“Apa (older sister), I fell off my bike.”
“This is unbelievable. You have never lied to me ever before.”
My father, Nasr, (or Nasrulla as he would be known in adulthood), was a new student at Lahore’s historic Government College and the year was 1918, about 90 years ago. He was 17 at the time, his birthday being October the 2nd. Father was studying for his B.A. (honours) degree, as well as playing daily at the beautiful ‘oval’, the smooth, grassy hockey field that still lies beside or in front of the majestic church-like spire of Government College.
Beatings, Bruises & Beliefs
Many years later, when he was married to my mother, who incidentally was sequentially his fourth wife, he told the truth about the bruises to my mother, Amtul-Hafeez*.
“That day after college hours, I came upon a group of Muslim boys who had ganged up to beat up a little Hindu lad, a timid soul who ..... I saw in a single glance ….. needed help and needed it now.” One of Nasrulla’s finely honed qualities was his ability to size up a situation with a single glance.
“You boys stop beating up someone weaker than yourselves and stop it right this instant!” The bullies, looming large in the evening light, continued the boy bashing. Louder and more commanding, Nasrulla was surprised at the roar that emitted from his throat. “Stop it now!” In Punjabi language it can sound almost as, if not more powerful than it would in a Germanic language. The pummelling and the kicking stopped immediately but now the large Punjabi louts, idlers perhaps, turned away from the small whimpering Hindu lad lying on the ground. “Toon Honda kaon, who do you think you are …. saaley?” Saaley is a Punjabi term used to denigrate someone. In translation the word loses its sting, meaning sister’s spouse or one’s brother-in-law which was a derogative term in Punjab at that time, having to do with the culture. “You big boys need to be ashamed, beating up a little lala boy – it is only bay-sharam (someone without shame or without honour), it is only a shameless person who beats up someone weaker than one’s own self.”
Bullies Versus Nasr, the Wrestler
The bullies, rendered speechless in debate, turned there knuckle dusters onto young Nasrulla, finding him alone. But he gave as good as he got. He was a wrestler as well as a field hockey blue at the Punjab University. Yet he too ended up beaten almost senseless.
My father’s closest friends in the 1920’s and 1930’s were Hindu and Sikh boys, studying with him at the Government College in Lahore and Punjab University. These lads later went on to be leaders in their fields of law and medicine, and one of them even captained the India hockey team at the gold medal winning Olympic hockey final in the mid-1920s.
My father would have defended a minority, for example a person who did not belong to the Hindu or Muslim religions in India. He would have defended a Christian or a Buddhist who was being unfairly savaged.
His older sister did not know these details, but she washed the wounds and applied some mercurochrome and tincture of iodine, and bandaged her brother.
My brother and I attended Government College in Lahore in the 1950s, 30 years after our father had gone through, and we saw the photographs of the hockey teams that had represented the Punjab University. Among the guests of honour was a famous Indian educationist, G. D. Sondhi.
He sits in the photos next to the team captain, my father. In 1957, 10 years after the Partition of India, Mr. Sondhi visited the Government College in Lahore. I stood meekly beside him, absorbing the gentle power of the great former principal. I had no words to ask him, but he might have not remembered teaching my father 30 years earlier. My father died in 1952 and I was speechless in 1957 when Dr. Sondhi visited from India. I wish I had spoken to him.
The motto of the Government College, Lahore, is ‘Courage to know’.
As a post script, let me tell you that my father married three times. His first wife was his beloved Norjihan who died in childbirth along with the baby. His second wife was not compatible with the lifestyle of a hardworking civil service officer and yielded a daughter who is my elder stepsister. For his third wife he married a tree, because the Brahmin who foretells fortunes said that third wives are unlucky and it would be better if he married a tree to absorb the bad luck and save the real next wife from trouble. The tree perhaps was not watered properly and dutifully withered away. My mother was a doctor who graduated from Lady Harding Medical School in 1936, and she was my father’s fourth wife. She survived him for many decades.
After my father died in 1952 my mother, Amtul-Hafeez* brought up the four orphans that she had, sending them to universities to be educated, and sacrificed her whole time, energy, and life for her children’s futures. My mother’s debt can never be repaid by us.
One of my beloved siblings, achieved the rank of engineering chief of the Pakistani army, and did much work to bring honour to his ancestors. His life is documented in several stories that I have written earlier. One of my sisters is a psychiatrist working in North Carolina. I was able to become a physician. With my mother’s encouragement, I appeared for and succeeded in the exam to become a member of the Royal College of Physicians in the U.K.