I was born at 3:44 AM on Mohammad Ali Jinnah Street, at the Seventh Day Adventist Hospital in Karachi, Province of Sindh. Why the Seventh Day Adventist? Not a clue. Most likely our dear Doctor friend Max Meyer had selected the place as being the best for my arrival. Mohammad Ali Jinnah was the founder and first President of Pakistan as a separate entity from India, much to Gandhi’s dismay.
My parents had already been living in Pakistan for a few years before I was born. Spoke Urdu reasonably well, I hear.
After a few days at the hospital, I was given a clean bill of health and sent home with my mother. Mohammad Ishak, the driver, fetched us at the hospital, in the Company Chevrolet. Ishak was as smartly dressed as ever in his black uniform and “government teeth”. He’d had all his teeth pulled out a few years back and had been issued a social security denture. Standard size. Ill-fitted. Tended to clack and click when he spoke. But a good driver he was. As the long black car arrived at the house and slowed down on the creeching white gravel, the entire household had lined up below the stairs, in order of seniority.
First, Shah, the Pashtun cook from Peshawar or beyond. He ran the house. And he would later teach me how to talk (Urdu) and eat proper. He was an excellent cook, though he also raised rabbits in the oven, when he was not cooking. Don’t quite know how he managed it but it must have added to the meals flavor. Shah never took off his Pashtu hat. I think he probably slept with it.
Next: Zaman, the head bearer. In his white pajamas. A young handsome man, with an enormous waxed moustache. He served at the table in full dress, complete with the turban of his province. Lahore, maybe?
Then there was the Darzi, the tailor. Yes we had an in-home tailor, who could snap a cocktail dress for my mother on a drawing (by my mother) and a whisp of silk. For those so inclined for literary references, Darzee the tailor-bird plays a major role in the Rikki-Tikki-Tavi story of the Jungle book.
And the Ayahs, who would take care of the new baby boy. I’m sorry to say I do not remember all their names. One was called Azaadi, which means “Freedom” in Urdu.
All in all a dozen servants. Don’t frown at me. I didn’t do it. A dozen was a small household back in those days. Wealthy Indians and Pakistani often had a larger household. At the time, it was a way to… redistribute wealth I guess. And “hold rank” too. Again, not guilty. I was a minor.
The car came to a halt, under the already scorching Pakistan sun. My father climbed down first, then my mother, cradling little 3-day old me in her arms. This was presentation time.
My mother walked towards Shah et al, greeting in Urdu:
“Salaam aleikum, Shah, Zaman, everyone.”
“Aleikum salaam, Memsahib and Sahib,” said Shah. “Welcome home Memsahib, and welcome to chota Sahib”. (Little or small master, as opposed to bara Sahib – my father – big master, or important person. Don’t frown, I didn’t make those greetings.)
“Shukriya, Shah.” Said my mother.
“May I hold him Memsahib?” Shah asked.
“Of course, Shah. Of course. Here you are.” My mother said handing me over.
Shah, the cook, took me in his arms. All the others gathered around him to look. Shah’s dark eyes peered into my green-blue eyes. Probably shut tight against the Sindhi sun. He stroked the small, round white head, covered with the flimsiest blonde down. He probably thought ‘our babies have more hair.’ Then he handed me back to my mother, saying:
“A beautiful baby, Memsahib. God has blessed us all. I will call him Guglu.”
“Guglu, Shah?” My mother said, lifting an eyebrow, not very keen on nicknames then or ever. “What does that mean? I don’t recognize that word.”
“Of course you wouldn’t, Memsahib. It comes from far away and a long time ago. ‘Guglu’ means ‘Snowball’. Your son’s head is all white and fluffy, like a snowball from the mountains of my youth.”
Shah taught me Urdu, and proper table manners, the latter with great difficulty I might add.
Zaman taught me how to walk.
… and drive.
Ayah taught me the meaning of the name “Freedom”.
This story is dedicated to the people of Pakistan – and India – who celebrated the 70th anniversary of Independence this week. Respectfully submitted: “Snowball”:
And to the loving people who guided my first steps: “Shukriya. Thank you.”