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An Ordinary Man and a Nobody

If the war on terror can be likened to a storm at sea most visible in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in Mumbai last winter, its undercurrents rage in Pakistani society. Some of this Pakistani reality, relentless, treacherous and invisible to the world, pulled at me unexpectedly in the wake of the Mumbai attacks when I found myself in Karachi having left Mumbai in a hurry, and in an equally unforeseen circumstance, hosted in Karachi by the eldest members of my family, the original refugees-from-India (they fled Delhi in 1947). I was in Karachi since I had to leave Mumbai unable to renew my Indian visa after four years of living there as a journalist. In my years in India the bi-annual visa renewal was an arduous process because of the “born-in-Karachi” on my Canadian passport, and the renewal was not helped with television blaring out Karachi as the starting point for the attackers’ journey to Mumbai. In Karachi, a two hour flight from Mumbai, I felt something akin to the disorientation of a refugee, to be suddenly in a city, across a border, that is not where my life was. This essay is based on a conversation with Eldest Living Ansari and a version of this it has been published in The Great Divide, edited by Ira Pande, HarperCollins India 2009.

August 1947 map.
August 1947 map.

Eldest Living Ansari, ELA to our clan, calls himself “a nobody,” and a man without “status”. Over 10 years I have asked him about the times he has lived in, of his origins in Saharanpur, India, of his Deobandi roots (his granduncle was among the founders of Darul uloom Deoband, a most influential seminary of Sunni Islam) of being fatherless, and “not even Matric pass,” of Darya Ganj and Karol Bagh (He lived in these Delhi neighborhoods in the 40s), of Jamia Millia Islamia (a school and university in Delhi that was Indian nationalist, where he had mentors and friends and where he enrolled his younger siblings), of being a clerk in the Public Works Department Delhi, of his studying for his Urdu fazil at Kashmiri Gate, of Urdu poetry, of Partition violence, of coming to Karachi that first time in 1947, of his visits to India in the early ’50s, of his life as a clerk in PWD Karachi, of his becoming a bridge star in Karachi as well as part of the cricket commentary team, his friendships (with the journalists I. H. Burney and Omar Kureishi, the writer Shaukat Siddiqui, and the cricketer A. H. Kardar), his leaving for London, and returning to Karachi after retirement. I like him as a storyteller because of his claim of being an “ordinary” man. He says “ordinary,” stretching the sound by making a cavern of his mouth with an “O” then clubbing the first two syllables together to mouth “oddinary”.

His way of ending a conversation with me, which is usually a line of questioning initiated by me, is to tell me he cannot betray a trust.

I am always anxious when I go to see him. He can delight or irritate depending on his remarks about the company I keep, the times I live in; or arguing about food, about books and authors, about cricket and writing.

ELA raised my father, so he stands in for my grandfather. For years I have been asking him questions about his version of history. I ask him to narrate the beginning of Pakistan by remembering those he knew, mostly young men, who came to the new country. He is a remembrance of the promise, the unstructured, the faithfulness, the brilliant, the selflessness, the self-absorbed, the self-invention, the fraudulent, the ill-conceived, the best-intentioned, the misfortune and the wit of the time. He stops midway in his storytellings and says he cannot betray confidences.

A refugee train on its way to Punjab, Pakistan.
A refugee train on its way to Punjab, Pakistan.

On this occasion I went to ask him questions about cricket.

This was the first time I was going to see him after I have been living in India. I had met him just before I left and he had surprised me by approving of the move to Mumbai. ‘Good,” he had said. Upon leaving I wondered if this was the last time I would see him: he is already in his 80s, no one is really sure of when he was born, he guesses it was 1927. I thought life and its busyness would not have me meet him what with him also responding to asking about his haal over the phone with, “main chal diya (I am passing on, anyday now).” He hasn’t gone and I have come back.

The taxi flowed along in traffic from Boating Basin, over Clifton Bridge, by Metropole Hotel, towards Drigh Road, and then reached Society. It was the equivalent of going from Bandra to town and then back up again to Lower Parel, but what a difference in traffic and distance! At least I am not in Mumbai doing that. It has wrung me out, the years of commuting between Bandra to Kamla Mill six days a week. The driver asked me where on Tariq Road, “Allah Walay chowk tak?” And I remembered the sculpture on the chowk shaped in the Arabic word for god, which was not there in the 80s when I was growing up in Karachi, and was pleased to feel that I have a working memory of Karachi that is beyond boyhood. I replied, “Wahan say qabristan ki tarf (towards the graveyard).” As we went along the graveyard, which is full of those that came to Society from India, including my grandmother and ELA’s mother, I remembered my sister Saniya asking me whether I’ve noticed that ELA has come to live near his mother and that the neighborhood resembles Archana Cinema in GK 1.

The graveyard ended, and as we took a right, we passed a tuition centre and next to it graffiti announcing a Quran Academy. I made a mental note, as I often have, to visit this Quran Academy, and did not this trip either. I have heard that two years ago in a series of attacks on liberal maulvis, one occurred here. The house is opposite. I rang the bell and in exactly the same way as in all the last 10 years of my afternoon visits to ELA, I saw him come out of his door, walk down four flights of stairs, and unlock the door.

Refugees wait in line for food in Swabi, Pakistan. Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera;
Refugees wait in line for food in Swabi, Pakistan. Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera;

He is taller than my six-foot frame and it’s hard to hug him without bending my head to his chest, so we end up rubbing shoulders. His normally gaunt face had put on weight, so did his middle. I have never seen him like this. It’s because of his heart, he said, when we were finally upstairs, and he settled into his usual spot on the sofa. Though he is walking again, he has lost energy. He used to walk an hour and a half, through the heart of Society. He usually walks towards Jinnah’s mazar (the founding father of Pakistan is buried in a huge temple-like structure), about 20 minutes from his home through residential lanes, and then walks round the huge park. If not for Jinnah’s mausoleum, I have wanted to tell him, he may as well be living in GK in Delhi; but I know he’ll stare blankly, as he does whenever I mention ‘South Delhi.’ It is disconcerting for me since South Delhi is what I know. Often he asks me where I stay in Delhi, I stay quiet, and he picks up his own thread of Delhi memories. He doesn’t venture more south than Connaught place—I think he mentioned Nizamuddin once—but often talks about Sabzi Mandi. Once, dangerously, he asked me what Sabzi Mandi looks like now. I pretended I hadn’t heard him. From his eyes and words Sabzi Mandi was clearly a part of the magical space of Dilli (the word in Urdu for Old Delhi can also convey the expression “close to the heart”), but I had heard that it was a marketplace and a neighborhood, a Muslim “slum” by the 70s, and demolished by Sanjay Gandhi.

Meanwhile, Alia, his wife, comes into the room, as small as he is tall, as compact as he his expansive, and as crackly of voice as he is sonorous. She greets me warmly—such a different kind of warmth from him, it’s a warmth of the body, his is the warmth of conversation—saying a prayer that is a mumble for me.

He described precisely how the angiography failed since the probe could not get near enough his heart.

Recreational cricket players in Egmore, South India. Photo couresty of A. Sorense.
Recreational cricket players in Egmore, South India. Photo couresty of A. Sorense.

Ansari saab kay dil kay saray raastay bund hehn (All the ways to his heart are closed),” cackles Alia. I smile: it is so funny that I ask her to repeat it again, and she does. She is a scene stealer. When I want to talk to her alone, she won’t talk about herself. But when I am talking to him she comes in to tell a story. However, ELA has forbidden me to ask her her Partition story, nor does she tell me one herself. She can sometimes listen for hours as ELA and I talk to each other. I get distracted imagining what she is thinking as she sits there like a squaw, the stereotypical image of the elderly native American Indian woman—short, slight, straight-backed and seriously wrinkled, her crinkly eyes looking somewhere else. The last time I had visited them she had found a book in an old suitcase and asked if it was mine, I said no, and she opened it randomly to a page with a map of undivided India and she shrieked, “Antique Map!” On a table she drew with her fingers a map of India that she had been taught in grade four (chauthvi jamaat). With her fingers, knuckles and an invisible pencil she measured out Kashmir, the Northwest frontier, Bengal, Karnataka. And she said: “jahan say nikalay gai, wahan tum log basnay ja rahey ho (you are going to live in a place from where we have been uprooted).” It was no recrimination, it was a wondering and a calculation in her voice: what are the chances of success?

I have wanted to come and talk to you about cricket for a journal in Delhi that wants me to do the story in the context of India-Pak relations. I thought I would talk to you about your years in the commentary box in the 50s and early 60s.

“I was part of the commentary team, with Omar Kureishi and Jamshed Marker for eight years till 1964, the year I left for England. And my memories of individual matches are now very bad.” Then he warns me that his views are his own, what Omar Kureishi, Jamshed Marker and Kardar thought didn’t matter to him at all as he had his own opinion.

Jesus, how did they even let him into the commentary box! Later I asked him that since he didn’t have a family, and income, even English, so how did he become friends with these people?

“I must have been charming. And what do you mean I didn’t have English?”

“You came from a world of Urdu!” He nodded. But the next day he tells me he thought about my question and wanted me to know that at Islamia School in Sahranpur and at Islamia School in Etawah, another town in UP, India he was taught English very well.

Wagah border at
sunset. Photo courtesy of Zeepack, through
Wagah border at sunset. Photo courtesy of Zeepack, through

“Were you younger than all of them, Kureishi and company?”

“Yes. Six or seven years younger to Omar Kureishi and Burney sa’ab (I. H. Burney, the editor of Outlook, a political weekly banned by Ayub, and later by Bhutto). Zulfiqar was an off-spinner in the late 50s and a great man, though he turned to religion later, nothing I can do about that, but his record was that Pakistan never lost a game when he played for them. And when he didn’t play, Pakistan never won!” ELA chuckled. “This may be trivia, but these are things I came up with, you have to come up with things like this for the commentators. They were remarkable men. I had a lot of admiration for Burney, for his ability, for his intelligence and for his personal character, but when I came back to Pakistan the personal character bit had fallen out. I told him so.”Poor uncle Burney, I thought, the journalist who stood up to Ayub and Bhutto! It was well known that he really got under Bhutto’s skin, but that’s still not good enough for ELA, though I was glad ELA was finally betraying his friend for that is telling a story. I have had enough of them being called “remarkable”.

“Anyway with Zulfiqar’s passing away, with Kureishi, Burney, Shaukat Siddiqui (the author of Khuda ki Basti, a novel set in the slums of post-Partition Lahore and Karachi) after they have all died, I had no friends, because I did not have any younger friends.”

“You have no friends who are born in Pakistan, your friends are all former Indians!”

Bas ek aadmi reh gaya hai (only one man survives), Jamshed Marker. But I think I will outlive him.”

My father said to me that ELA, a self-declared agnostic, appeared now to be turning towards god (unko allah mian yaad arahey hain). When I had once asked ELA why he stopped saying namaaz (the daily prayers), he had answered that when he found out that Maulana Ehtesham ul Haq Thanvi, of Jacob Line Masjid in Karachi and formerly of Saharanpur, and a family elder, accepted the “gift” of a girl, the daughter of an admirer (ek mureed nay apni larki baet rakhdi), ELA decided that he could no longer be part of any congregation led by such a man and stopped praying altogether.

ELA, by saying things like Islam is being misrepresented, was going back to Deoband in his heart, said my father to me over the phone. He asked me to ask him how Islam was doing in Pakistan. ELA said to me, “If you don’t agree with them,” (he waved his arm towards the window, the sweep taking in both his mother’s graveyard, as well as the beleaguered Quran Academy), “they will just blow you up.”

“Did you go to Delhi on the first Pakistan tour?” I go on.

“No, I wasn’t part of the commentary team, nor was Omar Kureishi. ‘Us zamanay main ek hi aadmi pura test match narrate karta tha shurooh say aakhir tak (in those days, just one commentator would cover the whole match)’: Maharajkumar of Vijayanagram. What stands out in my memory of India-Pakistan matches is that both India and Pakistan did not want to lose. Rather than play the match, they would do everything to not lose it. The spirit was tense. At times it was mean. In the first Indian tour of Pakistan, all matches were drawn. But before that series, Pakistan went to India, and when Pakistan won its test in Lucknow, ‘wahan say Pakistani cricket kuch barhi (that is when Pakistani cricket came of age).’ There was recognition in India that Pakistan is not a small part of the subcontinent, and has a team to be reckoned with. Although I am dead against Partition,” (he slipped to say ‘deadly,’) “and theocracy and terrorism, ‘aur yay sub kuch na hota agar partition na hota (all this wouldn’t have happened if it were not for partition),’ I would go so far as to say that the creation of Pakistan changed the world, but the fact remains that people like Imtiaz Ahmed never got into the Indian side before Partition because he was a Muslim. Fazal Mehmood was the only Muslim selected for the 1946 Indian tour of England under Pataudi’s captaincy. True, Pataudi was a Muslim but he was a raja maharaja and a good cricketer, and so he is above it all. Pataudi insisted that Kardar be [included] in the team because Kardar had scored a double century in Pune. As for Fazal, he declined to join the team because Pakistan was being created. I think it was mean of Fazal to decline.”

ELA paused here.

“After Pakistan was created, everything was a mess including our values. So cricket was not a place for shareef (decent) men like Imtiaz. He could never a leader in Pakistan. Captain huway kaun? (Guess who became the captain?) Abdul Hafeez Kardar!” ELA chuckled.

“Kardar had a one-track mind on this issue: for Pakistan to prosper in cricket, Pakistan had to win, and especially against India. And for that he would do anything. Although he was only the captain, he was given the status of a lord. So if he wanted a certain umpire he would be there, if he didn’t want him, he wouldn’t be there. At one time he had a kind of animosity towards me, I don’t know why, and then things changed, and I don’t know why either, so much so that there was a test match in Lahore against India or England, after he had retired, and we shared a room at Falettis Hotel. Anyway we were always sitting together in a group. So even when we were not on good terms he still liked my company.”

“What was your bond with him?”

“He was a good cricketer. I saw that double century in Pune in ’46 against the Australians Services XI. It was a wonderful, wonderful innings. I won’t say he was a sportsman because he was not. After the Pune innings he became the captain of the combined universities. He was very good friends with Omar Kurieshi and Jamshed Marker, so those two had a lot to do with my friendship with Kardar. Omar was a good friend of mine.”

“How was Omar as a commentator?”

“He was a genius, whether he was an evil genius or the other kind is a matter of debate, but genius certainly, and I would say the same about all the Qureishis. He wrote very well. The first book he wrote—Who is Your Uncle?—was at my persuasion. When he went to England with the team and was a guest commentator with the BBC, they wrote him a letter saying, ‘You added flair to our commentary team,’ or something to that effect. I have seen that letter myself, Omar used to carry it in his pocket. He was a lousy TV commentator, but he was one of the best on radio. I would put him number two, behind John Arlott. Now I don’t understand why people do that: carry letters around, or claim that they studied at the London School of Economics, or at Harvard. Whether they did or not doesn’t matter, why say it at all? Bhutto wrote a letter to him on his father’s death, Omar used to carry that letter too. There is no doubt that they were on first name terms because they were class-fellows at Berkeley. He had great expectations of Bhutto: he once asked to be made Pakistan’s representative at the U.N. Bhutto told him, that bloody fool, ‘you will be sitting on the pavement outside the U.N. with a cocktail waitress and drinking.’ I also drink but, you! Yay meray saamnay ki baat hai, (I have heard this exchange),” he laughed delightedly. “Vo nahin huwa (that didn’t happen) so he wanted to be chairman of the cricket board replacing Kardar, supposedly his great friend. He went to Bhutto and said ‘kay tum nay aur kuch nahin kiya, yahi kardo (do this for me since you haven’t anything else).’ Bhutto nay kaha (said), ‘Shut up.’ Look, this doesn’t take anything away from Kureishi’s ability or talent.”

“Omar wrote a column about you in which he got a few facts wrong including that you have passed on.”

“That’s what writers do, they write,” ELA shrugged.

“What did you disagree on cricket with Omar Kureishi?”

“Simply that he would try and boost Pakistan’s performance in the field. Ab shaam ko hum bethay huway hain, he has to report on the match Pakistan is losing or has lost, and he would say now what can I write to save our face?”

“But you were all young men, isn’t this a stern judgment of them? All were under 35 and you were 25!”

“I had my views and my values and that’s how I conducted my life. But there are things I am not telling you and when those happened I took leave from thecompany of some of these men.”

The best “cricket” story ELA told me came after he had worked himself into despairing at the values of Liaquat Ali Khan (LAK) and Maulana Thanvi of Jacob Lines. He started with his personal knowledge of Liaquat Ali Khan’s origins. One of ELA’s distant relatives was a pir (a Sufi saint), and his tomb was close to LAK’s family home in Karnal. ELA’s aunt used to take him to the shrine during his school holidays. Since she knew some members of LAK’s family, she would take him along to their house. “So when two decades later, LAK became the first prime minister of Pakistan, I knew where he came from. Unkay to ghar aur gaon mai aadmi bhi doliyon main phiray jaatey thay (even their men were taken around in purdah). But seriously, they had strict segregation, and I couldn’t help but reflect on the kind of Islam that was Liquat’s ghar ka mahool (upbringing) when he pushed through the Objectives Resolution (the first point in OR, which is part of the constitution of Pakistan goes: ‘Sovereignty belongs to Allah alone but He has delegated it to the State of Pakistan through its people for being exercised within the limits prescribed by Him as a sacred trust.’)”

“What was the culture of your home?”

“I grew up saying the aazaan at 5 am before heading off to school. I did my taraavi, kept all the rozas, prayed all five times until the day I reacted to Thanvi. It may have been an extreme reaction, I gave up praying because of his action. But I am only human!”

He gathered all his gravitas and said that he asked David Shepherd, Bishop of Liverpool, “a fine bat and great touch,” what he should do. “After 15 years in Pakistan, and a few years in England I was ready to give it up.” (ELA meant his religion, but I wasn’t going to put words in his mouth). “I asked David why he became a cleric, and he said because of his mother, she told him to do so. His belief was that a man can only be a man if he is blessed by his mother, and he said that that was his personal opinion. I told him where I was from and what I had gone through and he told me that what was good enough for my father was good enough for me.”

In the evening one of his younger brothers, Afzal, and his wife Guddu, and two of their adult children came over for dinner. We were going to eat kebabs at Nooranis, which meant a walk down the lane, to the corner of Khalid bin Walid Road (named after an Arab general from not towards Hali Road, but the other end).

ELA had married off Afzal to Guddu when they were both very young to save Guddu, because she was a partition orphan, except that the words he said to convey that were: “Guddu’s great grandfather was a great philosopher, from—” Guddu asked me about Mumbai, and we were engaged in small talk until one of the cousins asked ELA if he had been back to India. He said, “In Oct 1947, I left Delhi on the train, but in December, like a fool, I went back, to get someone. I went to Bombay from Karachi by steamer.” Guddu and I both stopped talking, I couldn’t see Afzal so I couldn’t guess his reaction. Alia was still. This was not a story he had ever told me.

“On the way there, they threw three men into the sea. These men could be identified because of their beards. I saw it happen. I don’t have a beard obviously and I called myself by a Christian name. I became friendly with a Sindhi family, who were from Jamshed Road in Karachi, and I even stayed with them in Bombay, though at night I feared being killed in my bed, for how was I to know that my bond with my hosts was genuine? If it wasn’t for Partition and what I was seeing all around me, I would have had no such thoughts and would have kept in touch with them later. They asked me if I planned to stay on in Karachi or come to India. I said Karachi. They said if I am to live in Karachi I must eat fish regularly.”

ELA, thankfully, did not talk about what he saw in Bombay. “I don’t want to talk about that or what I saw in UP,” he said.

On the walk to Noorani, he said to me that in Europe one can blame a dictator and a bureaucracy but in India we did this to ourselves. When we sat down to dinner Guddu asked when ELA had last seen her father. He said that he was the one who had put him on the train in Delhi for Lahore.

On the walk back he said that after Partition, far-flung relatives, living in Poona, Hyderabad, Patna, Barabanki, Azamgarh and any number of UP, Bihar and Deccani qasbahs all came to live in Karachi and thus became unavoidable.

The next day and another question about cricket to which he answered partly in faux Punjabi:

“I was with Kardar in Peshawar in his room, we were all discussing a crisis over drinks. On the eve of the test a certain star bowler had declared himself unfit, as was his wont when conditions were unhelpful. Kardar summoned the umpire to his room. The official said this in Punjabi, though he wasn’t Punjabi speaking, but I guess the circumstances were such: tussi paddan pay baal martey raho ji, meri ungli uthti rahegi (sir, you keep hitting the pads I’ll keep raising my finger to declare them out). This was against an English side.”

“So whoever competed against Pakistan in those days, and with Kardar as a captain, must have had to play really well to draw?”

“The Indians had great players with them, Hazare, Mankad, Merchant, we had…’ he trailed off and laughed derisively. ‘Our Majid, Zaheer, Miandad and Imran come much later. I saw Vijay Merchant, live, in 1946, in Delhi. Good Heavens! Those men were great! India was playing the Australian Services XI, Bradman wasn’t there; Lindsay Hassett was their captain, I saw Lindwall bowling, I saw the test match in which Mushtaq Ali scored a century before lunch. Mushtaq said later he got bored, saww bana liyay ab kya (I’ve made my 100, now what?).”

I followed him to his bedroom, he was leading the way and talking, and I saw on his bedside a biography of the prophet Muhammad by Husein Haykal, an Arab writer. Some years ago on the same subject he used to swear by the French Marxist Maxine Rodinson, and a book on Al-Qaeda by an English journalist,as well as the Iliad.

I asked him his opinion on the statement that the Indian Union Sports Minister made on the eve of the Indian tour of Pakistan (“Is it possible for one team [the terrorists] to arrive in Mumbai and indulge in mass murder, and have another team go and play cricket in the winter afternoon sun at Lahore, immediately after?”). I tried to read him the entire statement, my personal sadness was the flourish about the Lahore winter sun, but ELA cut me short. He said, “I don’t understand. Team? How can terrorism be likened to cricket? A team of terrorists?!” He had trouble mouthing “team,” and “terrorists” together. He said people here were shocked by Gavaskar’s comments, “Idhar wo log jo Bombay say aay hai (Those who came here from Bombay) think no else’s opinion is higher,” and he smiled.

“Do you know that three members of the current Indian team play for Delhi?” ELA said suddenly, and with pride. “Gambhir, Sehwag and Sharma. Anyway, agar wo atay idhar tau Pakistan ki bahut pitai lagatay (If they came here they would give Pakistan a thrashing).”

We both laughed.


Rehan Ansari

Rehan Ansari, former Editor of Independent Press Association-New York's Voices, writes a weekly column about post-9/11 New York for Mid-day, a paper in Mumbai, India.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2009

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