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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Huzoor Abba

My post about my father's birthday got me two letters from cousins - a close one and a very distant one - that wanted to know why we were 'poor', after my grandfather (they'd heard) was a rich man. This was not a post I'd thought I'd write … but now it's here.


Memories play all sorts of tricks and, often, many of them may not be 'real'. Some are changed around by hearing things differently from different people. Others have little fluffments added on for pleasure. Or dread. My memories of Huzoor Abba, Safdar Ali - my paternal grandfather, have no such transformations that I could consider. They are few, but come straight from the actual days I spent with him.

I hated most of them, I admit, though this old pic of him and me, taken a few days before his death, may not convey that.

HA was a strange man. Slightly to the right of Ivan the Terrible? I dunno. That's what my cousins and I used to call him when we were kids. We hardly saw anyone really speaking to him, other than an uncle or my khaala (who was also his younger brother's wife). Most people I knew of were afraid to be near him, other than as younger relatives categorically asking him how he was, or some such thing, and then disappearing fast.

My father was very fond of HA … for reasons that I've never understood. But it seemed that Abi was fond of everyone, so I guess that's the way he was. In fact, when I once said I was very upset at the way HA had treated him (specially having 'forgotten' him after sending him off to UK and not paying for his fees or anything), I was told that that was between him and his father and that I had no right to pass judgement over it. What a strange world that generation was.

My own memories of him were rude, crude, distrusting, awful. He had not even the slightest aeon that he could spare for something that was not entirely in line with his thought. His anger and attitude - and there were many instances that I can recall - was something that really amazed everyone. Two that I can quickly recollect are from Calcutta:
1. His having locked me up, when I was just under 4, with his great big Alsatian in a small kothri just because I seemed scared. No lights. The dog barking away. My mother, in tears, in another room. Me crying out loud. My cousins - a couple of years older than I - writhing away in pain. I fell asleep. The dog, fell asleep, too, I guess. My khaala came later and fought with HA and pulled me out. He thought I'd gotten rid of my dog-phobia but it actually took years for me to overcome this.
2. Much worse, this was only a few days later. It was Eed. We were in my Khaala's house. I had these lovely shoes. You know … the ones with silver and red. Üff. How much fun they were. So I walked up to him, with Ummi, and told him that they were great. He looked at Ummi and said "Tüm ghar jaao. Zaheer ko maéñ lay kar aaooñgaa." I dunno what happened next. I do remember playing with my cousins who were there, too. And then he came up to me and said, "Jootay ütaaro!" … in an accent that there is no way I can write about. But it was fierce. I took off the shoes. "Socks", he said. They were gone. He caught me by the hand and, in the grossiest afternoon, at 3 o'clock, he made me walk barefoot, from his house to my khaala's. Two miles. My feet were killing me. I was blistering and in tears. People looked at us. We reached home. In the time that I was on the road and the few minutes I was at my house my feet were now burning. He said to Ummi: Bachchoñ ko ameer naheeñ banaatay. And left.
A doctor was called in. He was a friend of my father and it took a long time for my Khalu, Asad Ali, to convince him not to report it to the police. The doctor wanted my grandfather arrested. I was in bed for 4 days with bandages. I hated HA. Really hated him.
Son of Munshi "Abr" Kidvai (who was the brother of Shauq - a classical Urdu poet), he and his 4 other brothers were fairly well-off as kids. He was a friend of the little Nawab sahab - since his father was a Munshi Ji in the court and much respected - and spent his childhood there, learning the ways of an elitist crowd, enjoying all the wonderful things that mattered in court (but not in real life), and having a great time. He studied at Aligarh University and was one of the earlier batch of students. He became a good engineer - many of his works are in Bombay (Mumbai!) or Calcutta (Kolkutta!) - but his great love was always the thrill of the courts and the charms of money and riches.

Being a friend of the little Nawab meant that he also rose, in time, as the Nawab became the head of the state. He became their Minister, or whatever that was called, of Forests and Architecture.

His life remained that of a friend in court and, though he was now married (to a first cousin), his desires were way too close to those that the court found wonderful. Women were his folly - though I am told (and see from some pictures and a few writings) that his 'companies' (to use the word my chacha used) were great. But that's money. Not taste.

They lived in a large haveli in the state - in a house that seems almost impossible to think of today. Beautiful lake. Tons of trees. Wonderful place. Horses and cars were his favourite sports so there were those, too. Wrestling was another task he loved and there was a freestyle wrestler on the premises to teach him and the kids how to fight.

His youngest daughter, Bilquis, who died when she was 16 (the pic is taken a month or so before her death), was also a great person from what I hear of her. She loved riding, as did all the cousins who came to be in that house. Two brother's sons/daughters and hordes of other cousins who came from everywhere to visit just stayed on.

Then came a little problem. Nawab sahab fell in love with a brilliant singer and wanted to marry her. He was thrilled at her being 'a virgin'. HA advised him against it. There were little quarrels. Then it became worse. Finally, HA could not contain himself any longer and told Nawab sahab that he had been with this woman for months and that she was not a virgin.

Oooops. Not quite the thing you are supposed to say. And certainly not in public.

There were many in the courts who had hated HA for his close friendship and they thought the best way was to get rid of him. So they planned with Nawab sahab who, rather suddenly, sent out a bunch of staff to arrest and place HA into prison for 'having taken a bribe'.

HA's father went to the Nawab and said this was untrue. He was told what the problem was and he pleaded that his son not be accused of a false charge. Nawab sahab finally agreed — but with heavy demands. A contingent was sent to the house and everyone was allowed to be put into cars and taken to Lucknow. Every bit of jewellery, funds, utilities, silver - anything that had a value on it - were taken away. HA's hands were tied down - with his silk handkerchief - as a way of seeing him brandished as thief. That was the end of HA and his amazing days there.

In Lucknow the family gathered initially into Shauq sahab's house. (Some say that Shauq sahab had said, "Now that Safdar is here, we will have more problems.") - but not too much really happened that was as bad as this. Well, kind of.

The family was asked to get together and the brothers were told to sign away their properties in Jiggaur and the family sold  them all so that HA would have the money to go out and set up an engineering firm. He did do that - but first having spent almost half of the money to buy a car! He drove from Lucknow to Bombay with it - passing as many train stations where he could pick up petrol that was shipped to him. Jeezus! On the way he stopped at many goras and other afficianados where he had a jolly good time and made friends - and acquaintances. That's how, in Bombay, he managed to get contracts.

The car? Well, two days into Bombay and he went to see a dancing girl. Loved the song. Gave her the car!!! (I had always heard this from everyone but could never figure it out. So, a few days before his death in Dhaka, I asked him. This is what he said: "You think classical music is great. And yet you can't understand how important it must be if you cannot figure out my giving a car for a really well-sung ghazal?")

I also asked him about the money his brothers had given him. Apparently, despite his own priorities, he said he did well and paid regularly back to his wife everything he thought was possible. (She was quite a gorgeous lady, as you can see in the image.)

It was certainly enough for her to keep the rest of the brothers-in-law, nephews, nieces, a brother and his children, and several long distance cousins in the house. On top of that, she also had the house running like crazy - parties, classical music, friends (including Attiya Faizi, after whom Dadi named Attiya Habibullah - the one we all idolized as Baji Jania). Talat Mahmood was her brother's son and was taught to sing by her. She died in the mid 30s, of cancer.

My father and his brother - much apart in their own ways - were also far from their father's methods. My father, I have written about earlier. Chacha, I am told, was an affectionate man.

(I can only recall chacha in Calcutta, where he appeared for a visit soon after his wife died. Very little remains of him in my mind though I have heard a lot about him and have a selection of his ghazals that a friend from Rangoon sent us).

A year later HA moved to Calcutta - where he'd married 'an old friend', much younger than him - and then, in the Indo-Pak partition, went off to Dhaka in 1947. His elder son, Muzaffar, did see him a few times but I don't think the meetings meant much to either.

HA came to Karachi, in 1955, for a surgery that my father had arranged for him. The doctors said it was tricky. He went in, came out, and was up and about in 3 weeks. Much faster than the doctors thought he would.

He stayed for 5 months at our house and, during those days, taught me Mathematics like magic - moving from one concept to the next that had nothing to do with what the books said. From getting 2/25 in month one, I was getting 20/25 in 4 months. Since then, I loved Maths and went on to score full marks in my Senior Cambridge (and did well in everything mathematical at sea).

Despite all this, the hate never really came to an end. He did everything - apart from teaching - to make sure that his anger remained the most important thing for me and the cousins who were part of our lives.

He went back and worked … but was not in anyway capable of looking after himself as time went by. Life was running out. All the money was gone. He lived in a small flat with nothing of any value. He sold stuff. My father sent some money, but very little - given our own bad shapes.

His eldest son died in Rangoon in 1952. My father died in 1963. HA had no 'real' feelings, as far as I could tell. All he had were old kurtas and a few tahmads that he thought were comfortable. And a bed that had every kind of engineering attachment that made it possible for him to do things without getting off, if possible. He lay down all day and read tons of 'cowboy' books.

I went to see him, when my ship was in Chittagong, and he seemed quite happy in that flat. He was lying in bed - smoking a cheroot - and I asked him if he didn't miss all the things he'd possessed. He said, "Only my lighter. These matches are a problem."

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Anonymous jz said...

What a character ZAK! The incidents of his torture were horrendous to say the least. Was he like this with his other grandchildren?

I was wondering why was he like that? I mean was there any background, any psychological reasons? I wonder how was his relationship with his parents?
and did anyone in the family inherit these traits?

21 April, 2010 18:01

Blogger Zakintosh said...

He had other grandnephews and grandnieces and he was exactly like that with everyone. His own nephews and nieces, too, recall nothing but his rather strong favours and dislikes. No one seemed to inherit these traits, other than his youngest brother - an extremely affectionate person and a well-known sportster - who, on occasion, would be limping and ranting with rage and was known to occasionally lash out.

My father was an extremely loving, wonderful person and I never saw him hit or beat or even get 'really' angry with people with whom he was displeased.

I never did understand Huzoor Abba at all …

21 April, 2010 18:13

Anonymous jz said...

Quite an account. About your father I must say that he was an extraordinary man to be so loving and pleasant despite having a man like HA as his own father!

This was a remarkable piece of family history that you shared. Thanks.. Love your way of narrating stories. You're quite a raconteur!

21 April, 2010 20:48

Blogger Zakintosh said...

From Facebook: Here's an exchange on my post:

Romana Zaman: What revelations! The cupboard door should be firmly shut now!

Zaheer Kidvai: Why, sis? I think ppl ought to know how ppl in the past lived. Most ppl cover all this up and add wonderfully fantastic stories so that history knows little of the truth. One goes back over 'historical' docs filled with crap and no one knows if it is worth anything at all.

I think HA was remarkable in his good work but was impossible to deal with as a person.

21 April, 2010 21:58

Blogger DhiRAj SinGh said...

nice one!
But tragic... HA sounds like a genius... though a self-conscious one... perhaps someone who needed to hear the sound of applause all the time... would have done well in America. I am sorry to hear about what he did to you but I am sure he wasn't irredeemable.

21 April, 2010 22:37

Blogger Fawad Zakariya said...

ZAK, let me say again that I am really happy to see you writing this series of family reminiscences. That these are vivid and honest portrayals make them all the more valuable as a model of looking at the past.

I have been learning gradually over the years to try ever harder to imagine the reality as it may be for people I disagree with or even intensely dislike (thanks to "A Stroll with William James" by Jacques Barzun!). As for HA, who knows what version of the world he saw through his eyes! That doesn't make objectively bad behavior acceptable but it may help us understand it.

21 April, 2010 23:22

Blogger Arif Ali Khan said...

thank you for sharing the various accounts.

i think perhaps HA was from a time when tough love was relatively common. adult men were often quite insensitive and thought that a degree of cruelty may lead to young boys/men to become tough and more able to deal with a sometimes particularly rough world.

i recall my shrink cousin sister telling me that if someone had a phobia for worms they actually recommend the introduction of worms to help deal with that fear.
perhaps he thought he was doing that when he locked you up in that kotthrdi with the dog. he was obviously very wrong and you were very young.

the juta incidence was even worse!

i think in writing this and sharing it with all it must have helped you to deal with it all. get it out of your mind too. i am neither trying to justify his actions nor defend him.

laikin ab muaf kar dein un ko. your generosity will perhaps help
his spirit find closure. :-) who really knows......

many of us have had some similar experiences of cruelty but perhaps not at the hands of those closest to us. also nobody can really feel what you felt when you were a kid, but these are lessons we should all learn as adults and be kind to the young.

warm regards


21 April, 2010 23:24

Anonymous Sabeen Mahmud said...

Gosh! I had no idea HA was so diabolical. Zak doesn't hold grudges and never harbors resentment, so the issue of forgiveness and closing cupboard doors is not relevant. While one can endlessly analyze this man, he was clearly a nasty piece of work. UGH!

22 April, 2010 13:33

Blogger Zakintosh said...

@Arif "i think in writing this and sharing it with all it must have helped you to deal with it all. get it out of your mind too" & "laikin ab muaf kar dein un ko. your generosity will perhaps help his spirit find closure."

These are really funny sentences. I have no reason to forgive or forget him. He's gone. Some memories remain, some disappear. It was because someone asked that I wrote all this.

As I said, earlier, "I think HA was remarkable in his good work but was impossible to deal with as a person."

For his spirit finding closure, I am afraid it's not what I believe in so it doesn't mean anything to me.

22 April, 2010 14:12

Anonymous jz said...

I think it was quite bold on part of ZAK to write so honestly about his grandfather; how many of us have the courage to share real accounts and stories so honestly? In order to be socially acceptable and sound politically correct, we often cover things up and discuss/ write selectively. So I give full credit to him for writing honestly without inhibitions.

22 April, 2010 17:38

Blogger Quizman said...

Very very nice.

Aside - during a related time period, the parents of Javed Akhtar were exchanging wonderful letters. The Journal of Urdu Studies published the English translations (PDF) here:

The only reason I am linking it here is to give a somewhat similar context to parental struggles during adverse times.

22 April, 2010 23:42

Blogger parveen said...

Jee Zaheer. Quite an account! My nani was mirror image of HA. She never forgave me for being 'kali', availed of every oppurtunity to rub my nose in the dust and constantly whined about my marriage prospects.It was worse when we had 'habshi halwa' in the house.My brother, for obvious reasons,has no idea of what i underwent and my siblings would have have no choice but to strangle me if they set eyes on this. It was worse as she moved in with us after the divide and took effective charge of running the house.It took me decades to overcome the complex. Aap kya kar rehey hain hamarey saath? Skeletons are better off in the closet :-)....."Agley waqton key hain yey log inhen kuch na kaho..."

24 April, 2010 06:06

Anonymous jz said...

Maybe someday I would also share my experiences...

24 April, 2010 10:47

Blogger Sahar Rizvi said...

Oh Zak Bhai I thoroughly enjoyed reading that. The final parting words say a lot about him. And your magical abilty to convey your history in such a rich and engaging manner.

I love your stories, they make me feel as though I've walked in your shoes during those experiences.

Sailor Samosa

09 May, 2010 01:58

Anonymous Yaman said...

Your father's lips are so much like yours ;)

11 May, 2010 09:24

Blogger zahid said...

and yet we ponder over why there is so much hatred in this world when we have this nephew still blowing out steam on a person who's been dead for oh so many years...

25 May, 2010 08:51

Blogger Zakintosh said...

@zahid - this grandson (not nephew!) has written a memoir that you've obviously failed to understand. pity.

25 May, 2010 09:51

Blogger zahid said...

zak, it's not that i failed to understand what YOU were writing about, it's that i chose to look at it from a different perspective. this doesn't mean that i don't respect your view!

but in your response to arif's comment above in which you stated, "you have no reason to forgive or forget him," i simply feel that if we all carried that attitude, then there really will be no peace, harmony, or love in this world. as humans, we all make mistakes where we have hurt others. hence, how can we possibly exist peacefully if we don't forgive others?

but i guess what they say is true: god forgives, humans don't.

25 May, 2010 13:19

Blogger Zakintosh said...

@zahid - My sentence was "I have no reason to forgive or forget him. He's gone." The stress was on 'reason' ... since he is gone. My last sentence, too, was "For his spirit finding closure, I am afraid it's not what I believe in, so it doesn't mean anything to me."

I think you misunderstood it to think that I needed to forgive/forget and then denied the opportunity.That was not my scenario at all.

25 May, 2010 16:52

Blogger bee said...

what a wonderfully presented intimate account, my parents belong to india too and frequently talk of thier beautiful childhood, extended havelis, weathers,and not to mention highly eccentric or strict , or obsessive compulsive relatives, the same is repeated in close family gatherings. as a kid i was severly bored with the often revealed "dark secrets" or skeletons but now i find them utterly facinating!

the old world was weird and beautiful!

Thankyou u sharing for it :)

27 July, 2010 17:53

Blogger rameshkuruganti said...

I wish to be a Pen Friend of Zak Bhai.(if Allah does not give me a Opportunity Meet Zak Bhai, in person)
I am Ramesh from Hyderabad, aged 72 Years, with Yahoo Messenger ID and with Mobile Nos:+919949788012 and +919966001240 Thanks and Regards K.Ramesh

23 October, 2014 11:48


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