“Do You Also Write Poetry?”
By Moneeza Hashmi
“Do you also write poetry?”I cannot recall the numbers of times I have been asked this question. My response has varied depending on my mood swings, the expression on the face of the person who was asking this rather silly question, and lastly my own age at the time.
Over the years my responses have changed from being awfully apologetic (at not being able to write poetry) to a simple shake of the head to a secret smirk (as if to suggest that I did write poetry but was not going to tell any one about it), to a rather blank expression indicating, “Do you think I could write poetry?”.
On a more serious note my father for me was never really actually a poet. He was Abu. A gentle, quiet, immensely content with his lot, calm, sweet smelling person. I mention sweet smelling in particular because there was never an occasion which I can recall his being disheveled or untidy or unshaven. He would step out of his bedroom after a night’s sleep wearing his house coat over his pajamas but smelling of fresh soap, hair combed, eyes twinkling, looking for his morning ”cuppa” and a newspaper. Alert. Alive. Content.
But that was all later when I was married and we all were living in the same compound.
He was not there when I was a kid nor when I was growing up nor when I was facing the most challenging times in my professional life nor now as I face the twilight of my life and miss him the most. His warmth. His wisdom. His calmness. His all embracing tolerance. His explanations of this mad world we are all living in at present.
My childhood was a lonely one. I don’t clearly remember Abu being arrested but somewhere in the back of my mind are loud sounds as I am awakened from deep sleep. There is also the image of my mother screaming her frustration, men tramping in and out of the room, Abu asking my mother to stay calm, my sister Cheemie and myself huddled in the back ground watching, a suitcase being packed, cars driving away, sounds of my mother sobbing, and then silence.
The reality of all of this never really hit me until one day in school a class mate asked me where my father was. I answered proudly, “In jail”. I was hardly five at the time and my response was to dare her to top that statement with one about her dad!
My first day at Kinnaird High School on Empress Road stands out clearly in my mind today even after 57 odd years. My mother escorted and deposited me outside the office. Cheemie was already studying there. It was a mission school run by British missionaries who were later to have a profound impact on my personal and professional life. Their sense of discipline, honesty, commitment, hard work and straight forwardness are deeply ingrained in me still. I am hugely indebted to them even today for instilling some of those values in me and which I hope I have managed to pass to my own brood.
As I walked into the KG class that morning I was handed over to Miss Benjamin. It was a bright and sunny morning but I shivered from nervousness. I was given a slate and told to write the English alphabet. ”Ooh. Easy,” I thought and started to write. I remember the teacher looking at me in horror. It was not my writing she was objecting to but my left hand which began the activity. Until that morning I had no idea that I was such a freak! She yelled something in total gibberish to me and snatched the slate from my hand. She then picked up a cloth duster of sorts and tied, yes, literally tied my left hand behind my back and demanded I write with my right hand. Tears rolled down my face. I felt totally helpless and isolated. She forgot about me soon after and I cried for most of the morning while trying to release my left hand from its prison to no success. I don’t remember coming home or who opened my “restrictive” binding but the next morning I flat refused to go to school. Mama coaxed me to tell her what happened. We were in school later that morning with Mama telling Miss Nixon off for this inhuman and cruel treatment meted out to her kid. She berated her for her ignorance and forced her to apologize. I was shown into class looking sheepish. Miss Benjamin and I later became good friends when I excelled in Math.
My early years are a total chaos of memory. School was OK. We reached it on a tonga every day, later I progressed to a cycle riding on the front bar. I was tomboy of sorts. I was never athletic or sporty but loved playing in the evening with the servants’ kids from the quarter. I learned to speak Punjabi there. I learnt to appreciate saag and roti with them. I learnt to love them as much as I loved my own family.
All this time Abu was absent. Mama would cycle to office every day with her lunch in a tiffen carrier made caringly by Baray Main as we called him, a wizened old man who stayed with us for just about forever. He was our protector, our nurse, our governess, our maid. He was our family. In those days there was never ever even a mention of a man looking after two young girls. I don’t think the subject ever came up. He was there when we got home from school to give us our snacks and food until Mama came later in the evening. He was there before we went to school to make us breakfast. He was there to wash and iron our uniforms until we progressed to do the task ourselves. I remember Mama sitting with him every evening doing the day’s hisaab and having arguments about the expenses and rising prices. She looked so tired after a long day at the office, cycling all the way to and from Empress Road down to her office in Pakistan Times opposite Mayo Hospital. She would complain about the heat and dust most days, sometimes about the traffic. Abu’s youngest sister Aunty Bali who was the closest to him of all his half sisters (he did not have any real sisters) moved in with us later when it came home to all of us that he was not coming home soon. She was a school teacher and therefore took over our school tasks as well as other household responsibilities. She and my mother grew very close during those trying years. A friendship that lasted until Aunty Bali’s death six years ago. She called Mama “Bhabi” and loved her as dearly as she would have her own sister which she did not have. Our upbringing and security became her mission in life until her brother came back. She was my mentor, teacher, guide and advisor and I owe her more than I would care to admit.
I don’t recall asking any one where Abu had gone or when would he be back. I am sure I must have questioned Mama and Aunty Bali and probably been given a benign answer that satisfied me to continue as before but I do remember long train rides in the lowest grade compartments to visit him in jail. When he was shifted to Hyderabad jail we would journey for more that 24 hours to get to Karachi first. After that a car ride to Hyderabad where we stayed in a rest house the night before. I recall Mama’s nervousness the night before. She was never sure if the permission for our visit the next day would hold good. It had happened once or twice earlier and her disappointment, her anger, her frustration and finally her tears had not changed anything. We had come back quiet, silent, despondent without seeing Abu. I failing to understand what had happened would pester Mama with endless questions why I had not seen Abu until she would tell me harshly to stop my chatter. My crying, her remorse, the journey home feeling unfulfilled, empty, the waiting would begin again.
But the times when we did manage to get through were good. We would wait in an anti room. I was the restless soul, moving around in my chair, asking when would he come a hundred times over, Mama would be filling in forms or signing registers or handing over letters of permission patiently. Our gifts for him would be examined and reexamined, simple home cooked favorites, cigarettes, books, letters from friends, toiletries, stuff like that. Doors clanging somewhere. Loud voices yelling out commands, anticipation growing with each passing moment, me squirming in my chair some more, Cheemie sitting silently watching. In winter the room would be as cold as a tomb. In summer boiling hot as the fan whirled. And then he would walk through the open door. Always smiling. Always smelling sweet. Always eyes sparkling. Always hopeful.
Our first hugs over he and Mama would sit close and talk. I would usually try to get on to his lap but as I grew older just prance around him to feel his closeness, always being told off by Mama to sit down. If the person in authority was in a good mood I would be allowed to go inside the jail and play in the compound outside his cell. His other jail mates, all “fellow conspirators” who I grew up to love and respect, would talk to me. Major Ishaq, Mohammad Hussein Ata, Zafar ullah Poshni, Maj.General Akbar Khan, Naseem Akbar, Col. Lateef, Janjua, the list goes on. Many now deceased but young, handsome and so alive still in my memory.
Then there was Abu’s “mushaqati” or prisoner on loan who was the cook, valet, personal assistant, whatever. He would have cooked nice food mainly different from what we were used to, the taste I mean. I would keep myself busy in the courtyard. It had a small flower patch I recall with roses growing. Abu was very fond of roses. Someone would come to fetch us and then it would be time for good byes. Mama would put on a brave face and say a few uncharitable words about this whole scenario as she left. Her quiet sobs in the middle of the night would awaken me at times. She was one hell of a brave lady. Giving up her country, her religion, her culture, her language, her family, her world to be with the man she loved. And at what cost.
She and I had differences all our lives .We never saw eye to eye about almost every thing but one thing I have always respected her for was her resilience and her unshakable trust in Abu. She was the rock behind him. She was his anchor, his support, his home-maker, his “one-man army” defending him at all frontiers and willing to go all the way wherever it might lead. She fought lean times, social boycotts, separation from her family, dark moments of despair when there was no news of him in the early days of detention, uncertain tomorrows, repeated inconclusive visits to lawyers but she never let on. Her head was always high. Her back straight. Her mission crystal clear. Her husband was innocent and she would fight on until she could prove that to the world.
There were of course moments of weakness when she broke down. One such occasion was the when she received the news of her father’s death. Her British passport had been revoked. She applied for permission to leave Pakistan to visit him which was denied. When she received news of his death she wept uncontrollably. She must have felt terribly alone at that time.
Another time was when she went to Montgomery (Sahiwal) jail with Abu’s release orders, full of joy and hope. He did come out of the main door, was served another detention order and went back again. She railed and ranted to no avail and cried all through that long night. That is why when we received yet another release order she refused to go. We waited all that evening and finally went to bed. Late that night I woke up to a commotion next door. I walked into the drawing room and there he was. Smiling his mischievous smile. Eyes sparkling. Cigarette in hand he could not have been more at home. The room was full of friends, press, photographers. There were garlands every where. I wound one around my head and it became my favorite photograph with him even though I do look a bit stunned!
Abu was home. A new life was about to begin.
And just for the record, I do not write poetry. Who could ever measure up to him?