Manzil in Jallandhar who moved to P-1125
in Rawalpindi after the partition of India. Barey Appaji, my maternal grandmother, lived to a ripe age of ninety
and I enjoyed listening to her reminiscences about the good old days which were fascinating. Her three sons,
my uncles Anwar, Aslam and Khalid, moulded my attitudes during my formative years by example and without ever giving
me lectures. I saw auntie Aqeela in her prime when she ran the household with panache and set an example in good
manners for others. Mahmood bhaijan was, and remained, an integral part of our lives even though he lived in Hashmat
Manzil. Auntie Zohra, young and beautiful, died of consumption at an early age. I can only remember her
lying in bed in the front courtyard and helping us patiently to unravel the knots from the string which we used for
flying kites and which got into a tangle ever so often.
How did she manage to stay so calm when she was bed ridden? Having so many doting
relatives around might have helped. A brave girl.
My maternal grandfather had passed away a couple of years after I was born and his eldest son inherited the title 'Mian' which conferred much prestige on uncle Anwar. Highly educated and learned, he took his duties as the head of the family very seriously. He had many hobbies and interests and the one which fascinated us most was his shooting trips when he will come back with the geese and other birds which he had bagged. We, the children, had nicknamed him 'mama gughi tha' meaning the uncle who shot doves. A bird was a bird to us kids.
In 1940's when uncle Anwar lived in Hashmat Manzil, he owned a radio and a car, both of which were a source of considerable excitement for us kids. At that time Hashmat Manzil was one of the very few houses that had a radio. An external aerial was needed for proper reception and you could not miss seeing it from outside. It consisted of a cable strung across two wooden poles, with a bunch of wires at one end from which issued the wire that connected it to the radio. The higher it was above the roof, the better the reception. The installation was a status symbol in itself. It was rumoured that a conman who lived in the area had erected an aerial (quite cheap) but did not have a radio (very expensive), creating an impression of being well off!
Our radio was an ECKO with plenty of knobs at the front which we children were not supposed to touch and had a grill as back cover through which we could see the magnificent glow of the vacuum tubes.
The car - a black Ford with a number plate PBJ715 if I remember right - was the other marvel for us. It was equipped with a starting handle. The ritual of starting the car always thrilled us. It had leather seats and the faint smell of leather and petrol was heavenly. It had a rubber bulb horn and no indicator lights. Cars were rare in those days and this one had been bought by my grandfather when he was Chief Engineer of Canals in Ferozepur, a city that boasted having only three cars. One belonged to the English magistrate, the second to my grandfather and the third to a well- known 'twaif' (dancing girl) in the city. This snippet of information always amused me. Still does.
Uncle Anwar had two masters degrees (in Geography and Philosophy) from the prestigious Aligarh University and also a Law degree though he never practised law. He got married while he was still a student and would often tell us of his trips to Ferozepur (360 mile one way) where his new bride lived with the family at that time. "Mianji would say, he is strange this son of mine. He gets a day's holiday, adds a couple of days to it himself and rushes back home!". Then uncle would add: "He didn't say that as a reprimand but with undisguised delight!".
Twice in my life uncle Anwar got upset with me and gave me a real dressing down. I was at fault on both occasions and deserved his wrath. It taught me a lesson and I vowed not to give him any reason to be upset with me again. That does not mean that I never disagreed with him. I did on a number of occasions which I remember clearly. He would listen to me patiently and will even be prepared to change his mind. Some people thought him to be dictatorial. I could argue with him and sometimes bring him round to my own viewpoint. That's my experience. Others may see things differently. However nobody can dispute that he set a benchmark for selfless hospitality. The legendary Hatim Tai would have been proud of him. There was a constant flow of guests who came to stay with him and the hospitality which they received was exemplary.
Uncle Aslam's life can be divided into three phases pretty neatly. During the pre-partition days of plenty he had a princely existence. It was said that he actually used to relax on a bed of roses! Highly intelligent, he was a romantic at heart and did not care about academic work at that stage. Living with the extended family, he did not seem to have any economic pressures. His artistic skills found expression both in visual arts and written work. His first publication was a book of romantic short stories titled 'Ansoo' (Teardrops) which was published in 1947 by Kitab Manzil, Lahore. There was a charcoal drawing of Sappho on the wall of his room in Hashmat Manzil which was his own work. I used to wonder as a youngster as to who Sappho was. When I read Sappho's poetry in my more mature days, I took my hat off to my uncle who had obviously discovered her worth at a young age.
He got married while he was still in Hashmat Manzil. His bride to be, my older sister Zakia, was barely eighteen at that time. The marriage posed some problems. Because of the closeness of relationship between the couple's elders, religious authorities were asked to give a ruling ('fatwa') about the legality of the marriage. The family tree was examined minutely and no objection raised against the wedding. As the groom lived in Hashmat Manzil and the bride in Sibghat Manzil, my young mind wondered whether the 'barat' will conveniently use the communicating door between the two houses which was always open and which we used all the time. Actually on the day, the 'barat' made a circuit by going to the next street, entering our street at the top end and then coming to its destination. The same route was taken in reverse when the bride left in a 'doli' over which coins were thrown aplenty with the poor onlookers picking up what they could. It was fun.
There used to be a custom in those days, although our family did its most to discourage it, that the two 'sides' would denigrate the bride or groom or their near relatives, particularly when singing wedding songs some of which could be quite rude. I remember hearing comments like 'Our bride is so fair but the groom is so dark of complexion that it is a real mis-match' and things like that. These comments were made light heartedly and amused at least the children.
A couple of days after the wedding I remember that baji Zakia had come back to her parental home as was the custom and was sitting in the front courtyard. Mahmood, Masud, myself and Zubair were hovering around when she called Masud to her side, gave him a cuddle and announced, "I like this brother of mine the best because he cried the most at my wedding!". I remember feeling that it was a very unfair comment. I did not know that I was supposed to cry on such a colourful occasion!
The second phase of uncle Aslam's life began after partition when despite the dire economic circumstances, he threw himself wholeheartedly into academic work. Over the years he successfully obtained a degree - Bachelor of Arts - and went on to do master's degrees in Urdu and Persian. Having caught the academic bug, he did not stop there and got a PhD from University of the Punjab after some ground-breaking research on Urdu drama. Numerous publications followed and he became an authority on Urdu drama. He has been quoted extensively in academic papers on that subject.
And then he became overly religious in the last phase of his life. Not that he was not religious before. But now he joined Jamat-e-Islami, grew a magnificent grey beard and in due course became the local Emir of that organization. He started to devote more time to religious activities at the expense of his literary pursuits. He opened an Islamic School in United Arab Emirates but came back to Pakistan rather disenchanted with that venture. He made a list of his jobs, literary activities and publications and added it as an appendix to one of his last books, 'Almia' (Tragedy) which was published by Sufi Ikram Publishers in April 1987. The list is impressive. Very impressive.
There was a well in Hashmat Manzil, at the far end of a small rectangular room which had a tub and a few other utensils for the water drawn from the well. We the kids, all below the age of six, would have our bath in there in a communal way. Sometimes uncle Khalid, eight years older than me, would in passing issue an instruction to us: "Kids, soap yourselves properly, not forgetting the eyes." Stinging eyes would make us hop up and down but I do not think that he ever saw the result of his casual directive. He was almost a teenager, with a mischievous streak. Once he pointed out Mianji's photograph which adorned the mantelpiece. He was wearing a three-piece suit with a bow tie which had been touched up by the photographer with little dashes round it to make it prominent and to which he drew our attention: "That's a vicious bat which attacked his neck and got stuck to it." We believed him and remained scared of bats for a long time. Generally though, he played with us in a big brother sort of way and we were very fond of him. Once we got quite excited because of uncle Khalid's sensational encounter with a thief.
One afternoon, returning from school uncle took a short cut to his room through the infrequently used drawing room and noticed some movement of a curtain which was unusual. He lifted the curtain out of curiosity and a thief who was hiding there leapt out, knocked him to the ground and made his escape. He raised the alarm and everyone came running. The thief was gone by then. Uncle was a bit shaken but soon recovered. He had not been able to see the thief properly and his possible identity was discussed in detail by the elders. It must have been someone who knew the geography of the house well. Could it have been Akram?
Now Akram was a real rogue, the black sheep of the family. Bar waley Khalaji and her husband Subedar Jan Muhammad had adopted him as they did not have any children of their own. He turned out to be a bad egg. Subedar sahib had served in the British Army with distinction, and being a disciplinarian would hang Akram upside down before flogging him whenever he got upto mischief, which was quite often. This hardened the young man and as soon as Subedar sahib had passed away, Akram started a routine to extort money out of Khalaji. He would pay her a visit, threaten her, demand some money, break a few pieces of crockery or furniture to create panic, pocket the money and disappear, only to reappear when the money ran out and go through his routine again. The one person that he was scared of was our father, Barey Abbaji. Zubair, when he was only six years old, witnessed this live drama once and told me the story.
"A messenger came running from Khalaji's house to ask my father to go there straightaway as Akram had come and was breaking things and issuing threats. I followed my father there to witness an amazing scene. There were pieces of broken crockery in the courtyard where Akram stood holding a chair as if he was about to smash it. He froze when he saw my father. Barey Abbaji said to him in a firm voice, "Akram. Stop this. Put the chair down and get out of the house and do not come back. Understood?". Akram put the chair down and without saying a word went out. Everyone seemed to breathe a sigh of relief."
Uncle Khalid was only eighteen years of age at the time of partition of India and our move to Pakistan. He got a job in GHQ as a clerk. Whether it was his own choice or circumstances had forced him to take it up, I do not know. But he did this soul-destroying job for many years, initially going to office on foot but later on a bicycle. He also took evening classes for 'Munshi Fazal' and 'Adeeb Alam' examinations from Maulvi Muhammad Umar sahib as these provided an alternative route towards a degree. To say that life was tough for him would be an understatement. Yet, I never heard him complain about his circumstances. If he had any discontentment, he kept it to himself. He had always been religious but gradually religion became a passion for him. He joined Jamat-e-Islami which brought him into conflict with some family members but he pressed on.
He had a natural talent for many things which were considered women's prerogative. He could knit and sew very skilfully and had an expert's eye for women's clothes and jewellery. Whenever there was a family wedding, his advice was sought about choice of clothes and jewellery for the bride and the groom. His taste in so many things including music and art was impeccable.
In early 1950's one day we youngsters were listening to Indian film songs on the newly acquired radio when uncle Khalid came into the room, listened to the song for a minute and asked us why we were listening to such rubbish. We waxed lyrical in defence of the singer who probably was Asha Bhonsle. He was not impressed. So we asked him to recommend some good singers. "Sehgal, Pankhaj Malik, Zohra Bai Ambalawali: now they can really sing", he replied. How old fashioned, we thought. But the intriguing thing is that in due course I came to appreciate those very singers and uncle's taste in music!
He got married to my sister Hifza Bano in 1954 and the quality of his life improved. They lived upstairs in P-1125. He always showed keen interest in my progress. When I was about to start my third year in the medical college, I told him that I will have to travel a couple of miles daily to the old OPD department because the new one on the college campus was not yet complete. He insisted that I take his bicycle with me to make life easy for myself. "What will you do without the bike?", I asked.
"I have managed before without the bike. I will manage again.", was his reply. When I set up a clinic in P-1125 after finishing my house job, he gave me all of his best furniture for the clinic and helped in whichever way he could. Selflessly. I do owe him some gratitude and more.
I might have given an impression that my three uncles were always around me but that was not the case. I went away to the medical college in Multan, later to Saudi Arabia and England when I would see them only during holidays and be in touch through occasional correspondence. A lot happened in the lives of my uncles and to the family in general that I did not witness first hand. I was not present at the engagement of Zubair and Misbah; Mahmood bhaijan got married and I could not attend his wedding. The list of other weddings which I would have loved to have attended but could not is long - Munir, Javaid, Mujahid, Ahmad, Qurri, Azra, Tahira, Ejaz and many more. I was not there when a lot of my younger cousins and nephews and nieces graduated. I missed some sad occasions like passing away of some older family members. I was not there to share the thrill of the opening of Hashmat Ali Islamia College, started in memory of my maternal grandfather by our family members including uncle Aslam, uncle Khalid, bhaijan Mahmood, Zubair and Munir - all of them worthy educationists in their own right. I was not there when the college had to be split into a Science College and an Arts College under uncle Aslam and bhaijan Mahmood's principalship respectively. They did not know at that stage that the colleges would get nationalized in due course and make that temporary family squabble meaningless. It may have soured the family relationships at least temporarily but did not affect me in the least. The attitude of my uncles and others towards me remained as before, full of love and affection.
The atmosphere in our house had changed dramatically after 17 August,1947. Everyone had become quieter and looked worried.
For the past few days they had been celebrating the
announcement that from 15 August 1947 the British will finally leave India and two new independent dominions - India
and Pakistan - will be born. The Punjab was to be divided into two halves but the initial announcement did not specify
the details of the border between the two countries.
Our family was confident that Jallandhar will become part of Pakistan but
when the details were finally announced on 17 August, they were shocked to learn that Jallandhar
had become part of independent India. Muslims had suddenly become alien in their own city and became a sitting target for the armed
Hindu and Sikh extremists. It was decided to leave everything behind and move to Pakistan. This was the main cause of the gloom that
swept through our family.
Uncle Anwar arrived unexpectedly one day having travelled from Noshehra (over 300 miles away) where he was posted at that time. All the family elders sat listening to him and the children were hanging around overhearing the proceedings as usual. He explained that he had kept an eye on the situation in Jallandhar through news media and personal contacts and knew that the situation was deteriorating but when he learnt that Madrasa-tul-Binat (Muslim Girls School) had been set on fire, he became certain that time had come to make an important decision about the future of the family. That was the only inkling I had that our family might be uprooted from Jallandhar.
One day I was sitting on the top terrace of Hashmat Manzil, looking towards Basti Sheikh Dervesh where some houses were ablaze and plumes of smoke seemed to be rising to the heavens. The atmosphere was eerie. There were signs on the horizon that a red dust storm was heading our way. It was supposed to be a very bad omen and my young ten-year-old heart felt heavy. Feeling restless, I got up and went to Sibghat Manzil where my sister anxiously asked me where I had been. She did not seem keen to listen to my description of the fires which I had observed and led me indoors and asked me to have a rest alongside all others who had gathered there.
The following day, I was playing in front of our house when a military truck appeared and uncle Anwar came out of it and ordered me and my brothers to get into the truck quickly. I wanted to go into the house and change my shoes but he did not let me do that. Soon all our family members were in the truck and we were speeding towards Jallandhar Cantonment where uncle Anwar had a large bungalow. There was a reason for the rush: every Muslim in our area wanted to get out as soon as possible but means of transport were limited and safe transport almost impossible to obtain. We got safely to uncle's house where many members of our extended family had already arrived. I was happy playing in the large grounds with my brothers and cousins whom I had not seen for a while.
While playing, we happened to go near the low boundary wall which was some distance from the house. We were surprised to find that the road, which used to be quite busy, was deserted with only a lone Sikh walking towards us. When he saw us, he drew his kirpan (sword) and rushed towards us. We ran to the house at full speed and were breathless when we reached the front door. Our auntie asked us what the matter was and we told her. We were barred from going out of the house after that.
Our confinement did not last long. The very next day a goods truck arrived at our front door. It was to take our family to Pakistan. The journey was dangerous as vehicles, trains and pedestrians heading towards Pakistan were often attacked by armed Hindus and Sikhs and butchered mercilessly. (Muslims were doing the same to Hindus and Sikhs coming from Pakistan to India: it was madness). Another difficulty which became obvious was that the truck had been filled to the brim with sacks of wheat which belonged to some influential politician. Uncle Anwar argued with the driver that he had paid for the whole truck and asked for the wheat to be unloaded but the driver refused to budge. Afraid that we will miss the convoy, uncle asked for a ladder to be brought and the whole family sat at the top of the truck, exposed in every sense of the word. But there was no alternative. Uncle got into the cab with the driver and we started off.
At the same time some of the family members including auntie Aqeela got into the car which belonged to uncle Anwar. It was a Ford with the number plate PBJ 715. The driver had been in uncle's service for a while. In the last-minute rush, baby Mujahid was almost left behind in his cot. Auntie raised the alarm just as the car was about to move. Now Mujahid is a well-respected paediatrician.
If I remember correctly, the car developed some problem on the way. The passengers were transferred to the truck and the car towed but the tow rope broke (accidentally or deliberately) and the car did not make it to Pakistan.
We were in the middle of a convoy of about twenty vehicles which set off on the short (about 80 miles) but arduous journey to Lahore. There were reports of refugees being set upon by armed gangs and horrific tales of murder, rape and looting which had made everyone scared. There was a measure of safety in being part of a convoy. For the same reason uncle Anwar was wearing his old officer's uniform even though he had left the army after serving as a captain on temporary commission. All went well for the first fifty miles or so but when we reached the outskirts of Amritsar, our truck stopped and the driver announced that he had run out of petrol. Uncle Anwar got out and tried to flag down the vehicles coming behind us to seek help but to everyone's dismay no one stopped and we were left stranded by the roadside in the wilderness. Before long, soon we saw that a few Sikhs had started gathering under a tree a few hundred yards from us. We knew that when they had gathered in sufficient numbers, they were going to attack us. Uncle Anwar was pacing up and down alongside the truck in his uniform, with his hand on an imaginary pistol. The sun was blazing down on us and everyone, particularly the ladies became extremely anxious. Suddenly one of our distant relatives - a middle aged lady - stood up and started wailing loudly, pointing towards the assembled Sikhs and shouting that they were going to murder us. Everyone tried to hush her but she got from bad to worse. My cousin Anwaar who was a few years older than me, got up, faced up to her and asked her to shut up. When his words had no effect, he slapped her across the face. She was stunned, sat down and did not make a sound after that. That is the only occasion that I can recall when all the elders present not only did not censure a teenager for his rudeness but seemed very appreciative!
Luckily for us when all seemed lost, a military convoy came along. The officer leading the convoy came out of his jeep and had a chat with uncle Anwar. He happened to be his colleague from his days in active service and sold him enough petrol to get us to Lahore. The military convoy stayed there till we had gone out of sight. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief and shouts of joy could be heard far and away when we crossed the Wagah border and entered Pakistan.
We went to the bungalow of Agha Sahib who was one of uncle Anwar's friends and lived in Model Town. He received us very warmly. We stayed with
him for three or four days. Some of the party went their own way and those who were left were looking forward to settling down somewhere
pretty soon. We had no idea where that would be. Aga Sahib was very hospitable but there were too many of us in a limited space and we
were not sure how to spend all the time which we had on our hands. My cousin Anwaar told us that he had been to Lahore before and knew a
lot of exciting places to visit. Some of them could be reached on foot and if we started straightaway, we could be back in time for lunch.
The scheme met with our approval and without telling anyone, we marched off under Anwaar's leadership. In the confusion that reigned in the
house at that time, we felt that nobody will miss us.
I had my first ever look at the famous Badshahi Masjid (The Royal Mosque) and was impressed with its vast courtyard, its towering minarets and beautiful dome. The ornamentation both outside and inside the mosque was absolutely beautiful. We went to Lahore Fort and admired its solidity. We prayed at Iqbal's Mausoleum. Suitably satisfied but tired, we trudged back to Model Town.
I cannot recall seeing anything unpleasant on this trip. No rioting mobs, no dead bodies on the streets, no sign of any danger. Whether we were lucky or whether I have subconsciously suppressed the unpleasant things all my life, I do not know.
As soon as we entered home we knew that we were in trouble. All the adults were waiting for us with anxious expressions. They did not know where we had disappeared and were petrified because of the dangerous law and order situation. To make the situation worse, uncle had reserved a railway carriage on a train to take us to Noshehra which had been missed because we could not be found in time. We got a real proper telling off from uncle Anwar the like of which I had never experienced in my life and have not experienced since. I felt absolutely dreadful, knew that I deserved the rollicking and decided never to let that sort of thing happen again.
In Noshehra we stayed in a rather primitive house at first. It lacked in modern amenities. There was no running water and a water carrier used to bring water twice a day. It had a large front yard with high walls so that all the ladies usually sat there while performing their household chores. The water carrier would come, knock on the front door and in a strange squeaky voice shout "Pani aya ne jay" (a rather unusual way of saying that it is the water carrier). One of us would tell the ladies to go inside as they observed 'purdah'. This used to amuse us a lot.
We had no school, no outside friends and no recreational facilities and had to think hard to keep ourselves usefully occupied. To prove the truth of the adage that an idle brain is the devil's workshop, one day bhaijan Mahmood thought of a prank: he said that he had practiced the water carrier's cry and could mimic it. He would knock at the door and shout 'Pani aaya ne jay': I would tell the ladies to go in and it will be a hoot when it became clear that it was a hoax. The plan was executed perfectly, the ladies were duly duped, bhaijan Mahmood and bhaijan Masood entered the house laughing loudly. When the ladies realized that we had played a prank on them, they turned on us and gave us their peace of mind. We were reported to uncle Anwar when he came home. He told us off in no uncertain terms. We had realised the error of our ways and showed suitable remorse.
Millions of refugees like us had left their properties in India and had moved to Pakistan. Equally, millions of Hindus and Sikhs had fled to India leaving their houses behind. When the now homeless refugees decided on a place to settle in, they looked around and occupied any property that had been left behind by other refugees. Permanent ownership of these arbitrarily occupied houses would be decided later through an official claims and allotment process.
We now moved into a proper house which had been found through uncle Anwar's contacts. It was a reasonable sized house of modern build. By now many relatives from our party had gone their own ways and only two families were left together - my father's family and uncle Anwar's. The two will later decide to settle permanently in Rawalpind, living at a stone's throw from each other, uncle Anwar in a spacious house no. P-1125 and my father in a smaller house no. P-1558. There would be constant toing and froing between the 'bara ghar' (large house) and 'chota ghar' (small house). We would spend the next forty years or so happily in those houses, almost replicationg the relationship that used to exist between Sibghat Manzil and Hashmat Manzil in Jallandhar.
We had not seen our father (known in the family as Barey Abbaji) since leaving Jallandhar. He had got side-tracked for a good reason. His older brother (my Taya Ji) was a very well-known and respected Hakim with a very busy practice in Jallandhar. His patients included many Hindus and Sikhs. He was very popular amongst all his patients. When the scheme of moving to Pakistan was mooted, he refused point blank to leave his practice and move. He was certain that even if there were riots, no one will dare touch him or his practice. No amount of persuasion worked. My father stayed back to convince him and he relented only after the shops of Muslims in his street started to be set alight and a delegation of his Hindu and Sikh friends told him that they could not protect him against rioters who were not local. By the time my father brought him and his family to Pakistan, found a house and clinic for him and got him settled, it had become difficult to find a decent unoccupied property for himself. He found a job as a teacher in Muslim High School which had been Khalsa High School before partition. Then P-1558 was found for him literally a few yards away from the school. The house was small but very conveniently located. It was not far from P-1125 and all of us could walk to school.
'Absence makes the heart grow fonder' is true enough ordinarily but in difficult and dangerous times it has even
greater meaning. Barey Abbaji unexpectedly turned up one day after a long absence and a wave of excitement went through the house. He was
beaming on seeing his family looking so well. All of us were over the moon that he had arrived safe and sound and in good spirits. He told
us that he had found a permanent house for us and we were to travel to Rawalpindi the next day. Which we did.
We arrived at P-1558 in the evening and had a look around the house. There wasn't much to see. The house had been looted and it was totally empty. To us it looked quite spacious, an illusion created by lack of furniture and our age. There were two large and two small rooms downstairs along with a kitchen, a bathroom and a store room. Two verandas and a yard were open to the sky. The main entrance 'hall' had stairs which led to a small landing, with two doors, one of which opened onto a terrace and the other to a smaller terrace with two rooms. The smaller of these rooms had two curiosities in it which fascinated me. In the middle of the room stood a very large rock of salt. The only cupboard in the room had one single book. Those were the only contents of the whole house. I picked up the book and I still remember vividly what Barey Abbaji said to me. He said, "Be careful. This is their (Sikh's) religious book. Handle it with respect". I did as I was told but I thought that his remarks were unusual. Everyone else seemed to be saying only derogatory things about the Sikhs. Years later when I studied comparative religion with the Open University in England did I fully appreciate the wisdom of his words.
Soon some basic bedding and cots were brought by a servant and we went to sleep upstairs on the terrace. I had a deep sleep and when I woke up, I was very pleasantly surprised at the overpowering smell of Jasmine in the air. Much to my joy I discovered that we had a climbing plant full of fragrant flowers - 'chambeli ki bail'. My father smilingly said, "Well, we may be short of other things but God has blessed us with plentiful fragrance."
There were five of us in the house. Barey Abbaji, Baji Hifza, Bhaijan Masud, myself and my younger brother Zubair. Bhaijan Mahmood lived in P-1125 a short distance away. Bhaijan Salahuddin was in the final year of his English master's degree course in Peshawar. I did not fully appreciate the gravity of the economic situation of our family till I heard a friend of Barey Abbaji trying to persuade him to call bhaijan Salahuddin back and get him to take up a job to provide some financial help as circumstances were dire. My father told him that bhaijan was only a few months away from taking his final exams: that quality of his life will be different with a master's degree under his belt. He said that he was prepared to face some hardship in order to improve the future prospects of his son. And so he did. Bhaijan had a distinguished and fruitful career after completing his education.
Thanks to the fact that teachers' sons did not have to pay any fees, we went to the nearby Muslim High School where Barey Abbaji was a teacher. We had the added advantage that majority of our teachers were friends of my father and kept an eye on us. I remember that when I was in the fifth grade, once I did not do my homework properly and my Maths teacher shamed me publicly by threatening to show my poor- quality homework to Barey Qureshi Sahib (my father) who was known for the high quality of academic work. I was suitably ashamed and resolved not to give anyone similar opportunity to humiliate me. Ever. And didn't. I enormously enjoyed the school. Apart from that one lapse, I stayed on top of my work and my class. It gave me a wonderful feeling that my father seemed happy with my progress.
My brothers were the best of my friends and we had quite a few other friends who lived in the neighbourhood and would join us in playing cricket or hockey in a vacant plot in front of our house. We could not afford proper sports equipment in the beginning but enjoyed cricket nonetheless with self-made bats and balls and an image of wickets drawn on a wall. As the financial circumstances of my father improved, we got proper bats and balls and wickets and even gloves! Bliss!
I remember my childhood as a period of great happiness. We, as a family, had very limited resources but love and affection with which we were showered more than made up for that. Our mother had passed away some years before partition but Barey Abbaji was a father and a mother rolled into one for us. Baji Hifza also stepped up and took on the mantle of a perfect mother. She was very young at that time and had sacrificed a chance for college education in order to look after us. And she did that with grace and good humour under trying circumstances. She was a real angel!
We had only moved within the Punjab from its east side to the northwest but it still came as a culture shock. The locals spoke a dialect of Punjabi called Potohari which we could not understand at first. Zubair, being the youngest, was the first to pick up the lingo. Whenever a hawker or the milkman came to the door, Zubair was summoned to act as an interpreter. The milk delivered to our door invariably had water added to it. The milkman lived only a few yards away and we could see his buffaloes being milked from our house. I was sent to personally observe the milking and get fresh milk from the source as it were. It still seemed dilute. It transpired that the milkman added water to the container before starting the milking. Once that had been sorted out, we started to get good quality fresh milk.
Sale of diluted milk became such a problem that the government officials started to check the specific gravity of the milk before it could be sold. All and sundry were issued with hydrometers to check the specific gravity. It caused consternation amongst the dairy people who sometimes resorted to shocking tactics as I myself observed once.
I was traveling with my uncle in a passenger train which stopped at every minor station and sometimes even when there was no station at all. I guess it had something to do with signalling, the other trains always getting priority over this one. On one such occasion when the train stopped in wilderness, a milkman got down, walked a few yards to a small pond, got some water from the dirty pool and shamelessly added it to the vat of milk which he was carrying to the market. My uncle told him off for this brazen act and added that he should at least have the decency to use clean water if he wanted to add it to the milk. The milkman shook his head and remarked, "Well, can't do that because everyone is carrying hydrometers now a days but we have found out that water from such ponds has the same specific gravity as the milk and we can use it without being caught."
Adulteration of foodstuff was a real problem. It was difficult to get pure ghee, pure flour, pure spices even if you were prepared to pay more for them. Uncle Anwar got so fed up with adulterated flour - a basic necessity as chapati was our staple food - that he decided to set up a flour mill of his own in P-1125 using state of the art German machinery. Uncle Khalid managed it on day to day basis and initially it was very successful but it proved uneconomic in the light of rather unfair competition and had to be closed down.
Once Barey Abbaji came home with a friend and introduced him as his childhood school mate. He had bumped into him accidentally and seeing a familiar face from the past was so thrilled that he brought him home for a cup of tea. They were merrily chatting away and I was listening to their conversation as boys my age usually did. Our guest had also migrated from Jallandhar and had started a flour mill which was very successful. While describing this success, he quite nonchalantly said, "Of course, to make the business profitable, I put some saw dust in flour, red bricks in chillies" and so forth.
"How can you do that? People are going to eat this stuff. That's awful", are the words which came out of my mouth before I realized what I was saying. My father turned to me and promptly sent me on an errand, obviously to get me out of the way. When the guest had gone, my father explained, "You should have remembered that he was an old friend of mine and our guest. What you were saying was correct but it would have been better to say nothing under the circumstances."
Seventy years have passed but food adulteration is still a big problem in Pakistan. Why? A friend, when asked, used to throw up his arms and say, "It is in our genes. We cannot help it."
On 16 October 1951 when our father asked me and bhaijan Masud whether we would like to go with him to a public meeting where Liaqat Ali Khan,
the Prime Minister of Pakistan, was to address his admirers, we did not realize that our positive response will make us witness to a
historic event. The meeting was taking place in Company Bagh (Company Gardens, later renamed Liaquat Bagh). It was three miles away
from our home and all three of us walked to it. We arrived reasonably early and sat in the third row in front of the elegant stage
which had been erected for the occasion. The front row was reserved for the police and security personnel and we did not know at that time
called Said Akbar, apparently unconnected to the police or security, sat there armed with a revolver. The local branch of Muslim League was
responsible for the meeting and when we arrived, its chairman was speaking prior to the arrival of the chief guest. I found his speech
really boring and was relieved when he stopped on Liaquat Ali Khan's arrival and invited him to address the assembly. Liaquat Ali Khan
came to the dais with the microphone and had only said, "Bradran e Millat .." (Brothers of the nation..) when two
shots rang out and Liaquat Ali Khan collapsed onto the floor of the stage. He was quickly surrounded by the security and other officials. The
crowd panicked and there was a stampede towards the main gate of the gardens. I was pushed along by the running throng towards the gate. A
bus was about to leave the bus stop and with some difficulty I got into it before it pulled away. It was heading in the right direction
for me and a few minutes later I was home in P-1125. Baji Hifza opened the door for me when I knocked, looked surprised and said. "What
is the matter with you? You look as if you have seen a ghost!". I blurted out excitedly that Liaquat Ali Khan had been shot.
This sensational announcement got everyone in the house asking for details. Soon bhaijan Masud also came back and added some detail to the information I had given. The news spread in the city like wild fire.
A little later, I set off towards P-1558 with bhaijan Masud. Halfway, there was a general store owned by a local resident called Shah Sahib where all the school teachers and other neighbours used to gather for gossip and a smoke. When we reached the store, all the usual neighbours were standing in a circle in the street and excitedly discussing the latest news. We stopped to listen to what was being said. A respectable senior teacher whom we knew well said that he had heard that both the bullets had missed Liaquat Ali Khan and he was fine. Bhaijan Masud looked at him and said, "No sir, he was hit in the chest: I was in the third row and I saw blood coming ..". Before he could finish the sentence, everyone turned towards him, glared at him and with one voice said, "Shut up and go away!". I was so disappointed that these educated elders were not prepared to listen to an eye witness but ready to believe hearsay. However, like good boys we did what we were told. A while later it was officially announced that Liaquat Ali Khan had been assassinated by a loner called Said Akbar, an Afghani national who had been stripped of his Afghani nationality.
The time following the above episode was amongst only very few occasions in my life when I have felt fearful and down. It was not because we had lost a popular Prime Minister. Just a thought had occurred to me that in the stampede which I had witnessed, my father might have come to harm. It was a silly thought, silly enough not to share with anyone else but it made me nervous. The evening was closing in and he had still not returned. I went to the terrace that overlooked the path that led to our house and waited and waited. When at last I saw him coming I was so relieved and so emotional that my eyes welled up. At that time, I realized how deeply I loved my father and how much he meant to me.
We were brought up with a clear understanding to respect our elders. In almost all cases they deserved it. They were kind,
considerate and ever so loving. Our maternal grandmother, Barey Appaji, was the oldest amongst our close relatives and the most
respected. After partition of India when she was living in P-1125 she was quite active physically and mentally but had a very
interesting life style. She led a truly retired life, meaning that she never did any household chores or an activity which
could be called work. She was very religious and prayed five times a day and recited the Quran ever so often. But most of the
time she sat on her bed, smoked her 'huqqa' (hubble-bubble), kept an eye on whatever was going on around her and was ready to
give advice to all and sundry who would come to her with their problems as she was known to have a wise head on her shoulders.
She did not
have a formal education but was an educated person in the broad sense of the word. Her sons and grandsons and great-grandsons
all spoke English and she had picked up enough of it to understand day to day conversations. She quoted Persian poets,
particularly Saadi, very appropriately when needed. She read the daily newspaper
regularly and quite liked discussing politics. She had seen better days when her husband was alive and they had a luxurious
life style with plenty of servants and resources to match. Sometimes she would tell us stories from the good old days and I
liked one in particular.
"In Ferozepur, our bungalow was rather large with a number of outbuildings one of which was a barn that was used for storing wheat and other grains. A djinn also lived in the barn. He caused no fuss or problem and we would have remained ignorant of his existence except that occasionally we saw him come out of the barn through the closed door as if the door did not exist. He walked away calmly and never interacted with anyone. He was elderly, had a grey beard and a pleasant expression. In time we got used to him and he went on cohabiting with us peacefully."
Barey Appaji was a truthful person of undisputed integrity and we believed her story completely.
After a few years, her younger sister Ruqayya Khatoon (Bar Waley Khalaji) left her village and agricultural land near Chichawatni and moved in with Barey Appaji. Her circumstances as well as inclinations were those of a dowager. She had inherited her late husband's agricultural land and the authority which went with it and she used it to good effect.
She had insulin dependent diabetes and her ritual of urine testing before her injection used to mesmerize us. The only way of detecting sugar in the urine in those days was to add urine to a blue reagent, heat it in a test tube over a Bunsen burner and watch it change colour. She always had some curious children watching the proceedings.
She was the only member of the family who had performed hajj (the pilgrimage) and was called 'hajjan' as a mark of additional respect. She would tell us fascinating stories about the pilgrimage and some of them were awe inspiring for us kids.
"In those days we had to walk quite a lot on foot and it was physically testing. Each stage had to be reached at a specific time and the scope for resting was limited. Once when I got very tired, I stopped to rest for a few minutes, spread a sheet on the sand and lay myself down with the intention of resuming my journey after a few minutes. As it happened I dozed off and went into a deep sleep. After a while I became vaguely aware that someone was shaking me and asking me to wake up and resume my journey as it was getting late. I woke up with a start and looked around. There was no one there! Obviously, an angel had woken me up lest I miss the next stage of my hajj." Again, we believed every word that she said.
Bar Waley Khalaji had an old gramophone - His Master's Voice - probably one of the first ones marketed in India. It was not electrical but mechanical with a little handle to wind it up. One full winding could play one record and a bit more. It used a detachable metal stylus which needed replacing after a while. There was a little box of styli, all very well used. We would sharpen them when necessary by rubbing them on a concrete surface, a crude tactic which worked surprisingly well. There were about half a dozen records which shattered into pieces if you dropped them on a hard surface. It must have cost a packet in those days and to our delight and surprise, Khalaji did not mind us playing with it. There were songs by a then popular singer called Kamla Jharia but my favourites were a qawwali and a naat. The lyrics may seem silly today but the singing was wonderful.
'Bhang ka lota, bhang pee lee mein hooa mota. Kisi ne tujhe bhang pilai, teri aankhon mein lali ayee.'
(A pot of cannabis, I have grown fat drinking cannabis. Someone has made you drink cannabis. Your eyes have gone red.)
And the second one went like this:
'jay mein hunda lal kabooter, mar udari Madiney janda,
Din de wailey choge chugenda, raat rozey te bainda. Karman waliyan Madiney diyan galian.'
(Had I been a red pigeon, I would have flown straight to Madina,
Would have pecked the food during the day and sat on the tomb at night. Blessed are the streets of Madina.'
At times the two sisters, Barey Appaji and Khalaji, would reminisce about the good old day. "Do you remember sis, we could get a sack of flour for pennies then. Those were the days!" and we would be amazed when they told us the price of groceries and household stuff in those days. It was almost unbelievable!
A few years later Barey Appaji's older sister whom we called Bibiji (real name Fatima Khatoon) also joined her sisters in P-1125 after her only son Mohiyuddin, who was a bachelor and with whom she used to live, passed away. Her husband had died before partition. He was known as 'Daddy Sahib' as he was very anglicised, had been to Australia from where he had to come back, probably deported, either because he had gone there illegally or because he had lost his mental balance.
Bibiji was very religious and conventional but within that framework stood up for the rights of women. She also encouraged young girls to be self-confident, assertive and maintain a good posture. She had a commanding voice and was a very good singer, Punjabi folk and Sufi music being her favourite genres. She was quite a disciplinarian. At one time when bhaijan Mahmood was about eight years old, she used to teach him how to sing properly. I remember him practicing 'Paar Channa de dissay kulli yar di'. Once he did not practice his lesson and Bibiji smacked him. When our father got to know that, he stopped his lessons. The interesting thing is that in his heyday when he was headmaster of Islamia High School in Hoshiarpur, he was known to be a stickler for discipline and used to cane the students who broke certain rules. Apparently, he mellowed after his cataract operation and could no longer bear physical punishment being meted out.
I saw Bibiji the last time when I went to visit Pakistan from England where I lived and worked. I paid my respects to her, had a chat with her and as soon as I moved away, she burst into tears. "Mansur has seen me for the first time after the death of my only son and he has not given his condolences." I consolingly told her that it was only because I thought that she was getting over her loss and I did not wish to open the old wounds. I apologized profusely and ultimately got her to calm down. This self-assured, stoical and proud lady had broken down in her old age because she perceived (quite wrongly) that I did not care about her profound loss. I was genuinely touched.
In my teens I developed an interest in palmistry, having read an article in my daily paper which seemed quite persuasive to an
impressionable mind. I read a book by someone called Malik who was a popular practitioner of this 'science' in Pakistan. Later I read the
world famous Cheiro. I brooded on the subject but was not convinced about its usefulness. That is, till we had a visit from an amateur
palmist which we thought had been specially planned. The background to the visit may be entirely our teenage fanciful imagination. It was
quite common for the elders to speculate from time to time about the possibility of marrying off young boys and girls and we used to make
mental notes of that. It became known, quite wrongly, that one of our aunts was very keen to marry her daughter to bhaijan
Mahmood. He was young and attractive but nowhere near the marriageable age. He had just passed his matriculation examination and preferring
physical activity to academic study, he decided to apply for a commission in the Pakistan Army. Bhaijan Masud was much more academically
inclined but decided to join his twin in applying for a commission too. Bhaijan Mahmood's chances of being selected were regarded
as even better than bhaijan Masud's. Then a gossip went round that the said auntie did not approve of Mahmood going into the Army. This
was the scene set in our teenage minds when one day uncle paid us a surprise visit.
All the family members were gathered on the large upstairs terrace. After the initial pleasantries uncle beckoned Mahmood and asked him show him his hand. He was known to be an accomplished palmist and normally his action would not have raised an eyebrow but we, with our florid imagination, had instantaneously decided that he had been sent by auntie specifically to put Mahmood off applying for the army. We became certain that this was true when uncle, after a little deliberation, said that Mahmood's hand was not that of an army officer but rather that of an academic like a lecturer or a linguist. All of us had smirks on our faces. Then he called for Masud's hand. Clever, we thought. Just to give an impression that he was not picking on Mahmood only. He said that Masud's hand was that of a typical army officer, no doubt about that. Worryingly, he also said that he would have a major incident of some kind in his middle age. He did not want to see my hand!
Now here is the funny thing. This episode was quickly forgotten. Of course there was no truth in our belief that auntie wanted to have Mahmood as her future son in law. The twins duly took the army entrance exam and passed. They were called for physical fitness exam and passed. They went for final interviews. Masud was successful and had a distinguished career in the army though he became a prisoner of war in 1971 conflict which created Bangladesh. Mahmood was almost successful. As the interview ended and he was about to rise, the chairman of the board had a close look at him and declared him unfit because of a thyroid problem. Interestingly, he had no thyroid problem. But done was done. Uncle was proven right on all counts. Mahmood did not get the commission he wanted: Masud did. And Masud suffered the trauma of being a prisoner of war in his middle age. Is there something in palmistry after all? I still wonder.
Five years later, a palmist did want to have a look at my hand. I was in the second year in the medical college. As part of our anatomy course we dissected a cadaver and were examined at every stage of the dissection. Because of religious and social constraints, it was difficult to get enough dead bodies for dissection and each part of the body was allocated to two students. My partner in dissecting the arm was known to be a good palmist. Despite my protestation that I did not have any faith in palmistry, he studied my palm carefully and came out with the highly surprising observation that I would have numerous international travelling trips. At that time, the thought of foreign travel was an impossibility for me and I told him so but he stuck to his guns. When I observed that forecasting multiple foreign trips and multiple wives was the usual way of pleasing the clients, he was genuinely hurt and explained to me in detail how he had worked the whole thing out. Now after numerous international journeys I wonder if there is something in palmistry after all!
I enjoyed school very much and was always top of my class. Our educational system was examination
based and I learnt all the skills which impressed the examiners: good handwriting, neatly planned answers and of course a good grasp of
facts. My Arabic teacher, neighbour and early mentor Maulvi Muhammad Umar sahib gave me extra lessons on calligraphy. I entered the
optional scholarship exam when I was in the eighth grade and stood first in Rawalpindi division. When I had taken my matriculation
examination at the age of 15, I had to make a decision about my future career. I was quite confident that I will do well in the exams.
The received wisdom at that time was that good students
studied sciences rather than the arts: those who were good at maths took pre-engineering subjects (physics, chemistry and maths) but those
who did not care much about maths took pre-medical subjects of physics, chemistry and biology. In those days, once you had made your
choice, there was no turning back.
As I was good at maths, I decided that I will study pre-engineering subjects and after passing my FSc (non-medical) exams, will apply for admission to the famous Engineering University in Lahore. My older brother Masud had just finished his FSc (non-medical) exams and I got hold of his maths books and started familiarizing myself with what lay ahead. Little did I know at that time what a casual visit by my eldest brother will do to my future plans.
Bhaijan Salahuddin had started work as a lecturer in English in Government College, Abbottabad and came home for a weekend. He was a brilliant raconteur and I used to enjoy his casual conversation during much loved evening walks. On learning that I was opting for a career as an engineer, he asked me why I wanted to do something so soulless, mechanical and lacking in human contact. He suggested that building bridges or roads will be soul destroying. Why not become a doctor, serve humanity while enjoying social contact with the rich and the poor alike, with a guarantee of a highly paid job for a lifetime. And so he went on, very persuasively, so that by the end of our walk I had decided to change my plans. When I approached my father for approval, he asked me why I had changed my mind and whether I was aware that the medical course was longer and much more demanding. I told him that I was not worried about that as I was prepared to work hard but my main worry was the financial burden it will place on him as the course was reputed to be much more expensive than the engineering course. Dismissing my concerns, he said that financial support was his problem and suggested that I should do what I regarded as best for my future. So I decided to become a doctor.
Many many years afterwards during a family gathering when I was visiting Pakistan from England where I lived and worked, a nephew asked me why I had chosen to become a doctor. I told him the story of my important walk with bhaijan Salahuddin which I have already mentioned. As bhaijan was also listening, I turned to him and asked him whether he remembered that walk and his words which effectively made me change my mind from engineering to medicine as my chosen career. He placed his hand on his head, a gesture he used to use when he felt slightly embarrassed about anything and said, "no, I cannot remember any such thing at all". Life changing for me, I thought and he does not even remember it! One of the few occasions when I have felt disappointed with my brother who I have looked up to all my life.
I got good grades in my FSc (medical) examination and got admission in Nishtar Medical College, Multan. It was a new college, only four years old when I joined it and it produced the first batch of doctors a year later. Multan was 350 miles away from Rawalpindi by train and the journey in those days used to take sixteen dust covered hours. I had a room in the excellent newly built halls of residence. This was my first experience of living away from home and I managed to adapt to the new conditions remarkably well. Throughout the five years academic work remained stimulating, interesting and challenging and I liked it. I did not spend all my time studying but I worked regularly and that kept me in good stead. Gradually I made friends some of whom are still amongst my best friends. They happened to be a talented lot and we regularly took part in the annual sports, became members of the college cricket team, organized annual functions for our halls of residence in which we would act the skits which we had written ourselves. I became editor of the college magazine which was a great success. We started the first music society and held a concert in aid of poor patients which was graced by the leading musicians of the country (Roshan Ara Begum, Iqbal Bano, Surayya Multanikar to name only three). And had much fun doing that. After graduation, I did a house surgeon's job in ENT surgery. I was paid nothing, was on duty 24 hours, had to arrange for a colleague to cover my duties if I needed to go shopping or for a haircut, had to pay for my meals but the hospital provided me with a room which I shared with a colleague. The strange thing is that I look back on that period as full of enjoyment and a sense of achievement.
One day when I was in the fourth year in the Medical College, attending a lecture, the lecturer got an urgent message,
aborted the lecture and directed us to the post-mortem room posthaste to watch the Professor perform a post-mortem
examination - an opportunity which did not come our way very often. For reasons that were partly religious and partly
cultural, post-mortem examinations were looked down upon and we, the medical students, lost out on the excellent
learning opportunities which they provided. However, medico-legal cases, if of serious import, were sent to our
Professor who would make sure that we managed to attend those post-mortem examinations, as he did on this occasion.
He gave us the story which was simple, straightforward and gruesome. A village family was asleep in the courtyard of their house one night when a young man woke up, found that his younger sister's bed was empty, got worried and looked for her in the house but could not find her. Before widening the search, he thought that he will get some help and went to wake his best friend who lived on his own at a walking distance. Not bothering to knock on the door as was his habit, he jumped over the boundary wall and headed to his friend's room to wake him up, only to find his sister in bed with him. At this unexpected and alarming intrusion the girl ran out of the bed and out of the house, chased by the brother brandishing an axe. He caught up with her and felled her with two mighty blows to the back of her head. Then he turned his attention towards his friend who knelt at his feet and asked for forgiveness. His pleas were silenced with two blows to his head. Wiping the blood off his clothes, he then went and handed himself in to the police.
The two bodies lay on metal trolleys side by side. Even in death, both looked fine specimens of humankind. Young, beautiful, perfect bodies marred only by split skulls and blood that had trickled down. When the bodies were turned over, we could see the cause of death as clear as the day. Physical perfection otherwise. Simple observations led to a firm medico-legal diagnosis and that was that. We dispersed. A group of my colleagues passed their judgment loud and clear: "Serves the sinners right."
"No, no, no." cried my conscience, "No human being has the right to take another's life, except in self-defence, whatever their crime or sin. To wilfully extinguish the flame of life which was burning bright and beautiful cannot be right. Crimes should be punished, of course, and sins will get their own just desserts when the time comes, but even divinely sanctioned punishment for adultery, though severe, is not death. (Qur'an,24:2-3)
"Live within your means" was one of the guiding principles of my father. He regarded debt as a curse, not a convenience. He would say
that whatever your circumstances, if you looked around properly, you would find someone who was worse off. So be content with what
you have got and work for a better future. This philosophy was tested
fully in the days after partition when economic circumstances were dire. All of our relatives and friends were in the same boat,
having left everything behind in India and having to start new lives from scratch. My father's pay as a teacher was modest.
He supplemented it
by giving private tuition in the evenings and writing books which would bring in royalties every now and then. He, like most people,
got paid on the first of every month. There was a running joke amongst us that you could tell the date of the month from what was being
cooked in the kitchen. The month would start with at least one meat dish. It will always end with 'dal roti' (bread and lentils which
were the cheapest foodstuff available). We did not mind it one bit because all of us - adults, children, the maid - got the same food to
eat. However, we did need to be reminded of our good fortune once in a while. I distinctly remember one such occasion.
An elderly lady lived alone in a tent which she had pitched in a vacant lot a few hundred yards away from our house. She used to beg for food to survive. She would come to our house asking for food just before lunch and probably on my father's instructions or perhaps because of the soft spot my sister had for the disadvantaged that she would always be given enough for a meal. As time went by, she became a familiar figure. One day she told my father a story which she had obviously concocted. "I saw the children's mother in my dream. She was asking you to give this poor soul some 'maleeda' to eat". (Maleeda or choori is made by mixing bread, butter and sugar till it is soft. It is delicious.) My father turned to my sister and the maid and asked them to give the woman what she wanted. His instruction was carried out but as soon as the woman was gone, we turned to our father and said, "She was obviously fibbing. She had never seen our mom in real life. How could she see her in her dream?". Barey Abbaji smiled and said, "I know that she had made up the whole story but look at it this way. Here is an old woman with no one she can call her own on this earth. She has to beg to survive. We have each other's company, love, affection. She lacks these blessings. She has no teeth, no dentures and if she dreams of eating something soft, it is no crime. We can bring a glint of joy in her miserable life so easily. Why not do it?". I felt suitably chastised and ashamed. Learnt a lesson in fact.
Barey Abbaji was convinced that our future prosperity depended entirely on us getting good education. He had made it clear to us that he would support us in getting as much education as we wanted even if it meant hardship for him. All of us got good education. Two of my elder brothers got master's degrees in English. Zubair got a master's degree in Urdu. Masud went into the army and did his degree there. I managed to get a medical degree. My father did go through a period of hardship but never wavered from his resolve to get us the best possible education. He used to have a satisfied smile on his face whenever people asked him how his sons had fared in life.
My love affair with books which has charmed and informed me all my life,
started very early in childhood. A fond memory, which still lingers in mind,
is that of us going with Barey Abbaji to the school bookshop to get our annual
text books. I liked the sight, the smell and the feel of books. The very
thought of buying books which I was going to keep for a whole year filled
my little heart with great joy. We would take our new books straight to the
local bookbinder who would let us choose the pattern of the paper for the
cover of each book. The ladies, much maligned for taking their time over
choosing clothes or jewellery, could not have been able to compete with me in
the care and time I took in making my choice. And the smell and the sight of
newly bound books was heavenly to me. Some of the books were amazingly
attractive in themselves. I particularly remember Nelson's English Reader
which was printed in England, on a glossy paper, with illustrations in
colour - a milkmaid standing by a farm gate, a man saving a young boy from
a rabid dog, a young lad scoring a winning try in a game of rugby in the last
minute of the match to become the hero of the whole school.(I did wonder
about the odd shape of the rugby ball and the fact that he was running
towards the touchline with the ball under his arm which made the whole
business even more fascinating).
We were oblivious to the harsh economic realities which our elders were facing following partition of India and migration to Pakistan. Our basic necessities were met very well and these seemed to include a daily newspaper and books which were shared by all. There were quite a few books in P-1125 which had probably belonged to the previous occupants - a biography of Motilal Nehru, stories of spying during the world war II, scripts of Indian films penned by an erratic calligrapher and many more. I read them all. As time went by and the economic circumstances improved, the trickle of literary books, both English and Urdu, became a substantial influx into our homes. The received wisdom amongst the elders of the day was that literature has a corrupting influence on young minds. In many a household, if young people were 'caught' reading a novel, they were reprimanded in no uncertain terms. Mercifully, that wasn't the case in our family. I was able to read both Urdu and English literature all through my student days. Our schools and colleges had a tradition of awarding prizes to the boys who stood first in each subject and the winners were given a free hand in choosing the prize books for themselves. This was a much appreciated source of books for me every year and my choice matured from 'The Treasure Island' and 'Gulliver's Travels' in the early days to 'Pride and Prejudice', 'The Mill on the Floss', 'David Copperfield', 'Brave New World' and so on as I grew older.
I spent a considerable amount of time as a youngster at mamoonjan Anwar's house and was very fortunate to listen to informal chats and discussions which seemed to be going on all the time about the latest writers and novels. To call them just stimulating would be an understatement! I was also fortunate to spend many a summer vacation with bhaijan Salahuddin who had an extremely well stocked library, comprising mostly English fiction. He had brought most of those books from England after completing his diploma in phonetics from London University and while his colleagues brought back fridges and cars, he chose to bring a huge collection of books with him. I was very lucky to have access to all those books. Those summer holidays, with the knowledge that I had passed my annual examinations and had two months free of academic worries, would be the highlight of the year for me in bhaijan Salahuddin's excitingly enjoyable company. And then, sitting in the veranda of his bungalow in Kakul in cool breeze with a good book in hand (eg 'Crime and Punishment' , 'Les Miserable', 'The Cruel Sea' and so on) completed my idea of heaven. Bhaijan's enthusiasm for English literature was truly infectious!
I was quite young when mamoonjan Aslam was writing his PhD thesis on Urdu drama. He used to sit on the floor with books and papers spread all around him, occasionally having a puff of the 'huqqa' which had a long hose and stood in the corner of the room. I would make the 'chilam' for his 'huqqa' once in a while and would be allowed to sit in the room and read his books so long a I did not cause any disturbance. I loved it. I used to find reading a play rather tedious at that time but his enthusiasm and devotion to Urdu drama made me take fresh stock of my reading habits.
I still love books. I am grateful to God that I can buy them every now and again. My stamina for reading is much less now with advancing years and waning memory is a problem but it has its compensations. The fact that I cannot remember the details of the books that I read and enjoyed some time ago has enabled me to read many of those old classics again with renewed enjoyment. Moreover, now I can afford to read in a truly leisurely fashion. This has enhanced the enjoyment of reading and re-reading poetry beyond my expectations.
Books do play an important part in our household. Yasman has always been in the habit of reading at bedtime, sometimes for hours on end. And it is lovely to see our own children buying and reading books regularly despite their extremely busy professional lives. They will probably already know what Will Durant meant when he wrote the following in his eminently readable book titled 'The Pleasures of Philosophy':
" To enter that Country of the Mind, where all remembered geniuses still live and teach, it is only necessary to read and see. To see, without haste, those pictures and statues in which artists have written their philosophies of life into a figure or a face; to drink in leisurely the nobility of the Parthenon or the grace and tenderness of Chartres; and to read without haste those books which time has winnowed for us, out of the dross of every age, to carry down the intellectual heritage of mankind.
I believe that it is through reading, rather than through high school and college, that we acquire 'liberal education'. Today we think that a man is educated if he can read the newspaper morning, noon and night; but though our colleges turn out graduates like so many standardized Fords every year, there is a visible dearth of real culture in our life; we are a nation with a hundred thousand schools, and hardly a dozen educated men."
We have been lucky to have (and have had) so many educated men and women in our family. Has my love affair with books made me an educated man? I have my doubts, though I do hope that I am heading in the right direction.
I was in England in 2003 when I learnt that my beloved sister had passed away. The
world seemed to have become a poorer place all of a sudden.
I used to call her 'Choti Behan' (meaning 'younger sister' , Zakia Bano being 'Bari Behan' or 'older sister') and looked up to her for help and guidance all my life. She was a beacon of love and affection. Always ready to help, she lovingly resolved the first memorable 'crisis' in my life. I had been given some homework for my summer vacations during my first year at school and just a day before the school reopened, I realized that I had not done it . I began to cry. Wiping my tears dry, she sympathetically (and with difficulty!) got me to give her details of the homework, reassured me that I will be able to do it in no time at all, sat me down in front of her and supervised me while I completed the homework. I still remember the feeling of immense relief and I could hardly hold back the tears of gratitude which were welling up in my eyes.
It was only after the partition of India when we moved to Rawalpindi that I became aware that she had taken on the mantle of a perfect mother for us. Barey abbaji was a father and a mother rolled into one, no doubt, but he had to spend most of his time trying to earn enough to keep us all fed and clothed at a time when jobs were scarce and money scarcer. He had seen days of plenty but worked from morning till night without ever complaining and always looking a picture of contentment. And that was the quality which had rubbed onto my sister-turned-mother as well. She always had a ready smile, never grumbled and was quick to soothe our feelings if we felt hurt for any reason. It was her loving care which did not let us feel that we had lost our real mother in our childhood. She made all of us feel that we were very special and radiated happiness whenever we passed our exams or did well in sports. It is remarkable that Choti Behan was only eighteen at that time but she ran the household like a veteran with the help of an old maid who used to help with cooking and cleaning. She called the elderly but very poor maid 'mai ji' and treated her with respect and urged us to do the same.
The economic circumstances in the post-partition period were dire but we were fed and clothed very well and had extremely happy childhoods, thanks mainly to her. She used to take personal interest in our studies as well as leisure activities and despite her limited budget, would give us treats every now and then. We used to give her a tough time occasionally when we would raid her sugar caddy despite warnings (sugar at that time was rationed and was available only in limited quantity) and even her reprimands to us were sweetly delivered.
After passing her matriculation examination she could have gone to college but decided to stay at home and look after us all. It typified her selfless devotion to us and Barey Abbaji and we can never repay her for the numerous sacrifices that she made and all the love and affection which she showered on us.
She took great pride in our achievements when we grew up and coming back to see her was an experience that I always looked forward to. She made me feel so special. She had more than her fair share of illnesses but always managed to smile even when she was unwell. It was nice to see her surrounded by a wonderfully dedicated family which included loving children and grandchildren who seemed to adore her. She will be greatly missed by all of us. May her soul rest in peace and paradise be her permanent abode. Amen.
I think that it was Paulo Coelho who once wrote that we take credit for most of the life changing decisions which we make but in fact
they are already made for us. We could not have done anything different. I pondered over this in relation to my own life. Being born
was life changing, and so was migration to Pakistan at the time of partition of India but both of these were outwith my control. The
first decision which affected the direction of my life was my choice of profession and as I have detailed elsewhere, I cannot take
credit for that decision. After becoming a doctor and having finished my house job I had to decide whether to go into government
service, join the army or set up my own medical practice. These seemed to be the only choices available to me. Will my well-considered
decision dictate the direction of my career or shall fate have something else in store for me?
I decided to set up my own practice in Rawalpindi. As renting commercial premises was beyond our means at that time, it was decided that the clinic should be opened in P-1125 which was nicely sited on the major Saidpur Road near its crossing with Asghar Mall Road. The old garage and part of a veranda facing the road were converted to provide a consulting room, waiting room, examination room and a small dispensary. By tradition GP practices did their own dispensing and to that end I employed a dispenser and came to an arrangement with a chemist for supply of all the medicines which were required. An artist was commissioned to supply a sign board with my name and qualifications on it, the only form of advertising allowed at that time. Then I waited for patients to turn up.
Gradually, they started coming. Mostly men and children. Most women preferred to go to lady doctors. Still within a few months, I became quite busy. However, from a financial perspective the practice was a failure. There were a number of reasons for it. Many of my patients came from families whose financial circumstances I knew and could not bring myself up to charging my fee or the cost of medicines that I gave them. A doctor friend who had a good practice in the same city gave me a piece of advice: "Forget about ethics and the Hippocratic oath. Learn to assess the financial standing of a patient as he enters your clinic and prescribe costly or cheap treatment according to that assessment." He was serious in offering this advice. It was unacceptable to me.
A friend had come to see me in the clinic when a 'patient' walked in and asked for a medical certificate for which he was prepared to pay a fee. He was healthy and just wanted to go away on a holiday. I refused. He said that he knew other doctors who would happily oblige for a fee and went away. My friend argued with me that I was being unjust to myself and my own friends by declining to use this 'facility'. I was shocked. I was being advised to say goodbye to my moral and ethical values. I simply could not do that. However, having been dependent on my father for so long, I felt ashamed when I had to ask him to pay my drugs bill. I became certain that I did not have the business nous to succeed in private practice and decided to wind it up.
I frantically looked for a job where I could work honestly and diligently and got paid reasonably well. No such jobs seemed to exist. I paid visits to friends who were working as medical officers in the health service. All of them were so disenchanted with their jobs that they pleaded with me to look elsewhere. A job came up in the railways and I trotted off to see the medical officer at Rawalpindi station to seek his advice. He went into details as to why I should not touch the job with a barge pole. The only option left was to join the army.
Two of my brothers were already in the army. Bhaijan Salahuddin was in Education corps and bhaijan Masud in Ordinance. Both liked their jobs and were happy. They enjoyed a good standard of living. The army provided them with facilities which civilians envied. However, perhaps the pacifist in me felt uncomfortable about being a part of a war machine. I had quite a few friends who had already joined the army and their view was that if you were posted to a hospital, you could have a very fulfilling job but postings in the field were waste of time so far as medicine was concerned. Good discipline, adequate pay and excellent facilities made up for the lack of exposure to proper medicine. I sent out my application and was invited to attend for a medical examination. I was in rude health at that time but was very slim and wondered whether being underweight will be a problem. So I paid my friends in the Military Hospital a visit. They assured me that I would be okay. Even promised to have a word with the major who was going to conduct the medical. I came back in a happy frame of mind, looking forward to my medical in a couple of days but a surprise awaited me when I reached home.
A large package addressed to me had been delivered by registered post. It came from the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, informing me that I had been selected to work as a medical officer in the Ministry of Health in Saudi Arabia. My salary would be 1200 riyals (1800 rupees) a month (when a medical officer got 250 rupees in Pakistan) with many perks including free housing and free air travel to and from Saudi Arabia. Could I send them my passport for visa to be stamped on it and it will be sent back to me along with my ticket to Riyadh. It came as a big surprise.
About six months had passed since I had gone for an 'interview' for this job. A full page advertisement had appeared in a national daily inviting applications for 400 vacancies in Saudi Arabia's health service. There was a political reason for sudden availability of so many jobs. There had been a military coup in Egypt which ousted King Farouk and brought to power Gamal Abdel Nasser who unleashed a propaganda campaign against the kings in the Middle East, particularly the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They retaliated by terminating the services of all the Egyptian doctors working for them and asked Pakistan to help them fill the vacuum so created. Pakistan obliged by promising that they will give to selected applicants 'no objection certificates' which were normally required by Pakistani doctors wishing to go abroad. I was called for an interview at Flashman's hotel. When I got there at the appointed time I found that a crowd of doctors had descended on the hotel, the 'interview' was a misnomer and all we had to do was to fill in an exhaustive application form. We were told that we will be informed about the fate of our 'interview' by post in due course. When I heard nothing for a few months I assumed that the jobs had gone to well-connected candidates as was usual at that time in Pakistan and forgot about the whole business. I was surprised and delighted to get the offer of such a desirable job and it was doubly sweet because it solved my twin problems in relation to going abroad: no need to apply for an NOC and no need to worry about the cost of air fare. However, I needed to know the details of my contract which was written in Arabic. I had a passing knowledge of Arabic as I had studied it at O level but the contract used technical terms which I could not understand. So I went to see my old Arabic teacher, neighbour and early mentor Maulvi Muhammad Umar Sahib. He translated the contract for me and congratulated me on landing such an attractive job.
Before signing and sending back my contract I asked my father whether I should accept the job. It was my decision, he said, what did I want to do? I told him that the job was ideal from my viewpoint. It was well paid, I would be able to experience a new country, perform hajj and be able to go on to England for a postgraduate qualification which I would dearly like to have and which I would not be able to do otherwise. "Why are you hesitating then? What is the downside of the deal?" he asked. I told him that having just come back home after six years in Multan, I felt guilty at leaving him again, now that I had the potential to be useful. I will not forget his response because it changed my life completely and for the better. He said, "Of course I would love to see you settle down here or near me. However I am at the fag end of my life but your productive life lies ahead of you. I have borne your absence before and God will give me the strength to bear it again. Do whatever you think is best for your future. It will give me great pleasure if you achieve your ambition." Either it was his power of persuasion or my selfishness or both: I signed the contract and sent it back with a covering letter accepting the job.
Now the only thing that stood between me and my first overseas trip was lack of a passport. I naively thought that I
could claim this birth right by filling in the appropriate forms, deposit the required fee for an urgent passport and wait
for the 48 hours that they stated it would take them to prepare the passport and go and get it. How wrong I was!
I had never dealt with the bureaucracy in
Pakistan and this experience was to open my eyes to the reality of life in the bureaucratic world.
Two days after submitting my application, I went to the passport office hoping to collect my passport. They sent me from desk to desk and nobody could find my application, let alone the passport. I was asked to return the next day. I went through the same routine for the next three days. Disheartened, I had a moan at home and bhaijan Mahmood promised to talk to one of his friends who seemed to know the workings of the passport office. I met him in a cafe near the passport office. A pleasant young man, he came directly to the point. "If you don't grease the palms of these clerks, they will keep passing you round like a parcel forever." he said. "What?", I replied, "Do you mean to say that I should pay a bribe to get what is legally, lawfully and rightly mine?". "Yes", he replied simply, "if you don't want to do it yourself, give me the money and I will bring your passport in a few minutes." I was appalled to hear this and refused to pay a bribe. I said that I would not offer a bribe even if it meant missing the opportunity of a dream job. Without getting upset, he simply shook my hand with the words, "I am impressed with your principles doc but am afraid that you will not be able to get a passport."
Disappointed and frustrated, I decided to visit a GP friend of mine whose clinic was at a walking distance from the passport office. He listened to my tale of woe, agreed that bribery was wrong and unacceptable. However why not use personal contacts to influence the outcome of something which was quite honest and straightforward? I told him that I did not know anybody in a position to help. He happened to be a friend of the Secretary of the Ministry of Interior and rang him for advice. I went to see him straightaway on his suggestion. He was the top man in the ministry, very pleasant and cultured and welcoming. Asked me what the problem was, picked the phone up and had a word with the passport officer and told me to go and see him and assured me that I will get my passport. I thanked him profusely and trotted back to the passport office feeling elated. Full of newfound confidence, I tried to enter the passport officer's office only to find my way blocked by the doorman. The bell rang to summon him into the office and I took the opportunity to follow him. I went straight to the passport officer and introduced myself. He was very welcoming, summoned his head clerk and asked him to bring my file. In five minutes. The file was brought, he checked through it, remarked that everything was satisfactory and asked the clerk to prepare the passport. The clerk said that it will be ready the next day for collection but the passport officer looked him in the eye and said, "No, not tomorrow. Now. In fifteen minutes". And fifteen minutes later he signed the passport and handed it to me, wishing me luck in my new job and asking me to pray for him when I got to the holy land. I had crossed the last hurdle between me and the job which would open up new possibilities for me and change the direction of my life.
1963. I would spend the next two years in the land of my ancestors, the land which gave the world one of the most popular religions
and where I would be able to visit all our holy places. I would perform Hajj. I would learn to speak colloquial Arabic, having
discovered that my O level Arabic was more than useless. I would find the country so different from Pakistan geographically,
politically, socially - almost in all respects. I would come to appreciate the magic of a proper desert, the beauty of its silence
and the glory of its mirages. I would fall in love with the simplicity and directness of the Bedouin and enjoy their famous
hospitality. I would also despair of their ignorance and be amused by many of their practices.
I had boarded a Saudi Airlines flight from Karachi to Riyadh and was enjoying the experience of being airborne for the first time in my life. I met a number of my friends and classmates who had also signed contracts with the ministry of health, Saudi Arabia. We had left the summer heat and humidity of Karachi behind and were soon to experience the scorching heat of the desert.
A blast of hottest possible air greeted us when we exited the plane at Riyadh airport, the sun was beating down and we had to hurry to the air conditioned comfort of the airport building. We got a glimpse of what to expect weather-wise. Other surprises were awaiting us when we, a group of about a dozen friends, went to see the Director of Health who was going to give us our postings.
The director had a spacious office and people seemed to be going in and coming out of it quite freely as if it was a public area. The director received us courteously and we took our seats. An attendant was serving coffee in small cups and he handed all of us about half cupful each. I thought that they were economizing on coffee considering the number of visitors that seemed to be coming to the office. I took one sip and realized that the amount was more than what I, unused to drinking Arabic coffee, could possibly finish. However, not to seem rude, I downed the coffee in one painful gulp and was handing the cup back to the attendant when he promptly filled it again and handed it back to me. I sat there wondering how I could say no to more coffee without upsetting the host and happened to see that the director, before giving the cup back, shook it and the attendant did not fill it again. I finished mine with another painful gulp and shook it vigorously before handing it to the attendant. I had learnt my first lesson. Interestingly within a few weeks I developed a taste for Arabian coffee and started to relish it.
I, along with four of my colleagues, was posted to Taif region and we were handed air tickets to Taif and asked to report to the Director of King Faisal Hospital there. We would undergo induction for a week or two and then be posted to one of the new village dispensaries. We were all told to go to the outpatient department, I to surgical section and others to ENT, medicine, paediatrics and eye surgery sections. The doctors already working there would help us settle down. I went to the surgical section and found Dr Noor standing in the middle of the room, surrounded by patients, stethoscope round his neck and a pad in hand ready to write a prescription. He explained the outpatient routine in a few minutes and asked me to observe him working for a little while till I was ready to see the patients myself.
It was nothing like anything I had ever seen before. All the patients who came to see the doctor were not ill. The hospital had just been opened with great fanfare. People were told that they could go anytime and see a doctor free of charge. They came in droves just to have a look around the new facility. People in rude health will come complaining of general weakness as an excuse to see the doctor. The doctor's first priority was to sort out real patients from these healthy folks. That done, you ran into the language problem. We had been promised interpreters but there never was even a single one available. On doctor Noor's suggestion, I learnt a few Arabic expressions ('what can I do for you?, have you got a fever?, any cough?, any pain? and so forth) and by combining them with a few gestures, I tried to diagnose and treat patients. It was not just unsatisfactory: it was unacceptable. I pleaded with the director for an interpreter but he assured me that I will pick up the lingo in no time whatsoever and will not need an interpreter. I soldiered on and picked up some Arabic in due course but still felt awkward and unhappy about the situation. The expectations of the patients were also strange. A healthy young man came complaining of feeling weak and wanted an injection. He did not need any injection. In fact he did not need any treatment and I told him so. He became rude and shouted that he will take the matter up with higher authorities. Ten minutes later, I was summoned by the hospital director and asked why I had refused to give an injection to the 'patient' who was sitting in his office. I told him that the guy was healthy and did not need an injection. Had the director examined him and found an indication for giving him an injection? "Well, he will go and complain to the minister of health. It will be much better to give him an injection and get rid of the problem." I asked him what injection he would suggest and he said, "What about cacodylate?" I told him that I knew nothing about it, had never used it, will not use it without knowing what exactly it was. He simply replied, "I do not know much about it either but we have plentiful supply of them and so far as I know it has not done any harm to anyone." I was amazed and told him that he could prescribe it if he wished. And he did. There and then. I could not believe it!
I thought things could not get any worse, but they did. I got transferred to the Mental Hospital in the same city, not to work as a psychiatrist but only to attend to the physical problems of the patients incarcerated there. The experience was extremely depressing and an eye opener for me.
I had an airy office where I spent most of my time doing nothing. On the very first day I was told that a patient was running a temperature and needed to be attended to. I went to the ward flanked by two male nurses who looked more like body guards. After unlocking two sets of doors, we entered the patient area which was a very large bare room with five or six patients standing in it stark naked. There was absolutely nothing in the room - no furniture, no bed, no bed linen, nothing to eat or drink, no crockery, nothing to read or write, nothing to play with. A gorilla's enclosure in a zoo is better furnished. It was a sad sight which made me feel ashamed although I was not remotely responsible for this shocking environment. The nurses pointed out the patient I needed to examine. He was a large muscular young man with the most frightening eyes that I have ever seen. Just a touch confirmed that he had a high temperature. I listened to his chest and he had signs of chest infection. He did not respond to questions, did not ask any himself and stayed like a statue throughout the proceedings. He was not aggressive. Was he zonked because of medication? I do not know. I was glad to get out of there, came back to my office, prescribed the necessary antibiotics and with my head in my hands pondered: why o why were these young men being treated like animals?
A private wing of the hospital had only one patient: a princess and her entourage. There was a rumour - and I had plenty of time to listen to rumours and discuss them - that the princess was perfectly healthy but had been incarcerated there for political reasons. She was the king's sister and high up in the domestic hierarchy but her political views had upset the king. If it had been anyone else, she would have had her head chopped off but as she was such an important member of the royal family, this was a nice way of providing her with all the physical comforts of life and yet make her totally impotent in terms of political influence. I had no way of judging whether the rumours were true but that private wing did have an aura of mystery about it.
I was greatly relieved when I learnt that I had been posted to a village in an oasis deep into the desert which was getting a
dispensary for the first time ever. It would be staffed by a doctor, a male nurse and two attendants. I was told that a
suitable building had been
acquired by the ministry of health, the front half of which would be my clinic and the back half my residence. A large truck
had been loaded with all the furniture for the clinic and the residence and all the medicines and medical equipment. It would
take me about five or six hours to get there through barren desert. A friend and colleague had been posted to the village
which was a further four hours journey away and had passed through my village on his way a week previously. The truck driver
who had taken him there brought back a message from him which cheered me up. He said that people in my village were very
keenly awaiting my arrival and congratulated me that my male nurse, a Saudi, spoke Urdu very well.
The journey through the desert was an amazing experience. Within half an hour of leaving the hospital we were in the middle of a barren desert with no sign of habitation anywhere. The landscape was surprising to me. Instead of the expected sand dunes, the earth was stony and hard with only a thin covering of sand. The only thing breaking the monotony of the scrub land was the track made by trucks following exactly the same line of travel. It was rather bumpy from time to time. We stopped after a while and I got out and looked around. It seemed that I was standing in the middle of a large flat plate with the horizon clearly visible on all sides. A sand coloured plate covered by an intense blue sky. Not a sound to hear or a tree or mountain to see. And it felt astonishingly peaceful. I have never had that tranquil feeling before. We resumed our journey after a few minutes and saw oases from time to time. As real as they can be. Magnificent palm trees, mud houses covered with shimmering sun but they all turned out to be mirages. However, after about six hours travelling we clearly saw a village amongst palm groves and it did not disappear from view. It was no mirage. We had reached our destination.
After driving for a couple of minutes through the dusty lanes of the village, the truck stopped in front of what would be my clinic and residence. A crowd had already gathered there. An Arab with flowing robes rushed towards me. "Assalam o alaikum, doctor sahib, you are very very welcome." in fluent Urdu. I replied appropriately. He moved forward, and made polite inquiries in perfect Urdu like "How are you?, How was the journey?". Then I asked him something simple in Urdu and with a quizzical expression he said, "Pardon" in Arabic. He had exhausted all his Urdu vocabulary! Others came forward with a string of Arabic greetings. They all seemed happy to see me and sometimes made longish speeches that I could not fully understand. While this was going on, the truck was unloaded and the truck driver left as he had an errand for the next village. I was given a tour of the dispensary and my house. With my broken Arabic and use of frantic gestures I tried to find out whether anybody spoke English or Urdu. "No", the answer came, which even I could understand, "everyone speaks Arabic". Now basically this was the situation: I was sitting in the middle of the desert cut off from the so called civilization. I could not understand or speak Arabic - certainly the dialect that these Bedouins had. Nobody in the village could speak English, Urdu or Punjabi - the only languages that I could communicate in properly. The truck had gone back and no transport would be available for a week even if I wanted to go back. I was hungry and did not know how I will be able to have a meal. I felt miserable. I sat down on a cot in my courtyard, head in my hands, surrounded by these well-meaning Bedouins, not sure what I could do next. My father's words, uttered a long time ago in a difficult situation, rang in my ears: "Pull your socks up, do the best you can and leave the rest to God". I decided to heed those words and make the best of the situation I was in. A middle aged man approached me with a broad smile and indicated by gestures that he wanted me to follow him to have a meal. My spirits rose. I got up and followed him to experience the first taste of the famous Bedouin hospitality.
All of us marched across to a large house in the next street and after going through the courtyard, entered a very large room. Having come from bright sunshine into relative darkness, it took me a few seconds to realise that there were about fifty or sixty people sitting around the room, leaning against the walls. They all stood up as we entered murmuring greetings of welcome. I was led to the far end of the room where a special carpet had been laid with large cushions arranged against the wall. I shared that space with the host and some other dignitaries of the village to whom I was introduced. Food was promptly brought in and it was quite a sight. Five huge platters with integral bases, full of fried rice with onions, were placed along the middle of the room. Each had a full lamb laid on top, with the intact head crowning the display. We sat down on the carpets, about a dozen people around each platter, rolled our sleeves up and started eating with our hands. There was a knife to carve the meat but no other cutlery. The only disturbing thing was that the lamb's eyes seemed to be focused on me but once I had got used to that, I really enjoyed the food. There was one more trial to face though. The most desirable parts of the lamb are supposed to be the eyes and the liver. As the chief guest, I had the honour of the first refusal. Even the thought of eating the eyes was so disgusting to me that I used all gestures at my disposal to make it clear that I wanted to have nothing to do with them. However, my host tore a bit of the liver and put it in front of me and I made the mistake of putting a piece in my mouth. It was inedible. Sort of boiled with raw taste. I chewed it and chewed it and did not have the courage to swallow it in case I was sick. My male nurse who was sitting on my left saw my plight, leant towards me and indicated that I could push the remaining liver towards him which I did very quickly. He lapped it up! I managed to avoid coffee after the meal but the tea without milk but with plenty of sugar was delicious. I was impressed with their hospitality and the respect they had shown towards me. I went back to my house in good heart, looking forward to my stay in that friendly environment.
My nurse, Abdul Aziz, was a middle aged man of considerable experience and was very keen to get started. He seemed to know
everyone in the village and had an easy going manner. The two attendants - Ahmad and Faaiz - could not have been more
different from each other. Ahmad was as fair as Nordics with blue eyes and blond hair. He was slim and of medium height.
Faaiz was as black as they come and was much taller and very well built. Both seemed very eager to make a start and very
willing to do whatever was needed. We organized one room as my consulting room. The room next door was prepared for the
nurse with all the facilities for giving injections, boiling the syringes and doing the dressings. There was an
internal door between the two rooms. The attendants were appraised of their duties and they chose to take turns
in doing all the chores. While one brought the water from the well first thing in the morning, the other tucked his robe
round his waist and swept the floors. When the clinic started, one would help the nurse in giving injections and other
chores while the other would sit outside my door to control the mob.
A mob it was that descended on the dispensary when we opened our door for the first time. Many came just to have a look around and say hello to the doctor. I noticed that there was a disproportionate number of female patients, all dressed in head to toe abayas, standing in little groups in the courtyard, gossiping. The nurse unveiled the secret to me. The new dispensary was one of the very few places where they were allowed to go by their husbands and fathers and they made full use of the facility whether suffering from an illness or not. Mostly called Fatima, Aisha, Sarah or Hafsa, they initially looked alike to me but in due course, I got to recognize them with precision just by looking at their eyes!
Gradually, I got to know my staff well, developed a good relationship with my patients and established friendly relations with many people in the village, particularly a few teachers from the Teachers Training School. I also made a positive effort to learn spoken Arabic, made some progress and life became quite enjoyable. I came to admire some qualities of these desert people. I came to know that one of my attendants, Ahmad, was a very rich man. He owned the only shop in the village in addition to a number of houses and multiple wives - all signs of prosperity. He confirmed that my information was accurate. "Why are you working as an attendant here if you are flush with money?", I asked. He simply replied, "Oh it is not for the money at all. This is the first dispensary ever in this village and it is a matter of great pride for me that I am associated with it." What impressed me most was that he shared all the work equally with the much poorer Faaiz whose parents had been slaves. There never ever was any task which Ahmad thought beneath his dignity. In fact all three of my staff worked very diligently and not once did I have to remind them of their duties.
Appearances can be deceptive. I often used to see a well-dressed elderly Bedouin who was always barefooted. My nurse told me that he was one of the richest people in the village. When I met him the next time, I asked him whether what I had heard was true.
He replied, "God be praised, I have enough and some more."
"Then why do you not wear any shoes?", I asked.
"Oh, it is not that I cannot afford to buy them. In fact I can buy as many as I like but I do not want them. You see, living in the desert as I do, I need to feel the earth beneath my feet. And shoes get in the way of that.", was his simple and straightforward reply. I had heard that the Bedouins had a sixth sense in relationship to the desert. I wondered whether this physical contact with the earth had anything to do with it. I still wonder.
The actual medical practice was quite basic. I could treat coughs and colds, stomach upsets and infections of various sorts without any problems. I could refer serious problems to the hospital in Taif or to many specialists who practiced there. Sometimes patients came to my house after hours and I had to wait for them to finish the customary greetings before I knew whether they had come as visitors or as patients. The greetings started with asking 'how are you?' in six different ways: how are you? How is the family? How is your health? How are you keeping? and so on. Early one morning after the morning prayers an elderly man knocked on my door. After going through the usual greetings, he told me his complaint in one gesture with his hand which was more eloquent than a thousand words: he wanted his manliness restored. This was a very common problem as many elderly men were married to teenage girls and had problems in that area. Viagra had not been discovered yet and testosterone injections, which were freely used by some unscrupulous doctors created more problems than they solved.
I had to make the best of the medicines which I could get from the medical stores of the Health Department in Taif. They had their own 'teething problems'. Once I ran out of antibiotics and asked for an urgent supply of Penicillin and Streptomycin. Promptly, a crate came back of injections with a note saying, 'Sorry, we have run out of Penicillin and Streptomycin. Will these do for the time being?' and the crate was full of Vitamin C injections!
Once I saw a patient with osteoarthritis in the clinic who had tried all sorts of pain killers but was still complaining of pain. I prescribed an injection of a new analgesic called Novalgin which had approval for use at that time. He went next door to the nurse for the injection. A couple of minutes later I heard a thumping noise from there and rushed to see what it was. The guy was lying on the floor, flat out. He had an anaphylactic reaction to the injection. My emergency trolley was standing there all ready and with the help of the nurse I was able to bring him round. We let him rest on the couch for a while before I let him go with the instructions that he should never have that injection again. I also told my attendants to let me know that 'novalgin man' has come in case he turns up again. Sure enough the very next day Ahmad shouted, 'The Novalgin man is here' and the patient walked in. He said to me, "I am so thankful to you doctor, what a wonderfully powerful injection you gave me yesterday. I am a strong man and nothing has ever been able to knock me out like that. Can I have another one please?' And he was not joking. It took time to convince him that his life would be at risk if he got that injection again.
The dispensary building, like all other buildings in the village, was constructed from mud but unlike other houses in the
village, had wood panelled ceilings which were a source of awe for the local residents. The residential part of the house
had two large rooms, a small kitchen, a bore hole latrine (of which I had read in my Hygiene book but had never seen or
used) and a separate large room which initially was
surplus to my requirements. The floors were all sand. I had a large carpet and some cushions in one room where I
sat on the floor most of the time and my bedroom had a metal framed and metal sprung regulation hospital bed. I
unpacked my meagre belongings. I had brought kitchen utensils and all the spices and condiments that I could think of. As
no cook was available and there was no place in the village where I could buy food, I had to do the cooking myself. I had
no experience of cooking apart from our joint attempts at cooking chickens in Taif which were only half successful. I
tried to recall the details of the cooking methods which I had seen my sister and our maid use back home and set about
trying my luck in the kitchen again. Much later when I was visiting Pakistan, my sister asked me about my experience of
cooking and I wasn't quite joking when I said that the cooking was not all that difficult but it was the eating of it
which was the real problem! Somehow whatever I cooked tasted exactly the same. Perhaps I was too liberal with the use of
some spices which became overpowering. However, with time my cooking improved and with expanding circle of my friends
invitations for meals started to come in regularly and were very gratefully accepted.
In the beginning when my Arabic was less than rudimentary, I would go to the shop, point out the things I wanted, indicate the quantity with my fingers and hold out a lot of money in my hand for the shopkeeper to pick out the amount that I owed him. To his credit, I was never cheated. Linguistically I had been thrown in the deep end and for survival I had to get to grips with the language quickly. Which I did and life became a pleasure.
Arrival in the village of a young Jordanian teacher named Salim came as a breath of fresh air for me. He spoke fluent English and just the experience of having a conversation with him without a stutter was quite uplifting for me. He had been in the Kingdom for a few years and was full of interesting anecdotes. Being an Arab, he knew the ways of the Bedouins very well. He usually dressed in Western clothes but occasionally put on his Arab garb and looked impressively different.
One day he made a rather unusual request. Could I cut his hair for him? There were no hairdressers within easy reach and in his previous posting the teachers used to play hairdressers to each other, having learnt the skill through trial and error and having acquired all the necessary tools for the job. Salim said that he would cut my hair if I would return the compliment. Surely it wasn't more difficult than performing a surgical operation, he suggested. I told him that it was unwise to make that assumption but I could try it at his own risk. He agreed and made an excellent job of my hair. I made a total mess of his, so that when I held the mirror for him to have a look at the back of his neck, he calmly said, "Can you do me another favour? Here is a razor. Can you shave my head completely. I will have to wear my Arab dress with the matching head gear till the hair grows again." I managed to do that almost to perfection!
"It will not be the first time that Arab dress will have come to my rescue in a difficult situation.", said Salim. "I was once the only teacher in a small village school and lost my ship-ship (open rubber sandals that almost all shoe wearers wore in the village) when I went for my Friday prayers to the mosque. Whether someone had taken it by mistake or deliberately, I do not know. There was no shop in the village and I did not have a spare pair of shoes. It would not have mattered much under normal circumstances but the inspector of schools was due to come and inspect my school the following day and I had to look my best if possible. I could not wear trousers without shoes so I decided to wear my Arab dress which was worn happily by many a barefooted Bedouin. Still I thought that it was a bit embarrassing not to be wearing any shoes till I saw the inspector of schools. He did have shoes but was carrying them under his arms as a status symbol! What a relief!"
Meat was not available to buy in the village. Ahmad suggested that I should keep some chickens in the spare room in my house and slaughter them and eat them one by one as the need arose. The things that hunger makes you do! Ahmad duly bought a dozen chickens for me. I kept them in the spare room where they could move about freely. I would feed them regularly, give them water and generally watch them. They were all of average appearance except one cockerel which was simply magnificent. It was larger than others, had bright colourful plumage and a very confident gait. I became aware that whenever I went into the room to catch a chicken to slaughter, I consciously avoided catching that fine specimen. This went on till it was the only chicken left. I had to tell myself off for being so sentimental about a chicken and caught it, cooked it and when I sat down to eat it, its magnificently plumed strut came between me and the enjoyment of my meal. How foolishly sentimental one can be!
As I got to know the people of the village well, they would sometimes ask me to arbitrate between their minor disputes or disagreements. Usually these were very trivial and sometimes quite amusing. A middle aged man came quarrelling with a young teacher and asked me to knock some sense into the young fellow: he was claiming that the earth was round. Does it not stand to reason that if it was so, we would fall off? We had an amusing time settling the dispute. When the man was gone I expressed to my teacher friend my surprise at finding that level of ignorance when most of the people in the village now had transistor radios and access to information elsewhere. He laughed and told me a true story relating to that very village from a few years ago.
The ministry of communications in Taif decided to create a network of wireless telegraphy to link the distant villages to Taif and to that end hired a building in the village, recruited appropriate staff and sent them to the village along with all the necessary equipment in a large truck. When the truck reached the village, it was met by a deputation from the village brandishing swords who would not allow the truck to enter the village. "What is this that you are bringing to our village?", they asked. "We know how wireless communications work. It is not difficult to understand. The only way the messages can be carried to Taif and back instantaneously without wires is through the medium of jinns. We don't mind our jinns going to Taif but we be damned if we let Taif's jinns into our village." The ministry was contacted and a much smaller village further up got the telegraph office." This was in 1960's!
The mosque was a walking distance from my house and I often went there for my prayers. I was particularly regular in attending the Friday prayers when many Bedouins from the neighbouring areas would also come. The mosque had a large courtyard which had a tap with running water, which I guess was a luxury in the desert. The Quran gives a detailed account of how to perform ablutions with water before the prayers but if water is not available one can, as a gesture, rub sand onto the hands and face (called 'massah'). I could not believe my eyes when I saw a Bedouin perform massah a yard from the tap of running water! Old habits obviously die hard.
I had seen a mirage a few times, mercifully not as a person lost in the desert dying of thirst and having my hopes
of survival raised and then immediately dashed but
from the safety of the front seat of a truck with plenty of provisions on board. On each occasion it was an
astoundingly beautiful and life-like sight. Its excitement was exceeded only by experiencing a good going dust storm and
being actually lost in the desert. And I was to experience both of those.
I was traveling to Taif with the locals on the first leg of my journey for a pilgrimage to Mecca in a convoy of six trucks. When we had gone about a quarter of the way through the desert, the trucks stopped in a line on the track. The windows were wound up, the doors were checked to see that they were closed properly and we sat still, waiting. I was told that a dust storm was on its way though I could not see any sign of it. After about five minutes the breeze stiffened and some dust appeared on the horizon. Five minutes later a storm hit us with a ferocity which I could not have imagined. Sand was blasting our truck from all sides, it grew dark and visibility became so bad that we could not see the truck parked about a yard ahead of us. The noises made by the wind and the sand hitting the trucks were eerie. I could feel very fine sand entering my nostrils and covering my eyelids and my head. This went on for about twenty minutes and then suddenly all the noise stopped. Gradually the atmosphere cleared and we saw that the whole landscape had changed. There were little sand dunes where there was nothing before and these made such beautiful patterns that it seemed that a gifted sculptor's hand had been at work. Our trucks were buried 'knee deep' in the sand: we could see only the tops of the tyres. We got out of the trucks, spades were brought down from the backs of the trucks and serious shovelling of sand from around the tyres started. I stood appreciating the patterned earth, the complete horizon around me and the unbelievable peace and calm that had descended on the area. The contrast with what was happening a few minutes earlier was really dramatic. Even today the thought of the intensity of that dust storm and the remarkable calm that followed it holds me in awe of the mother nature.
Having seen the vastness and unforgiving hostility of the desert, I would not wish anyone to get lost there. In the sixties, if you did get lost, there was no way of communicating with any one and the chances of someone discovering you by accident were very slim indeed. A part of the Bedouin code of the desert was that if you saw a stationary vehicle in the desert, you made an effort to ensure that they had not broken down and did not need help. I had been told never to go into the desert unless I was accompanied by someone who knew it well. The most reliable way of travelling through the desert from Taif to my village was in the post office van. Their drivers had been driving the route on weekly basis for years and were supposed to be the most experienced. There was no formal road but the tyre marks made by repeated journeys had made a track that everyone followed. There were a few small tracks branching off from the main track and going to the temporary Bedouin encampments but being less used, they could be readily identified. The drivers seemed to enjoy travelling through the desert and I would often travel with them sitting in the cab chatting to the driver from time to time to pass time and guard against falling asleep which was easy to do, the scenery usually being quite monotonous.
Once we were about halfway through our journey when I woke up with a start. I had not realised that I had nodded off and the sound that woke me up was probably a loud oath uttered by the driver. When I had got my bearings right I asked him what the matter was. "Oh nothing really", he said calmly, "I have lost the track". I had been looking at the track ahead of us for hours (while awake!) and surely I could not see it any more. The driver went round and round many times in an attempt to find the track but had no luck. Finally he stopped the truck and got out. He looked around and I did the same. There was nothing to see. The horizon was smooth and clear. The earth was flat like a pancake with no trees or rocks or hills or anything that could give us a clue about our whereabouts. An elderly Bedouin whom we had given a lift and who was asleep at the back of the truck also got out and asked the driver what the matter was. "I have lost the track", he said. The Bedouin shielded his eyes with his hands and looked intently around as if scanning the horizon. I was amused. We could see no landmark anywhere. What was this elderly person with probably weak eyesight going to discover? After a couple of minutes, he pointed in a certain direction, we got into the truck and without any hesitation the driver started off in the direction that the Bedouin had indicated and hit the track in ten minutes. I was impressed and astounded. The driver told me that the Bedouin had a sixth sense when it came to the desert and he had been the beneficiary of their amazing sense of direction many a time.
When I had achieved a reasonable command of spoken Arabic, I started to understand better the character and habits of the
Bedouin. Their hospitality was amazingly warm and generous, their behaviour towards me very respectful and loving most of
the time. They had intense loyalty to their tribe and would face hardship with unbelievable equanimity. I was very
impressed with that part of their character. But they could be infuriatingly ignorant and stubborn. Sometimes I would feel
amused by their behaviour and once in a while frankly disgusted.
I was allowed private practice and sometimes Bedouins would take me to their encampments in the desert to see a patient who could not be brought to the dispensary. I used to look forward to these forays into the heart of the desert where life seemed to be still more different. And the desert fascinated me.
Once, I had finished seeing a patient and was about to head for the truck that was to take me back when a group of Bedouin girls surrounded me and started asking me questions. Simple at first. I could understand them and give adequate replies in my limited Arabic. Are you married doctor? So grown up and still no wife? How do you manage? Who cooks for you? And then with a glint in the eyes: do you like meat? A spontaneous giggle from everyone when I said yes. Then followed a volley of short questions: a lot? At what time? and so on with all my innocent replies greeted with more giggles. I was puzzled. When I got back to the village, I told one of my teacher friends and he roared with laughter. "They were having fun at your expense. Colloquially, having meat has another meaning: having sex." Perhaps it was because of their playful manner, or perhaps it was my appreciation of a sense of humour, instead of taking any offense, I felt quite amused and determined to get to grips with the subtleties of the language as soon as possible.
Men talked quite explicitly and openly about sex and marriage even in the presence of very young boys. Their ways in marital matters were quite different from what I had expected. I was amazed to learn that the prospective bridegroom had to pay the father of the girl for getting married to her. The more beautiful she was, the higher the price. To me it seemed liked a business transaction: selling their daughters, sometimes to the highest bidder. I expressed my shock at it but they regarded it as no more than their accepted custom. My elderly friends would casually suggest: doctor, such and such person's daughter is beautiful and young. You can marry her for only twenty thousand riyals or whatever. And it was not said as a joke. I felt quite disgusted.
A teacher friend of mine was very downcast one day and when I asked him the reason, he told me that he had been saving up in order to marry his childhood sweetheart and had almost saved what he regarded as the required sum but much to his heartbreak an elderly Bedouin had come up with a much more lucrative offer and she was going to be married off to him. He sounded quite helpless in the matter. My heart bled for them.
My friend who was running a dispensary in the next village a few hours' drive away from mine once told me a story which had made him livid and lose his temper with the elders of his village. A prince and his entourage stopped outside his village for the night on way to their final destination. The village elders went to see him to pay their respects and told him of a beautiful young girl whose father would be honoured if he married her. The prince gave the father the required money, the girl was brought to his tent, a religious marriage ceremony (nikah) was performed and everyone seemed delighted. The girl spent the night with the prince who left in the morning along with his entourage and the girl came back to the parent's house. When my friend asked as to what her long term fate will be, he was told that one of these days the prince who now had four official wives will send her a divorce if he felt like marrying someone else. My friend was livid: told them that it was nothing short of prostitution but they were not a bit embarrassed. The country had very severe punishments for adultery by law but you could circumvent them because of the casual ease with which you could get married and divorced instantly.
I had been transferred to a much smaller village high up in the mountains. The journey from Taif took about four hair raising hours. The only approach to the village was by a dirt track, just wide enough for a Ford transit van, with steep hill on one side and deep valley on the other. The road had so many sharp bends that the driver could not afford to blink. Once you got there, you did not think of going back from the sheer horror of the journey.
The village itself was quite picturesque with only a few mud houses. My house was small but adequate for me and located opposite the dispensary which was in a separate building. I had a male nurse to help me but no attendants. The nurse, a Saudi, was not local and lived alone, not having brought his family with him. He was a good cook by Saudi standards and I came to an arrangement with him. He agreed to do all the necessary food shopping and cooking for both of us and I paid the bill. There was no shop in the village. In fact there was no Emir or Qazi either, the village being managed remotely. A street market was held once a week, every Wednesday, when we would buy all the meat and vegetables that were needed for the week. Even though the weather was mild, we lacked any refrigeration (no electricity, no running water either). The meat tasted okay for the first two days but I could not eat it after that even though my nurse used to salt dry it: he lapped it up for the whole week. Unlike the previous village, there was no palm grove where I could sit in the shade of the date trees near little runnels of cool water. And no desert to explore for the surprises of nature. I had left a lot of friends behind and I knew that it will take some time to develop new friendships. Life had become quite dull suddenly. Work provided some excitement from time to time and plenty of frustration at other times. It was good that I could help this backward community with modern medicine when needed. It was bad that so many people still held beliefs and prejudices which prevented them from using the new facilities. It was downright ugly when their ignorant stubbornness risked other people's lives as the following episode (without any adornment or exaggeration) shows.
One late afternoon having finished my clinic, my lunch and other chores I was getting ready to sit down with a book as my habit was when a young man in a state of panic came to me. His wife had been in labour for a while, a Bedouin midwife was attending her but could not deliver the baby. When I calmed him down and asked for more details, it became obvious that it was a hand presentation which needed some tricky manipulation if the baby was to be born naturally. He told me that he had brought some transport for us and it will take us only half an hour to get there. I gathered what limited surgical instruments I had, took my emergency bag, called my nurse who was ready within a few minutes to accompany me and we set off, at full speed in a school bus which he had brought, to the small hamlet where the patient was.
It had been a long time since I was in the labour room of my hospital and I frantically tried to remember what I had learnt some years ago about hand presentations. I was reasonably confident that I could cope with the situation. We reached the house and were shown into a reception room and asked to take a seat on the carpet as was customary. The young man's father who was the head of the family came and greeted us warmly. I asked to be taken to the patient but he said that coffee was coming and we sat and drank coffee. I was becoming impatient in view of the gravity of the patient's situation and asked the husband again to take me to see his wife. He looked embarrassed and with tears in his eyes told me that his father had refused permission for the patient to be seen by a male doctor. I asked to see him and when he came I told him that if the patient did not get medical attention straightaway, she might not live. He shrugged his shoulders and said, "Life and death are from God and His will will prevail". I argued with him that in emergencies even the religion allows lots of liberties which are normally forbidden, that I will leave most of the 'internal' work to the midwife and so on but he remained adamant. I lost my temper with him and that had no effect whatsoever. Disappointed and defeated, I told my nurse to pick up his bag as there was no point in staying there any longer. To my great surprise and annoyance, the old man stood in the door and blocked us from going out. He said," The sun is setting and it is time for the evening meal. You have to eat with us. If I let you go at meal time, I will not be able to show my face to anyone in the village." I lost my temper with him. In fluent Arabic which came to me from nowhere, I told him off in no uncertain terms. "Are you not ashamed", I said, "That your daughter in law is probably dying in the room next door and all you can think of is a dinner and your own honour. It is much more dishonourable not to allow a girl to get medical aid just because of your silly prejudices." And so on. But he would not budge. My Saudi nurse said to me quietly, "Look doc, he is not going to change his mind whatever you do. We cannot go without any transport. Just relax and sit down and maybe God will be kind." So we sat down and I brooded for a few minutes over the situation. It occurred to me that perhaps I could be of help in an indirect manner. I asked whether I could see the patient just to check her pulse and give her an injection. The old man agreed and I was ushered into her room. A rapid weak pulse, a temperature probably from the an infection. I gave her an antibiotic injection, some stimulant which was fashionable in those days and asked the midwife to follow me to the reception room. I asked her to explain the 'internal' situation in detail. I gave her instructions about the tricky manipulation required and she seemed to understand all that. She went back with the promise that she will give it her best shot.
In the meantime, food was being prepared for us. My nurse was enjoying the hospitality which was generous by any standards. I had calmed down somewhat and was resigned to the position I found myself in. Then the young man burst into the room, and announced excitedly that his wife had been delivered of the baby. The baby was stillborn but his wife was alive and well. "I am so happy. My wife is not going to die. It is a miracle", he said. And with a straight face my Saudi nurse said, "But of course! The doctor had given such a wonderful injection." This claim of quite undue credit felt embarrassing to me but I was delighted for the young man and particularly for the patient. The meal that came minutes afterwards was much more enjoyable for me than it would have otherwise been.
When I heard that my niece Shafaq had been engaged to be married to
the grandson of a distant relative of ours with the name of Obaid-ul-Ahad,
memories came flooding back and the relative in question did not seem all
that distant. This welcome recall of memory was rather surprising because
my memory is like a sieve nowadays.
Mamoon Obaid-ul-Ahad was probably bhaijan Salahuddin's age, about thirteen years older than me. My earliest recollection of him is from pre-partition days when he used to live with 'Bar Waley Khalajee' in the street next to ours in Bagh Ahluwalia, Jallandhar. Our house, Sibghat Manzil, was next door to Hashmat Manzil and both were only a stone's throw away from the houses belonging to three other relatives including 'Bar Waley Khalajee'. We, as children, were welcomed in all the houses with open arms and adults would frequently be sitting in each other's houses. Indeed my only recollection of my mother (may her soul rest in peace) is from Bar Walye Khalajee's house when I was about four years old. She was lying in the courtyard on a bed and beckoned me to her bedside. She looked pale and weak but I did not realize then that she was seriously ill. She had a thread tied round her big toe and I still do not know what its significance was and why it caught my attention. She was peeling a tangerine with great patience and gave me some to eat. I can still feel the vibes of sheer love that she oozed and which I was to miss forever. She did not live very long after that time of my recollection.
Mamoon Obaid-ul-Ahad was a young man then and sported an unusually large and elegantly trimmed moustache. He was unusual in his choice of a pet as well. Dogs were generally regarded as unclean animals and were not welcomed into our houses as a rule but there was one exception to this rule, his pet dog who was called 'Macchi' (fish) as she used to swim like a fish in the local pond where mamoon Obaid-ul-Ahad used to take her for exercise regularly. We would join him many a time for this outing and would feel absolutely amazed at Macchi's aquatic feats. At home, there was a special enclosure above the kitchen where Macchi was kept: it was approached from the upstairs yard and the gate to it was always kept closed. One day, Zubair, who was only about three years of age then, managed to get in and was happily playing with Macchi, sticking fingers in her mouth, when this scene came to the attention of a lady in the house. Panic set in and a frantic search started for mamoon Obaid-ul- Ahad who was summoned post-haste. When he had 'rescued' Zubair, all the ladies of the house carried him around, thanking God for his narrow escape and promising charitable deeds in lieu. Thinking back, Macchi was kept spotlessly clean and had an impeccable record of non-violence and perhaps the perceived danger was an overreaction on the part of the ladies. However, the excitement which this event generated remains vividly with me to this day.
Probably a couple of years later, I shared in the excitement of attending his wedding. Almost all the members of our family went with mamoon Obaid-ul-Ahad's barat which consisted of a bus and two cars - one belonging to mamoonjan Anwer and the other to his friend Agha Sahib who had lent it for the occasion with a driver. The barat headed for a village near Jallandhar and at one point there was extra excitement because the leading car stopped as there was a channel of water across the dirt road and the driver wasn't sure whether it was safe to cross it. The elders had a discussion and decided to take the risk and were proved correct. When we got to the bride's house, we were feeling peckish and were delighted to see tea laid out on sparkling clean white sheets which had been laid across the floor of a large room. Amongst other things, there were numerous boiled eggs, already peeled and cut into halves, showing the contrast between the egg yellow and egg white invitingly. It's not as if I was not used to eating boiled eggs but they looked particularly decorous and delicious. Motorized transport was still a novelty in those days, particularly in the villages. When the barat had returned home, I remember Barey Abbaji saying with a sense of satisfaction that the arrival of the barat in two cars and a bus had created a very suitable impression on the people of that village!
Probably in 1944, mamoonjan Anwer, mamoonjan Aslam and bhaijan Salahuddin went to Madras in connection with their employment and mamoon Obaid-ul-Ahad accompanied them there. Of the many stories that mamoon Obaid-ul-Ahad told us on his return, one particularly created an impression on us. While looking for a suitable family accommodation, they were surprised to be offered a nice, large bungalow on reasonable rent in a very nice locality and jumped at the opportunity. There was an acute shortage of family accommodations in Madras at that time because of a sudden influx of very large numbers of civil and military officers and the reason for the availability of this bungalow became clear the next day, according to mamoon Obaid-ul-Ahad, as it was haunted by the jinns. He told the story of being alone in that house and seeing doors and ventilators open and close automatically and little dancing flames leaping in and out of the house with such passion that our little hearts started to leap in and out of our chests. To this day, I do not know whether he genuinely believed what he told us or whether he was just making up a story for the curious children. He was very fond of children, of whom there were lots in the family at that time and they got on very well with him. By the bye, Javaid was born in Madras and when the postman brought his first photo to Hashmat Manzil, it created a sensation. There were endless debates about the identity (and even sex) of the person whose arm was propping the baby up in the chair! Munir had obviously loved the seaside while in Madras and on his return to Jallandhar at the age of four or five, whenever he was asked as to what he would like to have, he invariably replied 'I want a small sea' !
I must have seen mamoon Obaid-ul-Ahad from time to time in Pakistan because when he paid me a visit while I was a medical student and lived in the halls of residence, it did not surprise me. He lived in a village not very far from Multan and invited me to visit him. I made appropriate arrangements one weekend and according to my instructions, got down from the bus at a rather lonely spot which had a small shack but no other signs of habitation. Mamoon Obaid-ul-Ahad had come to receive me, holding the reigns of two horses in his hands. Apparently a horse ride was the only means of getting home unless one wanted to walk a few miles! I had never done any horse riding and expressed concern over this but he reassured me, gave me his own docile mare and we set off. However I could only let the mare walk rather than trot. It was getting late in the day and home was still a mile or two away when we reached a canal which had to be crossed. As the bridge was some way off, mamoon Obaid-ul-Ahad suggested that we should take a short cut and let the horses wade across the canal. He gave me detailed instructions and proceeded to cross it so nonchalantly that I felt encouraged to follow him. The actual crossing was a doddle for me too but when the mare was half way up the other bank, it decided to turn back and return to the starting point. This startled me somewhat. Further instructions, followed by a further try only persuaded the mare to have a longer regal walkabout in the canal, lengthwise for a period which was quite scary. I was told what I was doing wrong; I was pulling on the reigns whenever the mare tried to get out of the water and onto the bank. I managed to avoid this pitfall next time and made a successful landing onto the correct bank, to my great relief. I felt like borrowing a phrase from Shafiqur Rahman, a favourite author from my younger days, to thank mamoon Obaid-ul-Ahad for both of my horseback rides - my first and my last! Strangely, I have no recollection of my return journey, but I bet I did not cross the canal on horseback!
Whatever I have written above may seem trivial but when you are old and when you sit by the fireside on a wintry evening and these pleasant images from the past float past your mind, you feel a sensation of warmth in your heart and are thankful to God for all the loving and caring persons, past and present. And I believe that mamoon Obaid-ul-Ahad was one such person.
My contract as a doctor in Ministry of Health, Saudi Arabia was going to finish in a few months' time and I had decided not to
renew it. I wanted to go to England for further
studies and thought that I had saved enough money for that. I was allowed private practice and although I did not pursue it
with any enthusiasm, it made me enough money for my day to day expenses, effectively allowing me to save my entire salary. I
opened a savings account in a branch of Bank of America in London to which a friend had introduced me. I also obtained a
work permit which was a requirement for foreign graduates who wished to work in UK, through the British Embassy in Jeddah.
I thought that my preparations for going to England were complete but a couple of unexpected events were to have a dramatic
impact on my life first.
My father had taken ill and was due to have an operation. He sent me a telegram asking me to visit him by taking my annual leave at once if I could. The authorities were very reluctant to grant me my annual leave but the director approved it on compassionate grounds and I was back in Rawalpindi with my family within a week.
My younger brother Zubair had been engaged to marry Misbah during my absence and my father was very keen that I should get married before he did. He asked me whether I was ready for marriage now that I was self-sufficient and had my medium term plans worked out - the two excuses I had given for not getting married before going to Saudi Arabia. I agreed without any hesitation. Then he asked me whether I had anyone in mind as my future wife. "Where can I find a suitable girl in the middle of a desert where I cannot even see the full face of a girl, let alone get to know her?", I asked. He smiled and said that in that case he would suggest some suitable matches and that I reserved the right to say no without giving any reasons for the refusal. But if I said no to a proposal, I will have to abide by one rule: never mention to anyone ever that I had an offer of marriage to her and I did not accept it. He wanted me to understand that a girl's reputation can be tarnished that way. I agreed.
I felt happy when he mentioned Yasman's name. We had never met properly but I had seen her and knew a lot about her through Masud bhaijan who was married to her elder sister Nasrin. Once she had visited us at a time when bhaijan Masud and bhabi Nasrin also lived with us and bhaijan Salahuddin was visiting from Kakul. All of us were sitting on the terrace after evening meal when bhaijan Salahuddin told us that Yasman was a very good singer and asked her to sing a song of her choice. To my surprise, Yasman burst out into song immediately - "O basanti, pavan pagal, na ja re na ja, roko koi". Majority of people with good singing voices used to sing only if pressed hard by everyone. This was a formality they went through even if they were keen to sing. Not Yasman though. And I had liked it. Otherwise too, she was good looking, had pleasant manners and a good voice. I had made a mental note of that, just in case. Barey Abbaji told me that she had entertained him when he visited her father a few weeks back and he was very impressed with her. Barey Abbaji was an old friend of her father, Dr Ghulam Jeelani Barque whom I regarded as a hero, having read some of his famous books on religion. He suggested that the marriage ceremony should be a simple one and there will be no dowry and no usual marriage customs some of which were indeed quite objectionable. My father agreed. If they hadn't proposed it, I would have done so myself.
I was happy to know that Yasman had given her consent to the marriage willingly without any pressure being put on her. That was important to me. I felt that although arranged marriages were not ideal, my circumstances did not allow me to get to know any girl any better and was sure that with good attitude and due care we will be able to make the marriage a success. Because I had only limited time in Pakistan and also because of my father's health problems, it was decided to expedite the proceedings and within a week of the decision being made we were duly married. Zubair and Misbah got married the following day and our joint walima party was held the day after Zubair's wedding. I distinctly remember that at our walima my father sat surrounded by his friends and with a look of contentment said, "This was my last duty and I am happy that it has been discharged satisfactorily. Now I am ready to go and meet my maker." He passed away two weeks later from post-operative complications. Within a few days I had experienced the joy of getting married and the pain of losing my father.
Our wedding was fun and it also had its sorrows. My father could not lead the 'barat' from Rawalpindi to Campbellpur on medical advice. Bhaijan Salahuddin could not come from Kakul much to the disappointment of my father. I believed in simple weddings and to me the groom, the bride and two witnesses were the only indispensable participants in the ceremony. All others enhanced the joy of the occasion but if they could not make it for one reason or the other, one had to accept it. So led by mamoonjan Anwar, about twenty people started off ceremoniously in rented cars to 48 Hammam Road in Campbellpur on 23 October 1964 while out in Japan Pakistan's hockey team was playing the Olympic final against arch rivals India. The whole wedding party seemed glued to the transistor radios as live commentary on the match was being broadcast. I was probably the only one whose thoughts wandered towards 48 Hammam Road from time to time. Pakistan lost the match and by the time we reached our destination, many of the party had long faces.
Our reception was very cordial and the hospitality absolutely wonderful. I felt relaxed and enjoyed the sumptuous lunch. The actual marriage ceremony was simple and quick. I was taken in to see my new bride when her sisters - good friends of mine - tried to take the customary mickey. Parveen, the eldest sister came up to me with a glass of milk which I knew was laced with excess salt to embarrass me. I took the glass and downed the milk in one long gulp. Handing back the glass to Parveen I said, "You forgot to put the salt in it, didn't you?" and she was taken aback. Aghast, she kept asking me for the following days and years whether there really was no salt in it! I felt that I had scored a victory.
I had given my camera to my brothers to take photographs and they made a very good job of it. There is one particular photo taken at the time of Yasman leaving her parent's house ('rukhsati', an emotional time) in which her father and all the relatives look very downcast, some of the girls actually crying. Yasman is covered head to toe in a 'burqa'. Many years later I showed the photo to an English friend and asked her what the occasion could be. She said, "Obviously a very sad occasion, a funeral or something like that." When I told her the true story, she could not believe it!
About three weeks after my wedding, I headed back to Saudi Arabia, sent a visa and plane ticket to Yasman and she joined me after a month or so. I discovered that there was no need for picturesque surroundings or leisure amenities for us to enjoy ourselves. All we needed was time and each other's company. Life had become fun. The thought of going back to a remote village for three months, however, did not have any appeal. We performed 'umra' (mini-Hajj) together, visited Masjid e Nabvi in Medina and went to other sacred places. We had a roam around in Jeddah, to the seaside and to the shops. Then I tendered my resignation with the obligatory two months' pay and we boarded a plane for London for the start of what turned out to be a very much longer adventure.
I thought that I was well prepared for our visit to England. I could speak English fluently,
our visas had been stamped on our passports, I had obtained the
work permit which would allow me to seek a job in the National Health Service and I had money in the bank in London.
However I did not know in detail how the National
Health Service worked. I knew that I had to get registered with the General Medical Council but did not know the procedure
in detail. Bhaijan Salahuddin who had spent a year
in London a few years back had given a good account of life there as a foreign student. The English films had created an
illusion of familiarity with England and the English. My general impression was that it was a civilized, peaceful country which
welcomed visitors of all types. With Yasman by my side, I was looking forward to whatever
lay ahead and we set off for London in a positive frame of mind.
We landed at Heathrow airport late in the evening. After clearing the formalities, I went to the inquiries desk and asked them where we could get a taxi to take us to central London and roughly how much it would cost. The girl at the reception was very helpful and suggested that we should take the coach which left for Victoria station every hour. It would be equally quick and much cheaper. The coach was reasonably full when it started exactly on time. It was air conditioned and extremely comfortable. During the journey I noticed that a Pakistani looking gentleman walked up to the driver and asked him questions about the route he was going to follow. He mentioned street names as if he was familiar with London. When he came back to his seat which was on my left side across the aisle, I started a conversation with him. I wanted to know if he could recommend a hotel for us to stay in for a couple of days which would not cost us a fortune. I told him that we were Pakistani nationals but were coming from Saudi Arabia after a stint with the Health Ministry there. "Has nobody come to meet you at the airport?", he asked in a puzzled tone.
"No, I do have friends in this country but have lost contact with them. One of them is likely to be still in London and I will seek him out once I have had a look around. Why, what's the problem?".
"It is very unusual for people to come here without anyone meeting them at the airport.", he said, still puzzled.
"That may be true", I said, "but I have got some money with me, I have got good company - my wife is with me - and I understand that this is a civilised country. I was hoping that due to your local knowledge you will be able to recommend a hotel to me, that's all."
He became helpful in a concerned sort of way and suggested that I should try Pakistan High Commission's hostel first. Newly arrived Pakistanis could spend a night or two there. It was clean and cheap. He gave me the address and directions. I decided to take his advice and thanked him. When we got to Victoria station, I took a taxi and by the time we reached Pakistan hostel, it was nearly midnight. We were greeted by a grumpy young man. I told him that we were Pakistanis, had just arrived in this country and needed somewhere to stay for a night or two for which we were happy to pay and a friend had recommended them to us. He said that they did have rooms but married couples were not allowed to stay there. He recommended a nearby hotel, rang them to confirm that they had vacancies, called a taxi for us and an hour or so later we were enjoying a deep sleep in a comfortable centrally heated room in the middle of London.
We woke up to the noise of London traffic on an overcast morning. The hotel was warm but the atmosphere outside seemed crisp and frosty. After a refreshing bath and a filling hot breakfast, we decided to go to the bank to get some more money. We had been told about the convenience of London's underground tube trains and I had a map to help me navigate the system. Having suffered the queues and delays in banks in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, even for withdrawing or depositing money, I was prepared to spend the morning on our first errand. A surprise was awaiting me. There was no queue and I went to the cashier and explained that I had a deposit account for which I had received a little book and that I wanted to withdraw one hundred pounds which was a reasonable sum in those days. He looked at the account book and asked me for some form of identification. I showed him my passport. He counted the money and handed it to me. The whole transaction took less than a minute! Now we had almost the whole morning to have a look around London.
I had made a mental list of all the places that we wanted to see in and around London and over a period of a week or so we managed to see them all. At leisure. It was a wonderful experience. London was much greyer than I had expected, the weather was much colder than I had imagined and the days much shorter than was fair but we were young, newly married and London was a remarkable contrast to the bleak desert which we had left behind. We went to Piccadilly Circus, Walked to the National Gallery, strolled in St James' Park, admired Buckingham palace and in due course visited the British Museum, Madam Tussuad's. We went to the London Zoo, saw the Botanical Gardens, wandered aimlessly in Oxford Street, Regent's park, along the Thames. Each and everything held some sort of fascination for us. There also was a job to be done and I decided to pay the General Medical Council a visit one morning.
Yasman accompanied me wherever we went and even 'official business' became fun. However things did not work out as smoothly as I had anticipated. The girl at the GMC inquiries desk was very helpful, understood my need perfectly and handed me a form to fill which I did there and then. She asked me to have the form attested by a doctor with full registration with the GMC who knew me personally. I told her that I had some friends in the country who could do that but did not know their exact whereabouts. She suggested that if I gave her their names, she will look up in the Medical Register whether they held full registration. None of them did. They all were working on temporary registration, well away from London. She said that she could not process my application till I had the form attested. She also told me that my surgical house job will be recognized but I will have to do a six month pre-registration House Physician's job before I could get full registration. I could get temporary registration on job to job basis but that was not a long term solution for me. I was stuck and for the first time I became a bit anxious. I had to find a way out of this problem.
A few days later, on Saturday 30 January 1965 to be precise, I managed to find my old school friend who had become an engineer and was doing some sort of post graduate course in London at that time. He seemed well set in a bedsit in London and met us very warmly. He was at that time getting ready to go and watch Churchill's funeral which was due to sail down the Thames and invited us to accompany him for witnessing this historic event. It was a sombre occasion and throngs of people had gathered along the banks of the river. To us, even the Thames itself and how it had been tamed was a novelty. This occasion was showing it at its best. After witnessing the funeral, we retired to a cafe and caught up with the news of each other's life. I told him about my dilemma about getting my registration form attested. He advised me to seek help from Pakistan Embassy and I thought about it over the weekend. In Pakistan, if you had a theft or an accident, the police were the last people you went to. In the same way most civil servants usually created more problems for you if you sought their help, unless you bribed them. And I had always managed my affairs without offering bribes. However, I was in England now and hoped that things will be different here. So on Monday morning I headed to the Pakistan Embassy.
From reception I was sent to see a clerk in a large office upstairs who was sitting at a desk covered with files and papers. There were three other clerks busy on their own desks. He greeted me politely but when I told him that I was hoping that they could put me in touch with a Pakistani doctor who could attest my form, he frankly told me that they could not do that. That was not their job. End of the matter. I was just re-emphasizing the plight I was in when the guy sitting in one corner called the clerk by name and said, "Can you send the doctor to me please? I might be able to help." This was music to my ears. He first set out his credentials: "I am friends with lots of doctors and I spend quite a lot of time in their company. Some of them are very close to me and will do anything for me. I overheard what your need is. I think I can help you provided you can give me some help. A friend of mine who is a senior house officer in casualty department in Margate needs to go on a holiday for a fortnight but cannot find a locum to cover his duties. If you are prepared to do that work, I am sure that he will be able to sort your problem out. You will get well paid and will get accommodation as well. What do you say?" I agreed to give it a go. He rang his friend, told me which bus to take from outside the embassy to the railway station and how to get to Margate where his friend would guide me on further action. In a few hours we emerged from the small Margate railway station and I asked a taxi driver whether he could take us to The Royal Sea Bathing Hospital. "Yes, guv", he said. And after hundred yards or so dropped us in front of the hospital. I admired his cheek!
I was received by the young doctor very enthusiastically and gratefully. He spoke to his consultant. An impromptu interview was arranged and I was offered the job and accepted it. A married accommodation was allotted to me. "When will you like me to start?", I asked. "As soon as possible. Now?" I told them that our suitcases were in a hotel in London. They gave me the paperwork that would enable me to get temporary registration with the GMC. We went back to London to collect our belongings and I started my first job, albeit a temporary one, in what appeared to be a highly efficient but rather dark and cloudy country. My thoughts turned to my next challenge and I looked at the back pages of the British Medical Journal and applied for the only pre-registration job in Medicine that was advertised that week.
We had a nicely furnished flat within the hospital grounds and the shops were only a walking distance from there. We could also walk to the seaside though at that time of the year the sea did not look very appealing. I got to know a few Indian doctors and met them regularly at tea and coffee. The work was very varied. The nursing staff were truly brilliant and helpful. In general I coped with the work very well but there were some obvious deficiencies in my experience. I had no experience of putting broken legs into plaster. When the first case came my way, the sister volunteered to do it for me without any fuss. I appreciated that. I could call upon my seniors in case of any difficulty and they were always polite and helpful. Once an experienced neuro-surgeon who had come to see a patient looked at my name tag and said, "Ah, so you are Dr Qureshi who sends the patients for admission to our wards with a full history, physical examination and a neurological examination". "Doesn't everyone do that?" I asked. "Oh no. Mostly it is '?cva. Please admit' and no more. I like your approach. You will do well."
I felt flattered and resolved to try and live up to his encouraging words.
I had been there for a week or so when I got a phone call from the hospital in Middlesbrough inviting me to attend for an interview, the following day if possible. I sought permission from my consultant who readily gave it and we boarded a night sleeper train from Kings Cross the same evening, heading north for the first time.
At that time I was not aware of the fact that my first experience of applying for, and being interviewed for, a houseman's job was rather unusual and that I was having an easy ride. There were good reasons for it. I came to know later on that the hospital had appointed a German doctor who failed to turn up due to domestic difficulties and they had to look for a replacement very quickly. I happened to be looking for the right job at the right time.
I had heard that people in the North were much more friendly and so I found them. The hospital was about five miles out of the main town in a rural setting, surrounded by fields. We had arrived a couple of hours early but were received cordially and asked to wait in the lounge of Junior Doctors residence. We were given coffee and whiled away an hour watching tv. Then a maid came and took us to the dining room which was at the other end of the hospital, in her car: I was impressed. The dining room was empty save one elderly gentleman who sat in front of the fire, half asleep and just nodded a welcome to us. The tables were laid out very well and a pleasant waitress brought us lunch. We had just started eating when an elderly gent entered the dining room and came straight to our table.
"You must be Dr Qureshi", he said and when I replied in the affirmative, he went on, "I am Dr Graham. If you get the job you will be working with me. Can I join you for lunch?". We made small talk during lunch. He asked us about our experience in the country so far, what Saudi Arabia was like, how long we had been married, did we have any children. We talked about the comfort of trains and coaches that we had travelled in, the severity of weather and a hundred other things. Then, to my surprise, he asked, "Are you sure that you have not been in this country before?". I laughed. "Yes, I am quite certain. Why do you ask?".
"Because you speak English so well." I explained to him that our curriculum was in English, my father had taught English all his life and two of my brothers held master's degrees in English. Perhaps the family atmosphere had helped. He looked at his watch and said to Yasman,"Please excuse us, we have to go now and attend to some business." and asked me to follow him to the interview which turned out to be a formality. When I was called in, the chairperson, a pleasant lady, welcomed me and Dr Graham addressed her and said, "I have had a long chat with Dr Qureshi over lunch. I think that he is very suitable for the job." and that was that. We agreed that I could start the job the following week. That was the start of a long and enjoyable association with the various hospitals of the Northeast of England where I would work till my retirement in 1990.
When we got back to the hospital in Margate, an Indian doctor who had become a friend asked me where I had been the previous day as I had been absent during coffee and tea breaks. "I had gone for an interview for a pre-registration house physician's job in Middlesbrough", I said.
"Keep applying and don't worry too much. With any luck you will get one before long", he said.
"Oh, I have got the job and start next week", I told him. He could not believe it. He told me his own story. He had come to the country with plenty of money, applied for umpteen jobs, had many interviews and got a job when he was down to his last fiver. I came to realise then as to how lucky I had been.
The situation I found myself in was almost ideal for the practice of medicine as I wished it to be. NHS was a wonderful concept. The
hospital was large enough to generate plenty of work but small enough to get to know everyone working there. The fact that it was a
relatively isolated peripheral hospital strengthened the bond of comradeship with other workers in the hospital. The atmosphere
was very friendly and everyone was ready to help if help was needed. My consultant was a respected and wise man who was only a
couple of years away from retirement. My colleague James, a senior house officer, had been in post for six months and knew the
ropes very well. He was a pleasant young man, recently married to a lovely girl called Mary. They lived in the flat below
ours. I shared all the duties equally with him. We had a part-time clinical assistant
who had started general practice after obtaining membership of the royal college of physicians. He was
relatively young, very friendly and knowledgeable. That was the whole medical team. We did not have a registrar.
The hospital had medical, surgical, paediatric and geriatric wards. There was no outpatient department. X-ray department and a
small laboratory were on site, the lab almost next door to our department which I found very convenient. I could get x-rays or
lab tests done whenever I wished and the two laboratory technicians were very helpful. I would often visit them with samples
and they were happy to demonstrate any pathology of interest to me. Our department consisted of two Florence Nightingale type
medical wards, male and female.
Twice a week we admitted emergency cases, the rest of the week was covered by the two larger hospitals
in Middlesbrough. I shared the on call duty with the SHO: one night on, one night off. Alternate weekends on.
The two senior sisters had worked with Dr Graham for years and were very pleasant, competent and organized.
We started the ward round at 8am sharp and for that we had to
be properly dressed. There was a story that my predecessor had once come for the ward round without a tie. He was sent home to
put a tie on. I am told that nowadays doctors are not allowed to wear a tie when on duty! How fashions and practices change
I had a small office on the ward from which I could see our flat and the single doctor's residence across the lawn. These had been built recently and had central heating but interestingly the bedrooms were not heated. I was told that in those days people believed that sleeping in a heated room was not healthy!
There was a hospital shop - a general store - which was handy for emergency supplies but we usually took the free hospital bus to the city centre for our main shopping. A number of Indian and Pakistani doctors worked in the hospital and in due course we became good friends. Yasman also enjoyed the company of some nurses who became good friends and visited her often.
1965. The practice of medicine was very different in those days. It was believed that you could diagnose 80% of the patients by taking a detailed history and some more with a thorough physical examination. It did mean spending more time with the patients and relatives and resulted in a better understanding with them. General medicine dealt with all the disciplines which are specialities in their own right now: cardiology, gastroenterology, nephrology, rheumatology, endocrinology, neurology, haematology and pulmonary medicine were all part of general medicine. So we saw a remarkable variety of illnesses. Most of the work was fairly routine. Heart attacks, strokes, chest infections and other infections were not uncommon. Diabetics frequently came in as emergencies. But occasionally cases came up that were puzzling or rare and that kept me on my toes. Looking back, I realise that some of those cases helped me create a good impression generally. I will give a couple of examples.
A vagrant was admitted in an unconscious state. He was known to the police and the hospitals, having had multiple admissions with the same pattern. He would be unconscious with rather confusing neurological signs but no evidence of damage to the brain or spinal cord. He would recover without any treatment and be discharged with a provisional diagnosis of epilepsy. I thought that he had some clinical evidence of hypoglycaemia. Ames had just started marketing a diagnostic kit for measuring blood sugar levels from a drop of blood instantly and we had it on the ward. I used it for the first time and his blood sugar was extremely low. I gave him intravenous glucose and much to everyone's surprise including the patient himself, he recovered within seconds. On further investigations he was found to have an insulin secreting tumour the removal of which cured him. My consultant praised me for making the diagnosis. I was chuffed.
A Pakistani young man was admitted with severe anaemia. He had been working as a manual labourer till the day of the admission when one of his mates had pointed out that he looked rather pale and should see a doctor. He did and was sent to us straightaway. He came from an area of Pakistan where I knew that hookworm infestation is endemic. The history and blood findings fitted in with that diagnosis. I had a microscope in my office which was rarely used but I used it on this occasion to show that his stools contained the typical diagnostic ova of hookworm. I showed them to my consultant and the ward sister. They seemed very excited and impressed. The word spread and before I knew there was a queue of nurses and doctors wanting to look at this marvel of a tropical disease. I realized then that what was commonplace in Pakistan was a rarity here. We were able to get the patient fully fit and healthy without resorting to blood transfusion. There was an amazing amount of interest shown when I presented the case in our monthly clinical meeting. Having diagnosed a couple of atypical cases of malaria in the following months, I came to be regarded as above par in the diagnosis and treatment of tropical diseases. Quite a few other notable cases made me feel good and boosted my confidence.
My colleague James and his wife Mary were our neighbours and even though we did not socialize too much, they were always
very friendly and polite towards us. Both of us were coming towards the end of our jobs. Mary took ill one day, developed
deep jaundice and forty eight hours later she passed away. She was in her mid-twenties and had been a picture of health till
then. James was obviously distraught. He came from Birmingham and wanted to go back as soon as possible. The hospital and my
consultant made frantic efforts to get someone to cover his duties but could not get any locum.
James was waiting for a nod from the consultant before leaving. The consultant wanted to arrange a cover for his duties before he let him go and time was flying. I felt uneasy about the situation and went to see my consultant. He explained the difficulty to me. I offered him a solution. I said, "As I see the situation, James has to be allowed to go now. He cannot be expected to work properly after the shock he has received. I can see your dilemma as well. I will be prepared to cover his duties while you are looking for a locum." He seemed surprised. "Do you mean that you are prepared to be on call twenty four hours a day?". He sounded incredulous.
"Yes. I will obviously need some sleep but otherwise, yes", I replied.
"Oh, in that case .. well, that will solve our problem for the time being. Look, I will help you. Sisters will help you. There will be no need to clerk the patients in detail, the briefest account will do. Thank you. We will give it a try."
He was happy and as good as his word. Sisters were marvellous and took some of the routine jobs off my hands. They would so arrange things that I could get reasonable sleep and rest. A final year medical student was drafted in to help with blood taking and other chores. Two weeks flew by without any problems. Then normality was restored.
When I was coming to the end of my contract, Dr Graham asked me about my future plans. I said that I will be looking for an SHO's job in medicine as I was planning to sit the MRCP examination. He said, "James finishes his job at the same time as you do. You can have his job if you like. It will be advertised, of course, and interviews will be held but you will get it". This was an amazing offer. I knew that I will get the job if he wanted me to be appointed. But I had to think of Yasman as well. So I said, "I will think about it". He smiled and I distinctly remember what he said,"SHO's jobs in acute medicine are difficult to come by but such a job with married accommodation is rare like hen's teeth. I would very much urge you to take it unless, of course, you have got something against me!"
"Please don't misunderstand me", I said. "I just want to make sure that Yasman is happy to spend another year in this rather remote location where she gets a bit lonely at times. I have enjoyed my work with you immensely and am really grateful for the way in which you have always supported me."
The very next day I told him that I will be delighted to take up the job and will look forward to working for him for another year. I was so grateful to God for my good luck. Whereas some of my colleagues had to go to many interviews before getting a suitable job, here a plum job had literally fallen into my lap.
My ward work as SHO was not much different from what I had been doing for the past six months but now I went with Dr Graham to conduct an outpatient clinic in a remote cottage hospital on the seaside every Friday. It turned out to be quite an enjoyable excursion. We would get there after half an hour's drive and do a ward round. Only about half a dozen patients recuperating from various illnesses. The sister and a nurse would join us for an excellent lunch: Dr Graham would sit at the head of the table. I enjoyed the informal table talk and caught up with the week's news. In the afternoon we saw a couple of new patients and a few follow up ones. We would head back to our hospital in the late afternoon via Tees estuary where a few minutes would be spent bird watching. All in all quite glorious and very British. I loved it.
During my tenure as SHO I had two junior colleagues who shared duties with me for six months each. John was single, a local graduate who was mad about motor cycles. He spent almost all his spare time either fiddling with his motor bike or riding it. He worked steadily and never gave anyone any cause to complain which is more than one could say about the second houseman. Joe was also a local graduate but originally came from Africa. He seemed to have a string of girlfriends who took up a lot of his time and energy. Ward sister was always complaining about his lack of attention to work. One evening when I was not on call, I met sister in the hospital corridor. She complained that she had been trying to get Joe to come and see an emergency admission who was very ill. I went with her and saw the patient who was extremely poorly. I clerked him, spoke to the relatives, did whatever could be done but the patient did not survive. The next morning I asked Joe why he failed to attend to the emergency admission. When I told him that the patient had died, he realized that he was in trouble. I told him that just by chance I happened to be passing and did see the patient before he died. He was somewhat relieved, thanked me and promised that he would mend his ways. The consultant got to know the details and was not pleased. A couple of months before his post was finishing, one day Joe came to see Dr Graham. He was applying for a job in Africa and wanted a testimonial. I happened to be with Dr Graham at that time. He turned round and said, "No, I cannot give you a testimonial. However you can use my name as a referee if you wish." Joe looked disappointed and went away. Dr Graham turned to me and said, "How can I give him an open testimonial that says that his work has been unsatisfactory, that he is not reliable? Our system works on the basis of references and recommendations from colleagues and unless we are honest, the system will break down." I felt sorry for Joe but had to agree with my consultant.
"I did not see you at the party last night. Where were you?", asked Dr Graham in a fatherly way the day after the hospital's Christmas party. I told him that the dress code was formal and I did not have a dinner jacket nor did I wish to wear one.
"You should have told me", he said. "You could have come in your normal suit and I would have seen to it that nobody objected to it." This was a week before Christmas. The following day he invited us to join them for Christmas lunch. "It is usually a very private family affair, with our son, his wife and an old widower friend of ours making up the party. We have done it like that for years. But you are away from home and it will be lovely if you can join us." We were delighted, of course. On the day, they were unbelievably welcoming and charming. They had happily accommodated our wish not to have any pork or alcohol. Everyone seemed to be in a jolly mood, the food was excellent and we even had an impromptu sing song. We had an afternoon to remember.
I was lucky that the first consultant that I came to work for turned out to be so good both professionally and personally. Most of the other doctors that I had dealings with were also very polite and professional. I did occasionally come across senior doctors who would be rude to the juniors, sometimes very unfairly. Occasionally their behaviour would amuse me. A consultant neurologist came to see a patient for us. I gave him a brief outline of the history of the patient. He was sitting in sister's office going through the case notes before seeing the patient when he almost shouted, "Good God, she is only 58 and you describe her as 'an old looking lady'?"
"Yes, she does look very old", I said.
"I am 58. Do I look old to you?", he asked.
"No. But when I admitted her, she was unconscious, I did not have her case notes, she has no teeth, no dentures, a wrinkled face, sparse grey hair and really does look old. Perhaps you will agree with me when you have seen her". I made sure that my tone was not disrespectful and I was more amused than upset. He did not make any further remark after seeing her!
I came to like our clinical assistant, David, quite a lot. He was a very learned man, very friendly and caring and I always appreciated the advice he gave whenever I needed it. He became our GP as well and arranged ante-natal care for Yasman who was expecting our first baby early in the new year. After some initial morning sickness, she felt fine and the arrival of the baby became the main focus for her. I was thrilled too. She bought Benjamin Spock's 'Baby and Childcare' and he became her guru in baby matters. Later on whenever there was a difference of opinion about some aspect of baby care between me and Benjamin Spock, he always won! David had said,"Do call me whenever Yasman goes into labour whatever the time of day or night it is". One night I was on call and busy when she rang me and told me that it had started. I rang David and he came dressed in his tuxedo: he was at an annual dinner dance party which he had to leave temporarily, saw Yasman, arranged the ambulance and went back to his dinner dance. I was impressed. I had a busy night and could not get anyone to cover my duties at such a short notice. I had been asleep only a short while when the phone rang and Mr Brown, Yasman's obstetrician, rang to congratulate me. By the time I was awake enough to understand him, he was telling me that both the baby and Yasman were fine and that I could go and see them any time. I got dressed, went over to the ward and told sister that I was going to the maternity hospital to see the baby and Yasman. She congratulated me and asked, "Is it a boy or a girl?" I had to admit that I did not know and had not asked Mr Brown. I quite honestly told her that it did not matter. What mattered was that both the baby and Yasman were fine and Mr Brown had told me that. She seemed mildly surprised. I felt ecstatic when I held our first born in my arms. Yasman looked delighted but tired and I admired her courage for coping with the delivery without me being present by her side.
Life was quite tough for both of us at that time. I worked long hours and had to concentrate on my work which was a challenge albeit a pleasant one. Yasman felt lonely at times both because she missed her family and because we were in a relatively isolated spot. She spent her time honing her domestic skills, particularly cooking, of which she had limited experience. She was an avid reader and being religious, the prayers gave a structure to her day. She also wrote letters regularly. In those days means of communication were limited. Neither her parent's house in Campbellpur nor ours in Rawalpindi had a telephone. The internet did not exist at that time. The only way of communicating with our loved ones in Pakistan was by writing letters and sending them through postal services. And it truly was snail mail: a letter used to take a week or two to get to the recipients in Pakistan. Yasman wrote to her parents every week and it was a double edged sword. I would come home to find Yasman in tears because she had received an emotional letter from her mom. "It is not fair", she would say, "She is surrounded by her children and others and yet she makes me feel as if I am being selfish in staying away from her. She does not realize that I am all alone here and I miss them all so much". It happened so often that I became an expert at consoling her. With so much physical distance between us, it was easy for misunderstandings to take a serious form. We had an agreement that we opened letters addressed to each other as most of them were of interest to both of us. Once a letter had arrived from her father addressed to me and she had read it. She was extremely upset. The gist of the letter was: "We have not heard from Yasman for over a month. It is obvious that you have forbidden her from writing to us. We are extremely worried about the welfare of our daughter. Can you let us know what is going on? Otherwise we will have to find someone in England who can visit her and report back to us". Initially the letter upset me but I knew that Pakistan's postal system was not very efficient and could have caused anxiety. I wrote back straightaway. I also wrote to bhaijan Masud who used to visit them regularly and asked him to go and see them and reassure them that Yasman was well and happy and was being looked after very well. Some days later I got a letter from her father which began with the words, "Please forgive me..." and after lots of apologies he explained that they had received three of Yasman's letters all at once, that he was wrong in pointing the finger of blame at me and that he had a bad experience in the past which had affected his thinking. Here was the hero of my young days, one of the top scholars of his day, apologizing to me for an error of judgment he had made because of his love and concern for his daughter! I was really touched.
The first few months in England were quite an eye opener for us. The weather, the food, the shopping were all so different from what we were used to. And so was the relatively reserved behaviour of majority of our English friends and acquaintances. I thought that I could speak English fluently but got a shock once in a while to remind me that some local dialects can be beyond the comprehension of those who spoke only Queen's English. The Assistant Hospital secretary once sent two plumbers to fix the taps in our bathroom with the warning, "Don't worry if you do not understand what they are saying: they are from Glasgow!". And she was right. I still have trouble with some local dialects and so do many Englishmen.
We had chosen the worst possible time to come to England in terms of weather. It was cold and the days were short and dark. It did not matter too much to me because I spent most of my time on the wards which looked much more cheerful than the outdoors. The novelty of rain and the cold wore off for Yasman after a few weeks and she had a moan about it when some friends were visiting us. They had lived in England for a few years and assured us that come summer, we will have very very long days and very short nights. And so it turned out. Yasman had to abandon the habit of having our evening meal after sunset!
We did not try English food for a long time under the impression that it was bland and not filling. But then an English friend entertained us to a proper home cooked dinner and we changed our opinion on the spot. It smelt and tasted superb and it was really filling. We came to love English puddings. Now we are fortunate to enjoy Indian and Pakistani cuisine as well as English, Italian, Chinese and Japanese dishes. And both of us have made an effort to learn cooking for pleasure.
Going shopping where prices were fixed and prominently displayed became a joy for us. In the early days I went to a shop on the high street and chose a tape recorder which seemed reasonably priced. When I went to pay for it, the cashier knocked ten percent off the price because I was paying cash! I could not believe it. It took a while to understand how the system of sales worked here. There was one temptation which I was able to resist easily. Everyone seemed to make it so easy to buy expensive things on hire purchase. I kept my resolve to buy them when I had cash in hand.
I had taken some driving lessons and as soon as I had passed my driving test, I bought a car - a red Hillman Imp - which
enabled us to broaden our horizons. We started to explore our county and realized how beautiful it was. We started visiting
the seaside often. Yasman loved the hills and the valleys. Baby Nubeel loved going in the car and being pushed in his pram.
Now nearby hospitals which had a number of Pakistani doctors were within easy reach and we developed good friendships with
many of them. Thanks to the baby and the car, our social life improved greatly. The long summer
days allowed us to visit interesting places and good friends very frequently. Time flew and I realized that I was
coming to the end of my contract. What should I do next?
Ideally I needed a registrar's job in general medicine but those jobs were few and the competition so great that I did not have any realistic chance of getting one. I made inquiries about alternative ways of achieving my goal of preparing for the MRCP examination. I regularly scanned the back pages of the British Medical Journal for suitable jobs. Some Pakistani friends suggested that I should apply for a registrar's post in Psychiatry. They argued that there was hardly any competition for those jobs, the pay was good, you got plenty of free time which you could devote to your studies. One such job came up in an attractive location and I began to consider it seriously as a last resort. Unusually they wanted a testimonial rather than names of referees. Should I ask Dr Graham for one?
One day I was accompanying Dr Graham in visiting the surgical wards to see a patient when he asked me whether I had made any progress on the job front. I told him that no registrar jobs had come up in acute medicine but there was a job in Psychiatry which I might consider applying for as a stopgap measure but they wanted a testimonial rather than the names of referees.
"Would you like me to give you a testimonial?", he asked.
"Yes please if possible", I said rather apprehensively in view of what had happened to my junior colleague some time ago.
"You go ahead and see the patient and I will go to my office and dictate it to Freda", he said turning back. When I got back after seeing the patient, his secretary handed me six copies of a brief but wonderful testimonial which I cherish to this day. As it happened, I did not have to use it but it lifted my morale no end. The main text of the testimonial was:
I told David that I was thinking of applying for the registrar's job in psychiatry because I had no realistic chance of
getting a job in acute medicine. "No, no, you are far too good for that sort of thing.", he said,
"If you are thinking of settling down in this country then you should consider going into general practice. A new charter
for general practitioners has just come out and it is very attractive. You have got the right experience. If you are
interested then I can help you in getting a good position." I thanked him and told him that my plan still was to
pass my MRCP examination and return to Pakistan.
"In that case how about a year in Laboratory
Medicine?", he asked. "It will give you useful experience for taking your MRCP examination from Edinburgh with Haematology
as your special subject which is your plan anyway. I can make enquiries from a friend who is a Consultant Pathologist, runs a
very good department and might have a suitable job. Shall I give him a ring?"
The plan made perfect sense to me. I thanked him for his advice and he arranged for me to go twenty miles or so northward to the beautiful city of Durham to see his friend the very next day.
On a lovely sunny day, approaching Durham city from the south, I suddenly saw the majestic Durham Cathedral towering over the city and the solid castle by its side. When I passed over a bridge, I could see the river Wear winding round the castle and the cathedral, at a much lower level. The city itself seemed small and beautiful. Being a university city, it was full of young people who made the place look vibrant. I did not have time to stop and sample the atmosphere, tempting though it was, and went straight to the hospital. I was shown into Dr Ennis's office straightaway. He was a pleasant middle aged man who received me warmly. He had spent some time in India during the days of the Raj and spoke very well of his time there. He told me that David had given him all the information he needed. He did have a registrar's job which was ready to be advertised and thought that it will suit my purpose very well. Did I want to ask any questions? I told him that my main interest was in learning laboratory aspects of Haematology and that I would much rather not do any post-mortem examinations even though I knew their academic value. He suggested that while keeping main focus on Haematology, I should take the opportunity to learn a bit about other laboratory disciplines as well. I will not have to carry out any post-mortem examinations if that is what I wished but he could always show me any interesting cases that came his way. All this seemed too good to be true. He was talking as if I had already got the job. So I said, "I have two problems which you need to know about. The first one is that I am married and will need married accommodation."
"That should not be a problem", he said, picking up the phone. He spoke to the hospital secretary, "Can you reserve a married accommodation for my future registrar please?". Done. Those were the days when consultants had a lot of clout, some more than others. He asked me what the other problem was. I told him that I had no previous experience of working in Laboratory Medicine which perhaps was necessary for a registrar's job. "It is a training post. Don't worry about that", and he went on to say, "The job will be advertised and interviews will be held as usual but don't worry, you will get the job. We place great value on the opinion of our trusted colleagues and David has said very good things about you. It is in our own interest to appoint someone who is highly recommended and likely to serve the department well." The job was advertised, I was interviewed along with others and I got the job.
Medicine is vast and in-depth knowledge of all its aspects is almost impossible to acquire. I worked in rotation in Histopathology, Microbiology, Biochemistry and Haematology departments for short periods and developed a fascination for them all. The more I learnt about Haematology, the more I liked it. Near the end of my second year, the consultant had a discussion with me about what I planned to do next. He told me that I had acquired good enough knowledge of laboratory disciplines to sit the primary examination for the membership of the newly founded Royal College of Pathologists. If I passed that examination, I would be eligible for a Senior Registrar's post in Haematology. The two royal colleges - Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Pathologists had set up a joint committee for training of Haematologists who would have a dual role as Clinical Haematologists as well as Laboratory Haematologists. At the end of that training the final MRCPath examination will be an exit examination almost guaranteeing a consultant post. He very strongly recommended that I take that route towards my ultimate goal of practicing Haematology as a specialist. He had made a very convincing case and I fully agreed with him. From then on I concentrated on Haematology and Microbiology which were my chosen subjects for the primary MRCPath examination which I passed without any difficulty. Now I had to look for a senior registrar's post in Haematology.
Our flat in Durham was in the grounds of a geriatric hospital which was literally a stone's throw away from the Cathedral and the city
centre. This was a remarkable change from the rural setting in which we had lived for the past eighteen months. We felt more settled
financially and socially. My new job was busy but I worked 9 to 5 which gave me plenty of time to give attention to the family
and friends. We found many old friends who were working in places that we could easily drive to now. They started visiting us on a
regular basis and the quality of social life improved greatly. We came to love the riverside walk beneath the cathedral and the
castle. Yasman became very familiar with the local shops and loved the covered market. Nubeel enjoyed his 'walks' in a pushchair
round the river. We would go out on picnics with friends and explored the area at leisure. We were blessed with a second son,
Aamer, who was born in that beautiful city. We went back to Pakistan for our holidays and enjoyed spending some quality time with
our loved ones. We came back reinvigorated.
Haematology was a growing specialty in 1969 but unfortunately there were very few
senior registrar posts which were recognized by the Royal College of Pathologists for training purposes and none which
were vacant. Enquiries from other regions drew a blank. A suitable job was advertised by McMaster University in Canada. It was
recognized for training towards MRCPath final examination and I applied for it. I also made enquiries about jobs in USA and
although their system for training was different and did not lead to MRCPath, it led to certification as a Specialist
Haematologist which was the American equivalent. I was eligible to apply for a resident's job
because a year or so previously I had passed the ECFMG examination which was a pre-requisite for
foreign medical graduates applying for jobs in USA. I made enquiries about a residency in New Jersey which had been advertised
and the glossy brochure listing the merits of the hospital and the perks of the job tempted me to apply for it. I got job offers
from both of them but had to turn them down because an unexpected and tempting opportunity came up in my own hospital.
Dr Ennis who was very influential at Regional Health Authority level decided to throw his weight around to help me. He badgered them to create a senior registrar post in Haematology so that 'the excellent registrar that we have trained here is not lost to another region' (he showed me the letter!). He also persuaded his friend Dr Bird - at that time the only recognized Haematologist in Newcastle region - to ask for a senior registrar post for his department. His persistence was fruitful and a new post was duly created and I was asked to apply for it.
Dr Bird turned out to be a remarkable man. I first met him when I went to see the department at Newcastle General Hospital before applying for the job. I had made an appointment to see him and turned up at the reception desk on time. I was expected but they could not find Dr Bird. Everyone kept saying that he was there a minute ago. He knows. He will soon turn up. His registrar was found and he took me to his room and as soon as we got there, Dr Bird turned up. Later I found out that he had this remarkable capacity to disappear and reappear at will. He was full of enthusiasm and energy and showed me round the department. It was a teaching hospital and he held an honorary appointment with the university and had a collaborative working relationship with the other teaching hospital, the Royal Victoria Infirmary. It was obvious to me that I will have to step up a little if I was fortunate enough to get the job.
Not surprisingly lots of candidates applied for the job and six were invited for an interview. I was one of the six. I got quite a grilling at the interview but was well prepared for it and was delighted when I was offered the job. For the following four years I would have to work really hard but my goal was within sight now and if I completed the training satisfactorily and passed my final MRCPath examination, I will be eligible to apply for a consultant post which would take me to the top of the NHS ladder. This and the thought of no more interviews for four years was quite comforting.
When I went to see the hospital secretary about the married accommodation which I had been promised, I learnt that there was a long waiting list and my turn was likely to come in a year or so. After seeking advice from experts and friends, and having looked at the housing and rental market, we decided to buy a newly built house some five miles away from the hospital on the south side of River Tyne in Gateshead. I got a mortgage and by the time I had paid the deposit and the solicitor's fees, I had no money left. I did not want to enter hire purchase agreements which were popular in those days and did not want to get a loan either which was quite easy to get but would be rather difficult to pay back. We decided to furnish our new house bit by bit as the money became available. I got to learn a lot of DIY skills and enjoyed doing up the house myself over the weekends and in the evenings. There was a very good primary school at a walking distance and Nubeel took a liking to his first school. Majority of the houses in our neighbourhood were small starter homes, owned mostly by young people and Yasman soon made lots of friends locally. A good shopping area was a brisk fifteen minutes' walk from there and young Yasman happily trotted uphill to the shops almost every day.
I persuaded Yasman to take driving lessons so that she would gain some degree of independence even though I was quite happy to drive her wherever she wished. She started her lessons with a driving school and became aware of a handicap. "I was told at home, at school and at college to always keep my gaze down looking at a spot a couple of yards ahead on the ground and that has become a habit so strong that I cannot bring myself up to look constantly ahead of me and observe the traffic around me while driving." I know that it was a real problem. I once asked her whether she had noticed a very flashy tie that a male newscaster had worn on tv news. "No, I haven't", she said, "I do not look at the male newscasters when listening to the news. We were told not to look at men when we were growing up and that has become a habit." Honestly, I am not making all this up. Anyway, she had to make a positive effort to become observant and after some difficulty passed her driving test and soon she developed confidence in her driving much to my relief and her joy.
When I reported for work on my first day as senior registrar, Dr Bird had a frank chat with me. He told me that he had become a Haematologist only by accident and had not been properly trained for it. He was a Paediatric Pathologist but out of necessity also looked after Haematology department when the Royal College of Pathologists was formed and he became a founder member. He was asked to make a choice between Paediatric Pathology and Haematology as his recognised speciality and chose Haematology. "That's why I am not really competent enough to train a senior registrar. That's why I did not want a senior registrar but now that you are here, I will do my best to teach you what I can." I would find out in due course that he had a habit of under-selling himself. I told him that I just needed an opportunity which now I had got. It was up to me to prove that not only could I learn Haematology to the required standard while working there but could also be of use to the department during that period. I was given a couple of weeks to settle in, draw up a plan for my training that would enable me to take my final exam with confidence and define my day to day duties clearly. I had a nice office just off the main laboratory which was very convenient. I got to know the technical staff well and started enjoying my work. In due course I got to know my colleagues in the sister departments of Histopathology and Chemical Pathology. I also developed a relationship with the Microbiology department which was a floor above us and the Blood Transfusion Centre which was on the floor below us. Best of all, I developed a very good understanding with Dr Bird and after a year or so started to share all the work with him. I started some research work in collaboration with the Medical Physics Department. I took active part in our weekly Haematology meetings which were held at the Royal Victoria Infirmary which was our sister hospital. The famous Dr R.B.Thompson allowed me to attend his outpatient clinics which gave me valuable clinical experience. Now that I had started preparations for the final MRCPath examination, I was really and truly on the road to becoming a proper specialist.
Ever since my teenage days I had the habit of getting up early in the morning and putting in a couple of hours reading
particularly during term times. This meant that I never had to over-exert myself nearer the time of the examinations when I was
at school, college and even later on in medical college. Marriage and children had put that habit on hold and now even though the
examination was four years away, I thought that I will renew that habit. I knew that a lot of effort needed to be put into formal
reading and four years seemed to be just enough time to do that considering that I had a full time job as well.
I had got into a routine at work, the house was taking shape, Yasman could do most of her shopping and other chores without my
help now that she could drive and Nubeel and Aamer were at an age where they were easily manageable. I would wake
up early and study for a couple of hours before breakfast and my short drive to the hospital.
It enabled me to devote most of my weekends and evenings for the family and friends. We met many lovely people
in Newcastle and Gateshead and some of them are still very dear to us. Three of our close friends from our
days in Saudi Arabia got posted near us for varying periods of time and we had fun while they were in the area. Time
flew past as both the personal and professional lives became busy and I realized that I was in the final year of my training.
My plans for preparation for my final examination were disrupted because unfortunately Dr Bird suffered a sudden detachment of
retina and was rushed to Moorfield Hospital in
London which was the only centre in England with the necessary expertise at that time. He recovered but had to stay off work for six
months. The department had to have a consultant in day to day charge and no qualified Haematologist was available to do that. Dr Schade,
a consultant cytologist of international repute and a very good friend of Dr Bird came to an arrangement with me. I will do all the
work and he will provide nominal consultant cover and deal with administrative matters. I was quite confident that I will be able
to cope. And I did. Everything went very well and we had no problems during those six months.
When Dr Bird returned to work, he was very keen to get started again. There was a referral from surgical unit and he went to see the patient and came back rather depressed. He had got into a conversation with the surgeon who had not realized that he had been away.
"It's a great compliment to you, of course", he said to me, "but very depressing for me to know that I have been away six months and nobody has missed me." I tried to console him: "You can take credit for that. That's the hallmark of a well-run department. You can go missing and it keeps running smoothly." I was stating a fact. Those six months had done me a lot of good. I had developed confidence that I could manage a large department on my own. Others got to realize that I was up to the challenge. That would help me in the days to come.
1972 turned out to be a very good year for us. I passed my final MRCPath examination. Later in the year our daughter was born. Both the events caused amazing excitement and happiness.
I knew the date on which my exam result would be announced. The college did not give out the result over the phone: you had to wait for it to be delivered by first class post. I had calculated that it will arrive on a Saturday. The postman usually came at eight in the morning and dropped the post through the letterbox. It made a clanging noise. Being 'no school, no need to get up early' Saturday, all of us were still asleep when I heard a faint clanging noise in my sleep. I got up, quickly went downstairs and there lay the official A5 envelope with my fate sealed inside it. I opened it with some trepidation and realized at first glance that my years long dream had finally been realised. I had passed my final examination. It is difficult to describe my feelings at that moment. Relief, satisfaction, happiness, pride and deep and sincere thanks to God and everyone who had helped me in achieving my goal. When Yasman, Nubeel and Aamer woke up we had a celebratory breakfast. I was glad that I had the weekend to myself to get over the excitement and when I went to work on Monday, I was quite calm and composed.
Dr Bird was the first to be told and congratulated me. He seemed genuinely happy for me. I guess that it was a feather in his cap too because I was the first Haematologist whom he had trained and who had obtained his membership of the college through examination. I rang Dr Ennis in Durham. After all, he had put me on this particular road through initial training and then with his considerable help in getting me the senior registrar post. He congratulated me and said that he wanted to discuss something with me when I had got over my initial well deserved excitement. I told him that I had time to do that over the weekend and was able to listen to him calmly. He had got approval for another consultant post and if I were interested, he would advertise it as a Consultant Haematologist. I had enjoyed my time at Durham and liked the city very much. The offer seemed amazingly good but I told him that I will have to discuss it with Dr Bird before committing myself. He agreed. When I told Dr Bird about it, he went, "Oh" and I asked him whether there was any problem with that job.
"No. The job would be fine but we are awaiting approval for a Consultant Haematologist's job here and are almost certain that we will get it. But it might take up to six months before it can be advertised. We were hoping that you will stay with us till then and apply for that job. We will love to keep you here and will support your application."
I was flattered. I knew that I was on to a good thing. I decided to push my luck and ask them as to what they meant by supporting my application. Both Dr Bird and Professor Tomlinson who was the overall head of the department of Pathology assured me that they will support me irrespective of the competition. I agreed to wait for the job to come up and enjoyed another six stress free months as senior registrar. The job was advertised and attracted a lot of interest. Newcastle was a booming and progressive city, Newcastle University had a good reputation as one of the best in the country, access to the countryside and the seaside was very convenient and the Geordies had a reputation for being hospitable. I got to know most of the candidates when they came to look at the department. They were a talented lot. I was reasonably certain that a number of clinicians whom I had come to know well were likely to be on the interviewing committee. Professor Walker was a good friend of Dr Bird but was known to have a strong bias against graduates from the Indian subcontinent. I knew him well from our weekly clinical meetings which were held in his department and had always found him to be very pleasant. One day Dr Bird told me that he had discussed my application with him and was surprised how eagerly he had agreed to support me. Assured of my good standing with some members of the interviewing panel, I went in for my interview with a degree of confidence. My confidence was not misplaced and to my utter delight I was offered the job and accepted it. Having achieved my academic target, I was about to start the next phase of my professional life as a Consultant Haematologist in a teaching hospital, the top rung of the NHS ladder.
The regional medical officer rang to congratulate me on my appointment and told me that I will get two increments to my salary as recommended by the chairman of the appointments committee. "Damn", said Dr Bird when I told him about my unexpected bonus, "I am very pleased for you, of course, but when I was appointed and asked for one increment on the basis of my experience as a lecturer, they had refused point blank". I was really thankful for the way I had been treated.
My transition from senior registrar to consultant was seamless. Dr Bird shook me by the hand on my first day as consultant and said, "Please call me Tom from today. Now we are colleagues and equal in rank". I continued to treat him with respect as my older colleague and mentor. He seemed to like me as a person and appreciated my work. We got on very well working in tandem but just before retirement he decided to move away from Newcastle.
At the end of the year we were blessed with a baby daughter. We called her Farah (joy, happiness) and she really brought a lot of joy into our lives. Nubeel and Aamer loved their baby sister and she was the apple of our eyes. The political problems in Pakistan had created a dilemma for us. Zulfiqar Bhutto, the fiery leader of Pakistan had withdrawn Pakistan from the Commonwealth because of recognition of Bangladesh by the commonwealth. The home office in England offered the Pakistanis who had been living in UK for five years or more a choice: become UK citizens and lose Pakistan nationality or lose the right to UK citizenship. It was a difficult choice. The problem was solved for us by the Pakistan Government who passed a dual nationality bill enabling Pakistan citizens to hold two or more nationalities at the same time and we were advised to apply for UK citizenship. We became citizens of United Kingdom in 1974 while retaining Pakistan citizenship. That neatly sorted out our immediate problem but we had to make one final decision in consideration of our children's education and upbringing. We had to decide finally and once for all whether we were to spend the rest of our lives in this our adopted country or return to Pakistan. On that decision would depend the next phase of our lives.
The government had given the go ahead for building of a brand new hospital on the east side of Newcastle which was due to start
in 1977. The building was nearing completion and the Area Health Authority wanted to appoint the consultants in service
specialties well ahead of the opening date so that those departments could be functional when the first patients came in. I,
along with other consultants working in Newcastle's teaching hospitals, was given an option to continue in my present position
or move to the new hospital and commission a new department. I, along with many other colleagues, decided to go to the new hospital.
It was going to be a big challenge and would require hard work. But before making the final decision, in fairness to my employers and
myself, I wanted to make sure that Pakistan did not offer any realistic alternative to settling down in England permanently. On a
previous visit to Pakistan, the Director
General of Health and principal of a medical college had seemed keen for me to move to Pakistan, promising attractive jobs. So
I wrote to them, took my annual leave and decided to explore the possibilities with a positive attitude. The medical college turned
out to be in an abysmal state, inadequately staffed and equipped and with no desire to carry out any improvements. The director
general of health could not be found. I persisted and got an interview with him. He offered me a job as assistant professor in a
medical college which was in the news because the students had shot dead one of its teachers. I pointed that out to him. He offered
me a consultant post in a new research lab which had been open a few years and had not produced any research worth mentioning. Then he
told me that he once worked as a registrar in London and if he got a similar post there now, he would be off like a shot. He
implied that I was a bit soft in the head to think of coming back after leaving my consultant post in a teaching hospital
in England. I was totally disenchanted. I had got our sons admitted to a prestigious school - St Mary's in Rawalpindi - with
considerable difficulty. The
school closed after one week because of riots during and after the elections. Yasman found it difficult to adjust to the
conditions in Pakistan and when she fell ill, she lost heart about settling in Pakistan permanently. Overall it turned out to be a bad
experience and we came back to England having made up our minds that we will settle down here for the rest of our lives.
I often used to wonder how Saudi health service had progressed since the days of my practice of medicine in a rather primitive
environment in the middle of the desert. One day my newspaper carried an eight page supplement about 'The Most Modern Hospital
in the World' with rather appealing photographs of the state of the art equipment, beautiful buildings and lush green lawns
bordered by colourful flowers. It was an advertisement taken out by the Saudi government and the hospital in question was King
Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre in Riyadh. The details appeared impressive. A few days later, out of the blue, I
got a phone call from an American health corporation which had been given a contract to run the hospital as an independent entity.
They urgently needed a Consultant Haematologist for three months and wondered whether I would be interested. I asked for details of
the offer and they came in a bundle of impressive glossy brochures. The salary was excellent, the perks rather tempting. Free
first class return airfare, membership of the newly built recreation centre, free housing and generous daily meal allowance. My
six weeks annual leave was due and I was granted another six weeks unpaid leave and within a fortnight I was on my way to Saudi
I was met at the airport by the hospital's travel manager and taken to a five star hotel where a number of doctors were staying because the doctors residences in the hospital were not ready for occupation yet. A regular free minibus service ran between the hotel and the hospital. The hospital was guarded like a fort and the first task on going to the hospital was to get an ID card which had to be displayed to gain entry into the hospital. Another card was needed to use the facilities of the recreation center. I got my ID card okay but when the photographer noticed from my form that I was a Muslim, he refused to give me a pass for the recreation centre. "Why?", I was astonished. "Because Muslims are not allowed in the recreation center. Nothing against you doctor, it's the Royal Cabinet's orders." I kicked up a fuss because membership of the recreation centre was part of my written contract. And I could not see what my religion had to do with it. "Can Muslims not play table tennis, badminton, swim?", I asked. I spoke to the head of recreation and he went away to consult others. In the end, they gave me the pass and told me that a precedent had already been set as Dr Ali, an American Muslim had also got the pass after some debate. To celebrate my mini-victory, I went to the swimming pool and had a leisurely swim around though I am not an accomplished swimmer and would not have bothered under normal circumstances. Just wanted to cement my position.
We had two days of induction. We were shown the hospital. Given lectures on how to behave in public, never to appear in public drunk, precautions to take when venturing into the desert and so forth. On the third day I went to the head of medicine and asked him what my duties were.
"We are in a bit of a difficulty", he said. "There are more doctors than patients on the wards, and there are no available slots for doing outpatient work. We have a gastroenterologist who has been here a week and we have not been able to find work for him." Then he brightened up. "You are a Haematologist. Can you do lab work?" I said I could.
"In that case can you go and see Dr Ali in Path lab. He might be able to help you."
I was amused and puzzled. I went to the Path lab. Dr Ali was away in Mecca and would return the next day. The chief technologist showed me round the Haematology lab. She said that there were no pending requests from the floor and I sincerely wished to God that Dr Ali comes back and brings some work with him. He did come the next day and I was delighted to realize that I knew him well from my days in the medical school though we were not personal friends. He welcomed me very warmly, showed me around, told me how I could help in the early days of a developing department and also explained the reason for lack of work.
When the hospital was in the last stages of commissioning but still four months away from admitting patients, the king expressed a wish to look at the completed hospital. He had a good look around, was satisfied that the patient's rooms were of better standard than five star hotels, the curtains could be opened and closed at the press of a button and there was up-to-date gadgetry everywhere. The equipment with its blinking multicoloured lights looked impressive. He seemed delighted and while leaving, expressed a wish to see the hospital again after a month when there were actual patients on the wards. No one had the courage to tell the king that patients will not be admitted for another four months. A few patients had to be admitted a month from that day, recruitment of doctors and other staff was expedited so that a show was successfully put on for the king. The king was pleased. This happened a few days before my arrival. Now the work would start to prepare the hospital for admission of the patients properly.
I got into a sort of routine. I had my breakfast in my hotel and took the minibus to the hospital. I did whatever work needed to be done, which wasn't much, and spent the rest of the time with Dr Ali who would show me any interesting material from his specialty which was Histopathology. He had a tremendous sense of humour and listening to his real life experiences was a treat in itself. He would take me to his house which was in the hospital grounds for lunch frequently. His wife was very hospitable and his daughters were brilliant. I enjoyed their company a lot. In the evening I would return to my hotel and usually have dinner in the rather posh restaurant there. An Iraqi American Oncologist also regularly ate there. The rest of my colleagues used to go across the road to a good but much cheaper place and saved half of their daily food allowance. Sometimes I would join them for a change.
Once Jimmy - the cardiologist from Scotland - was invited to dinner by a prince. He had treated his mother and the prince wanted to show his appreciation. Jimmy told the prince that he had already agreed to go out with six of his friends to a popular restaurant. The prince asked him to bring all the friends along too. "Eating in the palace is not all that exciting. We will have dinner out in the desert. My nephew will pick all of you up at seven from your hotel." His nephew, an air force officer, came on time and drove us a few kilometres out of the city into the desert. We saw three tents pitched in the wilderness, brightly lit with an electric generator humming in the background. The prince and his uncle welcomed us. They did not speak English but the captain acted as an interpreter. As soon as the preliminaries were over, in came the drinks, bottles of Johnnie Walker whisky, much to my surprise and my friends' delight. When the prince got to know that I was a practicing Muslim, he was very apologetic. I was happy with my Pepsi cola but he kept apologizing time after time. He introduced his uncle by saying that he drank like a fish. The dinner will be served whenever we were ready. My friends had not seen a drop of alcohol for three weeks, so they were not keen to rush the dinner. I was enjoying myself because I could still remember some of the colloquial Arabic which I had picked up in the sixties and could almost hold a conversation with the prince and his uncle. At one stage, finding that the prince was an amiable chap, I teased him a bit. I said that I had heard that there was dire punishment in the kingdom for drinking. "Yes, you are right Mansur. It is so. It is so. But so long as the king does not get to know, you are all right, you know."
When a few hours had flown by, Jimmy leant toward me and asked me where the toilet was. His bladder was bursting. I took him outside the tent and with a theatrical sweep of the hand pointed towards the whole desert and said, "It's all yours Jimmy. Please yourself wherever you want". And I came back in. When Jimmy hadn't returned after a while, I went out to investigate and found Jimmy squatting at a distance, head in hands. When I approached him he said, "I hadn't seen a wee drop for ages but now I think that I have overdone it." I brought him back in and we decided to eat. The prince beckoned someone with a gesture and miraculously piping hot food came within a minute. It was almost midnight and I was famished and enjoyed a sumptuous meal.
When we were driven back to the hotel we realized that we had a problem. Jimmy was literally legless. We had to get him from the car to the lift in the lobby without being observed by bystanders because some Saudis took great delight in reporting the tipsy foreigners to the religious police. We acted like the characters in a carry on film. One of us went to the lobby and when he signalled that the coast was clear, two of us propped Jimmy up and 'walked' him to the lift. We took him to his room, dropped him on his bed and went to our rooms to catch some sleep. It took him a while to recover fully the next day.
My days became brighter because of Ashraf Ali's company. His knowledge of all disciplines of Pathology was amazing and I learnt a lot from him. I enjoyed the hospitality of his wife and the youthful exuberance of his daughters. We became good friends and would meet often later on in UK, USA and Pakistan. There are so many lovely people in this world. It is our good fortune if circumstances put us in contact with some of them. And I have been very fortunate in this respect.
Psychologists have pointed out that when we recall past events, memory can play tricks on us. We can remember
the pleasant experiences without any difficulty but subconsciously suppress the distasteful ones. This is quite
true in case of my present account which, as it stands, seems a plain sailing through life without any failures or many
regrets. It is this almost wilful lack of memory recall which has given a bad name to autobiographies, prompting
some to suggest that they should be filed under 'fiction'. Here is my attempt to make amends.
I have failed in formal examinations twice in my life. I flunked my first year examination in the medical college. My excuse was that I was suffering from tonsillitis with high fever during the examination and was not at my best. I had never failed an examination before and it hurt. It was made worse by the fact that my father did not chastise me but encouraged me to put the failure behind me and prepare myself for the future challenges with greater zest. I passed all my professional examinations with ease till I decided to take my final MRCPath examination early when very little was known about the expectations of the examiners as the examination was in its infancy. I failed and would have been downhearted but my consultant encouraged me by telling me that the feedback that he had received indicated that I had missed getting through the examination by a whisker. Whether it was a fact or his way of encouraging me, I do not know. I sat the examination again after three months and was successful. Those two failures made me realize that success is not a guaranteed commodity and failure can spur one on to a greater effort and better chances of success.
"Regrets I have had a few, but again too few to mention" wrote Paul Anka in the song 'My Way' made famous by Frank Sinatra's vocals. I would be singing that from my heart if only I had a singing voice. It is pointless having regrets about a few silly things that all youngsters do due to ignorance and inexperience. Even the high spirited mildly actionable misdeeds of the youth are not to be regretted. However I do regret not learning to play properly a musical instrument and not learning Persian to a level where I could enjoy Hafiz, Rumi and other favourite poets in their native language. I regret that I was not able to spend more time with my father-in-law, Dr Ghulam Jeelani Barque, who was a hero from my younger days. I also regret not having made a positive effort to get to know well some other people who fascinated me. I will mention just two of them.
I was one of the first medically qualified doctors in our family, not the first as some of my loving relatives believe. In my younger days I had often heard about a first cousin of mine, a highly qualified and greatly respected gynaecologist (a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons as well as the Royal College of Gynaecologists & Obstetricians), who had become a recluse in his later life. It seemed strange to me that a gifted person like him should choose to cut off his ties with the family and start living like a hermit. During my days as a medical student I became aware that the only respectable medical journal to be published in Pakistan was owned, edited and published by this remarkable man with the help of an international editorial board. I remember debating in my mind whether I should tell him of our relationship when I decided to subscribe to 'Medicus' shortly after I had qualified as a doctor. I decided not to, on the grounds that it might be taken as an indirect plea for a free subscription. In retrospect I think that it was a mistake on my part. I really regret not making an effort to establish contact with him at that time. Later I got to know that he was my paternal uncle's son who mostly lived away from home during his young days as his step mother did not treat him very well. His own marriage ended in divorce. His older son became estranged but came to see him shortly before he passed away. He also came out of his self imposed seclusion to visit his sister Aqeela Khatoon and the family in Islamabad shortly before he died. A brilliant Gynaecologist, an innovative publisher and editor, he also wrote a romantic novel titled 'A Sin Against Love'. I wish that I had met my talented cousin.
Another cousin, my elder phupho's son Ehsan-ul-Haq, was six years older than me and was two years ahead of me in Nishtar Medical College having started his medical studies as a mature student after obtaining a master's degree in Botany. He was very pleasant and helpful and guided me admirably during my first year in the medical college. His help was particularly important to me because it was my first experience of living away from home. We got on very well but slowly drifted apart because of our different take on life in general and religion in particular. We lived in different halls of residence but as a younger cousin I dutifully visited him from time to time and he was always very pleasant to me. However, when I went home after passing my first professional examination, a surprise awaited me.
I had been home a few days when my father handed me an old letter and asked me to read it because I was mentioned in the letter. Puzzled, I opened the letter. It was from my cousin bhaijan Abdul Qadir who was studying in England at that time. In it he had warned my father that he had learnt from Ehsan that I had started to keep very bad company in the college and it did not bode well for my future. He advised him to take some firm action. I was livid. I fired off an impromptu speech in defence of my friends. All of them came from respectable families, were well mannered and talented and held the highest moral and ethical values. The only thing that my cousin could hold against some of them was that they were not Sunni Muslims of his type. One was a Shiite, another two Ahmadis and one Christian. The rest were Sunnis. All of them had done well in the exams. I had passed the exam with something to spare: I held 38th position out of one hundred and ten students. Was that worth a reprimand? At any rate, he was so much older than me. Why could he not tell me what he felt directly?
My father smiled and said, "Look at the date on the letter. I received it a few weeks ago. If I did not have confidence in you, I would have raised it with you earlier. But you should know what others are thinking about you. Don't hold it against him. He is only trying to help you though you may not like his method. If you keep getting good results, he will have to change his opinion."
I did not tell Ehsan about the letter. I kept in touch with him and popped in to say hello whenever I was passing by. Once he sat brooding over a piece of cloth and when I asked why he was examining it so closely, he gave an explanation which amused me. He said that he had bought a certain length of suiting material for a three piece suit but was wondering now whether it would be enough for an 'achken' (Jinnah or Nehru Jacket). "Why so?", I asked.
"Because Pir Sahib has told me that wearing a tie is 'haram' (religiously forbidden)", he said.
"Why so?", I asked.
"It is obvious when you think about it. When you tie the knot you have to make the sign of a cross, though it had never occurred to me till Pir Sahib pointed it out to me. That Christian sign is 'haram' for a Muslim. It is not appropriate to wear a three piece suit without a tie. So why tailor a suit? The obvious alternative is to have an 'achken'."
I left him to his conundrum after exchanging a few pleasantries. He was wearing an elegant 'achken' the next time I saw him.
Time flew by and we stayed on good terms. One day when he was in the final year a mutual friend told me that Ehsan had got married. When I professed ignorance, he gave me a detailed story which intrigued me.
"You know that Ehsan has a Pir in Multan. He went on a routine visit to him and Pir Sahib said, 'Ehsan, it is time that you should get married.'
'Me? Get married? To whom?' asked Ehsan, puzzled.
'To my daughter', replied Pir Sahib, cool as a cucumber. So Ehsan has got married."
Whether the story was true, I do not know to this day. But what is definite is that Ehsan had got married to the daughter of his spiritual guide. And so far as I know, it was a happy marriage. Ehsan started general practice after graduating from Nishtar Medical College and was unfortunately killed in a road traffic accident some years later. I did not have an opportunity to see him after his graduation. A fellow professional with a keen sense of humour, I wish that I had made a greater effort to get to know him better.
"Life begins at forty" is usually quoted to reassure those at the brink of middle age that all is not lost. In my case it
seemed quite apt. I had finished my
formal education (general education will continue all my life), I threw myself wholeheartedly into organizing a new department
at the new Freeman Hospital to my
own taste and vision, Nubeel and Aamer were making good progress at school and Farah had just started school. Yasman had joined the Open
University and started working for an honours degree in Social Sciences. The future
looked bright. The new phase of our settled life had begun.
We started to look for a bigger house within a reasonable distance of the hospital and good schools for the children. Initially I went alone to have a look at any house which appealed to me on paper. If I liked it, I would take Yasman with me to get her approval. On the first dozen occasions or so, she promptly dismissed as unsuitable houses which seemed quite attractive to me. I was puzzled. So I sat down with her and we discussed again in detail what we were looking for. I had been barking up the wrong tree. I had been looking for a house in a quiet area. She wanted to live in a lively environment. Then we found a house which suited both of us. It was in a quiet cul-de-sac but standing in the kitchen at the back of the house you could see (and hear) the traffic whizzing past on the road beyond our largish back garden. It was only a mile away from my hospital, both primary and secondary schools were at a walking distance and so were the local shops. The beautiful Jesmond Dene - a lovely natural park - was only a few yards away. I could walk to the city centre in half an hour or get there in five minutes by bus or car. This time we had enough money to furnish the house properly. I did learn DIY skills and came to love gardening. It was a quiet friendly neighbourhood and we came to love it. We are still living in the same house forty years later and counting.
In 2018 when I wrote this account of the first forty years of my life, I had reached the grand old age of eighty.
It seems reasonable to complete the picture by giving a glimpse of what the second half of my life had in store for me.
In 1977, the ship of my life had entered becalmed waters and was happily cruising along but eight years later, unexpectedly and without warning, it hit the rocks with a bang. I had a massive heart attack. I recovered from it and from the subsequent open-heart surgery which was the vogue at that time. I went back to full time work which I managed perfectly well for another five years when my Cardiologist advised me to apply for early retirement on grounds of ill-health. It was approved without any fuss. So, in 1990 yet another phase of my life began.
I was told that the average survival after open-heart surgery was seven years. After some painful brooding, I got reconciled to my prognosis and decided to make the best of my remaining life. God blessed me with a much longer life than had been predicted and mercifully it turned out to be of very good quality, partly because that most intimate, enjoyable and occasionally trying relationship called marriage endured and Yasman and I celebrated our Golden Wedding Anniversary four years ago.
My financial situation remained under control and these bonus years became extremely enjoyable for a number of reasons, the most outstanding one being our ability to meet at leisure our dear relatives and friends, particularly ones with whom I had the good fortune of sharing part of my childhood and youth. We started to visit Pakistan and USA on a yearly basis and loved it. Exploring these countries in the company of my loved ones, at complete leisure, was heaven!
In order to fulfill my long-standing ambition to study art properly, I joined the Open University as an undergraduate and fell under its spell. It was a new experience for me to study a subject thoroughly without caring about the outcome of examinations. Reading became a pleasure and the fact that I did get excellent grades in examinations remained a side-issue. I also learnt basic Persian which opened up the wonderful world of Rumi, Hafez and Saadi to me. I had the time and energy to hike in the Lake District and locally in Northumberland.
A new vibrant and talented generation of our family grew up, giving me the opportunity to spend a lot of quality time in the exciting company of my younger cousins, nephews, nieces and our own children. All three of our children - Nubeel, Aamer and Farah - graduated, got excellent jobs, got married, had children and gave us the ultimate joy of being grandparents to six of the most wonderful children in the world. Writing about all these pleasures will have to wait for another day. Suffice to say that there is no greater pleasure in life than being in the company of one's loved ones, in a place of outstanding natural beauty, with wise words of old sages like Hafez, Iqbal and Browning ringing in your ears and your grandchildren frolicking around you. I have been the recipient of all these delights and am thankful to God for blessing me so.