History has recorded many names that were given to Peshawar, the main city in the North West Frontier Province, where I was born. It was known as the City of Flowers, the City of Grain and even Lotus Land. For me the Peshawar I took birth in was a part of India and, like many of my friends belonging to different walks of life and different communities, who were also born in Peshawar in undivided India, I am proud of my nativity in the then Indian city so strategically situated in the region between Central Asia and South Asia that it came to be known aptly as the Gateway to India.
I remember the vivid colours, the smells and the seasons of my homeland. The arrival of autumn was visible in the orchards where the apricot trees would turn bright red and orange. In the evenings, as dusk approached, the towering mountains would somehow seem taller and intimidating to me and I can still recall my little feet aching with the momentum of the speed with which I scurried home. There were men who knew my parents walking home slowly, ruggedly handsome men with bushy beards, wearing caps with the sides rolled up or the typical skull cap or the turban, and they would stare at me wondering why I was running like that.
Our house was in the heart of the city, in the Kissa Khwani Bazaar, so named because wandering traders stopped there either to tell their own stories or listen to stories told by the local inhabitants. The images of the Mahabat Khan Masjid (mosque), the Cantonment, the bazaar where I wandered with the ladies of the house and the street where roses of varying shades of pink and red were sold to British gentlemen who, perhaps, took them home gallantly to their women, often appear before my eyes like a motion picture when I am in a thoughtful mood.
Winter in the North West Frontier region of Peshawar was unbearable for its inhabitants, however strong and accustomed they were to its harshness and inclemency. During winter, the days invariably dawned without a hint of sunshine and there was no knowing whether it was night or day if one did not ascertain what the time was. The mountains and the hills that rose majestically in the landscape came to sight only when a good part of the morning had gone by.
In the winter months those who had risen early for Fajr prayers (the first of the five daily prayers offered by practising Muslims) had to go through the ordeal of breaking sheets of ice that had formed on the water stored in the tanks kept for wuzoo (ablution) near the masjid. The ice-cold water and the tingle of pain it caused when it touched the peeling skin of the body are still fresh in my memory. Whether it was due to the harshness of winter or due to the distress caused by the blinding dust storms that frequently swept the plains in the scorching heat of the summer months, life was not easy for those who toiled outside in the orchards and fields.
I have a vivid memory of Chacha Ummer, my paternal uncle who lived close by, but spent most of his waking hours in our house and went out with Aghaji, as we addressed our father, to take stock of the fruits ripening in our orchards. He complained when it was winter and he complained when it was summer. He would have very much liked to stay indoors but it did not fall to his lot to do so. He was literally the man who withstood all the seasons and my parents and grandparents turned to him when they wanted something or someone to be fetched at any odd time or in any complicated situation. He was Aghaji's cousin and I think he quietly enjoyed the position he had acquired in the family as the indispensable man for all purposes.
Chacha Ummer never stopped talking about the Goldsmiths' Lane, where the goldsmiths had their shops and workshops, and about the fire that engulfed it on the night I was born. The street was one of the more busy parts of the Kissa Khwani Bazaar where our house was situated. As it housed the prosperous goldsmiths' residences and their workplaces, there was always the bustle of business and personal interactions throughout the day and well into the night when the rest of the bazaar had pulled down the shutters. The fire had started in one of the workshops from the embers that got fanned by a gale that unexpectedly swept the locality as the shopkeepers began closing their business for the day. The blaze spread uncontrollably in no time and there was fear and panic as the men began to gather in knots to hurl buckets of water at the raging fire. The operation was tough no doubt as the water in the upper parts of most of the water storage tanks had turned to ice and it took several strong Pathan fists to shatter the ice and draw the water in buckets from the lower levels of the tanks.
Since the men in the house had rushed to the lane to help in the fire- fighting operations and Chacha Ummer had been asked to stay behind, as the women were alone in the house, it was he who had to go in search of a midwife when my mother (whom I called Amma) threatened to bring me into this world. He had to bring the midwife safely and then rush to inform Aghaji about the exciting development at home. 'You know,' he related to me once when he was in a recall mood, 'I was angry and cursing myself that night because it was so cold and the wind was blowing with a menacing strength. It was like a punishment to be out alone and entrusted with the responsibility of saving a life. But the minute the midwife completed her job and we got to see you, all ruddy and cherubic and glowing with health, I felt strangely rewarded and extremely happy.'
Chacha Ummer always took great delight in describing my cries and the exchange of mubaraks (congratulations) as the family welcomed the grand arrival of the fourth child of Mohammad Sarwar Khan and Ayesha Bibi in the midst of all the chaos and scramble in the neighbouring street.
The winter months' only delight for me as a child was that I could sit unnoticed among the elders in front of the fireplace and listen to their conversations. They seldom made small talk. They either narrated bizarre stories they had heard or recalled spine-chilling events they had witnessed. I was all ears, especially when they spoke in low voices and exchanged recollections of nightmares. On one such occasion, I heard my paternal grandmother (Dadi) utter Amma's name, Ayesha, in a low whisper, not knowing I was present. I held my breath and listened. She was talking in Pushtu and her whisper was hoarse but audible and her beady eyes had widened as wide as they could.
Translated into English, she was saying something frightening like this: 'Poor Ayesha, she could have died that freezing night. The men of the house opened and shut the door so many times while poor Ayesha bit her lips and suffered the acute pain. The blizzard was raging outside and, what was worse, the Goldsmiths' Lane was in flames, blocking normal transport.'
She was talking in a low voice to her curious audience. A chill ran down my spine. What a strange occurrence! A blizzard and a fire! And my sweet Amma, why was she in pain?
Then, the iron lady, as Dadi was known, broke into tears, looked up at the ceiling and praised Allah profusely. The midwife was brought safely in the nick of time, she informed her eager listeners, who then relaxed and heaved a sigh of relief. 'Aur Ayesha ka sona beta Yousuf tashreef laaya,* she announced now in her normal, sturdy voice startling everyone in the gathering. My small jaw dropped. She was yet one more person talking about my birth!
Not just Dadi, but also every member of the family of Mohammad Sarwar Khan and Ayesha Begum tirelessly narrated the story of my grand arrival at every opportunity as if it was an uncommon event. The date was 11 December 1922. I suspect the date is mentioned somewhere in some chronicle of Peshawar's history not because I was born on that dramatic day but because fire had gutted the goldsmiths' workshops. Never before and never after that dismally cold day had any such disaster shaken up the Kissa Khwani Bazaar as the fire in the Goldsmiths' Lane had .
In Dadi's opinion, my arrival in the midst of the blizzard and the fire meant something significant. Her belief was not taken seriously by my parents till one ordinary day, when I was playing in the front room of our house, a fakir came to the door seeking food and some money. It was common practice in the house to give good food and a little money whenever fakirs and wandering minstrels singing ballads in their own tongue came to the door. Amma hurried inside to pack the food while my Dadi sat lazily in her armchair.
I stopped playing as I could feel the man's gaze riveted on me. In a loud voice, which made Dadi sit up and listen, he asked her to bring me in front of him. She hesitated for a moment but the man was all excitement and was quivering with some emotion building up within him. I was now standing before him, fright and curiosity alternating in my five-year-old head. He announced that I was not an ordinary child. I shut my eyes and pretended I had not heard him. First the dramatic fire and blizzard at my birth and now this remark that I was not ordinary! I was wondering what he was going to say next.
He fixed his stare on my face and told Dadi: 'This child is made for great fame and unparalleled achievements. Take good care of the boy, protect him from the world's evil eye, he will be handsome even in old age if you protect him and keep him untouched by the evil eye. Disfigure him with black soot if you must because if you don't you may lose him prematurely. The Noor [light] of Allah will light up his face always,'
I opened my eyes, relieved that he did not say anything untoward. I was now looking at him and he was smiling a soft benevolent smile. Dadi gathered me in her arms instinctively as if she would lose me if she did not hold me close to her. The man took the food and money Amma brought and he left.
After he left, I ran out of the house to join my cousins who were playing and were unaware of what had occurred. Little did I anticipate then what was to begin from the next day. Dadi took it upon herself to protect me from the evil eye of the world. She had my head shaven and every day, when I started for school, she made a streak on my forehead with soot to make me look ugly. Amma tried hard to convince her not to make her child so ugly that other children would poke fun and give him a complex. Aghaji tried to reason with his stubborn mother about the consequences of what she was doing to me. But Dadi wouldn't budge. Her love and protectiveness towards me were too overwhelming for her to accept their pleadings.
Needless to say, I was a spectacle when I arrived in the school every morning. The murmurs and sniggers that greeted me on the first day amplified in my subconscious and made me find reasons not to go to school the next day. I gave vent to my unhappiness and narrated the derision I faced from my classmates and older boys of the school who were always ready to seize occasions to have fun at the expense of any junior who was easy prey to their pranks and jokes. Amma, who rarely argued with her mother-in-law, appeared extremely pained when she pulled me close to her and told Dadi: 'You cannot do this to my child. See how miserable he is.'
Dadi was aghast. 'Maine aisa kya kiya, Ayesha? Aap ne bhi suna woh fakir kya keh raha tha. Us ne sirf Yousuf ko chunke baat ki thi. Hamare ghar ke bachche sab the uske saamne,* she was almost shouting. It was plain that she believed she was right. She tried to draw me close to her to soothe me and comfort me and explain to me why she was disfiguring me. I was so angry and hurt that I pushed her away and buried my head in Amma's lap trying hard not to let my sobs be heard lest my cousins get a chance to make fun of me for that too. Pathan boys are told from early childhood that it is not manly to weep. Even when we hurt our knees and elbows while playing and stinging mixtures were applied on the wounds, we were told to bear the pain like men and not wail like women at the drop of a hat. Tears rolling down the cheeks were fine but not audible crying. Though the dark streak on my forehead was less pronounced the next day, the routine did not stop. I became a loner at school and played very little. I chose to stay quiet and play with the colouring books that were available in the small library of the school. A couple of kind teachers urged me to go out and play but I was loath to listen to them. Instead I found myself getting lost in the make-believe world of the pictorial books with increasing interest. I was not more than five years old then.
My phoopis, chachis and chachas** doted on me for two reasons. First, I was a healthy robust baby and, second, I gave little trouble to my Amma because of my friendly nature and my willingness to be passed on from one aunt to the other while Amma went about her chores. As I grew up and began to comprehend the conversations that I heard, my little mind often weighed with concern for my Amma who used to be summoned by my despotic Dadi and given tasks to do while her own daughters relaxed and did not do anything. I remember Aghaji asking Amma one morning why she was toiling single-handedly in the kitchen when there were other women in the house who could share her chores.
I can still hear the echo of my mother's soft, gentle voice as she hushed my father and explained to him that she was assigned the kitchen chores because that was her forte and she was happy that she was given charge of making endless pots of tea and all the delicacies that went well with it because no other lady of the house could equal her in that activity. Phoopi Babjan (Aghaji's sister) would turn red in the face whenever she heard this explanation and she would take my mother aside to chide her for the camouflage.
*Can be roughly translated as 'and Ayeshas handsome son Yousuf arrived.' "What have I done wrong Ayesha? You too heard what the fakir said. He singled out Yousuf to talk to while the other children of the house were also in front of him.
**Paternal aunts, paternal uncles' wives and paternal uncles, respectively.
Excerpted with Permission from Penguin Books India