Recently, given my father’s imminent demise, he is terminally ill with leukaemia, I started to ask him about his life in the land of his native birth, erstwhile Jammu, now split between India and Pakistan. I was quite startled about his individual story of dispossession. He told me how his father worked on the railways and “managed to get a job in ‘India’” in Quetta as a telegraph operator. This was a proud moment for the extended family, but sadly he didn’t live long as he contracted an illness and died some years later. He is buried in Quetta, Baluchistan, now a Province of Pakistan but historically comprised of Princely States that were not part of ‘British India’ but the British Indian Empire. My father was a toddler at the time possibly 3/4 years of age and was the only child of his parent’s union to have survived childbirth and infancy. When he returned with his mum to the local village, his paternal grandfather took care of him. Life was hard as the extended network had become increasingly poor over many generations. They had ancestral lands but they couldn’t eke out a living from them. For sure, they could survive frugally but there was no surplus for anything else. You can just imagine how tough life would have been for those without ancestral lands.
So my father became a labourer for the building caste. This was quite humiliating for caste-minded individuals belonging to the ‘landed’ (zamindar) backgrounds. You need to understand, back then ’peasant landowners’ didn’t like the idea of being indebted to people who they thought were beneath them, a curious move on the part of people struggling to survive. His prospects were bleak, he tells me. He was so poor that he didn’t have shoes to go to school, an expense that could have been easily avoided by simply not going. But his mother insisted on fulfilling her deceased husband’s wishes. He tells me that his dad had in fact taught his wife how to read ‘Urdu’, something that was unheard of. Apparently, my grandad was the only one in the village that could read. When I probe my dad about how his father learnt to read ‘Urdu’, the language he was educated in and not his native tongue, he has no answers.
Eventually, my father acquired proficiency in Urdu but had to discontinue his studies because he needed to ‘provide’ for his mum. Life was unbearably hard, he reiterates. And yet he tells me that no one from his uncles on his paternal side helped him. In fact they ‘misappropriated’ a lot of his land as they shared out the ‘best bits’ amongst themselves once their own father, his grandfather, passed away. He was left with disjointed plots of land scattered all over the place.
According to this archaic system of land inheritance, the male sons inherit, the daughters do not. In feudal Europe, ‘primogeniture’ or the custom of the first son inheriting the entire estate helped maintain the actual value of the estate. But, in the landed traditions of my father’s people, entire estates in the hundreds of ‘murabbe‘ – [1 murabba = 25 acres] – have been parcelled out to such an abundance of male heirs that it’s common to hear of land disputes over a single ‘kanal‘ – [1 kanal = 1/8 of an acre or just under 5500 square feet]. As the only son of a benefactor with three brothers, my father’s share would have been 1/4 of the entire estate, a lot of land in his mind. On paper, he is entitled to 1/4 of the estate. In practise, the way the land was parcelled out meant he got a lot less. To use a term familiar to my peers, he was ‘shafted’.
Almost 5 decades on, my father is now fighting for his ‘rightful share’ spending large sums of money on lawyers that don’t seem to deliver on any of their promises, a lot of money in terms of the relative value of the Pakistani rupee. His confidantes from the family, duplicitous bedfellows in my mind, tell him he’s wasting his money, they say the “lawyers are ‘fraudsters’“. I doubt that they are wrong either. But, I detect deep seated animosity on his part against his first cousin for whom he carries profound bitterness, the type he didn’t extend to his uncles who apparently created his predicament in the first place. He seems to have resigned himself to the first infraction but not the second. To make his predicament worse though, he also has lands in what is today ‘Pakistan’, but he shows no concern to preserve his interests there. He tells me that his cousin has no claim to any of his land except by way of roping in others who have their own ‘grievances’ against him. Family politics is a messy business. I figure this is not about land, but about settling old scores. And it’s costly. Everyone loses, not just financially but in sweeping family and social terms. The only real winners are those ‘spited’ and bearing old grudges and inevitably the lawyers.
I read somewhere about corruption in Pakistan’s judicial system especially at the lower echelons. High court judges and lawyers ‘worth their name in gold’ are seldom corrupt, apparently they have good salaries. It’s a bit like Pakistan’s army whose top brass are handsomely rewarded and described as the epitome of ‘integrity’ unlike the politicians who always seem to be on the take. But the ‘lawyers’ our ‘unlettered villagers’ have to deal with are something else. Less-educated and less-proficient in their ‘trade’, they’re unperturbed by exploiting “simpletons” (this is how their clients are described) accustomed to paying bribes unaware of how the ‘legal system’ actually works. I wouldn’t have known this had I not been personally privy to the dealings of my father and his ‘coterie of advisors’ facilitating his litigation. It’s a very bizarre relationship where promises are made, money exchanged, but the clients – the patrons – have nothing to show for it. They have to do the unthinkable and make up with their adversaries – their relatives – to finally resolve their ‘land’ disputes. But, despite this they are still happy to go along with whatever their ‘advocates’ tell them, greasing the cogs of a corrupt system that works to their disadvantage.
You have to understand something here, dispossessed people make some of the best cash-cows. It is usually poor people from modest backgrounds who get exploited and not their rich peers. That’s the nature of structural discrimination, it’s always unjust to the least powerful members of society!
My dad’s lawyer is happy to get paid for services rendered, not rendered, it makes no difference to him. His ‘charges’ are just plucked out of thin air. There are no receipts or invoices, the promises are always verbal. Whenever he has the time, he answers his phone armed with excuses as to why he has been avoiding my father. These are international calls you see, so inevitably he has his ‘reasons’. He is not in the habit of working to a signed contract, and yet he chides all the ‘charlatans’ for ripping off their clients. It is a customary ruse of theirs. My father knows full well he is being ripped off, and yet every time he speaks to him, it’s as if he’s grovelling for ‘favours’. He knows full well that his children will never live in the ancestral village so why go through all this stress in his twilight years, (not that his children will remain asleep when demanding their just “ancestral” dues), a different prospect altogether. But, why spend all this money now when as a young adult in Britain he made his children and wife live an austere life probably because of the poverty he had experienced years earlier?
There’s something about our past that makes us behave irrationally given the strong emotional bonds we have with our formative years. No matter how horrible it was we try to re-imagine it, romanticise the few happy moments we had, we want to preserve it in some way!
His break came in the mid 1950s when his mum’s brother ‘called for him’ to work in the UK. My father recollects that his paternal uncles and cousins had already gone to the UK but they had no intention of helping or facilitating his move. His maternal uncle, not that much older, succumbed to the letters my dad had written him. He was in the UK at the time and advanced him the necessary funds to purchase the airline ticket and necessary amenities. I guess that rudimentary education he received payed off. He was 17 at the time, brimming with hope for a rosier future, more bleak had he been forced to stay in his village. There were no restrictions on entry to the UK at this time in the way we imagine later restrictions. Immigration became deliberately cumbersome during the early 1960s and many of the settled immigrants started to ‘sponsor’ their families starting with their menfolk. This is how most of us ended up here via the sponsorship network. My father according to his account sponsored a lot of his relatives and village friends. I think in his mind he was being altruistic given his own acute sense of dispossession. He also made good use of his ability to read and write ‘Urdu’ letters, offering a free service to his peers who were illiterate.
He recalls working long hours in a number of factories. Work was plentifully available but hard and required backbreaking grit. But, the fact he could earn a living, save money and for the first time send money back to his mum, changing her life immeasurably, was one of his proudest moments, he recalls. He remembers vividly how much he earned on his first shift. He describes his superiors at work with great fondness. He has no bad recollections of his time during his early years in the UK. I’ve tried to probe these ‘memories’ by questioning him about the backlash against the commonwealth immigrants and the skinheads who went ‘Paki-bashing’. He won’t have any of it. He describes the biting cold temperatures, grey weather, short days, freezing nights, knee-high snow, smoke filled skies, apparently they thought every house with a chimney was a factory! But, of the social landscape, he describes in very endearing terms. He describes his ‘white neighbours’ as some of the ‘nicest people he had ever met‘, welcoming and always on hand to help. They weren’t racists back then, he insists, ‘they used to give us directions when we were lost’. For me, this history culminates when he describes with joy the moment he had his photograph taken with his young Uncle to be sent back to his mum to show her how successful he was. Both of them wore new suits and ties and prepared for this ‘special occasion’. Years later he got married to his cousin. I think he wanted to marry someone else but he was hamstrung into doing his family duty by his paternal uncle, the ‘Major Saab’ – the army man!
He bought his new wife over and eventually his mother agreed to join the family. My mum and my grandmother didn’t hit it off, and eventually my grandmother left the household and moved into another of my dad’s properties. My dad was a frugal man, almost ‘stingy’, that was how I used to conjure up his behaviour in my adolescence. He liked to save and he inadvertently ended up buying some properties. I think in his mind he was ensuring his sons had homes to move into after their ‘arranged’ marriages. The property my grandmother moved into would have been a rental property, and the extra income would have helped, but my dad didn’t care, it was enough that some of his domestic problems were temporarily resolved. He had seven children. I’m the youngest of 3 brothers and 4 sisters, one ‘ran away’ stifled by family traditions that denied women real personal autonomy. I was ‘quarrelsome’, aloof from my siblings and the rest of the extended family with whom I shared little or no familial experiences. I didn’t attend family ‘dos’, weddings or funerals, not out of any casual indifference, but for what they symbolised in my mind ‘insincerity and the keeping up of appearances’.
For my part, my father’s acute sense of dispossession didn’t make our lives any more pleasant. But that’s history and he now wants me to locate his estranged daughter’s whereabouts so that she gets ‘her share’ of money left to my sisters from my mother and paternal grandmother’s gold. He tells me my grandmother wanted all of her granddaughters to get a ‘share’ including the one that ran off. He seems motivated by a sense of duty not least because he was unable to bury his mum in her village, an express wish of hers, he tells me. My brother, with whom she lived, couldn’t facilitate the repatriation, as his passport had expired. My brother managed to renew it some weeks later just in time to holiday abroad with his ‘mistress’ or the ‘second wife’ that was apparently the figment of his first wife’s imagination. My father is scathing of him in private whilst keen to preserve his reputation in public, such are the mechanics of family honour and ‘reputation’ in my family, my extended network, community, and society.
My mother passed away almost 10 years ago from heart failure and a life of stress I believe. She would have been 67 had she survived. My grand mother passed away some time in 2012 and we believe she was in her late 90s. My father hasn’t much long to live, but his health is presently stable and he is always in good spirits. According to his haematologist, he should have died a year ago, but my father refuses to die. He lives with me and occasionally takes a trip down memory lane. Whenever we drive past a canal on my way to the cemetery every Thursday or Friday to visit my mum and grandmother’s graves, my father has made a ritual out of this practise, on the side of the canal is a derelict factory he worked in, he reminisces about the good old days. He is particularly fond of his manager. He describes him as a young chap, pleasant and easy-going, and who always wore a suit. He always asked about my father and cared a lot about his workers, or at least this is how my dad remembers the good old days.
My dad is the last of his generation that I have any ‘real’ connection with. My ‘people’ have lost so much of that generation even as they are indifferent to the individual life-stories of their forbears. For my sins, I never got on with him when I was younger. I didn’t agree with his ‘decisions’ which always seemed to be impulsive and out of a warped desire to maintain some standing with his peers – “the people” . How I hated that word! Even as I have a young family of my own, I have had my fair share of barnies with him. For months he would stop talking to me and I would happily reciprocate the gesture. He always seemed to make life miserable for everyone around him. I guess my experience is no different to that of my immediate peers, the second-generation ‘immigrants’ that Britain has never really accepted, apparently we’re hard to integrate, or at least that’s what I read in the papers.
But my peers, the upwardly mobile ones at least, have since moved on with little concern for that history of dispossession.
Perhaps they want to make their own memories.
Who am I to judge given how alienated they’ve become from a past that in their minds diminishes their standing as they now crave to be part of the general thrust of ‘progress’. Others are strident Muslims now dressed in Arab robes, and why should they care about the life stories of their ‘simpleton’ parents and grandparents from the hills/mountains of Jammu & Kashmir whose ‘Pahari’ ‘culture’ sullies the integrity of their new but universally pristine ‘heritage’. (Our culture is very rich, it’s original and the culmination of our forebears struggles – the things we take for granted are born of a very old heritage).
The remaining few, the less educated, the less affluent – such are society’s labels, hold tight to their family traditions by way of ritual. They never once probe their attitudes, the roots of their cultural traditions, the past lives of their predecessors, the history of the western Himalaya, of the Indian Plains. They become second grade imitations of their parents – “made in ‘Pakistan'” – clearly stamped on their collars as they roam the streets of England.
How we all like to re-imagine the past eager to belong to imaginary fraternities all the while we are alienated from that past!
For me, this trip down memory lane is a chapter that’s fast coming to its end. I don’t want it to end though as I have so much more to learn. My peers would naturally disagree. As I look into the fading gaze of my father, this frail old man, over 80 on paper, perhaps a few years younger; most of his generation couldn’t even recollect their exact birthdates; apparently they were all born on Christmas day or on a New Year, he thinks he’s going to be cured of his cancer. I learn something profound about the human spirit that keeps us going even when everything seems to have been lost. But none of us is perfect, and even as we experience pain and injustice and turn to the heavens for relief, we go on to hurt others as we extricate ourselves from our ‘former lives’. I know now that I was wrong and impetuous when I sought to blame him for his obstinacy to not see things beyond his ‘circle’, after all I’ve had the benefit of ‘insights’ that my British-born generation takes for granted. It’s easy doing what society expects of you, following the herd because everyone else is standing in the same queue, the very definition of conventional wisdom and popular fashion until your mind becomes perturbed and you walk your own path alone.
My father came from a different world though. He was the young boy who was orphaned at three, lived a shitty life until he was 17 and managed to get his passage paid to the UK. His life improved immeasurably despite the toil of hard labour, but he always seemed to be dogged by that previous life, and there were many casualties.
The fact that I can think about all this as I try to make sense of that timeline, means I’m in a better place to write that second chapter with the help of my peers, if they so choose. Who knows, it may be better than the preceding one. There are no guarantees that it will be better. It may be worse. Ultimately, it’s up to us to ensure we never forget our “roots” even as others are embarrassed about who they are, hiding behind illusory identities and false priorities. By knowing our roots and the stories of our parents and grandparents, perhaps we’ll be able to ensure in our own lifetime we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.
I guess, ironically, I have my father to thank for that.