Remembering Durdana Phuppo – A Nephew’s Tribute

Wonderful fragrances, stylish attire, regularly smiling, and always keeping busy. That is the image which comes to mind when I recall Durdana Phuppo. Her huge home (with lovely, sprawling lawns) in Karachi’s Defense was also our home in Karachi, and some of the earliest memories I have are of her are of visiting her home with my parents.

“Assalamoalaikum bhaabhi!” she would loudly exclaim, as she would affectionately greet Mummy, embracing her and exchanging kisses on the cheeks. Then, my sister and I would step forward and get patted on the head as she would ask “Kaisey ho beta? Ajao ajao.” Phuppo’s home was a cool respite from Karachi’s heat and welcoming as it was beautiful. One never felt out of place, as she would tend to every detail to make guests feel comfortable. Rushing from one room to the other making sure the linens were fresh, summoning house-staff, speedily preparing sumptuous dishes in the kitchen; vivid images which come to mind as if yesterday.

There would be an excitement about these visits to Phuppo’s, and each day there would be something new happening. Often it was family weddings which took us to Karachi, so one would arrive to a house full of activity. Cousins, aunts, and uncles would continuously stop by, cars and drivers would be organised, multiple trips to bazaars would take place, and there would be chai-sessions throughout the day. Children were left free to do as we willed, as long as we should up at mealtimes. We would play video games inside, and cricket and make-belief games outside. It was not uncommon to see one of us streaking across the lawn with others in chase as part of some game.

Evenings would be alive with delicious meals, often going out with our older (and cooler!) cousins, and dance practices. Yet other times we would all be together at a wedding function – everyone dressed in their best. There would often be a last round of coffee or chai in the late evening, post-wedding event, when the family would gather in the lounge to debrief on the proceedings of the day. My memory of these, though I was little at the time, is of the men discussing politics and business, and women discussing relationships, dresses and jewellery, and the next event. The discussions would get progressively irreverent as the night progressed, with much good-natured verbal fencing.

Phuppo would relish these occasions and would be found in her element, effortlessly switching from steamy kitchen handis to stylish saaris. Throughout the day you would find her smiling, exchanging jokes with the elders, recounting family stories, managing the house, and planning events.

The second distinct phase of my own interaction with Phuppo was when I went to attend college in Karachi. Phuppo’s home, of course, was the first stop, as it had been for my brother before me, and before us, Abu. When Abu took me to Karachi, we went straight to see Durdana Phuppo and Sajjad Phuppa. She was warm and reassured Abu that there would be nothing to worry about, and welcomed me to Karachi saying “This is your home too and you can come by anytime. Baita yeh aap ka apna ghar hay. Ab chakkar lagatay rehna.” And to Abu I am pretty sure she said something about making sure that like my brother, I too would not only complete my studies but be married by the end of college!

Her love and affection for Abu was abundant and evident. She would address him as bhaijaan, and had great regard for his advice. Whenever she would see me she would ask about him, and tell me stories from their younger years and their life after migration from India, and share tales from my parents’ marriage.

Though these were tough years for Phuppo and she was handling multiple challenges, she faced them so gracefully that one would never be able to tell.  While she had a sensitive soul, it was combined with nerves of steel and a deep faith.

I visited Phuppo several times over the next few months, normally catching a ride with Sajjad Phuppa, Shaukat Uncle, or Fauzi lala from their office in Sadr. This would normally be on Fridays, after classes were over. After lunch, I would often sit with her at the kitchen table for a gupshup session over chai. Quick of wit and of laughter, Phuppo was always interested in the spicy details of life. “Aur bhai, shaadi k baarey mein kia programme hai?” she would tease. Then adding “Aaj kal koi girlfriend hay ya nahin?” I think my answers were always boring variations of having too much work to think of the matter. Sometimes I would say “Chorain Phuppo shaadi kar k kia karna! Koi faida nahin!” In response to which she would exclaim “Chalo! Aisi fazool baatein nahin kartay!”, and then the kitchen table would fill with laughter. During these afternoons, Phuppo would also sometimes tell me of her struggles as a young person, and share her observations on society, life, and faith.

One incident which I will never forget was when just a few months into college, I fell terribly sick with Hepatitis A. For the first week, I didn’t even know what was wrong. I experienced severe weakness which meant I would attend classes, come back to the hostel and collapse. I would only wake up to eat something, and eventually again for classes the next day. Abu flew into Karachi, took me to get medical tests done, and then  transferred me to promptly to Phuppo’s. Phuppo did not flinch for a second, she knew exactly what was to be done and I believe it was her idea to shift me to her house. I was taken care of better than what would have been possible at any infirmary. In the mornings I would attend classes, then promptly return home to a regimen of soft food and ample fluids. Phuppo ensured that everything happened correctly and on time. I survived two terrible weeks like this, thanks to her care. Eventually, I got better and everyone joked how this was a rite of passage to Karachi!

Those few college years were again a happy interlude, with family gatherings, visits by my cousins, and yet more weddings. Another distinct memory I have of Phuppo is when she and Sajjad Phuppa went for Hajj. Upon their return, there was a dinner at her home to which some close family and guests were invited. I believe I was in the final year of college then, and I too went. She looked very happy. In following visits I found her to be very calm, even more spiritual, and having the aura of someone who had completed a tremendous responsibility, which she had.

Little did we know that Phuppo would not be with us very much longer. She was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm, which in a matter of months, claimed her precious life. Right before she went to the United States for final treatment, we went to visit her. She was every bit her radiant self, and I remember her characteristic smile, once again facing the challenge with courage. We were all still very hopeful, but alas, God had other plans. Her passing away left the whole family heartbroken, and created a void which can never be filled.

In dealing with this tremendous loss, one once again turns to faith, which reminds us that the end of this terrestrial journey is the beginning of yet another, timeless one. In making her way through the former, Phuppo left us innumerable lessons, amongst other things, about the importance of family, positive thinking, zinda-dilli, hard work, courage, and having zest for life. And these are merely my observations having participated in only a small proportion of her life. Undoubtedly, much more could be written about her qualities and experiences. In this great mystery called life, one truth is that we all have only limited time, which underscores the importance of how that time is spent. Phuppo’s conduct in this regard was exemplary, and it assures us that inshAllah, her next journey will be peaceful, and filled with happiness.

We will miss her immensely, but Durdana Phuppo will always remain alive in our hearts, in laughter, in positive actions, in courage amidst adversity, in kindness to children, in faith, and in so much more. May God always protect her.

Rear-view Mirror | Stories About my Grandfather

During one of the many impositions of Martial Law on the country, my grandfather was posted to military duty which required him to oversee coast-guard operations. During this period, on one of their sorties his subordinates discovered a large stash of gold bars, cash, and other valuables aboard a boat. Apparently, someone was trying to sneak these out of the country. When he was notified about this, my grandfather immediately ordered for the goods to be taken into custody, and reported for a further investigation. He refused even to go near the goods or to be tempted to ‘have a look’ at what was a very large volume of gold.

One of the security officers who was charged with looking after the valuables succumbed to his desires and stole a small amount of gold. He was caught, and court martialed.

They don’t make ’em like you any more Nana Abba.

 

Olives and Jasmine

Dear Passenger,

We have ventured out into the Levant. While most of last year was spent shuttling between assignments in East and West Africa, this year saw a shift in focus to the Palestinian Territories, where the British Government is sponsoring a series of economic development programmes.

While the politics of this land are familiar to anyone with even a cursory interest in international affairs, one knew less about society, and the daily lives of individuals.

Earlier in the year, a series of trips between London and the West Bank gave me my first glimpse into a place which I had earlier known only through the news media. I was deeply fortunate to be able to visit Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and go hiking in the northern part of the West Bank. While this is indeed a deeply troubled land, it is also one of unparalleled historical significance, and of rich traditions.

During my trips, rather than becoming fixated on things which were not working, I reminded myself of a principle I once learnt from a wiser man – when introduced to a new place and people, to see them first for their common humanity, the things they strive for, the occasions they celebrate, the relationships they value, and their sense of humour. This allowed me to listen more than to speak, and to better connect with people, who, in turn, received me with warmth.

Later in the year, the project asked me to come for a longer term. After discussions with the home office in London, I was offered a longer posting to Ramallah. I happily accepted.

My new home is a small, hilly city, with winding streets and traffic that zips along them. On colder days, if the the clouds come down low, it reminds me a bit of Murree. In the evenings, if one goes for a walk around the city, one is alternately treated to whiffs of Arabic coffee and jasmine, which residents are fond of planting. The city centre, called Al-Manara, is normally buzzing with life, and houses a large variety of shops. Not far from it is the Old City, which has commercial buildings and homes from the Ottoman era. Some of these gorgeous stone buildings have been converted into fancy restaurants, while others are (still!) used as stores and shops, and yet others lie abandoned.

On the weekends, I like to go for walks into the Old City, and explore its streets. My favourite one thus far is one upon which there is both a Church and a Mosque. Daylong, both are frequented by worshipers who go about their business in a relaxed and friendly manner. Both the communities mix at an old coffee house on the street, and you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. Occasionally, if passing through, I purchase a coffee (or qahwa) and sit down for a break from the day’s normally hectic proceedings. While doing so last weekend, the muezzin’s call to prayer rang out, and I realised how long it has been since I was in a city where the call to prayer could be heard in public. It also made me realise that there are two realities. One which the news cycle has a penchant for focusing on, in which divisions are endless. And another, which can be found beyond the sensational mainstream, but takes more effort to find.

There is much to explore, and in doing so I hope to learn more about my new home and its aspirations.

And yes, the olives are very good indeed.

Stay tuned.

 

 

Thoughts by the Ocean on Mother’s Day

Some things are written from the heart, so that when you put pen to paper, you know where to begin, but not where you will end.

Dedicated to all the mothers I have known and been inspired by.

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I am sitting at Nungwe beach on the coast of Zanzibar, overlooking the turquoise blue waters of the Indian ocean. The ocean is calm, and it stretches out across the horizon. Scattered across it, mostly in shallow waters, are small fishing boats (or dhows), belonging to the local fishermen.

It is a soothing, expansive vista, as only a sight of nature can be. It is a nice privilege to be able to press the pause button on life, and take a break from the ceaseless bustle of London. Sitting here, I try to refresh my mind, akin to a vessel pouring out its contents into an ocean. However, as I do so, I notice that one central thought that remains with me. And that is of awe at the work of God, and the beautiful and complex world that He has created for us. As you look at the white sand, the calm blue water, the children running across the beach, you cannot help but ask: who put all this together?

The answer is plainly obvious, and it is that supreme power which we cannot see, hear, or smell, but Whose infinite incidence is all around us, manifest in nature’s intricate construct. It is also what the Quran reminds us of in Surah Ar-Rahman (The Merciful), which describes the multiple natural bounties bestowed upon man:

“The Most Beneficent (Allah)! Has taught (you mankind) the Qur’an (by His Mercy).
He created man. He taught him eloquent speech.

The sun and the moon run on their fixed courses (exactly) calculated with measured out stages for each (for reckoning, etc.).
And the herbs (or stars) and the trees both prostrate.

And the heaven He has raised high, and He has set up the Balance.
In order that you may not transgress (due) balance.

And observe the weight with equity and do not make the balance deficient.
And the earth He has put for the creatures.

Therein are fruits, date-palms producing sheathed fruit-stalks (enclosing dates).
And also corn, with (its) leaves and stalk for fodder, and sweet-scented plants.”

And then asks, “Then which of the Blessings of your Lord will you both (jinns and men) deny?”

It is nature which sustains man, and which each generation must hold in trust for the next.

Gazing at the sand, I am also reminded of a short story that my mother once read to me. She had had the story framed and hung up on the wall of my room when I was a teenager. It was titled, “Footsteps in the sand.” It was the story of a man who had a dream. He dreamt that he was walking along a sandy coast at the end of his life, as imagines from his life flashed across the sky. As he looked back, he saw that there were two sets of footprints in the sand, one his own, and the other belonging to God. He noticed that at the most difficult points in his life, there was only one set of prints in the sand. This made him sad. He asked God, “God, it seems that at the most difficult points in my life, You had left me all alone. Why?” God answered, “My dear child, I would never abandon you. It was at those moments that I carried you.”

I feel eternally grateful to my mother for introducing me to that story. For so many reasons, it is one that will always stay with me.

And so, as my time here draws to an end, the last thought on my mind is that no matter how severe the challenges of life, we must have faith that Allah will never abandon us, and in this great quest for the meaning of life, and the right balance, we can always look to Him for guidance and courage.

For now, Khudahafiz.

Rear-view Mirror | Stories my Grandfather Told Me

Once seated in the drawing room, we would wait for him to join us. You would always hear the door to his room creak open, and then he would emerge, and walk steadily over to us. Nana Abba always smiled, and normally patted our heads with his huge, heavy hand, before he sat down. He would always take the corner sofa – a single-seater, which diagonally faced the drawing room. Then, often, as we waited for chai, ‘Mary’ biscuits, and plain cake, we would implore him to tell us stories: “Nana Abba koi kahani sunain.” I remember a few. There were so many, and I will likely never forgive my mind for not remembering all of them.

To understand the stories fully, some background is required. Nana Abba spent his career in the military. Commissioned at the prestigious Dheradoon Military Academy, he first served in the British Indian Army, and later the Pakistan Army. He saw battle in Burma during World War II, and later in Pakistan’s war with India in 1965. He observed much during those years, never shied away from a challenge, and took on all who tried to block his path. When it came to defending his beliefs and principles, he never gave in to lesser men.

World War 2 – An Air Attack in Burma

During WW2, my grandfather was fighting against the Japanese in Burma. One evening, there was commotion in his encampment as the contingent was alerted to the sound of enemy planes flying overhead. Before soon, they began ‘strafing,’ in which an aircraft flies low, and attacks ground targets using an automatic machine gun. As the planed zoomed in, his contingent realised that they were actually wayward pilots of their own British Indian Air Force! They were under friendly fire. Pandemonium broke out, as soldiers and officers made for their lives. My grandfather took shelter behind a large rock, and planned his next move. The strafing continued as the pilots, oblivious to the fact that their were friendly forces below, came in for round after round of firing. As the barrage of friendly fire continued, my grandfather spotted a truck leaving the encampment. The soldiers at the back of the truck spotted him, and motioned for him to make a run for it and jump aboard. He did exactly that, and made it. The truck sped away from the encampment to the next friendly site.

Inside, he saw a British officer, lying on the floor of the truck. He was writhing in pain, and every few moments moaning “Mom, oh mom.” He would say these words over and again. There was a pool of blood next to his head. Nana Abba watched him pass away, and the truck drove on into the night.

Visitor in the Night

In Pakistan, it is commonly said that jinns, or spirits occupy sunsaan ilaqay, or uninhabited lands. These could include, for example, large unoccupied plains, jungles, graveyards, and such places where there is little or no human presence. Folklore cautions against going into such an area alone, and if it must be done, that one acts in a manner respectful of the presence of any spirits. My grandfather of course, was dauntless when it came to such matters. He was a man who feared nothing, except God. He did though, run into several encounters with supernatural phenomenon, which are as inexplicable today as they were in yesteryear. Here is one such incident.

One evening, during a military campaign, he felt like a walk after dinner (a habit he carried throughout his life). Upon leaving the officer’s mess, he stepped out into the cool night, for a stroll amongst the trenches. The trenches had been dug in case there was an attack on their encampment. As he walked between them, he noticed a figure in the distance. It was a man, dressed in a loose-fitting white shalwar-kamiz. Oblivious to him, the man jumped into one of the trenches.  Intrigued, my grandfather quickened his pace towards him, thinking it could be an intruder. His second thought was that it may be someone trying to relieve himself inside the trench and if so, he would give him a sound thrashing. He came up to the trench that the man had jumped into, and shouted: “Khabardar! Kaun ho tum? Bahir niklo! (Attention! Who are you? Get out of there!” There was no answer.

However, he could see little in the thick of the night, so he ran back towards the officer’s mess, and called for his orderly (a soldier deputed to an officer to assist with daily tasks). “Orderly, torch lay kar aao! (Orderly, bring a torch!)” The orderly, upon hearing him, rushed out with a lantern. “Kia hua sahab?” (what happened sir?), he asked. My grandfather told him that he had spotted an intruder, as they ran towards the trench. Upon reaching it, the orderly shone light into the trench.

It was completely empty.

How could it be, my grandfather thought. He had kept an eye on the trench all along. Plus, it was nearly eight feet deep, you couldn’t simply jump in and out. Though puzzled, they decided it was no use pursuing the matter further. My grandfather described the man’s appearance to the orderly, and told him to keep a lookout for him during the night. Should he appear again, they would catch him. He then began to walk back towards the mess, leaving the orderly on guard amongst the tranches.

As he reached near the entrance of the mess, the orderly came racing towards him, shouting “Sahab, sahab!” (sir! sir!). As he drew up, “Sahab, sahab, mein trenches kay darmian chal raha tha, jab mein ne dekha k wohi admi, ushi trench mein say say bahir nikla. Is say pehlay k mein uska peecha karta woh bhaaga, aur us dewar k uper sey chalang mar kar ghaib ho gia.” (Sir, sir, I was patrolling amongst the trenches, when I saw the man you describe come out of the same trench. Before I could pursue him, he ran towards that wall, jumped over it, and disappeared!”

The orderly pointed towards the compound wall, it was more than ten feet high.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Soldier

Deep in the Burmese jungles, there was more than the Japanese Army to contend with. The British Indian Army’s adversaries included both man and mammal. One such story Nana Abba told us was about the Tiger. At one point during the war, a strange occurrence began to take place at their military encampment – livestock kept for consumption at the camp, were routinely found dead, their carcasses ravaged and flesh torn apart. It was quickly concluded that this was the work of a large cat, likely a tiger, who had taken to visiting the camp (which was probably located in the tiger’s natural hunting area).

At first, the attacks on the animals (chickens, goats, and cattle) were not frequent. However, when a series of episodes took place in quick succession, it was decided that the Tiger had to be eliminated.

The Tiger always seemed to strike in the very early morning – the domestic animals were always fine at night, but found dead at first light. Rather than going out into the jungle to search for the cat, my grandfather and his colleagues decide to let the Tiger come to them. One evening, a cattle was procured, and tied in plain sight, near the entrance to the camp. A stakeout party was commissioned, and at midnight, they settled down into a morchah (or trench), and waited. When telling the story, Nana Abba would remind me of how they decided to use shotguns for the gruesome task, and sawed off the ends of the shells, so that the pellets would scatter broadly, maximizing contact.

Tiger appeared close to the early morning, when the black of night just begins to turn dark-blue. Easily clambering over the camp’s short boundary wall. After taking a look around, he crouched, and began moving slowly towards the cattle, tied helplessly to a post. The cattle snorted and grunted. Their weapons loaded, the hunting party watched carefully, waiting for the Tiger to come in range. They were sure they would hit him, given their weapons and position.

When he did, several shots cried out. The Tiger snarled, and jumped over the boundary wall! Had they missed?! Curses rang out. They were sure they hadn’t missed, but how had the Tiger been able to escape? Puzzled, the hunting party decided to explore the matter further in the morning, and went back to their barracks.

When morning came, my Grandfather and another colleague returned to the sight of the early morning’s episode. There were spots of blood on the ground. So the Tiger had been hit. The question was, how badly? They soon realised that there was a trail of blood-drippings, which continued outside the boundary wall. The decided to follow it, and, fetching their weapons from the camp, set out into the jungle.

They had to walk over an hour, before they saw the Tiger again. And there he was, collapsed in a pool of blood, his body riddled with shotgun pellets. Flies hovered in the air above. The Tiger was no more.

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Given my love for animals, and particularly big cats, it was always tough to hear this story – it was my least favourite. Hearing it as a child, I would always hope that somehow the Tiger would survive at the end. What I also remember noticing, was the change in Nana Abba’s expression when he came to the final part of the story – from the point the shots were fired, to finding the Tiger’s body. He would tell it with incredulity at first – how could the tiger have had the strength to take such a barrage of fire, still escape, and walk on for hundreds of yards? And then, when he would speak of discovering the Tiger, his expression would switch to a somewhat melancholic one, as if some part of him had also wished that the Tiger would have survived. I think I know why.  Throughout his life, my Grandfather always respected those who exhibited valour, and courage in the face of adversity. The sight of a once-majestic tiger, lying lifeless, could not have pleased him.

Indeed, he remembered the Tiger foremost for the strength he showed in his final moments, and not for the fate he met.

Train Journey

As a young officer, my grandfather often traveled extensively in the Indian subcontinent, via train. He once told the story of one such journey, which illustrated how many British officers treated Indian ones in the British Indian Army. On one of his trips, he was travelling between two major cities. Numerous smaller towns dotted this route, and every  half hour or so, the train stopped at small stations.

At one of these smaller stations, my grandfather exited his compartment, and stepped out onto the station, to stretch his legs, and perhaps get something to eat. Whatever errand he was running, he was delayed in it. When he returned to the platform, he saw that the train was already on the move!

He quickly ran up to the train, and before it could gain too much speed, jumped onto one compartment’s jutting ledge and grabbed a handlebar. In his mind, he thought this to be an appropriate solution – he would enter whichever compartment it was, and then make his way back through the train to his own compartment.

It so happened that the compartment belonged to a group of British officers. My grandfather knocked the door. The officers were able to see him, but they did not budge. He hammered the door loudly, making sure he had their attention. However, while the officers could understand what was going on, they refused to open the door. By now, the train had picked up speed. It was dangerous for him to continue to hold on, but he had no choice. He decided to hold on until the train reached the next station, which was still 20-30 minutes away.

As he did so, he noticed a train signal signboard emerge in the distance. It would pass by excruciatingly close to his face, as he contorted his body to try to avoid it. He avoided it successfully. After what seemed like an agonisingly long wait, the next station arrived. He quickly got off the ledge, and rushed to his own compartment. After narrating what had happened to a few colleagues, he then immediately went over to the British officer’s compartment, and demanded to be let in. They did so, following which he gave them a piece of his mind.

My grandfather brooked no nonsense from anyone, and that is how I will always remember him.

 

On the Radio | August Winds

When August winds are turning,
The fishing boats set out upon the sea,
I watch ’til they sail out of sight,
The winter follows soon,
I watch them drawn into the night,
Beneath the August moon.

No one knows I come here,
Some things I don’t share,
I can’t explain the reasons why,
It moves me close to tears,
Or something in the season’s change,
Will find me wandering here.

And in my public moments,
I hear the things I say but they’re not me,
Perhaps I’ll know before I die,
Admit that there’s a reason why,
I count the boats returning to the sea,
I count the boats returning to the sea.

And in my private moments,
I drop the mask that I’ve been forced to wear,
But no one knows this secret me,
Where albeit unconsciously,
I count the boats returning from the sea,
I count the boats returning from the sea.