The End Of A Love Story
“Raja Sahib Bhatuamau”, as I generally teased him, died in a Karachi hospital last week. This mock elevation of Kazim Bhai’s status was actually somewhat ironical. His father really was the Raja of that awkward sounding principality, in Awadh, in status and location not far from other Taluqdari’s, some driven to despair by Chief Minister, Govind Ballabh Pant’s zamindari abolition in the 1950s.
The status reversal for Awadh’s gentry was considerable but the enormity of it did not apparently touch Kazim Bhai who drowned out the Blues at the Lucknow club, danced the fox trot in buckskin shoes, and escorted Anglo Indian ladies from the Maqbara to the weekly, 10 am. English movie at Lucknow’s Mayfair cinema. Heaven knows how he ended up in Sweden from where, armed with a degree in structural engineering, he landed on his feet in Karachi and built a few buildings.
Meanwhile, a transformational storm had also engulfed our family, anchored in Mustafabad in Rae Bareli.
Depleted land revenues spurred a quest for Western education, the only stepping stone towards alternative means of livelihood. Law was a favoured profession because legal practice was an enabling factor in avoiding having to “work” for somebody else.
Then came the troubling issue of women’s education. Of the four sisters, my mother and the one immediately younger to her, went through the usual motions of private instruction while the younger two, Bilqis and Alia Askari joined the University. Alia, communist after a fashion, proceeded to lead the Lucknow University union and became the first woman in the family, indeed in Lucknow of the 50s, to obtain a highly acclaimed Ph.D. She was my favourite aunt and for her many idiosyncrasies, I addressed her as Aunt Agatha, straight from Wodehouse.
Given the gender biases of the period, Aunt Agatha’s education, her exceptional oratorical skills, her equation with the finest minds of the day, became her greatest handicaps. “How to find a husband for a girl so educated”? There were other handicaps: she was a Saiyyid too! A feudal landscape in a state of collapse was singularly bereft of Post Graduate Saiyyids!
At the time of Partition my eldest Aunt, Shabbir Bano, lived in Mumbai with her husband, a Captain Hasan Zaidi. A question arose. Should he join the Indian or the Pakistan army? The issue was settled by an extraordinary calculation. A map of India was pinned on a large table. One point of a compass was placed on Lucknow, the other on Mumbai. Then, the point on Mumbai was rotated onto Karachi. There was not much of a difference in terms of distance. The issue was easily settled in favour of Karachi because a family friend, Brigadier Zahid, had promised all manner of support in the new country.
When Shabbir Bano heard of Aunt Agatha’s predicament, she sent word that Karachi was crawling with “post graduate” Saiyyids. So, Aunt Agatha was placed on a Karachi bound Dakota and received in Pakistan with fanfare by relatives who were active members of the Pakistan Communist Party from whom she learnt of Ayub Khan’s military pact with the United States.
Before she had opened her bags, she was whisked off to a large public meeting which Aunt Agatha kept spellbound by her oratory and sharp “anti imperialist” invective. Gen. Ayub Khan lost no time: well spoken officers picked her up from the meeting, collected her bags from her sister’s house and placed her on a Delhi-bound Dakota, within a day of her arrival.
But my Karachi Aunt would not give up. She scoured the city until someone drew her attention to a tall engineer from Sweden always in a flashy suit and, ofcourse, those trademark buckskin shoes. He could not measure up to Aunt Agatha’s intellect, but he was a Saiyyid alright, a fact which in Shabbir Bano’s eyes absolved him of his sartorial excesses.
Although towards the end they were inseparable, the first phase on Aunt Agatha’s part was one of acquiescence. She was all too conscious of what to her, in the beginning, seemed an unbridgeable chasm: two people from the same region, Awadh, living in different zones. And all because, they were from childhood, exposed to a variegated emphasis on a life of the mind.
Most of those who had migrated from India, the Mohajirs or refugees as they are called to this day, would see them as an unlikely pair. The trick was to escape to an alien culture where people would not spot the nuances.
Aunt Agatha proceeded to teach Urdu literature in Beijing University until the Cultural Revolution of the 60s made it difficult to live in China. In China, too, Kazim Bhai was her perfect escort, even to the Great Hall of the People.
Returning to Karachi, she immersed herself into her favourite literary groups. Kazim Bhai, clad in his suit and buckskin shoes, fixed his gaze on her with unwavering adoration. She became an in-house intellectual to Begum Nusrat Bhutto a fact which elevated Aunt Agatha further in Kazim Bhai’s doting eyes. After Begum Bhutto’s death they proceeded to waste themselves in mutual adoration bereft of any inspiration – a very feudal decay. But they were, by now, totally inseparable.
There was always in Kazim Bhai something of a Walter Mitty, day dreaming, lost in reveries, including one of a day in paradise. I called him from Delhi: “How was paradise? Would you like to go?”
“No” he said in his frail voice. “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush”. He was a lovable man.
If we tried we would have got visas to attend his funeral. But we did not. The sheer habit of living in different countries with obstacles in travel increases distance exponentially. Dearest relatives take up residence only in the mists of memory.
Look after yourself, Aunt Agatha!
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