Though I was born in Croydon, the only language I could speak until the age of five was German. This was during the time before the war when my father was studying at the Royal Dental Hospital in Leicester Square, London. I paid frequent visits with my mother to a neat brick house in the northern part of Berlin near the Wittenau tram lines where my aunts, uncles and grandmother resided. I can never forget Berlin, the Kameradschaft and the elation one felt in being alive. At night, a couple of blocks away, one caught a glimpse of a street lamp, which gave out a pale leprous flush and lit up with wan, disdainful efficiency a huge poster of Leni Riefenstahl’s eternal classic Olympia.
The parades were spectacular. No child ever wanted to miss them. There was martial music and torchlight tattoos and lots and lots of flags. And there was the quick measured tread of hard heels on pavements slaked with the corrugated rust of a nation preparing for war. On one occasion, we caught a glimpse of the Fuhrer in his Mercedes Benz convertible, and a phalanx of arms greeted him with the Nazi salute. We were mesmerised by the goose step and the marching columns manicured like hedges in an English squire’s garden. The hot summers were delightful. We would head for the lake moored in the slow tides of flat calm afternoons. Here bright pink anatomies roasted in the sun and grandmothers in feathered felt hats and ankle-length skirts bit into sausage and bread and splashed themselves with four seven eleven. Boys with toy Messerschmitts zoomed at their war games at the edge of the lake and licked ice sticks, while their sisters in bright swimsuits were constantly threatened with photography.
The second language I learned was Urdu. My father had graduated with a Licence in Dental Surgery from the Royal College of Surgeons (LDS.RCS) from London. But instead of staying on in the UK, he decided to move back to India and accepted an assignment in the Prince of Wales Hospital in Bhopal. Like Berlin, I can never forget Bhopal — with its jungles and lakes and poets and palace intrigues, its famous wrestlers and equally famous hockey players, its shikaris and farmers and the most beautiful girls in India, descended from the Tartars, who I was able to glimpse because of my youth. Our house was opposite the smaller of the two lakes, and I was always amused by the quarter guard who stiffened to attention whenever our Austin 10 passed. We had five servants, an Irish setter and a Pomeranian and an excellent Hindu gardener who cultivated the finest English roses, gardenias and hibiscus. The Hindus were in a huge majority and lived in peace and perfect harmony with the Muslim rulers and the Christians.
The sport of the ruler and the princes was hunting tigers in Chicklod. Sometimes the beasts prowled the town at night and one rather precocious female jumped over our garden wall and made off with a buffalo calf. In the monsoon, the place was infested with snakes — cobras, pythons and Russels Vipers. We celebrated Eid and Christmas and all the Hindu holidays and in the winter, the Nawab hosted a huge ball with the police band in attendance. My greatest treasure, however, was my father’s collection of gramophone records. There were the rumbas of the golden age of Cuban music played by the orchestras of Don Azpiazu, Xavier Cugat, the Lecuona Cuban Boys and Filiberto Rico; and there were the symphonies of Beethoven and Mahler. And then, at five and a half, I was packed off to boarding school.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 19th, 2012.
More in OpinionBannu — an ominous attack