One fine October morning

What used to be a store room had been converted into my study. It was lined with books by Mao, Lenin and Marx.

Ahmad Faruqui August 12, 2012

I had turned five earlier that year, living in the house where I was born. It was cavernous and located in the compound of a Power House, which was in turn located on the banks of the Phuleli Canal.  The canal originated from the Indus River at the GM Barrage  several miles away where we would often go for picnics.

I was afraid to ask Dad what he did.  So I asked Mom what he did. She said he was the Resident Engineer for the Hyderabad Electricity Supply Undertaking. Those big words did not mean much to me but I knew he had something to do with electricity, which kept the lights on and which shocked you if you touched a live wire.

Our house was a two-storey structure and we slept upstairs. In the mornings, we were often awakened by the whistle of the engine as the train approached the bridge over the canal that ran past the house.

Then October arrived. One fine morning, I woke up thinking the train was whistling by. But the normal rattling sound of hundreds of wheels going over the tracks was missing. Something else had disturbed the peace. But what was it? My sister motioned towards me and I followed her towards the stairs. Something was the matter with Dad, she said. I felt my lips go numb.

She told me a phone call had come for Dad. It was from the guard. Dad had sounded very agitated during the call and had yelled back something to the guard. Then he had rushed off downstairs in his pajamas to make sure his orders were being followed.

By the time we got to the stairs, Dad had disappeared. But one of his slippers was still on the steps. It was so funny, imagining him running out with only one slipper on. Both of us broke out laughing until Mom called us back to our bedroom.

My sister beckoned me to the bedroom window. We looked down into the compound and at the road that ran through it. At this time of day, it would be totally empty and quiet. In the faint light of dawn, we saw that several cars were parked there. But they did not have wheels and their bodies were much higher from the ground and they were painted in dark colors. Their front lights were on but covered up with wires and leaves. They looked ominous. Tall men all wearing the same clothes and carrying rifles were standing next to them.

Fear gripped me and I was concerned about Dad. My sister did not appear worried and Mom was fine. So I assumed everything was fine.

Soon afterwards, Dad came back and told us to go back to bed. He said everything was fine. By now, I had figured out when not to ask a question. I climbed on my bed and pretended to go back to sleep.

Later, Mom told me that the soldiers had come in to protect the Power House from the bad guys.  Who were they? No one was saying and I did not want to ask. She explained what had happened. The soldiers had arrived in a convoy and asked the guard to open the gate. Loyal to his boss, he had refused to take orders from them. He had called Dad to ask for instructions and when Dad understood who was knocking at the gate, he ordered the guard to let them in. They were the guardians of our freedom. Then he rushed downstairs to greet the soldiers.

In the following decade, the memory of that day would be preserved as Revolution Day. General Ayub Khan promised to put the country back on the rails. In four years, the general would become president and give the gift of Basic Democracy to his fellow citizens saying they were not ready for full democracy and that he had to protect the people from themselves.

He would also assume the rank of field marshal. He looked so tall and handsome in that British uniform, with the baton tucked in his side and all those brass medals gleaming on his chest. His English was better than that of the Catholic priests in my school. What was there not to like in him?

We were in total awe. After all, he had said that he was going to keep us safe from the corrupt politicians who had ruined the country ever since it had become independent of the vile British. And he would keep us safe from the horrible Indians who wanted to kill us simply because we were Muslims.

In a year or two, after that fine October morning, Dad was promoted. We moved out of the Power House compound into a house in the Government Officers Residence Colony. But the new house, C-3, was smaller and I did not like it. I really missed spending my afternoons looking at the water flowing in the Phuleli Canal. Once a body had come floating by, causing a huge stir. Once a year, a religious ceremony would take place on the road bridge that was visible from our back wall. At the end, funeral objects would be lowered into the canal and go past our house. It was all so interesting, life by the Canal.

The day came when I was admitted to the St Bonaventure’s High School, far away from home where I had been doing home school with Mom for a while now. The school had a big church with statues inside. We did not go inside for fear of becoming Christian.

Dad began to travel all over Sindh since his responsibilities extended to the operation of all the power houses in southern Pakistan. We would help him pack and unpack his bags every few days. Many resident engineers, now called executive engineers, reported to him and called him Sir. The company name changed to the Water and Power Development Authority.

One day Dad told us that a new power station had been built far away from our original house. This one was bigger than the Power House where I had grown up and it was a thermal plant. I did not know what thermal meant but I did not like it.

President Ayub would be coming by for the opening ceremony and a small group of children would sing the national anthem to greet him. I was going to be one of those children. That day came. I must have been eight years old. We sang the song and President Ayub, redder than any man I had seen, looked at us and smiled. It felt so warm, that look in his eyes.

The next year we moved to Sukkur. My sister and I were enrolled in St Mary’s High School which was co-educational. She was two years ahead of me. In each classroom, boys and girls sat in different sections but there was plenty of eye-contact. Father Todd was the principal. He had been the vice principal at St Bonaventure’s High and coincidently had moved from Hyderabad to Sukkur with us. He liked me.

During recess, one day in late October, I was talking with a group of friends in the school yard. Word arrived that the American president, John F Kennedy, had been shot dead. We were saddened since the president’s wife had toured Karachi not too long ago and in the newspaper pictures of her visit, she looked very friendly. On hearing the news of Kennedy’s death, one of the boys said something very bizarre: That Pakistan should send a plane and take over the US. Even if we wanted to do it, it did not sound feasible to me, just with one plane. And it was a land so far away. But I kept quiet. He was a bigger kid.

Dad’s travels now encompassed the neighbouring province of Balochistan. We went to the garrison town of Quetta with him once, near the Afghan border. That would be the most exciting train ride of my life. The train went through several tunnels and at one point, when it encountered a steep slope, several engines had to push it through. Quetta was full of orchards and we toured them with Mom while Dad worked. We feasted on figs and apricots and plums. The high altitude air was fresh and crisp but dry. For the first time, I applied Vaseline on my lips. We also toured a coal mine by putting on helmets with lights and riding in small wagons.

Our house in Sukkur was located in the Barrage Colony, named after the eponymous structure which lay just a mile away.  Originally called the Lloyd Barrage and now called the Sukkur Barrage, it had taken nine years to build. The British viceroy had opened it in 1932. Several canals came out of the barrage and irrigated the Indus River valley.

The British had built the world’s largest irrigation network in what was now Pakistan and laid down the vast network of trains that ran throughout the country. They had given us the lovely game of cricket. But the child in me did not understand why we cursed them in the very language they had bequeathed to us.

Not too far away lay the ruins of the great Harappan Civilisation in a desolate spot called Mohenjo-Daro (mound of the dead). We would go there often with visiting relatives. There was not much to see since salinity in the soil had decimated the ruins. Only the foundations remained. But it was a good spot for picnicking. Along the way we would drive through a town called Larkana in which a famous family called the Bhuttos lived.

Summers in Sukkur were very hot. We had no air conditioning and during the first summer my entire body broke out in prickly heat. My classmates did not want to come near me. Mom covered me with some dark mud from Multan and I looked even worse. But the blisters went away.

At night, the servants would move our beds into the open patio and we would count the stars of the Milky Way until Mom would unfurl the mosquito nets and we would fall asleep. Late into the night you could hear the squeaking of the wagons as the farmers returned home from the field. The design was just like what you would see in the museum in Mohenjo-Daro. It had survived unchanged from the Bronze Age.

Our house was across the street from the Tennis Club. We did not know how to play tennis but we knew it was a British invention. Some white kids came by every evening to play. Initially, I mistook them for the British but Mom told me that they were Americans. We would watch them play from across the road and wave to them. Once in a while, they would wave back and we would get a thrill. But we never talked. They were foreign and possibly dangerous.

Pakistani men dressed in shorts would play there as well. Sometimes an important man would come there to have a drink or two. We never saw him play tennis. He was ZA Bhutto, the president’s right hand man, whose home we had seen in Larkana.

Bhutto would stay in the staid and elegant Circuit House, which was not too far down the road from our house. We were told it was fashioned after an English manor. We liked him. He was young, dashing and flamboyant in every sense of the term. We did not know then that he was a feudal lord who had no love for the peasants who tilled the soil. Nor did we know that he had been applying pressure on government servants to hire so-and-so. My Dad got his share of notes from Bhutto.

Now it was time for the presidential elections. Ayub was being challenged by a very old and thin woman who we were told was the sister of the Quaid. She resembled a witch. We wanted her to lose. I was a cub-scout and the scout master (who was also our math teacher) told us one day that we would march to the railway station in uniform and line up along the main road to greet the president.

And so we did march. The station wore a festive look, decorated with festive banners carrying pictures of Ayub and Bhutto. All the tree trunks had been painted white up to five feet and looked like school children.

The train took forever to arrive and I almost passed out standing at attention in the heat. Finally a black limousine swung out of the station with the star-and-crescent fluttering on the hood. Ayub had never looked so regal in civilian clothes. Seated next to him was Bhutto, dubbed the ‘Lion of Sindh’ in the banners. We proudly saluted both of them in our scout uniforms.

Ayub won the elections. We were elated. But there was rioting in Karachi. His son had led a victory procession and it had turned violent.

In April 1965, my Dad and I were stuck in a traffic jam on the approaches to the Sukkur Barrage. An army convoy was ahead of us, barely crawling. I asked Dad why he was not honking at them. He said you never honk at the army. The army trucks were loaded with troops and stood very high up from the ground. Even their engines sounded different. Some soldiers were on the ground, guiding the convoy. They looked incredibly smart and I wanted to be one of them.

Dad told me that troops we were seeing were probably under the command of Maj.-Gen. Tikka Khan and that they were moving towards the border to engage with the Indians, who had been making mischief yet again. They were coming from Quetta which he told me was a garrison town and where the British had established the Command and Staff College which he had pointed out to us when we were there. The short encounter at the Rann of Kutch was decisive and the Pakistani Army prevailed. We were elated.

Then Dad retired. We moved to Karachi, to live in a flat that he had built in 1958, the year of that fine October morning. It was very small, part of a four-unit structure, and had a tiny weed-infested garden. I did not like it. And it had a very complex number: IV/F/4/4.

But then Karachi was Pakistan’s biggest city and complexity was to be expected. Even though we had been coming to that teeming metropolis every summer to stay with our aunt and play with our cousins, who were not only the friendliest but also the most intelligent people I knew, it felt odd now to be living in that city.

On the 6th of September the news broke that war with India had broken out. Ayub went on the radio and told us that India had attacked Lahore. Two decades later, we would learn that commandoes of the Pakistani Army had intruded into Indian Kashmir a few weeks prior, provoking the Indians to counter-attack.

The war ended as abruptly as it had begun just 16 days later. We were told we had won. We had conquered more Indian territory than they had, shot down more of their planes, destroyed more of their tanks and killed more of their people. That myth of victory was shattered when Ayub signed the Tashkent Declaration with India in the Soviet Union the following January and all territory was returned. Bhutto broke from him and formed a political party, threatening to “let the cat out of the bag,” about how Ayub had sold out to the Indians in Tashkent.

Soon Dad had a new lawn put in (and I would ruin it later while practicing my cricket bowling skills). He also had four lovely Gulmohar (Royal Poinciana) trees planted just outside the front entrance. When summer arrived, I would study in the living room and watch the dappled shadows of the Gulmohar fall on the lawn. Dad subscribed to TIME, LIFE and the Readers Digest so my view of America was heavily influenced by their editorial policy. What used to be a store room had been converted into my study. It was lined with books by Mao, Lenin and Marx and decorated with pictures of these men. Dad was not pleased with my collection but was very tolerant with me, hoping that someday my obsession would burn out.

My Catholic school, St Patrick’s High, was far away from home but that was where I went every weekday, first in a car pool and then in the Number 40 bus.

One school trip took us back to Hyderabad, where I had spent my childhood. For some reason the public madhouse was on the itinerary. It fascinated us. In one square, a man had propped himself up on a stand and was giving a political speech. He was also asserting seriously that he was Liaquat Ali Khan, the first prime minister of Pakistan who was assassinated in 1951 while giving a speech in Rawalpindi.  In another area, a naked man was terrorising people with his aggressive talk.

On the way back, we stopped at the farm town of Hala, home to a famous Sufi shrine. I had been there before but the boys from Karachi were awestruck. At dusk, we began the long drive home. We were now traversing through a heavily wooded area and our luck ran out. In the darkness, the bus had broken down. There was no other traffic on the road.

It was scary and many of the kids began to cry. Help took hours to arrive. Finally, the bus was repaired and we were taken to a local village and fed omelets and tea. We must have reached our school at daybreak. Our worried Dads were there to greet us.

I graduated from high school and was admitted to Adamjee Science College, one of the best science colleges in the country. My plan was to attend the same engineering college that my brother had done and like every other man in the family, contribute to the engineering profession. But it was soon apparent that I was good in theory and lousy in the lab.

I thought the army would be a good career and began to imagine myself as a major commanding a squadron of Patton tanks. But that was not to be. I was found to be medically unfit because of an insufficient chest expansion, flat feet and knock-knees. So a decision was made for me to study economics, take the competitive exam for the civil service and become the first Faruqui in that profession.

In 1968, Ayub began to celebrate his Decade of Development. Riots broke out all over the country. He was no longer popular. The following year, on one fine March morning, he resigned, saying he could not preside over the destruction of his country.

Yahya’s troops arrived on the streets of Karachi and knocked on our front door. They asked us to remove the four Gulmohar trees that graced the roadway because they encroached on the roadway. Dad complied and I cried. As they were being cut down, one could not but help notice that the trees were in full bloom, with their branches draped in flamboyant red.

The arrival of the troops the second time felt so different from the first time. Maybe it felt different because I was 11 years older. Or maybe it felt different because you can’t hoodwink the same people twice.

Or maybe it simply spelled the end of innocence.

We would learn later, when Ayub’s son would publish his memoirs, that the then army chief General Yahya Khan, had deposed the higher ranking Field Marshal Ayub. Ironically, I would also later read that it was Bhutto who had advised Ayub to become a Field Marshal in the first place so that he would out-rank all general officers and thereby coup-proof himself. Just three years later, Yahya would send troops under the command of General Tikka Khan into East Pakistan, to quell a rebellion that was getting out of control. In nine months, in another war with India, he would lose half the country, thereby bringing the army’s arch rival Bhutto to power. Up until then, I had been a diehard Bhutto fan. But his true colors had begun to show through the peasant clothes he would put on for the grand rallies which I would attend with such passion. He talked of socialism while living in the lap of luxury at 70 Clifton.

And worse, for those of us who had turned socialist on his urging, he was going to send his daughter Benazir, who would later become prime minister, to Harvard located in the heart of capitalistic America, a country that had waged a war on the Vietnamese. A war that Bhutto himself had condemned more than once. I wrote a letter to Bhutto in protest and he replied that he could not help me because I was confused, and added: “When the history of this country is written, it will be admitted by our people and by the world outside that no individual has done so much service to the cause of socialism in Pakistan as I have done.” He concluded that his decision to educate his children in the US was not incompatible with his political convictions since his children were not in politics.

At 21, I moved to the US and embraced capitalism. It was a hot September day in 1974 when I unpacked my bags in the graduate dorm at The University of California at Davis. In the cafeteria, I met an engineering student from India, by the name of Krishna. This was my first contact with an Indian. To my surprise, he smiled at me, loved to chat about cricket and enjoyed the same foods. He had even grown up in the city (Benares) where Dad had studied for his undergraduate degree in engineering.

What was there to hate in him? I wrote with great excitement to Dad and he wrote back, saying that the best years of his life were spent in India. He and Mom, with my brother, had migrated from India soon after the Great Partition of 1947. They had left the land of their childhood and their dreams in search of a Promised Land.

I had fully intended to return home, and did not know that I was destined to become an American citizen and to be called a foreigner when I would return “home”. In a few years, Bhutto would appoint the suppliant General Zia to lead the army, not knowing that one day Zia would not only depose him but eventually hang him.

Decades later, Quetta, that remote garrison town near the Afghan border which we had toured as children with my sister and Mom and Dad, would emerge on the international scene as the headquarters of the Taliban. Today it is a city of fear, where disappearances and targeted killings are the norm.

And Swat, nestled in the foothills of the pristine Karakoram Mountains, where we had gone on our honeymoon in 1975, would become the scene of beheadings and kidnappings and every vile thing known to man.

Or that Abbottabad, through which we had driven on the way to Swat, would give sanctuary to the world’s most wanted man, a guest from Yemen who had come originally to fight with the Americans against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and where on one warm night in May 2011 his life would come to an end at the hands of the Americans against whom he had carried out the most dastardly terrorist attack in recent memory.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 12th, 2012.

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