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The truest of friends: remembering Mahmud Hasan Shah

The truest of friends: remembering Mahmud Hasan Shah

I have some black and white photographs of Mahmud Uncle – Mr. Mahmud Hasan Shah – in front of me. They are all from the 1960’s, when he was Commissioner of Rawalpindi, then the temporary capital of Pakistan while Islamabad was being made. Somehow, black and white pictures transport one back to days gone by much more easily then four-colour ones do.

There is one of Mahmud Uncle and Altaf Gauhar, my late father on the lawns of the President’s House, sitting next to President Ayub Khan on a cane sofa softened by cushions, furniture that is a throwback to the British Raj. That house is actually Army House where the Chief stays, or should do. It is quite an ordinary house really, except for its verdant and mature lawns, which was the norm for houses of senior British officials. But rulers after Ayub had a penchant for staying there, probably because it became a symbol of power and ultimate temporal authority. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto stayed there, as did Prime Minister Mohammad Khan Junejo and later President Pervez Musharraf. Thankfully, the president and prime minister have now occupied the palaces built for them in Islamabad and Army House is back with its rightful owners.

Anyway, the photograph was taken on the morning after Ayub Khan won what many consider to be the controversial 1964 elections. All three – Ayub, Mahmud Uncle and Altaf Gauhar – look very dapper in their customs-made suits, as was de rigueur in those days, especially with government servants still steeped in the traditions of their former British lords and masters.

Like it or not, if you insist on remaining imprisoned in western political notions like dictatorship or democracy, like most of our ‘educated’-after-a-fashion do, Ayub’s was truly our Golden Age, when Pakistan was at its zenith. Greater infrastructure and private sector development took place than it ever did before or after, except during the Musharraf era. But for the two great dams, Tarbela and Mangla, we would have been without food and had even less water and electricity than our misgoverning rulers after Ayub have left us with.

Sad, isn’t it, that we’ve known development only under military rulers and regression under civilian ones, the worst being the wanton and wholesale nationalization-without-a-plan of industry, commerce and services under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto because he actually wanted to break the back of business and return whatever little power that had gone to the urban areas back to the feudal robber barons from where it had come. The other great regression that we have known was in the last days of Nawaz Sharif’s second term when he froze foreign exchange bank accounts since he didn’t know what to do after $11 billion of private foreign exchange held in trust by the central bank had been wantonly and callously misused, misapplied and frittered away by the successive ‘democratic’ governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. We thought then that the loss of business confidence would not return for a very long time, so it goes to the credit of the Musharraf-Shaukat-Ishrat trio that foreign exchange reserves rose to an unprecedented $17 billion, more than ever before considering that the highest we’d ever managed was $3 billion. In fact, when Musharraf took over from Nawaz Sharif our reserves had dwindled to a laughable $300,000, less than many of our industrialists, landlords and stockbrokers have, and most certainly much less than the billions our rapacious and plundering politicians have looted. Musharraf’s detractors can make any excuses they wish – 9/11, buying from the market (which is nonsense) and all other sorts of uninformed gibberish, the fact remains that General Musharraf’s government was clever enough to take full advantage of the international circumstances that existed and bring life back to an economy that had died under the previous 11-year dispensation of electoral democracy without any regard to who contested. And they not only stood it on its feet but also made it run like it’s never run before.

The great thing about going back to the past is that one’s mind digs up long-forgotten memories and one starts talking of all sorts of things. But that does not mean that one has got diverted from the subject at hand, which is Mahmud Hasan Shah, or MH as my father fondly called him. One remembers by association: Mahmud Uncle and officers of his generation were associated with the part of our history that they can be truly proud of participating in.

I had just landed in London last month when I got an email from his son Nadir that Mahmud Uncle had passed away peacefully at the age of 87. There was nothing much wrong with him. He died of old age, which shows a man of very good genes and even better habits. Memories came flooding back. I sat silently staring at my computer. He was one of my late father’s best and closest friends, a member of the family really, who along with his wife Sadiqa are the sort that become closer than many relatives. My sisters and I became good friends of their children, Nina (Neelofar) married to the CSP officer Salik Nazir, now retired, son of the late Defense Secretary Nazir Ahmed and now a grandmother to boot. And their son Chunnu, of course, whose official name is Nadir, some nine years my junior who in later life became like a younger brother.

I remember the old days vaguely, of course, when these people were serving in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) as very young and junior officers in their mid 20’s. My father was in a village in the northwest called Thakurgaon close to the Indian border. Mahmud Uncle was posted in some equally godforsaken place. They were sub-divisional magistrates (SDO), the lowest rank in the Civil Service of Pakistan. They lived in two-roomed thatched huts surrounded by a narrow verandah in the middle of a wilderness. One could hear animals at night (so can one in Islamabad today too!), like elephant, jackal and even tiger. Monkeys were all over the place. There was no electricity. I well remember the huge fan hanging from the ceiling that was pulled by a rope by a servant. He would sit in the verandah pulling it with his hand. When he got tired he would lie down and tie it to his big toe or ankle and pull it with his leg, fast sleeping, snoring sometimes. I was fascinated, which is why I remember. They had kerosene lanterns for light. There was no flush system because there was no running water; they would squat above a hole in the ground (a very healthy style of defecating, by the way). Water for domestic use came from a well or a nearby stream. Remember these guys were from very well off families in western Pakistan but such was their zeal to serve their new country that they had willingly given up the comforts of their plush lives in Lahore to go work in these backwaters along with their young wives and little children. It was the politicians in Karachi, then our capital, and in East Pakistan and of course the attitude of some senior civil servants of the ICS variety that turned the image of these zealous young junior officers from servants of the people to colonizers and occupiers.

When they reached deputy secretary level, the Shahs and the Gauhars lived in Dacca (now Dhaka) in second-floor government officers’ flats alongside each other. So we were always in and out of each other’s homes, more so the children who by then were around five years old. Once while playing ‘doctor-doctor’ with Nina I nearly cut open her stomach with a sharp instrument. Thankfully Sadiqa Aunty caught us in time and threw me out! My father had bought a second-hand car called Mayflower; Mahmud Uncle bought a Chevrolet. Naturally I was not at all happy that his car was bigger than ours. So I would tease him that his car had long teeth because of its grill, while the teeth of ours were square or whatever. Probably it is for this reason that I am a sucker for American cars. It was actually Sadiqa Aunty who loved Chevrolets and when they came from America to be posted as Commissioner Rawalpindi they brought along a bright red Chev, red seats and red steering wheel too. It was a beautiful sight but caused much angst and tattle among the wives of more senior bureaucrats. Sadly, that is our naturally characteristic. What made it worse for them was that Sadiqa Aunty was better looking and better dressed than them too. Young ladies of today could learn from her how to run an impeccable house and serve delicious food on a low budget without seeming to do any work herself. This is called organization that comes from an organized, not giddy, mind.

 Mahmud Shah was the son of Syed Mohsin Shah, one of the most eminent lawyers of Lahore of his time. He became the President of the Anjuman-e-Himayat-Islamand it was he who persuaded the Nizam of Hyderabad to contribute funds for the repair of Lahore’s fabled Badshahi Mosque built by the last major Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.

Mahmud Shah and Altaf Gauhar met as students in that great institution of learning, Government College Lahore. Ijaz Batalvi, the late eminent lawyer, was there too and they became very close friends. This was the “Core Group”, as Sadiqa Aunty calls it. Others, mostly as civil service probationers, joined the group too, like Ashiq Mazari who also became a very close friend of the Shah’s, Ejaz Naik, Syed Muneer Hussian, Roedad Khan and Majid Ali. And then, of course, there was Zubeida Agha – Zubeida Aunty to me, our greatest lady artist whose many paintings adorn the walls of our house as well as Mahmud Uncle’s house. Zubeida Aunty, by the way, was the sister of the Agha Abdul Hamid (pronounced ‘Hameed’) the ICS (Indian Civil Service) officer who was also close to Altaf Gauhar. Not to forget Zehra Nigah, wife of Majid Ali, the greatest lady Urdu poet of ours. When I was about 7-years old and my father was District Magistrate of Karachi and he arranged for Zehra Baji, as we call her, to wed Majid Chacha as we, and she, called him. He was then posted in our embassy in Washington so my father had to act as the proxy bridegroom. Poor Zehra Baji left her mother’s house that day but came to our house instead of her husband’s, where she slept with my younger sister Needi and I in our bedroom until she left for Washington! It was great for us, though, for she would tell us riveting bedtime stories and sings songs in her melodious voice.

My best memories of Mahmud Uncle and Sadiqa Aunty are when he was Commissioner Rawalpindi, because then I was in my mid teens. Sadiqa Aunty ran a warm house and had a great table. I can never forget her homemade ice creams that she would stash away in her huge freezer and give to us kids when we visited, which was often. She also arranged and hosted a cricket match for me on the lawns of Commissioner’s House where many of my friends and their friends formed two teams and played. I started hitting sixes and fours all round. Being a good batsman at my level, but nowhere nearly as good as the great Nawaz Sharif who opened the batting against the West Indies in a first class match but was bowled out on the second ball, I think by Courtney Walsh. Imran Khan tells me that Mr. Sharif didn’t actually see the ball coming! He and Javed Miandad, Imran tells me, had warned him not to open the batting as he could get killed because the West Indian bowlers couldn’t give a toss whether he was a rich chief minister or not. But he insisted and went in. It was probably his mother’s prayers that saved him from sure death and kept him for serving the nation that he was mercifully out on the second ball. When he returned to the pavilion he sat with his head in his hands, depressed that a potentially great cricketing career had come to an untimely end.

Anyway, my father walked up to me after I had hit him for a few sixes told me sternly not to take myself too seriously and remember that this was a friendly match in which old men and women were also playing. Thus came to an end my own budding cricketing career. Such are the ways of the Lord.

Mahmud Uncle was the epitome of a true gentleman. Correct and proper to the core, I don’t ever remember him using a bad word in jest or in anger, or display any kind of boorish behaviour that we Punjabis have an unfortunate tendency to. He was one of the few officers of his generation without any pretentions, which made him not only extremely lovable but also a very big man. This came to the fore when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto arrested Altaf Gauhar for his editorials in DAWN, first under Martial Law of which Bhutto remains the first and so far last civilian chief administrator, and then under Emergency Rule, which lasted throughout his sad period. The police and Intelligence Bureau went to nearly all my father’s friends to give statements against him so that they could build up a case. Some did: Muneer Husain wrote nearly a tome of imaginary grievances born of jealously only to make himself and outcast. Haroon Bokhari, not the sort of life form that Altaf Gauhar would befriend, son of the late humorist Patras Bokhari but more famous for being the husband of a “housewife-cum-dancer”, also wrote a self-serving letter to the Director of the IB, the odious Anwar Ali, accusing Altaf Gauhar of a lack of patriotism. The rest of the friends either disappeared temporarily or made themselves scarce.

The late Ashiq Mazari, let it be recorded, told the IB that though he had differences with Altaf Gauhar he would sort them out personally, not by acting as a snitch, something that our family will never forget and will always admire him for. He was all man too, all five feet two inches of him, and he stood tall.

But it was Mahmud Uncle and Sadiqa Aunty that stood as solid as rocks, without a care for their safety lest they invite Bhutto’s irrational, feudal ire. They would break police cordons to meet him at airports when he was being shifted from place-to-place. They would be at all the court appearances that they could. And they were always there to hold my mother’s hand while some other ‘ladies’ masquerading as ‘friends’ were busy misleading and misadvising her on Bhutto’s behalf. Friends like the Shahs are not easy to find and he who has them is lucky indeed – and very wealthy too. “Wealthy is the man who has one true friend,” said Hazrat Ali Bin Abu Talib, may the blessings of God be upon him. Mahmud Shah and Altaf Gauhar and their family are very lucky and very wealthy indeed for having each other as friends.

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