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Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Azhar Kidvai (3)

While my father was in the UK he became an Atheist. This remained for a long time and I really can't remember seeing him offering prayers (other than Eed Prayers) for many years. However, rather early, he had a heart attack. Friends and relatives, plus the environment he lived in, told him that it was his lack of belief in Allah that had led to this health problem. Slowly he became a stronger and stronger Muslim. His Library had more Religious Books, Hadeeses, and biographies of famous Muslims. However, he also continued to buy Western Books and they included numerous subjects. More on that in my next blogpost.

Abi was strongly opposed to the Brits ruling India and wanted them to leave. He spoke about it to his friends and even wrote Qit'as about their bringing of famine to Bengal. Here is one that I remember:


تن پر نہیں ہے کپڑا، چولھے ہیں گھر میں ٹھنڈے

رکھتے ہیں پھر بھی اونچے ہم دوسروں کے جھنڈے

مرغی کی خاصیت ہے ہندوستانیوں میں

 خود کھا رہے ہیں کوڑا اور دے رہے ہیں انڈے

While being anti-Brits ruling India, he was a well-known honest Doctor. So it was during WW2 that Abi was called by the British Army to be among the Doctors who were sent everywhere to look after injured soldiers. This was in late 1943. My father said he'd like to take my mother and me along wherever he was posted … and the Army accepted that.

Jhansi - October 1944

 We moved everywhere, some for a short period and a few places for a longer time. I remember many of Abi's friends whom we encountered during those days. Some from old times in a place where they lived; some from the Army that became close friends. Zakkan (Zakaullah Khan) Chacha, Gazdar Chacha, Khan Chacha, Badshah Chacha (who died in Karachi very early. He had lived with us, after coming from India, and stayed with us almost a whole year); Sari Bhai (a nephew of Khan Chacha) used to bring Bananas for me often.

Shafiq-ur-Rahman - everyone's favorite humorous writer - was an Assistant to Abi. In his book (لہریں) you can see a bit of Abi … 

Uncle Shafiq, as I understood from my mother (Ummi is what I called her) when I started reading his books, fell in love with various nurses. He gave a nurse an engagement ring and when the affair didn't last long, he'd take the ring back and give it to Ummi to keep until his next affair which -he said- would be final. But that never happened :)

Of course there was also my absolute favorite: Gupta Cha whom you can read about in my older blogposts*. In  one of mymeetings with him (I was 4 at that time), Abi had not returned from work. I thought I should entertain Gupta Chacha while he waited. So I opened the Gramophone and asked him if he wanted to hear Bachoñ kay Gānay or Ba∂oñ kay Gānay. He asked me what they were and I said the Bacha vala was Talat Mahmood and the Ba∂ā vala were Umkarnath Thakur This is what happens when you hear nothing but music when Abi is home. (By the way TM was my father's first cousin and grew up in my Dadi's house.)


The thing that I remember most about WW2 was that often the Abi went to treat an injured person, he'd take me along. I was always dressed in the Army Suit you see above on those trips. I saw some really badly injured persons and lots of blood. Occasionally Abi would take a blood sample and go the clinic room and put it in a container and make it go around. Once in a while he'd let me make the gadget around too. So my interest in Medicine probably grew out of this 'toyishness'. Sadly, that never really happened for a reason … 

*Gupta Cha + our move from India

Blogger › 2008/10India 3: An uncanny tale ... (Part 1 — The Rather Long Preamble) › 2008/10India 4: An uncanny tale ... (Part 2 — The Conclusion)

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Thursday, May 11, 2023

Azhar Kidvai (2)

Abi & Ummi: 1956

Abi's fondness for Literature in English and Urdu was something I inherited from him, as I did with his love for all kinds of Music: Western Classical, Opera, Jazz, Indian Classical and Qavvālis. I am so glad that I got all these from him for they have altered my life. I suppose a lot of the Eastern Classical music loving came from his mother who was very interested in it and had major musicians come to her house and perform.

Abi's mother did write a remarkable Foreword for my father's uncle.s book (Alame-Khayal by Shaoq Qidwai).The book was banned at that time in India but is now available in a collection of Shauq Sahab's work by his great grandson). She was a close friend of Atiya Fyzee. - an extremely well-known writer, traveller, and thinker - who was invited to major music concerts in India and the West. 

One of the things I remember most is when I sat for a Test (more about that in another blogpost) for the Merchant Navy, I had to write an essay on why I wanted to join it. I quoted a piece from a book; Sailing Alone Around The World (by Joshua Slocum) … and the examining Captain asked me where I had found this book. I said it was a present from my father. He said, Oh. Is he a Sailor?" and I said, "No, he is a Doctor." That may have helped me get in to a job that I was in for 25 years.

Abi had a large library of books and when he died … and while I was away on a trip … it was all sold to a man who bought rubbish. This was done by my khāla (maternal aunt) for a tiny amount. The money was given to my mother and it must have lasted for a couple of weeks. I spent days going to second-hand shops to see if I could find any and found 2 that are now in my possession. Wherever the remaining books are, I hope the new owners have improved their lives by reading them.

Here is a piece from Naee Paod


Abi's decision, even as a younger person was that people from all religions (and even non-religion persons) should live to gather. It wasn't that they just tolerate each other; they ought to live happily together and celebrate their own happy and sad events together. Another fact was that he knew that Women and Men were absolutely similar in their minds and strongly opposed the patriarchy in his conversations and writings. This can easily be seen in some of his prose and poetry pieces.

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Sunday, May 07, 2023

Azhar Kidvai (1)

I called my father Abi.
It means 'My Father' in Arabic and even in Hebrew.

Ever since I posted one of Abi's Ghazals on Facebook, I have had two members of my extended family (and a couple of friends) tell me to do a blogpost about him. One blogpost wouldn't do, I thought when I started this one ... so this is Part 1 of the blogposts I will do about him.

This was his Ghazal that I posted
It's in his own handwriting.

Abi was born in Rampur on April 11th, 1900, to Safdar Ali and Mahlaqa Begum and was given two names (a feature that was common on those days): Khāqān Alam (a name that he never used) and Azhar Ali (from which he dropped the Ali).

His Urdu name was ازہر قدوائ … although many people wrote it as اظہر (a much more common name in Urdu). But surely you do remember Al-Azhar? That's الازہر. The two words have different meanings. The ظ one brings ظاہر o your mind. The ز one comes from the meaning of light: Think of the planet زہرا … (Btw, my name is زہیر عاؔلم قدوائ ).

Our last names are Kidvai (and is obviously part of the Qidwai, Quidwai, Kidwai, etc.). The reason why my father used the K/V is because we are descended from Kazi Kidva, a Turkish Judge who came to India with Mughal Emperor, Babar. In the Turkish alphabet there is no Q or W. You can see this here …

And surely you have seen Qur'an written as Koran

He went to Aligarh for his studies (as did his father and a couple of chachas). He graduated as a B.A. in English Literature. Was a strong member of the Congress Party and also strongly supported the Khilafat Movement. He spent a brief time in Jail, condemned by the British Rulers.

On his return from Jail he decided to put together an Urdu Collection of Essays and Short Stories. It was called Naee Paod. Here is the cover:

I have a copy (the book is no longer in print now) and will add a story in my second blogpost about him.

He also (occasionally) translated some verses from English into Rübāis and Qit'as. Here is one that you might like.

A little later he decided to go to Scotland for a Degree in Medicine. His father agreed and sent him there … but hardly sent any money later (although my grandfather had plenty, but that is another story).

He had a pretty bad time in Scotland where he was doing his Degrees and would never go out with his friends, saying he had a 'secret date'. Actually he went to a small restaurant and ordered hot water and poured it into a glass, adding the Tomato Sauce to make it like a soup. That was most of the time. His friends thought he was dating a famous person and were eventually eventually told that he was in hospital. His left kidney had failed. He had had an operation and was now living with just one kidney.

I heard about all the above from his close friend, Rashid Chacha, in Karachi. I was amazed that my father had never ever mentioned this to me. When I asked him why he had never said this to me, he said it was about him and his father and I had no business to interfere in this.
He had no money to pay for his exam and his very close friend (?), Auntie Dorothy, decided to loan him the money to appear for the exam. Two years later he came to India as his mother was dying with Cancer. After her death he married my mother and told her on the second day that he would not be able to run the house with what he used to get as he had to return the money to Auntie Dorothy. My mother gave him the jewellery that she had been given in her jahez and it was sold so the he could send the full money to Auntie Dorothy. (My parents lived in Aligarh and that's where I was born.)
When Abi was in Scotland, he practiced his Medicine in a small town called Monifieth. When I was in the Merchant Navy as a Second Officer, my First Officer - John W. Cowper (JWC) - gave me a letter to post to his father. I saw Monifieth on the address and mentioned it to Abi. He said he knew who this person was the son of and I mentioned tis to JWC. On the next trip to UK, JWC took me to Monifieth and I met many of Abi's old friends, including Auntie Dorothy and JWC's father. They all remembered him and said he was very funny and he cracked lots of jokes and puns. 

JWC died a year later soon after his father passed away and he was informed that 'as an adopted son' he had been given his father's money according to the will. He never knew that he was adopted. Came home. Drank for days. And was found dead. I told my father this and he said he knew that JWC was adopted but his father had said to all his friends never to say this to JWC.

More in my next blog.

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Friday, April 21, 2023

India 5: An Uncanny Tale - The Epilogue

Well, not quite. Just sharing a few things.

The response to my Gupta Cha posts (Part 1 and Part 2) was overwhelming and completely bowled me over. And having them featured on ATP was fantastic, given the number of visitors who visit that remarkable site.

Then, just as Indian and Pakistani comments and emails about it began to understandably dwindle with time, the dreadful Mumbai Massacre struck. I blogged on the morning of December 2nd about it. The post got a few visits and drew one comment by the end of the day. After all, it wasn't a unique post. Millions were - once they got their eyeballs off their TV screens - reading the news, live accounts, conflicting reports, seasoned analysts, and far better blogs than mine. The sole comment had come from a Sarah Islam, who, I think was a first-time visitor to my blog. This led to an exchange in the comments section that ended on a warm note. The next morning, I received an email from her ... and the few exchanges that followed are being reproduced here - with her permission (she probably succumbed to my 'threat') - as I think her story is worth sharing and contains much food for thought.
==================== Dear Mr. Kidvai I have just read your blog entry entitled 'An Uncanny Tale...' about Gupta cha. This is absolutely beautiful! Are you seriously working on your novel "Ships and Shoes and SealingWax"? Are you then looking for a publisher or have you already spoken to someone? I could help you look for one here in India. You keep saying that you are a non writer, but I assure you that your writing has really touched me. I am dying to read the rest of your story and I am sure that a couple of thousand other people would be too :) I was born in Libya in 1971 to a Punjabi mother from Lahore and a Bangladeshi father whose family had fled to Dhaka (Dacca as it was called then) from Calcutta (now Kolkata :) ). My family and I lived in Lahore in the 90's and moved back to Dacca in 1998 after the death of my father. I met my husband there and now I am happily married and live in Calcutta! So you can say that life has now come full circle for me! My husband Sukhendu and I struggled with all the prejudices that people in all the three countries live with and also certain opinions that we had been brought up with. Now I am proud to say that we have reached a peaceful stage where the blinkers have literally been taken off of our eyes :) Sukhendu and I read your story about Gupta Cha together and cried when we reached the end. Please let us know if we can help in any way for you to finish your book and publish it so other people can also read your story. Peace! Sarah ==================== Dear Sarah (and Sukhendu) I am very touched by your comments and also thank you for sharing your own past, briefly, with me. Ships and Shoes and SealingWax is not intended to be a novel - I would not even dare undertake such a venture. It is being written, mainly, in response to pressure from my daughter and my almost-adopted daughter, Sabeen (both of whom you will encounter if you go through my blog archives). The book will, in all probability, be almost blog-like: anecdotal and all over the place! Though I hope to bring some continuity into it. Do write back and tell me more about yourselves and your family. Where do you live? What do you do? Why not share stories on a blog about your own unique experiences and difficulties that you defeated to reach today's peaceful life? Peace! Zaheer ==================== Dear Mr. Kidvai I am so happy to hear back from you! We live in Lake Gardens which is beind Jodhpur Park in South Kolkata. I wonder if you know the place? My husband and I both worked in advertising, he is now creative director (art) at Ogilvy & Mather and I used to be a copywriter but am only writing freelance pieces for magazines now. We met in 1998 in Dhaka where we both worked for McCann Erickson. I had a huge chip on my shoulder as I had just returned from Pakistan and him being Indian was enough reason for me to contradict everything he said ... hahaha :-) My family had returned from Libya in 1989 and decided to settle down in Dhaka. But after a few years, my mother packed off my brother Amber to Aitchison College in Lahore and my sister Reema and I to Lahore. So that is how we landed up in Pakistan. My parents joined us for a while but for most of the time, my sister and I lived with my nani amma on Nisbet Road. After we got married in 2004, my mother was very unhappy with my decision as she had seen the carnage in Amritsar and, later on, on the train to Lahore. She was only 6 at the time but she can recall certain events very clearly. I can understand that, as the events must have been pretty horrible and must have been burnt on her brain. She met my father Dr. Nurul Islam in Benghazi (Libya) and their marriage in 1970, too, was quite controversial as there was talk of East Pakistan asking for independence from West Pakistan. Anyway, I was brought up in a house where both cultures, Punjabi and Bengali, were very much in evidence and I was very happy as a child and most of my time was spent chasing after butterflies, making mud pies and reading from the ancient books that my grandfather had left us and the newer books that we bought every now and then. My mother was adamant that we should learn Urdu as she is of the opinion that having Urdu as our first language would help us speak beautifully and articulately. She was and still is a stickler for the right pronunciation:-) So we went to the Pak Libya School that was run by the Pakistani Embassy in Benghazi. For nurturing our Bengali heritage we were dutifully packed off for singing, dancing and Bangla lessons at Hafiz uncle's house. So at school we spoke in Pidgin Italian, a bit of Arabic and Punjabi/Urdu, at home we spoke in Urdu and English and Bengali for some of our guests and in front of my father (especially when he was cross) :-) I was brought up in a liberal household but after my father's death in 1998, my mother suddenly discovered her Pakhtun roots (my grandfather had settled in Lahore but was originally from Swat) and started attending Quran classes and sympathizing with the radical Islamization of Bangladesh. This was a shock for me and I rebelled. Over the years my distance from my mother and her views became considerable. Now we are talking again and things are getting better :-) In the beginning, I would get very defensive with Sukhendu whenever something like the BJP used to come up in conversations but then I was reminded of a story that I think has largely shaped my thinking. At school I learnt from textbooks that one Rashid Minhas was the recipient of the Nishaan-e-Haider and a brave and valiant soldier who had grappled with the Bengali flight Instructor, Flight Lietenant Matiur Rahman who was a traitor. I grew up hero worshipping Minhas. When I came back to Bangladesh, I was shocked to learn that for the Bengalis it was Matiur Rahman who was the hero and not Rashid Minhas, who they considered the enemy. I realized then that the history of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh is so intertwined and so full of passion and extraordinary circumstances that it is impossible to take sides. Both men as I see it today were heroes and valiant soldiers who just happened to be on opposite sides of the cause. It was an accident of birth. This realization has, on one side, liberated me and, on the other side, saddened me beyond imagination. This means that we will always be at each other's throats and no one will see the person but only the flag that he is wrapped in. Of course I am exagerating, but I am telling my story fully for the first time. I think you will understand the confusing identities that I live with and also that there will always be people who will rise above pettiness :-) Thanks for listening to me. God bless! Sarah ==================== Dear Sarah Wow! And you want me to write [down] my stories? Blog this just the way you've written it to me. At the moment it's a request but can be used as threat by saying I'll publish it on my blog ;-) It's real tales such as yours that will ensure that the only things we all really need to burn is not each other's flags but our own if peace is what we want. All the best. Zaheer PS: I hope you won't be offended at my saying this, but as an anti-nationalist, I would not accept that both RM & MR were heroes. They were just simpletons, brain-washed into committing such acts. But that, of course, pre-supposes that the story, itself, is true. There are some in the Air Force[s] who have, since, cast doubts on the veracity of the entire tale and think it was a crash that the PR-minded in Pakistan decided to use to advantage and the BD people, naturally, made the best of it. Who knows. So it goes ... ====================
I just LOVE the technology that has made all this possible, so here's to Doug Englebart, Alan Kay, the two Steves, Bill (huh? who he?), Tim-Berners-Lee, and hosts of others. May the FSM bless you all. Oh, and Sarah now has a blog :-)

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India 4: An uncanny tale ... (Part 2 — The Conclusion)

When you have had the benefit of a 25-year stint at sea (1959-1984), there is bound to be much that is narratable and shareable, with some of it even of interest to a few people outside your immediate family. But this post is, primarily, about Gupta Cha (and his family) - so I shall make only brief references to the other parts which will be covered in greater detail in "Ships and Shoes and Sealing Wax" (if that "book+" ever gets completed). However, as indicated at the end of my previous post, the real conclusion to the tale - which took place last year - will make up the second half of this post. The first will be spent breezing through the intervening years.

Ok, so it's 1947, the last day of September. Abi has finally received permission to extend his leave and proceed with the family to Karachi. We are to set sail on the S.S. DUMRA (of the British India Steam Navigation Co.) and are standing on a pier. There's a mad rush wherever one casts an eye. If I had known of the concept then, I would probably have thought of Maedaané Hashr. The sounds of bawling from families being separated can be heard mingling with the shrill laughter of children running everywhere, excited by the journey.

The 5 of us soon board the ship, bidding goodbye to Gupta Cha and to Badshah Chacha, who has travelled from South India to see us off. Standing with them is a close friend of my father, the amazing Dr. Baliga (one of my 'ideals' when I was a teenager), who was once invited to Pakistan to treat our Governor General, Ghulam Mohammad. A couple of Sikh hockey players from the Bombay Sea Customs, 'fans' of Abbu Jan, have arrived to say goodbye to their Hockey Hero, but now seem more interested in Chacha Jania (Talat Mahmood) whom they have cornered. As usual, he is too shy and polite to get away from them, though he wants to join us for parting hugs. The very moment that we start up the gangway, he runs towards us and the Sikhs shout out to all, "Yeh Talat Mahmood bhaaga jaa rahaa hae Pakistan. Roko. Roko." The laughs lighten the sad moment. \

We are shown to a cabin which, though meant for 2+1, is spacious enough and the bistarband comes in handy. Soon, the ship's ropes are cast off and we move gently away from the pier. The air is suddenly filled with wave after wave of loud roars of Pakistan Zindabad and Quaid-e-Azam Zindabad. One can feel not just the passion but the freedom in those naaraas, suppressed at the pier where everyone realized that such slogans could incite riots. Once Bombay harbour begins to fade out of sight, Abi contacts the officer who is doing the rounds to inform him that he is a doctor and available for any emergency help that the ship's team might need. An hour or so later, he is called up by the captain and, with two other doctors and a couple of nurses also travelling as passengers. They are introduced to the Ship's Medical Officer and agree to do frequent rounds and assist with any passengers needing help.

At some late hour we are woken up by Abi to meet - and accommodate, if possible - a couple trying to find a comfortable place to rest. He has found them on his very first round. The bearded husband is none other than poet Bahzaad Lakhnavi. Some of you may be familiar with Begum Akhtar's rendition of his "Deevaana Banaana Hae To ..." Once a rangeen shaaer, Bahzaad Chacha later turned into a very prolific naat go, and now lies buried in Karachi with signs on the graveyard proclaiming his ishqé rasool. His unique tarannum was extremely popular with müshaerah audiences. The next 3 days of the journey are spent with him and Abi reciting ghazals to each other with a slowly increasing 'fan club' blocking the passageways. The day before arrival in Karachi is my 7th birthday. Bahzaad Chacha gives me a shayr as gift. The original, in his hand, has long been lost ... but I still remember the words:
Tüm ko tohfay mayñ aur kyaa dayñ ham?
Lo nayaa mülk ... Iss mayñ phoolo phalo!
Abbu Jan gets a small temporary house somewhere near Jackson Bazaar in Keamari and, later, moves into the large Customs Flats nearby. We live with them for a few weeks while Abi - almost penniless - does the rounds in Karachi in the hope of finding a suitable job in some hospital. He does not wish to re-join the Army and has applied for release. One day, quite by chance, Abi bumps into Swami Ji (as we always addressed him). He recognizes Abi as one of his fellow students at medical college. Abi learns that Swami Ji and two other colleagues run a charitable hospital - with free treatment for Hindus - under the Ramakrishna Mission. They are on the verge of leaving for India, after handing over the place to GoP (as evacuee property, I guess). The stock of medicines, good for about a year, is to be thrown out since transferring them to other hospitals is considered a major task of logistics and accounting. Abi is apalled. He says he would like to continue running the hospital, without charging the Mission, until all the medicines run out. He promises to keep it free for Hindus if the Mission agrees that the free treatment could also be extended to Muslim refugees who cannot afford to pay. They agree, but there is the Government to convince. Abi's old Aligarian friend, Mr A. T. Naqvi, now the Commissioner of Karachi, arranges for this to be formalized and, suddenly, Abi has a job which, though it carries no salary, comes - to our delightful surprise - with a small 2 room apartment on Nazareth Road (half-way between Guru Mandir and Soldier's Bazaar). We live next to the larger apartment occupied by Swami Ji and his colleagues. I am in and out of their house all day, devouring all the Idlees and Dossas and Rasm they can feed me - which explains my desire to dart off to the South Indian Sagar restaurant the moment I get to Dilli. (If you ever go there, be sure to try their almost-3-foot-long Paper Dossa.)
Diversion The Nazareth Road house is purchased the following year by a Nawab Hasan Yar Jang (nephew of the colourful Nizam of Hyderabad) and Swami Ji manages to have it written into the agreement that as long as Abi is alive he can continue to stay in that apartment, paying rent - of course. The Swamis leave in a few months. Nawab Sahab - always very civil when we encounter him in the building - shifts in with his 'lingerers on'. He gives me my favourite mithai - genuine Baadaam Ki Lauz - whenever he receives a package of it from Hyderabad. I even get to go with him and (What a treat!) sit in the Royal Stall to attend the Platinum Jubilee of Aga Khan III (grandfather of the present one), a ceremony Nawab Sahab is attending on behalf of the Nizam. But Nawab Sahab is a stickler for words. The contract says that my father can occupy the house as long as he lives. On 18th September 1963 my ship happens to arrive in Karachi. On the 19th my father dies. (Abbu Jan and Ammi Jan are getting a house built in Iqbal Town and are temporarily staying with us, which offers Ummi and me a bit of solace, since we have all been very close, always.) The Nawab attends the funeral, comes into the house to condole with my mother, and informs me on his way out that we have to vacate the house in 48 hours! Which is what I try to do, but it takes a bit longer and needs the good offices of neighbour, ex-Mayor Khan Bahadur Gabol Sahab, to convince the Nawab. I sail away two days after our hurried shifting. This trip to Karachi has been a life-changing experience for someone only 23 years old. But let me get back on track.
Gupta Cha is in touch by mail and we receive a picture of him and Chachi soon after their wedding in 1949 or 1950. This exchange continues, off and on. When Abi dies, Ummi receives a very warm letter from them, asking "Bhabiji" to stay with them in Dilli for a while. But the trip never materializes. We couldn't afford it. Then, for some reason - possibly mail going astray after the 1965 war - we all lose touch. For years I search for him ... but can recall neither his rank nor anything else. Whenever my ship is at an Indian port, I try to think up ways to find Gupta Cha. Trying to find a 'Gupta' in the Indian army, I am told, is just short of tracing the right 'Khan' in Afghanistan.

Zoom ahead to 1983: I am in command of a ship operated by the Gokals out of Hong Kong. The officers and crew of these ships are multinational and on my ship the Chief Engineer, Vipin Kaura, is from India. Vipin's father - a retired Army officer - comes from Dilli to visit our ship and stays there for a few days.
Soon after 'Uncle Kaura' arrives, I decide to go wish him. I plan to remember to say Aadaab in the old tradition but my Pakistani Radio Officer - a Lahori - tells me that that was not as common a greeting in Punjab as in Delhi and the U.P., so maybe I should say Namsté to be polite. I walk in and say that, a bit awkwardly, failing badly at the hand coordination for the accompanying gesture. Uncle Kaura - originally from Rawalpindi - says. "Aray ... hum to soach rahay thay keh bohat din baad Salaam Alaeküm sünnay ko milay ga ..." and soon the talk turns to his homesickness and losing touch with old friends. He regrets forgetting to write Urdu well.
During the stay I recount 'our' partition story and he asks me if there is anything I can recall about Gupta Cha that could help trace him. Apart from his first name, Birjesh, I usually can't recall anything. But from some hidden corner of my mind, that day, I bring forth two facts that I'd never consciously recalled earlier. Someone in Gupta Cha's family - possibly his father? - was a Judge. And they lived in a house called Bürj Mahal in Meerut. Before he leaves the ship and heads home, Uncle Kaura says he will ask some old colleagues about Gupta Cha but doubts if anything will come of it. Five days later, I am standing at the Shipping Agency office when I am handed an envelope posted from Delhi, addressed to me. I open it and discover a letter in Urdu in a shaky hand. It starts "Pyaaray Baytay ...". "How sweet of Uncle Kaura," I think to myself, "to try and write in Urdu after all these years." But the next para that I read (writing this I am still feeling the same sensation as I did then) is something I cannot believe. I jump ahead and look at the bottom of the next page. YESSSSS! It says "Tümhaara Gupta Cha". It takes me an interminable amount of time to absorb this. A clerk comes up and asks if I am OK. I have tears streaming down my cheeks and can barely speak as I read about Gupta Cha thinking each year of me on my birthday, admittedly not difficult to remember in India (It's Gandhi Ji's, too!). I read and re-read the letter. He wants me to fly out to Delhi. Of course I cannot (not just because of the visa but because we sail out in 2 days).
It turns out that Uncle Kaura, immediately on his return to Delhi, took a bus to Meerut and spent the day searching for Bürj Mahal. Unsuccesful at his attempt, he stopped at a shop in a multistory building to have a cold drink before taking the bus back. The shopkeeper and he got into a conversation and he mentioned his search for Bürj Mahal. "This very building is where it used to be," said the shopkeeper, "and the old owners live right on top, I think." So up climbed Uncle Kaura and met Gupta Cha's sister-in-law and told her the tale. She recalled our family and informed Uncle Kaura that Gupta Cha lived in Delhi! Defence Colony!! One lane behind Uncle Kaura's house!!! (Yes, Woody Allen. Life does imitate bad television!). So it is to Uncle Kaura that I owe more than I had realized.
After I regain control of my senses (and I am not dramatizing this ... it did take a while, as 36 years and all that's happened in that period ran through my mind) I immediately decide to phone him. And Ummi. Getting connected to Karachi, oddly, happens very quickly but I just manage to tell her that I've found Gupta Cha when, even more quickly, the line drops and we cannot get through again. Getting through to Delhi is a 'trunk call' - as calls between cities were then known - and requires a 'booking'. "It's about a 3-4 hour wait," says the operator. The manager of the agency, who, like everyone else in that room, has heard bits of my story by then, takes the phone from me and says something in Marathi, and then translates it for me. "Maeñ saalay ko bola 'Yeh jaldi type ka call hae! Death and Illness Emergency'. Abhee das minat mayñ mil jaae ga." Of course I can't recall the conversation with Gupta Cha. Too full of both of us trying to fill the other in about everyone and everything. Sobs. Laughter. He tells me he has two children. The son, nicknamed 'T2' is in the army. His daughter, Nanu, is married to Sunil who is in the Navy and is posted in Bombay. I am excited. "Can I see her?" Gupta Cha gives me the address of her house in the Naval Colony and, still reeling from all this, I am put on a rickshaw by the friendly clerk who first tells the driver my story and then instructs him to wait wherever I am going and bring me back later and collect the money from the office as part of the celebrations for my joy. Awwwww.

So off I go. Kinda stupidly quick response, if I'd just thought a bit. I can't even get into the Naval Colony in my own city without some identity papers. And, as a Ship Captain from Pakistan, I should not even be near an Indian Navy area. But who was thinking? In retrospect, I often shudder. Had I been arrested and charged with a Pak spy masquerading as an Indian, I'd still be in jail there, if alive. But I was not pretending about anything. I was excited and that's all that must have shown on my face. No nervousness at all. Just a stupid pasted smile of the kind that airline staff bear. The clothes, too, helped. I was in a white khaddar kurta pyjama - my usual dress code for the evenings - a common sight in Bombay, anyway. The chatty rickshaw vaala, who informed me that he was a Muslim and had relatives in Karachi, spoke to the guard when he asked where we were headed. "Aray chho∂o yaar ... 30 saal baad behen say milnay jaa rahaa hae sahab!" And we were in.
Later, I have laughed often at the thought that the Indian Naval Security services are at the same level as ours - recalling that in the 60s, when we docked in Karachi with ammunition that our ship had brought in from Iran, the whole port area was under security and passes were required to board the craft. Not even our own officers could step onto the quay and board the ship again without passes. Sitting in my room, I nearly leapt out of my chair as I saw an old friend from India walk in. "How the eff did you get on board? It's bloody tight security!" ... Bhagwan Das winked and said, "Full Paanch rupyah diya gate vaalay ko, yaar!" 
The meeting with Sunil and Nanu was great. It was like being at home with people I'd always known. No takallüf. They already knew of me. Their elder daughter, Ayeshah, (named by Gupta Cha) fell asleep soon but I did get to carry around the new addition, 4-month old Amrita, after eating a lovely home-cooked meal, so that Nanu could eat in peace. I wish the ship would have stayed longer so I'd have got to spend more time with them. For a year or so Nanu and I managed to stay in occasional contact, but Sunil was then posted to Vishikhapatnam, I think, and none my letters ever reached them, so we lost touch.

Gupta Cha and I wrote to each other often and I phoned him from several ports - Hong Kong, Singapore, from wherever I could dial direct. He and Ummi, too, exchanged a few letters (in Urdu!). He was insistent that I hop across the border and stay with him for a few days. "I have a room reserved for you", he'd always tell me. But visas were an impossibility for me then. I returned to Karachi in late March 1986 and Ummi told me that Gupta Cha had passed away just a couple of days earlier. Fate's cruel joke... to have found him after years and never met him! I spoke to Chachi on the phone. There was less to say except in silence. Some time later, I received a call from "T2", whom I had not been in any kind of contact with. His addressing me as "Bhaisaahab" seemed so strange. He told me they were letting go of the house and he was taking Chachi along to wherever he was posted then. Chachi came on the line - and in one of the most touching moments for me in this strange saga - asked me if it would be possible, before they left the house, to come and stay a day or two in the room that Gupta Cha had earmarked for me. I tried but I could not get the NOC needed for a visa. (Although I had left the sea - swallowing the anchor soon after my daughter's birth … and Ummi's accident that confined her to a wheelchair … and started a company of my own, my passport still showed Merchant Seaman as my profession, so our Ministry had to issue NOCs.) I never managed to contact T2 and Nanu again. Uncle Kaura, too, passed away before I could find out the address from where, maybe, I could get a forwarding address they'd left behind.

On my next trip to Delhi, much later, I told Vipin about trying to find T2 and, together, we called up several Guptas, none of whom could help. I discussed with Tarun (of Tehelka) the possibility of an ad in his paper looking for these people but we never got around to it.

Fast Forward: It's late 2007. I am sitting at T2F in Karachi and get a call from a Pakistani Merchant Ship Captain, some years junior to me. We don't really know each other. He is writing a book about our Merchant Navy and wants any photos that I may have which could be used. Then he says, "I was in Bombay last week at a meeting and there was someone who wanted to get in touch with you. I promised to trace your numbers and send them to him." I imagine it's one of my many Indian fellow seafarers from the NOL (Singapore) or GESL (Hong Kong) days. But it turns out that it's someone from the Indian Navy. "SUNIL?" I almost shout the question. "Yes." It's just too crazy! I get Sunil's number and call him up. Later, I speak with Nanu. I learn that Chachi is no more. None of us ever got to meet her :-( Then I get a Delhi number and call T2, whom I'd searched for as a Major? Colonel? Something Gupta. In all the years I was in contact with the Gupta family, no one had ever mentioned T2's full name! Turns out he is Pradeep Kumar. Chalo. And he's been living in Delhi for a few years (during many of which I've been visiting the place often, even for long periods). Much as I wanted to, I could not attend T2's son (and my fellow Merchant Navy Officer) Abhimanyu's wedding in Jaipur, where Ashmita's family live. Just a few days earlier that city had suffered from bomb blasts (obviously, the blame was laid at our doorstep, as is customary) so getting a visa to that city was out of the question. 

Things are getting better. T2 met our daughter in Dhaka during his business trip. I met him and his wife, Ruby, when I stopped over in Delhi en route to Kolkota for a meeting. Sunil flew over from Mumbai and we had dinner together. Nanu, I hope, will be able to come to Delhi the next time I am there (hopefully in the last week of the next month). And I am dying to see the kids all grown up.

If ever there could be a suitable postscript to all this, it's this email I received just a while ago. Peace!

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The 'Other' Heresies

Mexican photographer Pedro Meyer is as renowned for his powerful and provocative photographs as he is for his pioneering work with digital imaging. Meyer’s photographs consistently test the limits of truth, fiction and reality. With the advent of digital photography in the early 1990s, Meyer evolved from a documentary photographer who created so-called “straight photographs” into a digital-documentarian who often combines photographic elements from disparate times and places to arrive at a different or higher truth. Pedro's oft-expressed contention that all photographs — digitally manipulated or not — are equally “true” and “untrue” has been labeled “heretical” in the orthodox documentary photography community.

While fellow Apple-user Pedro Meyer (one of the first to adopt this platform and launch the very first intearactive CD-ROM!) may have his exhibition - Heresies - opening in 60 museums in almost as many countries (we are thrilled that T2F, where the exhibition opens on 21st October, has been selected as the Pakistani venue).

There are others, like me :), whose photographs have also made it to some of the greatest (virtual!) halls in the world. Here are just 2 of my examples.

"Happy viewing", as the Senator said!



See you at the real Heresies, where a selection of large original museum quality prints of Pedro's works will be displayed and changed almost weekly!

Please do keep checking out the schedule at T2F's website for the exciting related events, like workshops, talks, discussions, and presentations during the weeks that this unique exhibition is on, unless you're on FB and already visit T2F Pages for updates.

Oh ... did you know that you can also subscribe to T2F's Events RSS Feed so you get the news automatically? And, as the icing on the cake, sign up for SMS alerts and get timely reminders too. This saves you the task of 'remembering to remember' to go to the website and saves me answering calls - usually when an event is actually happening - Maddy, please note ;-) - about when and what time it's happening.

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A great leap forward

When my daughter screened her very first short film (Bindiya Chamkay Gee) - during one of T2F's Cinema for Change sessions - the star of the documentary was also the star of the evening, answering questions and countering comments (some rather accusatory) with a confidence that many had not expected. But then they had never met a Hij∂a like Bindiya!

  Among the post-event post-Q&A discussions that followed within small groups (and the place was buzzing) there was one recurring thought: Given the scale, number, and variety of problems developing countries face, it was a wild fantasy for Bindiya or her supporters to imagine that the difficulties encountered by such a small subset of the population would even be on the radar of the governments of any of the countries in the majority world (to use Shahidul Alam's term of choice). Some felt that the vote-bank was not large enough for any politician to try and woo. Others, that any decent politician (yes, it is possible, though admittedly rare) who truly wished to support such a cause would be mocked so much that he would lose his general credibility.

It was a joy, then, to see this news item from our 'neighbouring country' (a euphemism that our state media uses for India, lest the invocation of the actual name result in that evil genie materialising and devouring us).
DISCRIMINATED AGAINST and forced to live in secluded communities, India’s hijras have always had to fight for basic entitlements. Two weeks ago, however, a major victory was achieved when Tamil Nadu added a third gender to ration cards. Hijras may now enter a ‘T’ (for transgender) in place of a ‘M’ or ‘F’ on ration cards. The move makes Tamil Nadu the first Indian state to officially recognise its hijra citizens.
Incidentally, the article is by Morgan Harrington, who was at Hampshire College with our daughter. Read the whole story

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The post I wish I hadn't had to write

Being in Dhaka for an FK Partnership meeting provided me with a chance to spend time with my lovable daughter, now at her first job (at Drik) after graduation. Except for the two meeting days, for which I moved into the hotel where the event was held, I am living in a room next to her, provided to me courtesy Pathshala. The post I'd planned to write was going to be gossipy and funny ... but that will have to wait, now. For almost 4 days I have watched our beti bravely handle the suspense of her college friend, Dora Magrath, missing from her home. Dora and she had lived in the same house at Hampshire College and were good friends.

My daughter kept logging on to all the sites that could possibly provide any updates ... but little was heard. I watched Dora's YouTube videos - especially the one of her singing Amazing Grace - marveling at her wonderful voice and adoring her sweet smile. My heart went out to Linda, Dora's mom about whom our daughter had spoken to us. I spoke to Nuzhat about Dora and we both hoped and prayed that Dora would be home, safe and sound, soon. Tonight we returned after dinner and, exhausted, My daughter fell asleep in my room. I wrote the post about Pakistan's YouTube fiasco and then searched on the Net for Dora again. No news. Five days! The car she was in hadn't been found. That gave us hope and, as many felt, reduced the chances of foul play. I read and re-read Dora's words on her MySpace page:
I do not want to be a product. I do not want to sell my pretty face to sell a record. I want to play my music, to be a constant student, to live my life the way I want. And if that means that I need to have a day job, and maybe a high-paying night job a couple nights a week, then so be it. I’m tired of seeing every musician turn themselves into a product, into something smooth and glossy that everyone will automatically “love.” I don’t want to smooth out the rough edges, I don’t want to make myself into something or some one that moves with the tide. I want to own one wave, own the bubbles and the rough edges and the swooshing of that one wave and know that I move with it, move like it, because I wish, not because I can gain the whole ocean from it.
I found a CD of hers on a website. Downloadable ... but through PayPal, a sevice not accessible from here. Among her musical influences, she'd cited my favourite jazz singer of all time: Billie Holiday. Yes, I thought. Dora would ... Once again I logged on to Steve Huff's Dora Magrath page for updates, more links, and another run of the Amazing Grace video, which I downloaded to play for our beti when she wakes up. At midnite, just as I was considering going to sleep, our daughter woke up. She logged on to search again, without luck. After all, I'd searched only moments ago. And, quite suddenly, there it was: Dora was dead! Dead! An awfully difficult word to speak or write about a 22-year-old. A little kid about whom, only a couple of days ago, I had read this:
Dora Magrath has a superpower. No, she can’t shoot deathrays from her eyes or lead North Korea. She has the ability of making everything disappear around you when she starts singing. This singer-songwriter sounds like a Regina Spektor fed with jazz records. Her amazing voice barely covered by a shy piano just gives me shivers.
It was good that I was with my daughter ... although I am sure I could offer her no real consolation. But loneliness would have made it much worse for her, I guess. It's been over 2 hours since we read the news of Dora's death. While I sit and write this, she is visiting all her old web spaces and talking to friends and reliving those wonderful days and memories of Dora. My mind goes back to the loss of a friend, through suicide, when I was just 16 ... and I realize how inexplicable and confusing life must seem to my daughter. Dora, I wish I had met you in person. Yet, strangely, you now seem much more than just a collection of photographs and videos and a beautiful voice to me. R.I.P., child!

Finally, here's Dora ... in her own words. ===================== Update March 3, 2008: I am leaving Dhaka today, for home. Being with my daughter - free of most interferences - has been an experience quite different from what I had imagined. Over the last few days, despite the fact that at my age I have had to deal with many deaths before, I am trying to come to terms - not just with Dora's death but the inexplicable closeness I feel with her. The more I read about her at various websites and obituaries, the more I hear about her from my beti and from Dora's friends, the more I realize how special this very wonderful person was IS! My daughter and her friends have put together a website featuring posts and reminiscences by friends and family as well as links to other sites and blogs that mention Dora. Read her mother's letter and you will be truly inspired by this amazing 22-year-old who has taught me much in this short space of a week.

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For the Record

My daughter wanted to go to college. I really thought it was an awful idea. But she's there and will - if all goes the way the wheels of Academia turn - graduate in 6 months or so.

I hate schools, colleges, Education - an ideology, often diametrically opposite to Learning (which I worship). But, then, what does one expect from anything that has been institutionalized or turned into a System. Yes, I hate Systems, too. (Time for some of you to switch to reading another blog, maybe.)

So, it is only natural that I get asked, often by genuinely interested people, but more often at a panel discussion or debate, by someone trying to win his lost arguments through rhetoric and mockery, "So, why did you send your daughter to college? (Snicker!)

I admit there was a conflict and I could not solve it easily. To have not let her go would have been dictatorial. And although I am sure I have behaved that way on occasion (although far less than by my daughter's reckoning), those occasions have dwindled with her growing up. After all, she was almost 18 when she was making that choice and would soon be legally an adult in many countries. Too, it was not essential for her to accept my view of things just as it was essential for me to acknowledge that she had a right to her views and a right to act upon them.

Since her choice of colleges lay outside Pakistan, I felt that the independence, the varieties of experience she would have, and the exposure to some amazing people on the visiting academics category would offset, partly, the evils of the system. And Pakistan, with its increasingly stifling society, seemed no place for any young person to grow up - much less a girl.

The compromise I reached with her was that she could go, provided she got aid or scholarship. I would not be a paying party to such a venture. That's how she ended up at Hampshire College, a radical liberal arts space that, at least, tries to do away with some of the more rigid aspects of institutions. But I hope that when it comes to her life as a parent she will excercise better judgement ;-) for her own children.

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Wednesday, March 01, 2023

Roger Schank - I will miss you!

March 12, 1946 – January 29, 2023

My first meeting with this giant of a man, Roger Carl Schank, was when I went with a Hamdard University Team to USA. I wrote to him and said I'd love to meet him with the HUT and that he was someone I really adored after seeing the Engines for Education Book and amazing CD-ROM.

This is what RS said: "That's a fairly low point in your thoughts about wanting to meet me but, anyway, come and meet me. I might make you think bigger."

The meeting went really well, despite our differences in our talking about Seymour Papert ("He is going the wrong way, Zaheer", said Roger). I, of course, loved Seymour and his LOGO language and the things SP thought children should learn. This conversation with Roger proved that we could be on opposite sides in an argument but enjoy the session the most.

In 2005 Mrs Kasuri asked me to make her annual school sessions into a much bigger event and invite others outside Beaconhouse School System. We decided that the name would be School of Tomorrow. I suggested that Roger Schank would be the best major speaker. She said I should find out what his rates and conditions were. I got Roger to bring down his rather high USA rates to something we could agree upon. He said he'd do this for me and the friendship that had grown over the years. I told Mrs K … to which she agreed. So Roger came with his wife, Annie Payeur.

The event was going to be fun as Mr Kasuri, our Foreign Minister, informed me that President, Pervez Musharraf, would be the Chief Guest. Soon after this we got a note saying that Pervez Hoodbhoy should not be present as the President didn't want to be at the venue with him around. Sad? Yes. So I called PH and he said he'd rather be in the afternoon session … and that tragedy was avoided.

Another message: The President will come with some Ministers and will leave soon after his address in the middle of Roger Schank's speech. (I informed Roger and he said that's ok, Presidents have to sleep.)

Not only did the President come, he brought several Ministers with him. After his address he and his team watched Roger's full speech. Then the President responded and said he would want Roger to set up a school in Islamabad and another one in Karachi. Wow!!!

Roger was really thrilled at the President listening to him and, finally, talking about 2 schools here.

BUT! BUT! BUT! This was not going to happen … as I heard from one of the President's men, later. A couple of the Ministers had objected to Roger doing anything with our Educational System, even in a small part. "Why?", I asked. And was told that Roger was a Jew and some Ministers thought it would create a very serious problem.

I am totally upset about the Müllā Brigade that resorts to mad things … but am somehow partly glad that this did happen when {Rumors(?) FakeNews (?) RealNews (?)} came up later that our President and our Foreign Minister were trying to formally accept Israel under a US idea.

Of course, the Müllā Brigade didn't bat an eyelid when their hero, the despicable Zia-ul-Haq, talked to Israel to supply Pakistan with weapons in the Afghan War and is reported to have said "Just don't put the six-sided star on the packages. Hahaha". You can find a reference to this here and in Wikipedia.

Roger came several times to Beaconhouse's School of Tomorrow conferences, trained a bunch of teachers in Lahore, and had everyone loving his conversation, his attitude, and his humour. I am sure that his death will make many of his students here really sad. I always felt that it was a pity that BSS never seriously considered this route … but I guess there must have been reasons.

At one point he called me to his home in USA where we had a meeting with many of his friends and colleagues. We all decided that Story Telling was the way to go as he had said in several of his books and lectures. We even got the beginning of a program worked out where we all contributed a bit of our thoughts. The program finally ran at a State in USA. Sadly it didn't go much further. Fighting against Student Book Publishers plus the powers that be are two different but equally difficult things.

At another SoT, while Roger and I were sitting outside with our Coffee, the Head of our major educational publishers arrived and sat with us. Talking about Roger Schank's idea of how the new opportunities of the Internet and CDs/DVDs, the person said that it was "the most foolish idea. After all do you think we should shut down our presses and close shop." Of course a few years later they too were publishing CDs … though I must say they were as bad as most Educational CDs are or the Interconnected Classes on the Net are. Terrible way to go when there was so much that could have been done. Publishers should just Eff Off!

I must tell you how wonderful Roger was in every way. He knew I had Diabetes. He collected loads of Sugar Free stuff for me and had it in his house during our stay there. He even took me to a shop where I could buy Sugar Free stuff to take back to Pakistan.

Over the next few years I kept in touch with him on email and received wonderful books written by him sent whenever he wrote a new one. And, believe me, there were plenty of books, each pulling us closer together. There are several one can talk about, but here are a few:

Here is the inside of the last book he sent me.


Roger - You've managed to change a part of the world. Calling Truth to Power was something you gave to all your students and I am sure they will, in a generation or two, change the other parts, too.

The book that I want all of you to read is this.

Available everywhere where books matter!

Sadly there is no video of the 'battle' he fought years ago with his cousin, Noam Chomsky… On Language! I saw the newspaper coverage when I was at his house. Don't know where that will be now. Perhaps it will be in a Library. Suffice it to say that he won hands on.

Here is his obituary written by Annie

Dr. Roger Schank

Peacefully and with dignity on Sunday, January 29, 2023, at the age of seventy-six. Son of the late Maxwell and the late Margaret Schank. Devoted and cherished husband of Annie Payeur for twenty-three wonderful years. Treasured brother-in-law of Larry and Mary Jean Payeur, and Tia Payeur. Special uncle of Noel Planet. Survived by his children Hana, and Joshua and their families. Roger will be deeply missed by his family, friends, colleagues, employees, and by all who knew and loved him. Special thanks to Dimitri and Marcel, Elliott, Tammy, Patti, Ray, Greg, Chris, Holly, Mike, Anatole and Nancy, George, and Rena and Fred for their care and devotion during Roger’s illness. Annie would like to acknowledge with sincerest gratitude the staff of The Arbors at Shelburne, University of Vermont Hospice, 34, and Prairie for the hat. Funeral service from Paperman & Sons, 3888 Jean Talon St. W., on Monday, February 6 at 1:00 p.m. Burial at the Beit Abraham Extension Section, Kehal Israel Cemetery. D.D.O. Shiva on Monday following burial and Tuesday. Location to be announced. Contributions in Roger’s memory may be made to the “Dr. Roger Schank Memorial Fund” c/o the University of Vermont (UVM) Hospice, (802) 860-4499 ext. 3812.

“Roger was funny, controversial, smart and most of all had a big heart. If you met him, I’m sure it was so memorable that you could Tell Me A Story, (LOL)” – Annie

The one thing that I remember most about him was his phone call when news was everywhere that USA would attack Pakistan. He said: "There is little I can do about you and your wife. You can come over to the States whenever you can. But please send Ragni (my daughter who was a tiny child) to my house right away. I'd like her to be really safe. Annie and I will make sure. I can send her a ticket from here."

This will remain with me forever!


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