By NAVEED GILANI
Abbu’s epitaph reads:
Say not in grief that he is no more but say in thankfulness that he was
It is said that in the march of life it is not important where you are but how far you have come. Like a victorious soldier Abbu had come a long way from where he started. My grandfather was a loving man with modest means. Despite, Abbu and his brothers were sent for the best formal education possible in the days of the raj. The missionary institutions in Peshawar were then and still are the best. His moral compass however, was calibrated at home under my grandmother’s wings giving him the instinctual ability to always mark the right path, and to actively choose it over others.
He had a great run, just shy of 96 years. I, his eldest, whom he called his ‘prince of wales’, was lucky to be with him at the time he crossed the finish line. We were watching TV together. True to his character, he went over with quiet dignity and graceful poise. That morning, September 15, we had talked about celebrating his 96th birthday the following January 7 and then soon we hoped to celebrate a century; Inshah’Allah, we prayed. Allah’s will, wasn’t to be. Soon after the news of his passing spread, family and friends started calling and that’s when I realized that the loss of a father’s demise aside, I was grateful to Allah for Abbu’s longevity and the ease with which he breathed his last. That night my mind played and replayed the long-gone memories of him and I, him and others, and things that he did or said. All beautiful and all delightful. I knew then that it is the loveliness of these times when he was part of my last 62 years that I will cherish and celebrate forever.
I remember watching him with my 5-year-old slumbering eyes, those long past early mornings, lying in bed when I didn’t have to go to school and he would be getting into his crisp and starched khaki army uniform. Watched every move with loving awe. He was my hero. I was proud of the Lieutenant Colonel’s shining brass pips and crescent star on his epaulettes. I also remember the tan line on his forehead left from the beret after he returned from long military exercises in the hot summer months. I enjoyed going to his battalion with his orderly, being treated like a celebrity just because I was the son of their beloved commander who they would gladly follow into any battle. I remember him leading his battalion in formation on the national day and shouting the command, “EYES RIGHT” when passing the dais upon which everyone in the march jerked their faces in unison to the right. He had the distinction of commanding one of the best SP (self-propelled) Artillery regiment and then raising another Field Artillery regiment in those years when Pakistan Army was still young and good commanding officers (CO) were few. I remember how proud I was when he rose in rank and earned his red tape. I remember all those years living in army garrisons, going to the officer’s club swimming pool during long hot summers. Watching the movies at the club with Abbu was always a treat.
Abbu started his career in the British Indian Army, a veteran of WWII and the ’65 and ’71 wars, he was a topchi (gunner) par excellence. From the time when he, as a subaltern, made suggestion to his CO on how to improve the battalion motor pool operations to the time when he, as a Brigade Commander and a martial law administrator, made known his view on why not to do what the chief martial law administrator and the president of Pakistan directed, he always did the right thing. His colleagues and subordinates respected him for that. Post his 29 years’ service as an illustrious soldier he continued to serve the country, this time as the Mayor of Karachi, one of the most populous cities in the world. The foundation laying stones in front of many parks and buildings around the city of Karachi attest to his great work during the two plus years he served as Mayor. One, right across from Karachi Grammar School’s city campus, made my boys proud when they first saw the name of their grandfather on it. Pick up the newspapers of the time and you cannot escape the enormity of the good work that he did, all for the good of the people, all selfless, and all without any hidden agenda. His military training and early upbringing had taught him nothing but duty and honor before all else.
Babur, the Mughal emperor, says, in Baburnama, ‘a man’s action outlive him’. Although Baburnama is the most unlikely book to be quoted here but one can surely agree with Babur’s statement: the true moral value of a person’s life can only be measured by the joy and added value it has brought to other people’s lives. That was my Abbu. I did not know how many people including family and friends he had touched so personally till the condolence messages started to pour in. Some from long lost people who knew him and had worked with him over 30 or 40 years ago and hadn’t seen him since. I wish I am also remembered as warmly as he is; big shoes to fill; I will nevertheless try.
I didn’t do quite as well in early school but apart from a bit of discipling here and there Abbu was a pretty cool dad, I suppose he had faith in me and knew that I would blossom someday. Haven’t yet, but that is another story. He boasted about me being the youngest in my class, I was 8 years old in class 5. Sometimes, Ammi pointed to the things I did or didn’t do that deserved a father’s reprimand but he knew when to scold and when to hold. Our father son relationship was perfect and stayed that way till the last; for me, a never ending tender love and from me, a reverential respect. During my formative years in school and early adulthood his guidance was firm, gradually giving way to suggestions speckled with pragmatic considerations as I learned to be my own man. He was the rock I could lean on whenever I needed to. On his last day when we talked about him hitting a hundred he had asked me, as he often would, if I needed anything that he could help with. Yes, that was my Abbu!
After he sold his house in Peshawar Abbu and Ammi moved with me in Karachi for some time. The last we lived together was over 30 years ago when I had just finished college and flew off my nest. It was a pleasure to be living together again. Kim and the boys loved their presence. Abbu would take keen interest in our boy’s extracurricular activities. Those days, they played soccer with Karachi United Club and he would join us in watching the games that they played with rival clubs. He sat there by the boundary line and cheered his grandchildren’s team. During his stint as the Mayor of Karachi and even later he was one of the patrons of football in Pakistan accompanying the Pakistan team to play in international competitions.
In recent years there were these idiosyncrasies of his that bugged me a lot. Have you called such and such aunt or uncle or cousin or friend or whoever; he loved to reach out and stay in touch? Why aren’t you guys ready; he believed in doing everything on or before time? When I speak everyone should stop doing whatever they are doing and listen to me! Then there were these relentless telephone calls; where are you – when I am a little late leaving the office; have you arrived – when my flight has just landed and still taxiing to the terminal; when are you getting home – when I am out with friends? And then; how much salary do you make – he was always proud of it; what are you talking about – he felt that we ignored him when in reality he was hard of hearing; when are you arriving – every time I talked to him before my once a month visit from Dubai, and followed by what time is your flight, again every single time; you don’t spend time with me – when I would do my utmost to be sitting beside him when he was up and about watching TV. We conversed during ad time in between his favorite programs. When it came time for him to go forever, that is exactly where I was, sitting next to him while he was watching TV. It was early evening, he slumped quietly in his wheelchair, never to bug me again. I miss it so…..
On my last visit to Karachi, after the plane touched down and as it taxied to the terminal nobody called.
I remember, as a six-year-old, ecstatically running and crashing into his open arms as he got off the train squatting to hug me. “What did you bring me”? There was always something that he brought for us. This was one time he hadn’t. He kissed and said, “I brought myself to you”. Now, when I visit him, I take plenty of red rose petals for him, he doesn’t hug me, doesn’t kiss me, and doesn’t’ bring himself to me. I know, it is my turn to tell him some day, “I brought myself to you”.