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     Volume 7 Issue 29 | July 18, 2008 |

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Under the Same Sky
A Subcontinental Persona

Part IV

Perveen Ahmad

When I recall what went into the brew that made me a sub continental I think about some of the people, places and events that brought about the persona I became. My parents were from two diverse cultural backgrounds, from two well-known provinces of India, Uttara Pradesh or UP and the Punjab. The virile and extrovert Punjabis are as opposite as any can be to the self-effacing, over-polite and formalistic denizens of UP. Before her grand parents settled in the subcontinent, my mother mentioned traces of her origins to poetic Persia, a not uncommon migratory feature of the subcontinent. She had been bereft of her mother and father as a child, and so I never had the chance to see my maternal grandparents. She had one sister who died at a very early age of consumption (tubercolosis) whom we also never saw, but I remember my maternal uncle, a dealer in gemstones who lived in Bombay. He too died of heart failure just before 1947. We gathered from brief conversations here and there that he had inherited a business in gems and precious stones from my maternal great grandfather who had dealings with Indian merchants in some big cities a long time ago, and had settled in Lucknow of Oudh Province.

My mother's lovely eyes were proof of that lyrical Persian feature that was the subject of much descriptive praise in Farsi literature. Thoroughly Indianised by the time she grew up as a third generation immigrant my mother received a lady's education at the renowned Isabella Thoburn College in Lucknow and graduated with a BA followed by a Bachelor of Teaching, BT. degree that led her to fulfill her pleasure as a 'born teacher'.

Tutored under English women and brought up to mimic the graces of courteous English society, as was the norm in British India, my intelligent and loving mother imbibed Victorian values in speech and thought.

My strikingly handsome father, milk-white fair, five feet ten inches tall, robust, with a head of thick black wavy hair, shapely green eyes, fine lips, like a sahib, people would say, married my very Indian looking mother of sandalwood complexion, full mouth and small boned structure.

My father had already been married, but was a widower when he met my mother in Delhi. He had a tiny three-year-old daughter living in Lahore. His wife had died when my half-sister Razia was just two and a half years old. My grand mother, who already had fourteen of her own children living in a spacious multi-storeyed house in Mewa Mandi of old Lahore, took the baby under her care. My grand father Khuda Baksh Qureishi was a mustached and burly figure who reigned over the household with strictness and aplomb. He had got my father Mohammad Saied Qureishi married off at the early age of nineteen without concern for the bride or bridegroom's suitability, and my father rejected the choice right from the beginning. He had left Lahore two years later to join the British Indian Railway in Delhi as Head Clerk. To hold service under any British Indian Government Department was considered a great achievement for Indians, even as the sun was setting of the imperial crown.

It was perhaps my mother's education and sophistication that fascinated my father, who had great respect for higher education and the quality of life. My father had not himself been able to complete college, wedged as he was among fourteen children in a large extended household. He got a job as Head Clerk in the British Indian Railway at the age of twenty-one travelling from Lahore to Delhi to take up the post under British Officers. To give him due credit he was a self-made man and when he finally retired in Pakistan as Divisional Personnel Officer of the Paksitan's North Western Railway he was a respected name. Both my parents excelled in good speech, exhilarating conversation and a taste for "bonne lettres". My father had a good command of Urdu, a facile pen in English and a passion for Urdu-Persian poetry (sher-o-shairi). Mother's forte' was English literature, poetry and a love for music. After their marriage father read Shakespeare and the English classics, and encouraged us to learn Farsi and French in school. We were encouraged to read Diwan-e-Ghalib and Gulistan-e-Saadi when we settled in Lahore. The atmosphere was full of learning, chatting, about daily happenings and serving our time well.

When my parents were married in Delhi, I believe my paternal grandmother on hearing the news drew her white mulmul duputta over her nose regretfully saying 'Hai hai, Saeed ney Hindustani sey shadi karli", in other words "Oh dear, Saeed has married an Indian" in her languid Punjabi drawl. It has long been a psychological block in the minds of most Punjabis that they are a handsome, fair skinned race, and do not marry with the dark-skinned people of India's other provinces. Relatives in Lahore were not happy. In all justice to my father and his wider outlook, he took a stand to direct his life differently. He had moved away from the parochialism of Lahore's old city life on to new horizons. We children were the beneficiaries of that broad-minded attitude.


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