This is what I leave you...

Like the founding father’s words; Unity, Faith and Discipline, the three words; Honour, Dignity and Respect instilled by my father ultimately became part of my soul

I sometimes become the inadvertent object of my own attention. A phenomenon I mostly experience during winters while sitting late night in the office long after everybody had gone or sitting in the corner of a desolate park, looking at the setting sun penetrating with, what remained of its radiance the fissures and crevices in the withering foliage of the old trees. Call it winter neurosis, winter blues, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or simply memories of the bygone. Just like today, Friday evening I find myself sitting in my office silently experiencing the yet another sun downing from the wide half opened window of my office cabin. Once more, clenched to my desk, feeling the gnaw of hunger, waiting for my Club Sandwich from the cafeteria. Now at 53, it’s been exactly six years since I’ve retired from the Army. Today also, like always on the eve of weekend, life comes to a grinding halt. A malaise begins to spread. Loads of crap floating like jelly fish on the canvas of my mind.  Somebody had said; Life is only travelled once, today’s moment becomes tomorrow’s memory. Memories of youth, triumphs, failures, ecstasy and pain, moments of love and hate, being loved by many and being betrayed by others, victory dances and childish squabbles. Then there are memories painful and echoing striking your soul like a carefully timed metronome. No matter how hard you try to scoop them out but they continue to reside in the deepest recess of your soul.

While typing the words on the key board at this hour of the cold night inside my office cabin my mind once more drifted to my childhood thoughts –memories of long random conversations with my father that invariably followed every Saturday night sitting on that old wooden bench in the park in front of our house. I can still feel him sitting on that very bench in the late winter hours of the night advising me in his usual care-free way; “a good horse understands a gesture while a bad one requires a whip; so always be a good horse” something he so fondly used to tell me. I realized later that this wise council of his made me pay very heavily in my practical life. It is said ‘proud people breed sorrows for themselves’. I had always tried to be a good horse and therefore suffered back to back financial and other losses one after the other. During my 27 years in the army and later six years of post retirement, I worked not for promotions but for self respect, honor and dignity –in a bid to satisfy my restless soul. Or perhaps as a result of a perpetual fear –fear that remained part of my soul, always lurking inside me ever since I stepped into practical life –the fear of being finger pointed by any one. I never cheated even when there was none to oversee, I never got late (except owing to a natural causes) so much so, that I never even laughed loudly. I became so conscious of others that I started reading peoples’ faces interpreting their moods, their thoughts, their words, their impressions. I even became conscious of my own juniors, waiters, and orderlies; not to say anything which might disparage their egos.

Like the founding Father’s words; Unity, Faith and discipline, the three words; Honor, Dignity and Respect instilled by my father ultimately became part of my soul. I started dubbing every situation, every action and reaction of mine even every word that I spoke to first pass the litmus test of Honor, Dignity and Respect ­–something I carved out of my own. Whether it was dealing with a senior or tasking a junior or undertaking a job the three words of ‘Abba’ always overwhelmed my conscience.

While I continue to type on my laptop, occasionally glancing at the half opened window, my mind, like a dancing dervish whirls and floats in the immense ocean of solitude and emptiness.

I remember the time when I was doing my Intermediate from FC College. One day I expressed my desire to Abba for appearing in the CSS exams. Instead of being happy at my resolve, Abba entered into an undesirable mode of gloom. There was an indescribable surge of sorrow, anguish and grief evident on his face, as if a great calamity had grabbed him. One night my father grabbed me with my hand and asked me to accompany him for a small stroll. I knew that this meant sitting on that rickety park bench for two to three hours and listening to his council while my other siblings would be enjoying the television. Probably, that was one Abba’s trick to get rid of the ruckus created by my other siblings and to have a few hours of tranquility in the quiet of the park. But those days were different; there were no gadgets such as mobile phones, laptops, computers and internet. Therefore, sitting in the company of elders whether parents, relatives or neighbors was not something to be taken as nonsense. So here we sat once again on that coarse, bone-piercing wooden bench. He remained silent for sometime looking at the slowly dimming lights of the park as the winter haze descended the neighborhood. Then he started off;

“I have never asked anything from you. I have never imposed my will upon you with regards to your choice of studies and the profession you wish to pursue, but today I am asking you a favour; being your old and ailing father, just grant me this and I won’t bother you for anything else ever. I have, all my life, endeavored only for one thing and that to provide you with food that comes without an atom earned through illegal means. I even have never compelled you to pray or fast or recite Quran. On the contrary, you do regularly offer your prayers, fast and read Quran. Your sisters, while coming and going to college keep their gaze low with their heads covered. Did I ever command this to you all? Now can you tell me as to what compels you and your siblings to adhere to these norms? It only comes with purity of means of one’s income. I have only ensured that the food I bring to our table is obtained through pure, legitimate money. No harm will ever descend you. This is my conviction, my belief and my faith. My only request to you now is to dispel the idea to appear in the CSS exams. I know you can do it, but it will not let me have peace even in my grave. You see I am an ordinary fellow, who, throughout his life, could not make the proverbial “two ends meet”. Despite this, I am an utterly satisfied man knowing that I have not lived in vain. The CSS world is replete with dubious temptations, money and power. People will offer you bribes in many forms and manifestations directly or indirectly. You as a human being will not be able to deal with this. You will be surrounded by a sea infested with predators –how many would you fight?  If you do not conform to the system, your subordinates will do it in your name, your seniors would try to hurt you for being honest. There will be a day when you will have no choice except to accept defeat whether you call it a compromise or being tactful or just simply the System. So let’s not plunge into this fathomless abyss. If you now stop chasing a wrong thing you give the right thing a chance to catch you.”

He stopped. After a brief session of questions, cross questions and a little dejection cum desperation I bought his point and assured him that I wouldn’t do it. That night he slept in perfect tranquility.

My father despite his meager resources was amazingly magnanimous. He never cared for his clothes, footwear or food. Despite being the Chief Editor of magazines and literary journals in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and a grade 18 officer he would eat on push-carts on the side of roads his favourite Naan Chanay and top it with iced lemonade. Despite having a dedicated staff car with a driver he would seldom use it except for official purposes. One day we children raised a pretty serious outcry to persuade him to make use of the car including our pick and drop to schools. The next day he brought an office manual and showed us a table delineating the restricted usages of the car. He retired in 1985 when I was in First year of the college. He had a meager pension of Rs1200—the half of which he would donate to the Bosnian Ambassador for the Bosnian Muslims, then under rampage from Croats. He never disclosed this in his lifetime. It was only after his death that I, while rummaging through his old worn out brief case found innumerable receipts and letters of thanks from the Bosnian Ambassador. If he had asked us or our mother we probably wouldn’t have ever let him do that.

He was fanatically generous while giving alms to the beggars specially women. The women beggars in our neighborhood and around his office knew his face. They would storm around him from all directions in what seemed to be a military raid. One day we were standing at the bus stop waiting for the bus when an old and seemingly sick woman approached us. My father reached his pocket and found a hundred rupee note the only money and which he had taken as advance loan from his salary to pay for my younger brother’s fee. The value of Rs 100 was quite high at that time. I saw that nervous look on his face trying to reach other pockets for a possible coin, but there was none. Then he did something which literally caused me to scream. He handed over the note to the woman in a surrendering manner saying “disappear”. When I tried to retrieve the money he held my hand “let it go, that’s her luck”. I protested vehemently asking him as to how he would pay the fee? He said, “Allah Maalik hai, never underestimate the power of God, He will make up for that”. Looking from hindsight, I later saw my youngest brother completing his Masters and then PhD degrees in engineering from European universities, entirely on government scholarships, long after my father had passed away.

My father was a prolific and immensely talented writer both in English and Urdu. His innumerable articles in the English and Urdu daily’s as well as in literary magazines and journals were widely acclaimed. His translations of local poetry into English amazed even the English and the Americans. The American Centre hired him to translate a number of books on American history. But the most treasured possession of his, are his letters. Letters –written to me while I was training in the Military Academy. One cousins of his who was more of a friend had a hefty collection of his letters that he had been writing to him over the span of decades. He had had those very diligently organized year and date wise. One day during my occasional visits to him he showed me a big folder containing those letters and told me that he would get them published in the form of a book. “Every letter is a piece of literature” he would tell me. Unfortunately he passed away shortly after that while I was away on a course. After a year or so, I tried to locate those but as somebody has correctly said ‘when an old person dies a library is lost’. Not only has this, his lifelong valuables and prized possessions, which he had guarded so selfishly, too, lost the very existence with him. My father told me once “writing is good but never make it a profession, restrict it to a part time hobby only.” I stick to his wise exhortation for I know now that it is not at all a profession that could make the “two ends meet”—at least in this part of the world.  Although we were brought up, fed, educated from the very money earned through this very profession, nevertheless he probably, owing to the hardships that he faced had advised us to keep it as a side hobby, rather than the mainstay. Though he himself—while I was still in the cradle, chose ‘Writing’ over Zameendari after selling out his land in Multan. It must have been a prized land for it had fetched quite a handsome amount good enough to build a luxurious bunglow in the most posh location of Lahore. One day while sitting on the same rickety bench I asked him as to why he had sold out his land in Multan which he had been allotted following the migration from India after partition and instead decided to build a large posh house which owing to our meager resources was getting impossible to maintain. He replied to me in the form of following narration:-

            “It was the hottest part of the year, probably, June, when I happened to be on my lands to spend a week supervising the harvest. Everything seemed to be melting as if inside a giant furnace. A big Charpoy comforted with a couple of hefty pillows was laid for me under the shade of a peepal tree. The luxury of a hand fan and a clay pitcher were also made available. I sat there watching poignantly the half naked, sun hardened bodies of the peasants working without being discomforted by the excruciating heat pouring down from the blazing sun. Exhausted and tired I did not know when I fell asleep. By the time I woke up two hours had glided away. Moments later I noticed two middle aged fellows drenched in their own sweat sort of leaning on to me. I realized one was pressing my knees and the other hand-fanning on my face. As a reflex I got up and quickly dissuaded them from doing that what seemed to me an abominable act. I looked up and saw the same folks along with their women working in the middle distance oblivious of the cruel sun. Their faces emblazoned like red copper. Well, that was the turning point. I thought in my heart as to what made me competent to receive the fruits of others’ toil and sweat. At that very moment I saw myself no different than the tyrant found in the novels and folklores. I decided immediately to give up that profligate business – the kind of earning I had no part to play in……"

That was it; simple, ethical and saintly. This may seem quite unpalatable, but he listened to his conscience. My father had written five hundred letters to the entire world trying to draw attention of the world to the Bosnian plight. His efforts bore fruits and he got a number of replies from many international quarters, following the establishment of an international organization by the name of ‘Friends of Bosnia’. He however did not get one reply from within the country. It hugely saddened him. I remember him saying that not replying to a letter or a message was the most gravest of the sin under the sky. He would say that civilized people who lived by scruples if not replied to, would invariably think that either the other person was dead, met an accident or something drastic had happened. He would ask me to reply a person as soon as possible even if it meant missing the prayers. Today an unknown missed call doesn’t let me sleep unless I connect with the person. According to him a person devoid of ethics, human emotions and his proverbial, ‘honor, dignity and respect’ is no more than an animal walking on two legs. Blood line, lineage and DNA which he called the hidden instinct was the basic driving force governing the behavior of a person irrespective of his worldly education, financial status and social compulsions.

My father became an orphan when he was barely three. His mother with his three sisters shifted to her father’s house who was an engineer by profession and a very pious man. His mother owing to her great ego chose to live in the adjacent guest house rather than the main house. Despite her amputated leg she never accepted a penny from her father and spent days on the monthly pension cum family stipend of Rs 30 of her deceased husband. One late night sitting on the same bench he narrated this story of his own childhood:-

“One day when I was barely six, my (maternal) grandfather was sitting with an old friend of his in the courtyard. During the course of usual grapevine the discussion drifted to one’s character, which according to him (his grandfather); ‘pathologically intertwined in one’s grain.’ His friend seemingly had had a different view. However, when the discussion turned a bit toxic my grandfather called me and asked me to bring along a certain servant’s boy who happened to be of my age. The servant was a dubious character and well known for his notoriety. When we both approached my grandfather, he took out a coin from his pocket and told us that the coin in his hand was a damaged one (Khota) and that no shopkeeper was willing to accept that. Then he asked me as to what would I do with the coin if it was given to me. I replied instantly that I would throw it in the well. He then repeated the question to the other child. On hearing, the other child thought for a while and replied that he would wait till night-fall when a blind peanut vender visited their street. He would purchase some peanuts from him and slip the coin in his palm. My grandfather after listening to this, caste a winning eye to his friend, then sprang from his chair and hugged me for a long time."

My father was a kind of Dervish. I say so recalling his words, randomly spoken statements, sometimes in the form of predictions about an event or a certain person that later turned out to be very true. He did not understand cricket. In 1992, when Pakistan won its first world cup he became too overwhelmed with that unexpected victory. The charismatic leadership of Imran Khan impacted very deep on him. It was then that he started, in a manner of soliloquy, saying that he (Imran Khan) would become the Prime Minister of this country one day. It became so repetitive and sometimes embarrassing especially when he would utter the words in front of a formal audience. People sometimes took it as something as a consequence of his age then nearing 70. As Imran khan was nowhere to be seen as a political personality this seemed quite non-sense at that point in time. He would say similar things to my siblings. For example for one of my brother ever since he was a toddler he would say that this boy should learn Arabic. Arabic would benefit him in his career. This brother took up a job in Saudi Arabia and later settled there with family for good. Another brother since the time when he could barely walk, my father used to say about him that he had four cerebral hemispheres of brain and fondly called him a ‘Professor’. He is a PhD scientist and has been teaching in various universities both in Pakistan and abroad. And for my immediate younger sister he thought she would settle in a far away land. Soon after her marriage at the age of 21 she left the country to be settled in USA never to return.

When I was finally selected in the army I remember he was bursting with joy and ecstasy – as if a great load was lifted off his chest. How proud, I remember, he would feel informing this to all his acquaintances.  A few weeks prior to my leaving for the military academy, the sittings on the park bench frequented. His talks mostly now comprised advices on food, health, ethics, conscientiousness; “keep yourself warm specially the chest part - don’t forget to drink hot milk with a pinch of turmeric before going to sleep - never cheat - never change your version for the fear of being punished -  always speak truth for if you do that you need not to remember anything else - be always punctual -  never falter in setting the alarm clock, five or ten minutes of extra sleep could end you in disgrace - always pay attention to your instructor - life in the army, you will come across many trying situations, some powerful enough to break you completely, this would be the real test of your metal. The real essence of you would be to not to accept defeat whatever the circumstances be, this is how God tests man for He would never forsake you in that situation. He would never pitch you against anything which you can’t handle. Just try your best to handle it with patience and perseverance - your self-respect rests in your own hands; if you are to choose between success and honour, choose the latter and never regret;  Do not work to take credits, instead work for your own satisfaction for it is only God who can give you credit in the true sense. Never quail in the face of hardships and difficulties; just learn to talk to your God. Your creator is the most closest to you and most responding – talk to Him, connect with Him, even if you have to shout and scream on Him for He is the closest to you, a companion and a benevolent friend who never loses sight of you  – He will never fail you; being an officer you will be like a captain of a ship, never betray the trust of your men, never leave the hands of your subordinates; people who have no one to look at except you, stand by them in difficult times, protect them like a shield for this is the real essence of being a leader….

When I was four or five, my father taught me chess. The pawns and chessboard was expensive. One Sunday morning he dug out some earth from our front yard, sieved it with an old piece of wire gauze to clear it of small pebbles then mixed it with some water and flour and kneaded a fine dough. We then hand pottered the pawns and left those in the sun to dry. After those were completely dried he painted half of them white, then he made a chess board on a chart paper. In the chess he taught me that sometimes you have to sacrifice your most valuable asset to save others not so powerful and that how the act is rewarded by God in the final victory, for some times it comes when least expected. This is the work of the Devine. I wanted to buy a fancy set from the market. He told me “happiness doesn’t restrict to expensive items, it rather resides with simplicity and comes in small packages. Just keep walking and keep learning the best will come your way one day. Be very mindful of others’ feelings, never ridicule, belittle or disparage or take advantage of some one’s situation. Help him in every possibility; remember God keeps stock of one’s good intentions and He never falters in that.”

My aunt Altaf Fatima, a great name of literature in the Sub-Continent was a couple of years elder to my father. She raised me up from class six onwards until I joined the army in 1986. She had a long life and passed away last year at the age of 92. I would visit her every second day taking some time off extending my lunch break to spend a few hours with her alone. I would sit near her and listen to everything she had to say. In her last few days she became very gaunt, frail and quite helpless. She never married. Though a full time servant and a part time maid was there to look after her yet it was not enough to comfort her aching soul and an absolutely conscious mind which was continuously witnessing her own flesh and bones slowly turning motionless. Despite being offered National award for Literature by ZA Bhutto, Gen. Ziaul Haq and Nawaz Shareef during their respective tenures she out rightly declined their offers. A few months before her passing away her book “Deed Wadeed” was awarded first prize in the prestigious last KLF (Karachi Literary Festival) but she as usual refused to receive the award (I did on her behalf). Owing to her great ego and self respect she refused to move to my house. “Let me scale this last mountain at my own with my God alone” she would say. Every time I used to come out of her house a strange feeling of guilt and remorse would grip me. While turning the car steering I would invariably have my eyes welled up. In her last few days, while lying in her bed motionless she would put my hand in hers and ask me to recite loudly Ya-Seen from the Holy Quran.

During her last days, my cousins and my family would make it a point to gather around her in the evening. This would infuse a great energy into her. Turning towards me she would say: “Do you know why God has given me such a long life?  For just one reason; to bear witness to my younger brother’s words; do you remember what he used to say about Imran Khan when he had won the World Cup. See, I’ve been waiting for all these years to see if it came true too”

My office had now turned very cold with a heavy and loathsome atmosphere hanging all around. The Club Sandwich I had ordered four hours ago never arrived. Probably the old waiter had forgotten. With my limbs petrified, my breathing getting irregular, my forehead aching profusely, I, as usual, could feel the presence of my father somewhere near. This time it was more palpable. Sitting there in my chair I felt as if my soul had slowly snuffed out of me adrift and turned into tiny bits of smoke diffusing in the cold and murky atmosphere of the room. I could feel faint but heavy breathing by someone –as if by an asthmatic. My father was a chronic asthmatic. During peak winters his breathing would get heavier with a visible surge of pain. I could feel now, it was his breathing, his distinctive odour –something I missed the most, my senses could feel his presence  inside the very room I was sitting, suffusing right into me, very morbid, very bleak, faint but talking to me. His words though intangible, yet I could hear them, feel his warmth. There’s a child in everyone who seizes to grow no matter how old one gets. And, as one battles and wades ahead tired and worn out, struggling to survive amidst the cacophony emanating from the multitude of people;  people cunning and crafty –people full of deceit and duplicity, the child within reanimates, craving for the comfort of a shoulder to lean on and cry to his heart content. I stood in silence waiting for him to reach out and touch my forehead gently; the way he used to do in my childhood. But all I could make out was him saying; “this is what I leave you.”

There are things better left unexplained….

The author is a retired Cavalry officer. He has spent 27 years in uniform and has a published collection of short stories 'By the Autumn Trees' to his name. He is an avid traveler and also has ample of well-researched travelogues published in the leading newspapers of the country.

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