In Celebration, a Tribute
By Mohsin Hafeez
The first of a series of memories that my father, Sheikh Mohammad Hafeez had of his childhood, was the jingling sound of anklets, coming from an audible distance, and fading as the night aged, yielding to the promise of another day. Given he was born in the latter part of the year 1911, this would probably be around the mid to late teens of the century, shall we say about 94 or 95 years ago. That is the era of World War I, specifically around the time the trench warfare was continuing with intense ferocity, inflicting heavy casualties on the British and the French.
Restless with the noise, just as the greater European world was with imperialism from the better known powers of the continent, my father would find it difficult to relax with the boyhood curiosity getting the better of him. His sister, our beloved aunt, who was about seven years older than he, would pacify him and urge him to fall back asleep. He would hear what he was told, and what our aunt would tell him was what she was conditioned to relay. Eager and inquisitive, one night, as he awoke, he decided to trace the melody of the distant song. He didn’t have to go far; across from his family portion of the haveli the Sheikhs inhabited, my father could hear the music and the song, as an accompaniment to the rhythmic movement of a human body transpiring in a silhouette, a lot more clearly. Another memory that he talked about, and with considerable endearment, as opposed to regret and resentment as in the previous case, was the birth of his loving brother, our beloved Chacha, who came along around seven years after his own birth. Again, it was our aunt, whom we all affectionately called Ammi Bu, who broke the news, this time unadulterated.
My father and his cousin, Uncle Hafeez Hoshiarpuri, the eminent Urdu poet of the subcontinent, who later went on to head Radio Pakistan as its Director, and whose verse would constitute the epitaph for Papa’s tomb, started their schooling on the same day, walked to their institution by their uncle, Sheikh Ghulam Sirajuddin. It’s a little hazy how the years went by from that point on, and I would imagine it had to do with Papa’s selective retention. I do remember his fondly mentioning the sporadic stays at his sister and brother-in-law’s home during college, and recollecting the influence of his brother-in-law, Dr. Sharif-ul-Hasan, whom we all lovingly called Abba Taya, on his life. He did what he had to do: go to school, complete his homework, do well in his exam, and then move on to the next grade/class, all in pursuit of eventually going to England for a degree in Engineering. It was this focus that got him through junior college. He gave it all he had.
Now it was his time to make that long journey and sail on the great waves to another land, one that he had been dreaming of, and to pursue his passion of, from what I remember, mechanical engineering. Again, at his own initiative, he applied to various universities there and decided it would be best to make Manchester his new, temporary home. In the meantime, the song and dance at the haveli had died down. Sad, but it had gone dead involuntarily. The lack of discipline in any one’s life comes through at some point or the other, as it’s all about redemption. Tempting fate is hardly a good idea, and my father’s ancestors lost perspective, and what followed did not just affect them but also generations to come. My dearest father, with his eyes beaming at the prospect of another world experience, was soon to be disillusioned. He was told to register back in a college in Lahore as the Sheikh estate had dwindled to a point where they could not afford his tuition and board in England. He registered in the prestigious Islamia College, Lahore, for a double degree in Science and English Literature. The impact of not having been able to realize his dream of an engineering degree from a school of his choice in England made him distraught, and he fell ill and had to be hospitalized. The emotions would be running high in his mind as, in utter dejection, he wrote a poem ‘Hope and Fear.’
The peak of hedonism that the Sheikh brothers had somehow inculcated in their lives was hard to comprehend, especially given that it was Papa’s grandfather, Sheikh Ghulam Nizamuddin, who had retired as the first Indian Muslim Superintendent of Police in the late 1890s, and who should have been their role model. His sense of diligence, along with an orientation to consolidate means for the family, was unflinching and without doubt.
In the meantime, my grandfather, Sheikh Ghulam Naseeruddin, had the good sense to focus on his career with the Police and traveled with the department to Hyderabad Deccan. Because of his palate, and his specificity in this regard, his cook always accompanied him. My father and family would visit with him periodically but he stayed on till his retirement upon which he returned, and passed on a few years thereafter around the end of 1948, possibly in his mid to late sixties.
Fast forward to the early 60s. Peshawar. I was six months old when Papa was transferred here. All I remember is going to see the PAF pilots doing their acrobats, a few years hence. I also remember my father driving his jeep himself through the rugged terrain of the North. He didn’t enjoy it. He did it for the family, for their vacation, and so he loved it all the same. In the meantime, still feeling his own sense of disappointment of about a quarter of a century or so ago, he ensured my brother’s passage to the UK to get schooled in engineering. After we moved to Karachi in 1965, my father had another five years in the Army before he retired honorably and then ran the Land & Estates Department of KDA till 1979. Between the transfer to Karachi and his eventual retirement from active work life, he had sent another son abroad and built his homes in Phase V of Defense Society where both he and our mother would live till the end in one of them.
Being the youngest of seven siblings, including three brothers and four lovely sisters, and an after-thought or, at best, a surprise, it wasn’t until the early 80s that I got shipped off to the US. He had clear expectations of me: to complete the degree and return. Barring a year after my MBA, I did exactly that. I do feel truly blessed that I had the opportunity to spend the several years I did with him there. Even after I returned to the US about 14 years ago, we still retained that special connection. He would call me, sometime, especially toward the later years, at odd hours, and then profusely apologize for the inconvenience. Other times, he would just leave a message. I have many of them on my machine and have no intention to delete any, even though I am not sure when I’d muster enough courage to play them now.
Given the early adversity in life, Papa’s life is a story of resilience and unity of purpose. It’s a story of pragmatism and compassion, of love and integrity, of simplicity and humility. His life was a set of choices he made independent of others, especially of his ancestors, of whom he spoke with familial fondness, yet candor and, at times, subtle disillusionment, as if laying it out for us as an admonishment. He led his life, all 100 years of it, on his own terms, and went on his own terms as well. He was non-judgmental in style, both of others’ behaviors and orientations. In all of my years of conscious life, I do not ever remember Papa putting himself first for anything. It was always the family first, and he found ways against all odds to get things done. Apart from arthritis, he had nearly perfect health and was, thus, not dependent on anyone. He managed his own finances till January of this year, and balanced his books to the T.
Sitting in New York at a conference, when I got the message of Papa’s illness and his sudden admittance to the ICU in Karachi, the light went out of my life. This was February, and we had just celebrated his 100 th birthday together a few months ago. From what I could sense, he was not doing well, either physiologically or emotionally. I shuddered. I would wake up in the middle of the night, dreading the worst: what would I be like if something were to happen to Papa? To me, he was my superman. He was this invincible character, having not just survived but effectively surmounted all that life had dealt him in his early years. He could pull through anything, what to speak of a pacemaker situation for his heart. It would be a piece of cake. It almost created a sense of immortality about him that one wishes for one’s parents, as autistic as it may sound. One should have thought of immortality, I guess, in a greater sense, of taking a bit of theirs and making it yours, and letting them take a bit of yours and making it theirs, rendering the two inextricably intermingled, thus metaphorically immortal. I guess I wasn’t thinking, or thinking deep or hard enough, or empathetically enough. I should have put myself in his shoes and tried to see the world through his eyes. He had decided he was done with it. He had played his inning, and literally scored a century, with no blemishes at all. He had stayed as the institution of the family, of the greater family, for a long time now. He had played as a role model not just to his children but also to anyone whose lives he somehow managed to touch, even ever so briefly. He had decided it was his time. Being his loving children, we wouldn’t have any of it. He would ask to let go, as his doctor also related to me after his passing. We would look the other way. He didn’t want to fight but, in true spirit of himself, he fought it for us, so we were not disappointed, and fought it for five months from the time he fell ill, and against his desire and will. That wasn’t unfamiliar to him. He did it for his kids throughout his life, but he found this one to be the toughest. His broken body could take only so much, and his face never lied, even though, out of sheer graciousness, it tried. Out of the gushing outpouring of love for him, his children ignored all this and he continued till he could.
July 14 th was coming near, and Papa’s condition was less than satisfactory. I was always wary of this date as our grandmother, Papa’s mom, whom we called Bibi, had passed away the same day exactly 35 years ago in 1977. When the news wasn’t good at all, I decided in the middle of the night to fly out to be with him. I reached in the early hours of July 12 th, and could only see him indicate to the caregiver that he had registered my presence. Thereafter, he went into his own world, just breathing via the oxygen mask. That continued for about two days, and then I found myself exactly in the position I was over 18 years ago at a hospital in Karachi, kneeling by my mother’s feet during her last few moments. This time it happened to be by Papa’s side and by his feet, holding them. I could see the breathing getting shallower, and the oxygen mask moving a little more rapidly. I knew we were getting very close to giving in to his will. While at Ami’s (my mother’s) side , I was asking her to not go gentle into that good night and to rage, rage against the dying of the light (in the words of the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, for his dying dad in 1951), I felt it disingenuous to repeat this while seeing Papa pass through so peacefully. It was his time, and he had taken the day of his mother’s passing, granting my premonition validity. It was 7:05 pm, and while I felt privileged to be present at the time, the world and life had changed for me forever!
Uncle Hafeez Hoshiarpuri’s verse on Papa’s tomb:
Nazar se door mUsalsal nazar meN rehti hai,
Bohat dinoN se jo sooret nazar naheeN aaee.
(The author of this piece is an MBA and a CFP® and works for a large international financial services firm in the San Francisco Bay Area; in addition, he is an adjunct faculty at UC Berkeley and Golden Gate University, San Francisco, CA)
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