23 November, 2008

Searching for Our Roots

Me and my wife Samar came back after an incredibly fruitful trip to India, (in April 2008) which we shall surely relish for a long time. We got a chance to visit our parents' ancestral homes in Jalandhar, alongwith virtually every monument and landmark in Delhi, Jaipur and Agra. Visit to the latter city placed us amongst the privileged few “….them as has seen the Taj…” (Lear). We enjoyed all the sights and sounds of the enchanting places we chose to visit. We were well looked after by our hosts who must number several hundred, as we seemed to be everyone's guests, going by the warmth with which we were received everywhere. There was no untoward incident anywhere and we felt safe and very much at home. For an ex-Air Force officer, it was also quite something to swap the aeronautical targeting maps of yester-years with tourist maps and, romp around in India’s heartland! Here are some snippets of our visit:

Some Anecdotal Observations About India

The first thing that caught our eye on the way to Amritsar airport was a sari-clad woman scooterist complete with a helmet and a handkerchief for a mask. Then a bevy of college girls went scooting past on their way home after classes. This was in stark contrast to Pakistan where, we had heard a few days earlier, of the first-ever batch of eight female Lahore Police motorcyclists who had graduated and supposedly made history of sorts. In India it is a not at all an unusual sight to see women scooterists and cyclists on the road, specially in small towns where public transport is not as good as cities like Delhi.

At Amritsar airport we keenly read a prominently displayed notice which exempted only 27 key government functionaries including the President, Prime Minister, Supreme Court Judges, Governors, Chief Ministers and Federal & State Ministers from security checking. The list did NOT include members of Lok Sabha, nor did it include Service Chiefs of Staff!

VIP culture as we have it, is non existent in Delhi as well as other cities that we went to. Display of arms is strictly prohibited and private guards usually have just a baton. Only one shooter in a group of guards is authorised to keep a firearm with limited rounds. All government officials travel in the busted up and ugly looking ‘Ambassador’ a copy of Morris Oxford of the fifties. This includes the Prime Minister, Ministers and Service Chiefs. It is also not uncommon to see even Wg Cdrs and Lt Cols going to work on scooters.

Indians are not ostentatious like we are. During our two weeks in Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Jalandhar, I saw just 5-6 odd Mercedes, no BMWs and no sports cars. Everybody drives a Maruti, Tata Indica, Suzuki Swift or scooters and motor bikes.

Indians dress up very simply and their women are not given to gloss and glitter like ours. Women dress up in saris, shalwar/churidar-kamiz and jeans-tees in about equal numbers. Men are mostly clad in trousers and shirts. While I am on dresses, I must say that the glamorous sari is not what you see in films and on TV. In real life, most sari-wearers are quite fat, but the wonder is how brazenly they show their guts (pardon the pun)!

We found the average Indian rather docile compared to our adrenaline-high countrymen. With the general level of education being better than ours, and respect for authority evidently greater, it seemed that civility was coming of age in India. The attitude of shopkeepers was very welcoming and friendly and, they spent every effort to rope in even the most die-hard window shoppers.

We witnessed an incredible sight during our early morning train trip from Delhi to Jalandhar. On both sides of the track, one vast open air toilet ran for miles and miles. There was no consternation as pigs and dogs rummaged around and trains whistled past. It was also sad to see humans degraded to the level of animals. But that is India. As the train rattled past Panipat, we were reminded of Emperor Babar’s disdain for such things Hindustani!!
Talking of trains, I must not omit mention of the excellent service that we found in our travels to Jaipur and Jalandhar. The Shatabdi (Millenium) Express is as good as it gets in South Asia. This train was clean, seating was comfortable, newspapers and magazines were plenty, the food was a delight for a vegetarian like me and, not the least, the hostesses were most courteous and smart. I must also add that the train was an absolute stickler for punctuality, an attribute little cared for in our part of the world.

Environment-consciousness is strong in India. All Delhi buses run on CNG; so do rickshaws. Parks in Delhi are numerous where families and dating couples can cavort without fear of molestation. Trees abound in the city and municipal laws prohibit cutting even a branch without permission. Most cars are parked outside on the streets and, as a consequence, bird droppings are a nuisance to car-owners. There are NO billboards in Delhi and Jaipur. Jalandhar has some, but small-sized ones. None of the mega-sized ones that have utterly spoiled Lahore’s skyline.

Active mosques are managed by Muslim trustees, but their state leaves a lot to be desired. The Jamia Masjid, Delhi is a pale reflection of its counterpart in Lahore, largely due to mismanagement and corruption by the former’s executive body. The Archaeological Survey of India has, however done a good job in preserving all monuments, understandably, as they are magnets for tourists and bring in substantial revenue. Muslims are nearly 50% in Old Delhi area, but unfortunately, their condition is pathetic. Mostly they are rickshaw pullers, carpenters, car mechanics; the rest are content with being idlers, waiting for better times by the Will of Allah.

A Visit to the Taj

“Agra Taj, Agra Taj…,” so went the cacophony of the wagon conductors as we passed by a wagon stand on the outskirts of Agra. The calls were reminiscent of exactly similar ones we often used to hear at our own wagon stops while driving to the PAF base at Mauripur, for Agra Taj Colony is a dense locale not too far from there. This time it was surely different, as we were driving to the actual Taj in Agra, while carefully skirting an IAF base that lies a few miles away from the famous mausoleum.

Accompanied by my wife, we had hired a private taxi for a Delhi-Agra round trip. We set out early in the morning, with a very talkative and confiding driver named Anwar, for company. A historian of some substance, Anwar was ever-ready with a commentary about any monument, temple or mosque that was visible from the roadside. After a three-hour drive from Delhi, over a highway studded with the most stubborn truck drivers, we stopped for a coffee break at McDonald’s near the huge Mathura Refinery complex. One could catch the whiff of petroleum in the air for miles. Mathura, the birthplace of the legendary god Krishna of the Hindu pantheon and also an ancient centre of Buddhist learning, was visible from a distance. The gleaming Jamia Masjid built by Emperor Aurangzeb clearly stood out on the skyline. Anwar was quick to point out that the mosque shares a wall with the Garb-Griha Mandir, without any fuss.

Driving further on, we stopped by at Sikandara near Agra. The small suburb houses Emperor Akbar’s mausoleum, said to have been designed and started by Akbar himself, but completed by his son Jahangir. The tomb’s entrance portal has four white marble minarets which are said to be precursors of those on the Taj Mahal. These are, however, disproportionately tall and contrast oddly with the main red sandstone structure. Any comparison with the Taj ends right there, as we were to find out soon.

Anwar advised us for an early lunch at Agra and it did not take us long to spot Bikanervala’s, the famous multi-menu eatery chain that boasts just about every culinary delight India has to offer. A hearty South Indian veggie fare filled us up and we hastened towards the Taj, lest the ticket booths there closed down for a one-hour lunch break. As we drove through Agra, it was hard to believe that it was once the imperial Mughal capital. Now a disorderly and dirty city with bubbling sewers and broken roads, it was only the Taj Mahal that beckoned weary travellers like us.

The ubiquitous touts, so often seen chasing tourists in the sub-continent, were busy beckoning in a chatter all too familiar. (Guide chahye? Photo khichwayee ga? Achha dikhaen ge sab kuch, ispeshal … and so on). As we approached the ticket booths, an overpowering stench started to numb whatever remained of our sniffers. Litter, camel droppings and rubble were equally sore on the eyes. We wondered if our senses would be up to speed for the impending study of the world’s most beautiful building. At the booths we got a concessional ticket of Rs 200 for being a SAARC member, compared to the other foreigners who are charged Rs 700 a peep. Locals pay Rs 35.

While walking towards the portal of the Taj, we noticed that we were inviting odd stares, which got us wondering. The mystery was resolved a short while later when we overheard a few ladies who seemed completely beguiled by the style of my wife’s shalwar-kameez, as well as the lawn print. They couldn’t resist asking us if we were Pakistanis, because such lovely ‘salwar suits’ were not seen in India, they admitted. Suitably flattered, we thought it to be just the right note to start the tour.

Determined not to follow the hackneyed ‘visual’ cliché of the Taj as seen in the stereotype frontal images, we approached the monument cautiously. The Taj complex essentially consists of the imposing entrance portal, the beautifully laid lawns and fountains, two identical red sandstone structures facing inwards on either side of the Taj (one a mosque, the other a mehman-khana or guest house), a museum and the glorious mausoleum itself. Judgements as to the beauty of the building have been made ever since 1653, when it was completed and, I know of only one bigot of a philosopher called Aldous Huxley who described everything about the Taj as ugly. We had no preconceived notions and saw no harm in agreeing with the multitude about its beauty.

The structure, abutting the meandering sand banks of River Yamuna, is indeed, immensely attractive and pleasing to the eyes when seen as a whole ie, together with the large expanse of gardens and fountains as well as the minarets. Perfect proportions, delicate balance and extreme symmetry cannot be missed by any, but the most callous observer. Exquisite inlay work consists of colourful geometric and floral designs along with precious stones that embellish the somewhat sombre white marble. The extremely fine calligraphy along the walls and arches is cleverly executed so that the size of Quranic verses increases with height, giving the illusion of a uniformly flowing script. The minarets particularly seem to act as sentinels, much like the military guards at modern tombs. I felt, however, that these could have been better embellished for they seem somewhat drab as far as decorative elements are concerned. No inlays, no calligraphy, no trimmings. One gets the impression that the minarets were done at the end, when two decades of drudgery had taken a toll on the workers as well as supervisors and, they wanted to get over with it, after all.

Well, that critique should suffice as I am no expert purveyor of fine art and architecture, really. Personally, I would lay more emphasis on the concept than the structure itself. Might one suggest that the Taj is one of the most beautiful funerary tributes ever?

Our Roots

The high point of our trip was the search for our roots in Jalandhar. First we went to my wife Samar's grandparents' (nana's) house in the city. It was easy to locate, despite some place & road name changes. The shopkeepers of the locality known as Guru Bazaar started filling us up with refreshments, the sooner word got around that someone from Lahore was amidst. The owner of the house Jagdeep Singh Thakur took us around after another round of refreshments. We saw a marble plaque on the front facade which read “Shams Manzil”, with the grandfather's name (Rehmat-ullah) and the date of construction 1331 AH (1909 AD).

An aside to the visit was my phone call, later in the day, to Thakur, requesting him to let us have the marble plaque. He surprised us with an immediate response by saying that it was really our house and we could collect the plaque next morning! We visited the next day again and collected the plaque which weighed 15 kilos! Carrying such a heavy item in suitcases that were already exploding wasn't a good idea, so we went to some marble cutting factories in the outskirts of the city, to have the plaque sliced across, but their suggestion to send it to Rajasthan for such drastic cutting got us to rethink the whole thing. We decided to take a chance with the Indian Customs at Wagah. The problem was that a plaque carrying Urdu script was sure to be construed as an antique from a Mughal monument. We had photographs to prove our point and also, we could have the Customs officials talk to the house owner if needed. But when we converted the Islamic-era date indicated on the plaque, we were horrified to discover that it was 99 years old and, we were precariously close to violating the Antiquities Act which penalises someone for taking out items older than 100 years! In the event, nothing happened at Wagah, the babu wished us a happy end to our journey and.....voila..... the plaque has come home!

The next stop was at the small town of Uggi (in Nakodar Tehsil) where we went looking for my nana's house. At a traffic crossing we asked a passer-by if he knew of a settlement known as Baupur. When he told us that everybody in Baupur, except one family, had moved out to a new colony by the roadside, we were crestfallen. He said that the sole family lived in a house that is known as 'Inspector ki kothi'. Suddenly our ears lit up, for my nana Badr-ud-din was a Police Inspector who served in Delhi but somehow, chose this place for his house in 1935. We drove off to the one-family settlement of 'old' Baupur which was just 3 km away. The sight of a massive banyan tree seemed to confirm my mother's memory of the place. We were received by a very genial but surprised Gurdial Singh, the 'numberdar' of Baupur. When we told him that we were probably in our nana's house, his eyes moistened and he became emotional. Then started a round of lassi, followed by nimbu-pani and tea. Lunch was ordered but the lady of the house was spared the hassle after great pleading. Elders from the nearby colony were summoned and they started narrating tales about my nana's family ("Inspector sahib was so tall that you could wear his shirt to the ankles!") They narrated how Inspector sahib had once killed the notorious dacoit Bhajna in the hills of Himachal, and was awarded two squares of land for the deed. A nearby grave of a Muslim saint by the name of Billay Shah was pointed out by Gurdial Singh, which was later confirmed by our elders. Gurdial still lights a ‘diya’ on the grave every Thursday out of respect for someone who loved God. Later, partition and its horrors came under discussion.

While we were at it, I brought up a long-forgotten bit of lore in my mother's family about a pretty girl who had been snatched by the Sikhs as the families migrated. The girl was 17 then and her family was known to my mother's. Not having the slightest clue about anything more than this, I was surprised when Gurdial Singh pulled out his cell phone and called up someone to reach there immediately. After about 30 minutes, a youngish-looking chap arrived and claimed that he knew of this incident. His auntie (‘tai’) was the daughter of the kidnapped girl whose name was Rehmat bibi at the time of partition. Before we could understand what was going on, this fellow also pulled out his cell phone and asked someone to reach there immediately as there were visitors from Pakistan. Half an hour later a middle-aged woman and her 30-ish son arrived. We were told that this lady was Surinder Kaur, daughter of Rehmat bibi!! Rehmat had been married off to the kidnapper's son and, over the years had five daughters, the eldest being Surinder. Now this was filmi stuff, too surreal to digest. Surinder then broke into tears and hugged Samar for several minutes. We told her that her uncle Ibrahim (Rehmat bibi's brother) was alive and we would put her in contact with him when we got back. We took many pictures and hope to pass these to her relatives in Pakistan. Surinder told us that while her father's family kept her mother with a lot of affection and care, she lived a sad life and often cried. We learnt that Rehmat bibi had been contacted by her brother sometime in the fifties and, he asked his sister to return to Pakistan. Rehmat bibi refused as she thought that there would be no future for an ex-wife of a Sikh and, that her daughters too would have no prospects. It was such a moving tale that women were weeping, to be soon followed by the ‘numberdar’ Gurdial Singh and even our taxi driver. Phone numbers and addresses were exchanged and leave was taken on a sad note. It was, indeed, an incredible visit to Baupur.

Our next stop was the settlement of Bagga near Shahkot where my grandfather (dada), Muhammad Bakhsh, used to live. The place has changed completely and there are mostly new houses except for a few old ones. We were put  under charge of a 90-year old village elder by the name of Kesar Singh. We had no more clue than what my father remembered about his house being on the highest ground in the locality. Surely, Kesar Singh knew every mound and cranny, so he walked us to what is still known as “patwari’s kothi” in the then Muslim half of the village, pre-partition. Not much remains of the structure except a room and a barnyard in front of it, but the actual residence of the present ‘patwari’ is adjacent to the old one. We took a lot of pictures there too. Discussion with Kesar Singh revealed some interesting bits of history as he seemed to remember my grandfather’s brother Ali Muhammad very well. When I showed Kesar Singh’s picture to my father on my return, he immediately recognised Kesar Singh.

We were also lucky to drop by my mother’s school in Uggi, where we were welcomed by the headmistress and teachers, who were quite amused to have us Lahoris in their midst.

I had been planning the trip to our ancestral homes for quite some time. I must say that Google® earth was a big help, besides the bits and pieces of trivia handed down by the elders. We were able to chart out our routes with the help of satellite maps and some excellent Indian Punjab websites which were a great help. Our taxi driver Bal Kishan was the key figure who was as excited as we were in searching for our roots.

Our relatives, specially the elders are absolutely enthralled by our staggering finds and, for some time now, it is mostly heritage and roots that we have been discussing.

© KAISER TUFAIL. This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

A portion of this article viz, 'Our Roots' appeared in India's weekly magazine, The Sunday Indian, 8 Aug, 2008 issue.

A portion of this article viz, 'A Visit to the Taj', appeared in the daily newspaper, The News International, under the title 'Agra Taj, Agra Taj...', 13 Feb, 2011.


  1. Quite an interesting read. Its a new face of India i had known after reading ur post .

    Regards .

  2. A very absorbing and well described account of your visit.
    I would term it as an essential pilgrimage of desire to complete the full circle.
    What strikes my most is the happiness,heart warming feelings and clear out pour of hospitality between ordinary simple people on both sides of the divide and the lack of real will and the intentional propoganda and hostile attitude from time to time by the Governments to sabotage the process to keep this enmity going. Its sad as it is inhibiting the process of human development in this naturally inter woven region.

  3. Thanks for a very interesting post. I hope u come down to South part of INDIA one day to have a visit. South INDIA is equally enchanting as North INDIA and i can assure u that u would not regret coming.
    Similar to many articles/ travel logs written by Pakistani's about INDIA, they do write about the status of Muslim INDIANS in INDIA, but fail to understand why they are the way they are. For starters lets say more children then they can manage.

    P.S: BTW i come from a lower middle class, my parents made lots of sacrifices to make sure that me and my brother get to complete their engineering and improve in life. Now I can rightly say that my family belongs to middle class/upper middle class.

  4. Sir, I found your article a rather interesting read. Your observations on India were quite honest. However I noticed your observations on the preservation of Muslim historical monuments and state of Muslims in India, I feel you either got the wrong picture or your writing on the topic gave me the wrong picture of your understanding.

    1. The Archealogical Survey of India maintains the Muslim Monuments well, not just because they are tourist attractions, they do it because it is their job to maintain historical sites. We accept our history and there has never been an effort to purge out Islam and related events from our history books.

    2. While I agree we have to go a long way in creating true harmony between the Hindus and Muslims and there are cases of discrimination against Muslims in India, but these are more the exception than the norm. The reason you found many Muslims doing low end jobs is lower eduacation standards in the community. I have witnessed this first hand, many of my muslim friends discontinued education after high school, choosing instead to go to Duabi or other gulf countries for low end jobs(these were the lucky ones) others ended up selling fruits, vegetables or as you said mechanics.

  5. Kaiser,

    Interesting because I did the complementary part of your journey. My Dad is from Gujranwala and Mom was born in Lahore. Dad's ex IAF too. After partition, my mom's family moved to Jalandhar City and Dad's to Malsian Shahkot, the same place as your grandfather. Both grandparents moved into houses that had been owned by Muslims and in both cases, the original owners came back to visit. In 2003, we visited Pakistan to see Lahore, Gujranwala and Peshawar (my grandmother). Visit to my Dad's house in village Philloke, next to Qila Didar Singh, was very fruitful with the old men openly weeping and profusely apologizing to him about both being unable to ensure the safety of my grandparents. Very emotional visit for us as well. I have detailed observations about the contrasts in societies as well, best left to a blog.

    Again, wishing you and your family well. Enjoy reading your stories about PAF history and anecdotes as well :-)

    Sanjeev Sharma

  6. Ehtisham KhanMay 30, 2010

    A rare narration on India, mainly because of the neutral stance by the writer.

    I have been to Dehli and loved to be taken care off our Indian friends but I will second you on the shabby condition of Mosques in Dehli.

    I went to a Mosque in Canaut Palace in Dehli for Jumma and was shocked to see the condition.

    Anyway, I love your writings, keep up the good work

  7. Kaiser,

    Today first time i have read your blog, i am reading the History of PFA from there i searched someone thing and landed here.

    Well your observations are true,and i must say you have a very sharp memory to write down every single instance. But i am really disappointed because you have mentioned only one side of coin, you have highlighted your observations on both side of railway track but didn't said anything on the train you travelled, as i guess you must have travelled on AC-2 Tier or First, howz the train experince?

    You know we both indians and pakistanis have mind set to make other side low, thats why americans are ruling us...
    i am not a politican but i want our glories back.
    I hope you will change ur outlook and put with postive writing.

    Have a Great Life Ahead

  8. Dear Kaiser sab,
    Stumbled on this post on your visit to India after reading up your article "The Gujarat Beechcraft Incident - 1965 War" as research for my article on Qais Hussain sab.
    Excellent read and very well written. The blog on PAF is very informative too.
    Press Trust of India

  9. I reached here from the TOI article http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Pak-pilot-writes-to-kin-of-Indian-he-killed-in-1965/articleshow/9560655.cms

    Liked the way you described the 'Beeachcraft' incident and then this post.

  10. I found your article very interesting. My grandparents and uncles migrated from Pakistan to Jalandhar during Partition and they always felt that they left their lives behind in Sialkot. My grandfather would often tell tales of the good old days in Pakistan and the hardships faced during their trek across the border. Despite the ongoing political hostility between the two countries, I think we share the same culture and many of the same values. That is the reason people treated you well during your trip. They were not thinking about the wars we have fought, they found you to be normal people who share the history of the land with them. We still celebrate the tales of heer-ranjha in India, because they are considered part of the cultural history even though technically those episodes took places in present day pakistan and were tales of people who followed Islam. I think the politicians on both sides of the border don't want to settle the disputes, because it takes away their rallying cries. Otherwise there is no reason why people who have so much in common and who have the ability to be so nice to each other, outside of political situations, can't live in peace.

  11. Sir,

    There is an attention to detail in each of your posts that makes for very compelling reading. I have practically spent my entire day reading each one of your blog posts. This post beats your post on the life of the Late Mr. Rafiqui by the mere margin of One millimeter.

    Please write a book - you have my word that my friends and I shall be buying copies of whatever it is you write.

    Best Regards,
    -Anil (formerly of Delhi, currently of no place special)

  12. Kaiser Bhai, lovely write-up, detailed Taj visit. The piece makes me want to relate in words my visit to Jaipur, Agra and N Delhi that was in 2008.

  13. dear sir,
    I do want to write something about your arctile but I have no words. I am very happy that your stay in India was so wonderful, and that you paid a visit just at the right time(here i mean 99 years after the making of Islamic-era plaque).
    I very sincerely and with all the warm hearted feelings invite you to visit india again whenever you have time and see the monuments of central and south India.
    wish u all the happines in life.:-)

  14. How nice to see Pakistani and Indians being nice to each other and remembering enjoyable and emotional visits to each other's country. It is more common to find them reviling each other. -- A Bangladeshi

  15. Regards for helping out, great information.