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Monday, August 30, 2010

Chhotay Naana

"I will live till I am 120", he'd said, laughing, on the day we had all 'decided' was his 60th year. He was a distant relative of my Naana and his parents decided to share my Naana's name with him (Iftikhar Husain). He had always been very close to our family. We saw him visiting every family member, close and distant, at every opportunity he got.

Chhotay Naana - (or Chhotay Miañ, as my parents and uncles called him) - was someone I wish my daughter, Ragni, would have met. What a 'hero' he was for all of us children. Well, sort of Hero Number Zero, actually, if you really want to know.

My first meeting with him that I can recall was at Calcutta, when my Ummi and I (a 5-year old) were with my Khaala and Khaalu. "My father-in-law is a Bütraél and he brings tons of good food into the house", he said, giving me a Mars bar. "What's a Bütraél?", I asked. He said, "It is a ship's captain, in Bengali." — It wasn't until 13 years later that I discovered, when I joined the Merchant Navy, that a Bütraél (lots of our Bengali Khalaasis called him that) was really the 'Butler' on the ship. 

Chhotay Naana had tons of things to say to everyone in the house. All his relatives mocked him, teased him, laughed at him — but he was always great. He laughed and argued, but never in anger. Never saw him lose his temper, until once, a few days before his death, when a kid told him that he was never "the same level" as his family. Chhotay Naana lost his mind and rattled off misdeeds after misdeeds that the girls uncles and aunts had done. That was the only time I ever heard him shout.

We laughed away at his sentences ("When Mustafa Kamal came to charge against the mullas he had his right hand on the reins of the horse and he carried a pistol and sword in both his hands!") and were amazed at his wonderfully true stories, some of which I will recall in this piece, too.

Chhotay Naana was never educated. In fact, when my Naana died, he said to Ümmi the next day that there really was no point in studying at all: "Look at your father. He studied. Became a Judge. So what? After all he died, na?"

He insisted that everyone say 'Shoe Designer Iftikhar Sahab' when talking of him to someone. He sometimes made the shoes by hand for you. His designs were fabulous. Really! Amazing drawing skills. Wonderful ideas. Everyone in the family and friends wanted shoes made by him and often paid him advances for them. Some he delivered. Others? Hmmmm ... Well, if he suddenly thought there was enough money, he'd go to the train station and say "Give me a ticket with this money and I will travel and when I reach there I will earn money and come back." Which is how he saw a lot of UP, CP, Hyderabad, Bombay, Calcutta. And much of Pakistan, too.

"So how did you ever do anything for food or stuff?", my cousin and I asked him in Karachi, fascinated. "Ohh, there were places where one could eat freely for a couple of days. And then I found some people who wanted shoes so I made them and made some money. And saved some for the train ticket and came back", he said. "Really? You made enough?", we asked. "Of course. And the last one was from someone I took an advance from but used it for my fare. I'll send him shoes, soon." — We were pretty sure he never did. "Didn't you go to a mosque", asked Farida Baji, "They give free food there." He said "Vüzoo naheeñ thaa" ... and laughed.

He came to Calcutta after my Chacha got him a job in the Bata Shoe Company - which he worked at for a while, but left because he said, "They are doing crazy things, like everyone having the same type of shoe. People want to be different. Why the same kind of shoes, bhai?"

In Calcutta he had married for the second time (his first wife was a cousin he married early and had a son and a daughter by her) and was madly in love with her. She refused to come to Pakistan and Chhotay Naana always wanted to go see her.

In Karachi, while a cousin and I were together and we were playing with a Globe that Abi had given me, he appeared and asked us what it was. "It's a map of the world", my cousin said. "Round? Why?", said he. "Because the world is round?", said my cousin. "Really? Then what is this?", he said, drawing out a map of the world from his big thaéla that he carried. "That's just a map that's been made on paper. This is the real shape of the world", said my cousin. He was 12. I was 8. And we were both surprised that Chhotay Naana didn't know about the world. "Aah," he said. "Does that mean that we are all inside the circle?" ... "No," said my cousin, "we are outside" — and put his hand on the Globe. "Ohh … so people on the bottom don't fall off? Hahaha! Who teaches you these things? Priests!"

My cousin took hours to explain the Earth, the Planets, the Solar System, the Gravity, the Rotation … and Chhotay Naana listened and understood. Almost. He then said, "So if I jump up a bit and wait until the world has turned and jump down again will I land in Calcutta with my wife?" —  "Well, you can't jump that high," said my cousin. He thought and then said: "Hmmm, if the airplane people 'knew' of this why don't they send planes right up and wait and come down when Calcutta comes under them. They'd save petrol. And I'd see my wife. Without much money."

Ümmi told us about a time when Chhotay Naana was young and had arrived at her house with some latha for making a pyjama. "It's way too big for a pyjama but not enough for two," said Ümmi. "Oh, no. I got the extra amount cheap and you can make a long kamarband which I will tie around. Each time I need a new one for a naya pyjama, I can cut it off from here. And if before that I feel thirsty I will be able to tie it with a bucket and bring up water from a well." — Long term thinking :)

Everything was important and had to be commented on. One day he came back upset at Ayub Khan (then the President of Pakistan) and said, "Ayub is very strongly against us for migrating here and wants us to have fewer children so that we don't become the major part of Pakistan". "How do you know that?", asked Abi. "Oh, there are signs in the city his goverment has put up, in Urdu for us, that say have only 2 children — so that's what that means." I said "Chhotay Naana the signs are in Urdu here because people read Urdu, but in Peshawar they'll be in Pushto ..." — "Oh, c'mon. You haven't seen any signs there and are just arguing. Anyway, even if they were in Pushto, do you think Pathans ever follow what they read?"

He walked into our house with a Jang in his arms: "Look at this," he said. "What a stupid idea." He was referring to a story on the first page that said US had launched another ARTIFICIAL Satellite. "Just a few days ago Russia did the same. Why can't they put their money together and launch a REAL one!"

His thaéla had all sorts of things in it. Among them were pictures of his Calcutta wife, his daughter and son, a picture of me as a kid, and one of my niece, Rana, - cut from a US magazine - of her hair being described as amazingly beautiful. There were little articles on shoes. A scrapbook of sorts. Plus the picture that I took (and have placed at the beginning of this article).

In the last year of his life he had suddenly become very ill with age and asthma and would be painstakingly bent down as he sat and breathed very heavily. "I don't think I can make it to 120 any more. Pakistan mayñ müshkil haé lambaa rahnaa."

Three days later he was dead.

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Blogger Misha said...

Beautiful memories and a very touching tribute to Chotay Nana sahib. My condolences on the loss of this very colorful and obviously beloved member of your family.

30 August, 2010 12:55

Blogger Musab said...

Wah! I'm sure each of us knows someone similar to your 'Chhotay Nana', especially from our childhoods.
As the poet says, 'Paida kahaan hain aise paraagandah taba'a log.'

30 August, 2010 13:00

Anonymous Ali said...

Zaheer Bhai, this was a very enjoyable post. Please keep these coming.

30 August, 2010 18:28

Blogger hushed said...

very touching. I had a nana's cousin who had a similar thaela too. Guess we all do have a Chhotay nana.

31 August, 2010 02:13

Blogger Fawad Zakariya said...

Nicely done Zak! As the Americans say to the Pakistanis "Do more, do more"!

02 September, 2010 01:38

Blogger Atif Khan said...

Nicely written. Please keep writing such stuff.

05 September, 2010 13:03

Anonymous Anonymous said...

God bless Chotay Naana's soul. Loved the photograph. People like him make life so much more interesting, don't you think?

09 September, 2010 17:08

Blogger Zakintosh said...

Chhotay Nana certainly made my interesting life even better.

I am sure many people have relatives and friends like that. Wish we could hear more of their adventures.

10 September, 2010 13:58

Blogger Maleeha said...

1. You have a remarkable memory, and a remarkable family.

2. Wish more people would be able / willing to dig up such interesting characters from their lives and share their anecdotes and personalities with us.

3. I love (and share) your Chhotay Naana's views on the absurdity of mass produced footwear (among other things).

Once again, thanks for sharing your memories with us in such an entertaining way!

10 September, 2010 14:15

Anonymous Asma said...

Bless the soul of chotay nana. Delightful memories that you've shared :) Loved reading through the post.

16 September, 2010 21:04


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