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.

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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.

Outside the Window | Empress Market

Empress Market in Saddar, Karachi’s commercial area. During college years, 77longdrives spent many afternoons and evenings traversing its treacherous streets. You have already heard some stories from Karachi. Others you may hear at a later point. When I think of Empress Market, a few terms come to mind – colonial architecture, hustle and bustle, cheek by jowl, Rainbow Centre, and 4M.

 

 

An Assignment in Accra

The British Government’s desire to help Ghana utilise its oil wealth to stimulate economic development has brought us back to West Africa, this time to the coastal city of Accra. As I was coming in through Kotoka airport last week, I had flashbacks of my first time in this region. My first port of entry on the continent was none other than Lagos Airport. Arriving at 10 PM at that airport was never going to be pleasant. Nothing else that happened that night was either.

Accra’s airport seemed more relaxed though. It was also a bit more organised – most of the security functionaries seemed to be in one uniform, no one was shouting. All good signs, I thought. The entry was smooth and soon I had stepped out into a warm but breezy evening. Nothing to worry about, just as colleagues had informed me.

Now at the airport again a week later, I am a short while away from the return flight. In Accra I found a relaxed, yet active city. The city is fairly compact, and one can get from one end to the other in about 45 minutes when the traffic is good. From what I have seen of it, it is obvious that Accra is enjoying capitalist boom. The last few years have brought in increased revenue through mining (gold and diamonds) and oil, as well as foreign investment into the banking and telecom sectors. One can see the evidence of this in flashy billboards around town, and in tall new buildings coming up.

Interruption: Announcement on the speakers sends the waiting area into frenzy as people start to rush towards the gate, even before the functionary has begun to speak! I observed with detached amusement. They rush only towards disappointment, as the announcement declares that boarding is delayed. Hooray, I think, indulging in a little schadenfraude, it is not just developing country flights that are not on time! Disappointed passengers shuffle back to their chairs, sigh, and settle down once more. Surely there must be a way to make airport waiting areas more interesting? In fact there is, Doha’s new airport is a great example in airport creativity and functionality – quiet reading areas, small duty free shops, TV lounges, internet kiosks, and beds to sleep on. The Qataris have waiting areas all figured out.

While I didn’t get to engage in any cultural activities in town, I did manage to sample a few of the restaurants. There seem to be new ones coming up regularly.  I had some great pizza and decent Turkish. One of the hip areas downtown is the Osu district, full of flashy neon signs and its very own ‘Oxford Street.’ When I was told one day’ if you haven’t been to Osu you haven’t been to Accra,’ of course I had to check it out. The places we went to were chock full with people, a healthy mix of foreigners and nationals, clearly with enough disposable income.

Beyond the neon signs and expectations of the upcoming oil boom though, what is really going on in Accra? Is the city witnessing the rise of so-called ‘Africapitalism?’ And if so, how, if at all, will the resulting pattern of growth be different from that seen elsewhere? A week-long consulting assignment was too short a time to find answers to these questions, but the years ahead will likely make them self-evident.

What was also noticeable was that a nouveau-riche class is now in place, with its own ecosystem of private basic services (schools, clinics, security services) around it. The fact that wealth is being generated is certainly positive, however it is also important to consider that if the societal elite opt out of the public system (where it concerns services such as education and healthcare) which everyone else is compelled to use, then it reduces pressure for reform. A balance should be found which translates Ghana’s growth into progressively better human development outcomes for the majority of its citizens.

Boarding is at last announced. This time I join the milieu with full gusto.

The Sky

A clear sky, whether during the daytime or at night, reminds one of the expansiveness of the world. It liberates one to realise that while on earth we have imposed boundaries, and borders, the sky does not recognise any of them at all. Moreover, while the texture of the earth is different depending upon where one is, the sky can be the same anywhere. A night could be just as dark and starry in Pakistan as in the United Kingdom, full of clouds, or clear and sunny.

Simply looking up can connect one to the other geographies one knows, and serve as a reminder of the oneness of the world, the human spirit, and the human struggle.