My Father: The Aligarh Man
By Dr Asif Javed
As I look back at my father’s life, a few things stand out: he worked with a clock-like precision and was organized to a fault. I suspect he had developed this trait in his student days at Aligarh. He was an early riser, would go to mosque for prayer and would then proceed to morning walk. He did office work for an hour or so before leaving for court; he was a lawyer. In the afternoon, he took a nap and on most days, played tennis followed by office work. Evening prayer was also in the mosque. By 10 PM, he was ready to sleep.
Father could be a hard taskmaster: I recall his dictations to his clerks at breakneck speed; heavens only know how the poor guys managed to keep pace with him. Later in life, he behaved impatiently at times; this is a trait he shared with those who value time and covet efficiency. He was a man of a few words and grew restless when forced to hear long winded stories from his legal clients. One of his junior lawyers once told me that in court, Father’s legal arguments were concise and to the point. He was an avid reader but in later years limited his reading to law journals and religious texts.
Father was a well-dressed man but not fussy about it: his court dress was white shirt and trouser, black coat and black tie. In Zia’s time, when local dress was allowed in court, he switched to white shalwar and shirt. The only constant was his Jinnah cap, although in young age he wore a Turkish fez cap that was a legacy of his Aligarh days. In social gatherings, he wore a sherwani, while at home he wore the traditional Punjabi kurta with tehmad. He had a pleasant easy going personality, was of medium height, had a fair complexion and blue eyes.
Father was old fashioned in some ways: he was punctual but did not wear a wrist watch. In his youth, he used a pocket watch but later depended on the wall clock that needed weekly tune-ups. He owned a car, but did not learn driving. Only grudgingly did he allow the telephone in the house. He valued education--I distinctly remember his desire to see at least one of his children go to the Government College. And yet, two of our sisters did not go to college and were married off after finishing high school.
Although, he never entered politics, he had strong political views. I recall a heated discussion between two groups on a train before the 1970 elections. Father was asked about his opinion of Bhutto; he offered his, in crisp English. I do not remember his arguments, except one, that ZAB, despite his talent, was hungry for power and was untrustworthy. The fact is that father liked Ayub. Once, he returned from his morning walk, visibly excited, and said, “Ayub has passed through our town this morning in Chanab Express!”
He was unhappy the way Ayub had been ousted in 1969. For a few years after Ayub’s fall, he expected his comeback. When lawyers came out on the streets in 1977 following rigged elections, he was in the lead. Father’s immense dislike for ZAB, by default, led to his good opinion of Zia. He did not live to see the later part of Zia’s era, the lies, deceptions and all; otherwise, he might have changed his opinion about him. In 1973, when the anti-Ahmadya movement began, he was one of its leaders in our town. Father was not a religious fanatic, but on that occasion, joined in a cause that he strongly believed in. Little did he realize that the menace of sectarianism was being unleashed with that movement.
Father usually stayed away from the petty village politics, except once: a vagabond tried to rape a woman from a poor peasant family. Father took up that case and used his legal skills--and personal plea--to the presiding magistrate to get the accused behind bars.
Father was born in a rural area in a traditional Jat family and was one of the largest landowners in the village. And yet, he was loath to use the title of Chaudhry with his name; nor did he ever write his caste (Gondal) with his name; it was plain and simple, Mohammad Mirza Khan, Advocate. He had graduated from Aligarh, but did not write Alig with his name. In a society where people are desperate to publicize their qualifications and pedigrees, he was an aberration.
Father was a practicing Muslim and had great faith in Allah. Little did he realize that his faith was to undergo a supreme test. It came in 1981. Father was then in his mid-seventies, still in full time legal practice. Our elder brother, Brig. Safdar, then posted at Peshawar, died suddenly. The news was conveyed to our elderly parents at midnight. Having heard that his favorite son, the apple of his eyes, was no more, father bore indescribable pain with a fortitude that surprised many. On that fateful day, no one saw him cry or shed a tear. While awaiting his son’s dead body, he did not forget his prayer. His unshakable faith in Allah served him well that day. A few weeks later, our bereaved mother asked him, “Why do you not show any emotion?” “My heart bleeds for Safdar”. He replied, “But remember, Allah gave him to us and He took him away.”
In financial matters, father was upright: In 1975, I joined a medical college, having done well in FSc and having secured—at least I thought—a merit scholarship for five years. It turned out that father’s income, reported accurately, had made me ineligible. I was aghast. Aware that many of my fellow students from wealthier families had qualified for the scholarship (having not declared the actual income), I approached a clerk in the Punjab University. That was no problem, the clerk said. All I needed was a statement from the Tehsildar that father’s income was less than stated in the original form. I was relieved. Father was the senior lawyer in town, knew everybody, could surely manage that. It was evening when I reached home from Lahore. He was working in the office with his clerk. As I broached the subject, he gave me a hard look, and asked, “How much money do you need in a month?” I was taken aback and said five hundred. “I will let you have up to one thousand but do not expect me to lie for this.” That was it. It took me a long time to overcome the frustration of having lost my scholarship. Forty years later as I look back, I admire his honesty.
Father was a great bedtime story teller. It had started with his first child and the tradition continued through to me. Being the youngest, I received more than my fair share of the bedtime entertainment that also included a gentle stroking of the skin that I greatly enjoyed. Alas, as Shafiq-ur-Rehman once wrote, I outgrew my childhood and it stopped.
He had many admirers and acquaintances but a limited number of close friends. His busy and disciplined lifestyle left little time for social gatherings. He travelled abroad only once – to perform Hajj. Visiting our village on the weekend was his greatest delight. During summer vacation, he often visited his eldest son, an army officer, at Rawalpindi. In his younger days, he had been to Delhi and Agra. Father would sometime visit Lahore and stay in the Delhi Muslim Hotel in Anarkali. A few years ago, I was disappointed to see this famous Lahore hotel, once frequented by the Muslim middle-class, in a dilapidated state.
Father had the opportunity to meet Allama Iqbal once. Accompanied by his maternal uncle, he approached Iqbal to seek the great man’s help for a school that they wanted to build in our village. Iqbal did not disappoint them and wrote a letter to the Nawab of Bhopal in support of the project. The Nawab gave a donation as did many others. A beautiful multi-story high school was built, on a piece of land donated exclusively by father. The school continues to function to this day, having become a beacon of light in a backward and relatively remote area of Punjab. Father rarely spoke about his donation--and many other acts of generosity. He was not that kind of a man; the curse of self-glorification had not touched him.
There was a portrait of Quaid-i-Azam that embellished our drawing room. The Quaid was his hero. In the 1945 elections, father supported the Muslim League candidate against a Unionist whom he had known personally. I also recall a comment that he once made about Gandhi’s “mumbled speech”. Only rarely did he speak of his Aligarh days. Once, however, he made a comment about Sir Ross Masood , Sir Syed’s grandson, and presumably, Aligarh Muslim University’s Vice Chancellor during father’s student days. I knew nothing of Ross Masood back then, did not pay much attention, and decades later, regret having not asked him about the details.
Back in the 70’s, father wrote a letter of congratulations to Ch. Ahsan Alig, an old classmate of his from Aligarh, whose young son had been made a minister in the PPP govt. The young politician who was highly educated, eloquent, intelligent - having topped the CSS examination in Pakistan - had the making of a man whose star was on the rise and who appeared destined to do great things for Pakistan.
Now fast forward to 2015. Father and Ahsan Alig are long gone. As far the politician, he has been part of the most corrupt regimes in the history of our country--many times over. That is how low we have fallen.
He received an unusual respect from his children. He was not loud or harsh but had somehow mastered the art of leading by example, persuasion and polite reminders. Our eldest brother used to smoke but avoided it in his presence. We had a radio and were fond of music and occasionally, in excitement, would raise the volume, but never so in his presence. We were allowed to go to movies periodically, but needed his permission, which was mostly given. We had learnt, however, not to ask him more than once a month. Once, as I returned from a movie, he asked, “So what movie did you see?” “Jawani keehawa,” I said triumphantly. “So you have been exposed to Jawani kee hawa”, he said and then burst out laughing. Being too young, I completely missed his point.
He would read the Qur’an often, and sometimes aloud, with a beautiful rhythm. At Aligarh, he had been chosen to call Azan and received a scholarship for that. I remember his reverence for Ghalib, whom he once described as a poet with the ability to contain a river in a bucket. Once, as he returned from a mushaira, he described Murtaza Barlas’s recitation as dazzling. Barlas had spent some time in our town earlier as a civil servant and, like another bureaucrat Mustafa Zaidi, was a poet of considerable merit. Having read Persian, Father would sometimes quote Saadi.
Father had not detached himself from the simple pleasures of life. One day as he entered the house, he stopped, listened attentively to the song on the radio for a few seconds, and surprised me by identifying KL Saigol’s voice. There was an old gramophone in our home with flat disc records bought years earlier by him. I never saw him use it, but my older siblings did. Among female singers, Farida Khanum and Iqbal Bano were his favorites. Himself a tennis player, he would sometime watch tennis on TV. To this day, I recall his admiration for the great Bjorn Borg, the way he used to dispatch poor Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon.
Father was rarely sick. Aside from a minor cold once in a while, he remained in excellent health most of his life. He was hospitalized only once; it turned out to be his first and last one.
Father’s generation had lived through historic times. They had seen the struggle for independence, the creation of Pakistan, its early struggles, followed by the era of rapid progress in the sixties; they had also witnessed the break-up of Jinnah’s Pakistan. They had witnessed the glory and heartbreak, both.
Thomas Jefferson once said that the art of life is the art of living with pain. Like the great American statesman, father too carried on in life despite many personal tragedies. He personified a life of discipline, hard work, and dedication to his family, community, profession, and country. He played his part on the world stage, as the wise man from Stratford once wrote, and when the time for exit came, he gently slipped into the night without much fuss. That was my father.
(The writer is a physician in Williamsport, PA and may be reached at email@example.com)