The Arain Diaspora in India: A Historical Perspective

The sad demise of Jafar Abbas Sahab

kaise kaise pyāre sāthī kaisī kaisī bāteñ thiiñ

kis ko kyā ma.alūm thā yaaro kaun kahāñ chhut jā.egā

Verse from Ghazal of Jafar Abbas

After ending all the chores of a hectic Saturday of 31st December 2022, it was around 11.00 pm (Saudi time); I scrolled the heartbreaking voice message of a friend in our “Mir O Ghalib” Whats app group. This was the demise news of Jafar Abbas Sahab. It was unbelievable for all of us. We were expecting that it might turn into false news. But then confirmatory messages came up. Jafar Sahab left this world silently & peacefully at his apartment in Morrisville, North Carolina around 11.00 am US Eastern time on the last day of 2022. His funeral prayers took place at Durham Masjid Cemetery on Jan 02, 2023.

Childhood portrait of Jafar Abbas Sahab, c 1950
Source: Family Album Collection

A gifted painter, literary enthusiast, Urdu Poet & retired IT consultant who had worked with leading software companies in the United States during his professional career of more than four decades. He was born on the historic day of the Indian subcontinent, 15th August 1947 at Rai Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh. When he was around four months, his father Syed Abid Abbas Bilgrami left this world at the young age of twenty-five. It was Syed Hasan Abbas Bilgrmi, the elder brother of his father who raised him like a son as Jafar Sahab used to call him Abba. His family has ancestral roots from the Sayyads of Bilgram, a historic town of erstwhile Awadh. It has been said, that somewhere in the 13th Century, their patriarch migrated from Wasit, Iraq & made this small town their abode. Down the centuries this small cline of Bilgrami Sadaats had a reputation for producing many eminent scholars, & Sufis in Subcontinent.

Syed Hasan Abbas, a man from a traditional upbringing & knowledge infused his cultural heritage in the formative stages of Jafar Sahab. From the early days of his upbringing, Jafar Sahab had a quest for learning. At the young age of fourteen, Jafar Sahab wrote his first Nazm, titled “Dil Ka Aangan”. And the second Nazm, “Tishnagii” was compiled by him almost four years later when he entered the graduation from Lucknow University in 1965. “Dil Ka Aangan” was compiled when he was studying in grade IX at Christian College, Lucknow & one can note a huge transformation in the next poem where a young student who had a boundless thirst for learning & felt disappointed at his learning center due to rigid demarcations of superficial learning & bureaucratic educators. The disappointment of young learners is reflected in these verses of Jafar Abbas Sahab.

Ek pur khaar wadi ka Khaab-e-hasiin
Aabla paayi ki daulaton ka junuun
Apne sar me liye ham chale aaye the
Aur haan yeh bhi socha tha hum ne kabhi
Rahbaren adab khizr-e-raah-e-khird
Jo milnge yahaan
Hoonge wadi ke har goshe se aashnaa
Hoke har khaar ki nok se hum zaban
Jab karenge khatak ki woh lizaat bayan
Tez se tez tar hoga tab karvaan
Baj uthenge ke khyalon ke sameen jaras

21st September 1965, Jafar Abbas, Nazm, tishnagii
As a young learner at Lucknow University, c 1965,
Source: Family Album

Yahan woh Pir-e-muGaan Jo Beecha keye
Chand Sikkon ke Khatir yeh Jhoonte nashe
Bik Gaya Saath me jinke unka zameer
Aaj unki parastish hai Doston
Yaan to Mina ki Qulqul ki Pooja hai ab
Ab Hareef e Sharab-e -Kuhan kaun hai
Hai Aqd Kushai ki Mahromiyan
Un ke Nakhoon bhi nazre Hina ho gaye

21st September 1965, Jafar Abbas, Nazm, tishnagii

In these three years, he studied English, Philosophy, and Psychology & completed his graduation in 1968. Then, he moved to Aligarh Muslim University & undertook a master’s in Library sciences. For almost the next six years, he had been affiliated with different organizations in Delhi. Then in 1978, he moved to the United States, for pursuing masters in Information Science & and Computer sciences from Case Western Reserve University. Starting from technical specialist & software engineer to the Director for information system & software development, he had a wide array of roles in thirty-five years of his career in the United States as an Information science expert.

Jafar Abbas Sahab, c 1980s
Source: Family Album

In addition, he was always keen to pursue his hobbies & spreading the values of oriental culture in his neighborhood. His poetic collection Dawate Sang was published in Islamabad & available in Rekhta Collection.  His milestone work, Murraqa e Shuara-e Urdu, is a collection of his handmade paintings of around sixty-two great masters of Urdu literature. Feast of Stones is a collection of Jafar Abbas Sahab’s English poetry & some of his poetic translations. In addition, he was engaged in multiple projects that facilitate language learners in the age of technology such as developing transliteration software for major Indian languages.

A short biographical account of Jafar Abbas Sahab from his instructor’s learning Urdu website
A painting by Jafar Abbas Sahab in dedication for his beloved poet, Mirza Ghalib on his 225th Birthday, Source: Whats app share by Late Jafar Abbas

If you were looking for the real reflection of the phrase “Learning from cradle to grave”, then Jafar Abbas Sahab’s life stands high for this. I got acquainted with him almost two years back, via an online platform centered on deciphering the poetry of Mirza Ghalib. Every week, at the scheduled time, he started the meeting, sharing the link in advance. When someone of us missed the session, he gave a gentle reminder, with his soft eloquent tone, “Janab, yeh rooh ki ghiza hai, do ghante nikal kar yahan tashreef le aaya Karen, aap ke aane se hame bhi bahut achha lagta hai“.

He was a blend of enormous talent, generosity, & modesty, a rare combination in today’s era of protectionism & exhibitionism. Away from the social media counts of Instagram & Twitter, the man was a real educator, an organization of his own who keeps moving the caravan of learners by infusing enthusiasm & himself role played as a novice learner in the group. My other learning interaction with him was in Persian classes. Our polyglot friend, Faiza Zaidi designed this learning Programme under the title of Shirin Zabaan. Here also Jafar Abbas Sahib was always a source of inspiration for all of us. In addition to our instructor, he played a pivotal role in technical designing & facilitating this learning Programme.

We would never forget his smiling face, energetic participation, &  soothing feedback in both of our online forums, Mir O Ghalib, & Shirin Zabaan where we interacted with him almost every week.

Jafar Abbas Sahab reciting his poem, Lams Ka Shehr. Recorded on 25th March 2022
Prominent human right activist & linguist Syeda Arfa Zehra Sahiba, Syed Mansoor Sahab, & Jafar Abbas Sahab, Pic Source: Syed Mansoor Sahab
10th September 2022

Mr. Syed Mansoor, a close friend of Jafar Abbas Sahab from Morrisville, North Carolina shared that he left around a collection of more than four thousand books, four hundred-plus paintings that he made over the last two years, & several unfinished projects related to literary spheres on which he was relentlessly working day & night.

He was rare gem I had ever seen or interacted in my life. Spending a time in his company was like a blessing. A real polymath of the modern world, he had deep insight of arts, literarture, languages, history, sciences & other diverse disciplines. With god-gifted capabilities, he was a rare genius with combination of humility & modesty. Consistency, hard work & motivation were innate traits of Jafar Abbas Sahab. His demise had created a lacuna in our lives. May Almighty bless his soul.

Syed Mansoor Sahab, a close friend of Jafar Abbas Sahab

On 28th December, I received his last voice note. He cheerfully shared his upcoming trip to India that is scheduled for 11th January. His literary friends have organized a series of talks in Bangalore, Hyderabad, & Delhi. In addition, he left a gentle reminder for our upcoming “Mir O Ghalib” session that was scheduled on 04th January 2023. During each session, he used to write & recite his own verses written in alignment with Ghalib’s poetry as tazmin (inclusion of the couplets to the Ghazal of another poet). Mr. Syed Mansoor found verses on the lost time, which he wrote on his notes that seem to be a tazmin for the upcoming session. Alas, this seems to be such a big coincidence.

 میں گیا وقت ہوں، واپس نہیں آتا جو کبھی
بات دکھ کی ہے بہت، اس کو بتا بھی نہ سکوں
Main gaya waqt hun, wapas nahin aata jo kabhi
baat dukh ki hai bahut, is ko bata bhi naa sakun

Jafar Abbas, 27th December, 2022
تا سراپا آرزو گشت و امید،
مرغِ جانش سویِ جانان پر کشید
یادباد آن نیک‌مردِ لکهنوی!
 کز رحیلِ او کمرهامان خمید
لمحه ای هرکس که شد همصحبتش
جز نکویی و هنر از او ندید
جز هنر یا نیکُوی و عقل، کس،
زندگی را حاصلِ دیگر شنید؟
در «زمینِ» غالبِ حیّ آنچه کاشت
گرددش فردا رهایی را کلید!
گرچه بودش سیرِ هندستان مراد 
مرگش اما سویِ هندِ جان کشید
ناکسا مرگا! بسَت خونخوارگی،
شیوه نو کن! سالِ نو چون دررسید
درمیانِ دو عدم، کوته‌دمی‌ست
لاجرم شاد و غمین، باید چمید
علی رضا
A young friend of Jafar Abbas Sahab, Mr. Ali Reza  from Mir O Ghalib group expressed his grief

زمانہ بڑے شوق سے سن رہا تھا
تمہیں سو گئے داستاں کہتے کہتے

جعفر عباس صاحب آپ یوں چلے گئے

آپ جیسی بردبار ، متین اور باوقار شخصیت کا ہمارے درمیان سے اٹھ جانا یقیناً اس قحط الرجال کے دور میں ایک بڑے نقصان اور ایک خلا کا پیدا ہو جانا ہے اور اب ہمارے وقت میں کوئی بھی خلا پر نہیں ہوتا ، صرف پیدا ہوتا ہے اور اب آپ جیسے لوگ ملنے کے نہیں !

میرا جعفر صاحب سے ٹیلوفونک رابطہ رہتا تھا اور اودھ کی قدیم تہذیب و ثقافت کے تعلق سے بات ہوتی رہتی تھی

آپ نے ایک کامیاب زندگی گزاری ، شعر و سخن کی خدمت کی، علم اور اہل علم کی قدر کی ، زندگی کو ایک معنی عطا کئے ، وزن اور وقار پیدا کیا ، ہم سب ناشناس لوگوں کے دلوں میں جگہ پیدا کر کے اپنے مالک کے حضور حاضر ہو گئے

اہسی زندگی کا جشن منایا جانا چاہیے لیکن جعفر صاحب اگلی نشستوں میں آپ کی نشست پہ کون ہوگا یہ سوچ کر کلیجہ منہ کو آتا ہے

خدا رحمت کند ایں عاشقان پاک طینت را

خالد بن عمر
Khalid Bin Umar, a history & literary buff, & friend of Jafar Abbas Sahab from Mir O Ghalib

The unexpected departure of Jafar Abbas sahib is a collective loss for all the members of the “Mir O Ghalib” group, his friends & family members. A great human soul, generous friend, self-directed learner, & benevolent senior, this is how Jafar Abbas Sahib was a rare admixture of great qualities. May Almighty Bless his soul.

این جا به خدا که دل نهادیم
کس را مبر ای خدا از این جا
این جاست که مرگ ره ندارد
مرگست بدن جدا از این جا

Zeeshan Usmani, a close friend of Jafar Abbas Sahab expressed his grief

Acknowledgment: Many thanks to Nida Zehra Sahiba, niece of Jafar Abbas Sahab for the valuable input & sharing archival pics. I am also indebted to Mr. Syed Mansoor Bhai, a friend of Jafar bhai from Morrisville, North Carolina for pictures & valuable input.

Strings of past from Pilibhit: Fayyazi Begum

This seems to be a photograph from her early days of life. One can notice age & her aquiline typical Punjabi nose (a physiognomic feature of Arain females) in this portrait. It was small black & white photograph. In later years when Amma passed away, I got it converted by a studio in a colored portrait.

Urdu Columnist & Author, Shams Jilani memoirs connected with his mother, & moments from pre- Partitioned India.

Memories & moments spent with parents became an integral part of your life. When they left the material world, the same moments became a beacon for you. When the context is connected with special socio-political events such as Indian partition where hundred of human souls were uprooted from their hometowns, these moments became a bridge with bygone past. Noted Urdu columnist, & author, Shams Jilani shared memories of his mother with these precious portraits from his personal collection. During the days of lock down, he spoke with me from Richmond City, British Columbia that a place his residence from last three decades.

I asked, from paternal side you carried a great literary legacy from the days of your great-grandfather up to your late father. But today I am eager to know about your mother.

The conversation of past pushed eighty nine years old author back to his childhood days in India. Clearing the hoarseness of his voice & overcoming his emotions, he said, did you know that three females has a great role in my life. Today what I had achieved in my entire life from childhood days is due to their support, mentoring & guidance. First one was my maternal grandmother, Hamidun Nisa Begum, then my mother, Fayyazi Begum & then my better half, Quraisha Begum. All three of them has left for heavenly abode. Coincidentally, both my wife & my mother were from a small village, Khamaria.

An acknowledgement of Shams Jilani poetic account of Urdu, titled Urdu Sada Ba Sehra (published 2000 from Canada) to his nani, mother & wife. It read as ‘Dedicated to the daughters of eve those who had played a big role in constructing my life’. Then it continued with names of his nani, mother & wife.

Its a small village located 11 km south of district headquarters of Pilibhit. This district is tucked on Indo-Nepal border in Tarai plains of Himalayas. You know I had written a biographical account (Seerah) of Prophets, Ahlul Bait, & Rashidun Caliphs. This interest was inculcated by my mother & maternal grandmother (Nani). I still remember bed time Islamic stories interwoven with story telling style by my nani when we spends our vacations at village Khamaria. These childhood stories created a quest for exploring more on these subjects that later concluded as a books. The moral teachings embedded with this formative style learning always remained with me. My mother came from middle class orthodox family of Muslim zamindars. She was born in 1912 & received all her education in a traditional manner. In those days, it was rare from Muslim middle class from rural background to send the females for formal education. As you know my father, uncle, & their cousins were send to Aligarh University & one of them even to England but unfortunately this was not a case for females. She took the lesson of Quran, Arabic & Urdu from her mother. The grand village style haveli of Nana also hosted his Sufi master, Sayyad Meharban Ali Shah who belonged to far off land of Pashtuns & each year visited our district. He was affiliated with Nashbandi Mujaddidi order & his Sufi master was the famous Shahji Mian of Pilibhit who passed away in 1907. It was here in his company I received some most worthy spiritual lessons of my life as four years old kid. The learning from Nani & mother continued in all these days. In 1950 at the age of 19 years, I left for Kishore Ganj (East Pakistan) with my parents leaving behind my Nani. As our district witnessed riots so entire family decided to migrate. In those days, the passport was not required for traveling to East Pakistan. In 1952, I again visited hometown, I got married during this visit & parents stayed back in Pilibhit. My destiny took to me to Karachi in 1954 from East Pakistan. Now at age of twenty, I was away from my entire family. For reading more on this journey & story of his ancestors, please read this article.

Shams Jilani with his wife Quresha Begum (1935-05th March 2017), Pic source: Rehan Asad
A detailed interview of Shams Jilani on his ancestral connection & hometown Pilibhit located in Tarai Plains of Himalayas, Uttarpradesh, India.

Somehow during late 1954, the reunion started in phases. With one year old son, she traveled with her brother, Maqbool Ahmad. Then my mother & nani came in 1956. Finally, the last one was father who joined us in 1958. The village Khamaria of my childhood was divided in two quarters. The more spacious & well build quarter was occupied by middle class Arain Zamindars who were relatives as a member of an extended family of Sheikh Jaan Mohammad who migrated from Punjab in late 18th century. The Baithaks of their old homes in this quarter were place of intellectual discussions on diverse titles that varied from religion & poetry to politics. It was in this background my mother was raised by Hamidun Nisa Begum & her father, Sheikh Fida Hussain. The another quarter of the village was occupied by other communities who resided in the village as cultivators & peasants. This quarter was mainly mud homes lined by thatched roof but they maintained cordial bonds with the residents of another section.

A portrait of a ruined Baithak (Male Guest section) build in 1930s, Pic source: Rehan Asad
An old Baithak in Village Khamaria that dated 1930s, Pic source: Rehan Asad

Then he started to describe the portraits of his mother & intervened with a query, Can you find one similarity in all these three pictures. I gently replied, its your resemblance with face of your mother. He replied, yes off course but I am focusing of something else. Can you able to see a small nose pin. She always used to wear this nose pin as I remember from my childhood days to her departure from this world. This was a photograph pasted on her official traveling passport when she came from India in 1954. In second portrait where you can find me standing with mother & my eldest son, Shahid who left this world in 1959. As I could remember this was taken in 1958.

Fayyazi Begum, mother of Shams Jilani, 1954, Source: Personal collection of Shams Jilani
A portrait of Shams Jilani with his mother & eldest son, Shahid, Pic source: Shams Jilani, 1958

About third one I exactly don’t remember the year. It seems to be a photograph from her early days of life. One can notice age & her aquiline typical Punjabi nose (a physiognomic feature of Arain females) in this portrait. It was a small black & white photograph. In later years when Amma passed away, I got it converted in a colored portrait. You can notice the same simple nose pin adored her face as I told you before. By the time when we shifted to Canada from Pakistan, the original portrait was damaged by termites but fortunately a digital copy survived.

An old portrait of Fayyazi Begum that was later reconstructed with colors in 1960s, Source: Shams Jilani

In 1957, my Nani passed away & her grave is located in graveyard of PCS, Karachi. In year 159, my eldest son, Shahid met a fatal accident at the age of six while crossing a road to take a school van. After leaving his hometown in India, my father lived for three years, & in 1961, he left this world. A year later, in 1962, mother left us & was buried at Mirpur Khaas, Sindh, Pakistan, a place far away from her ancestral village Khamaria in Pilibhit, Uttarpradesh. I still remember that on the last night when she was unwell & I was sitting beside her, she said with gentle kindness by concealing her pain, my dear son, please go & take some rest. You will get tired if you will awake whole night by sitting beside me. She was survived by four daughters & three sons.

Mr. Kamaluddin, father of Shams Jilani born at Pilibhit in 1905 and passed away in 1961 at Karachi, Pakistan.
A short Urdu poetry written by Shams Jilani for his maternal grandmother & mother.

Now only memories had left in all these decades. We visited India ten times after Amma & Nani passed away. My last visit to India was with entire family in 2012. Every time we used to visit the home of Nani & Amma that was connected with my childhood days. Stories of Nani reverberated my ears whenever I visited those landscapes in Pilibhit. Last year I got the news that the house where my mother was born has been left abandoned by our cousins as their extended families has shifted to city. I was lucky enough to have a chance to visit my home land from Pakistan & then from Canada also. Unfortunately, Nani & Amma didn’t able to go back after they shifted to Pakistan. This is how time flies, & people who experienced multiple migrations cling their memories of bygone days. Adding two verse of short Urdu poetry written by Shams Jilani for mother.
Meri Maan Jannat Nashin Jannat Makan
Sabr ka paikar thin aur azmat ka nishan
Zindigi bhar wo rahin sab par shafeeq
Marte dam mamta hi thi rukh par ayyan

My mother sits in heaven & dwells in heaven
She was portrait of patience, & sign of greatness
For entire life she remained kind to everyone
Motherly reflection predominated her face during time of death

Mosaic of Indian Muslim Culture

The last two essays explored Guru Nanak in poetry of legendary Urdu Scholars along with the literary review of Gita in Urdu & Persian from days of Faizi up to recent publication from India & Pakistan.

A readers Review: But You Don’t Look Like A Muslim

Cover page of the book

Chaman me ikhtilat-e-rang-o-bu se baat banti nahi
Hum hi hum hain to kya hum hain tum hi tum ho to kya tum ho

It is the intermingling of the color & fragrances that makes a garden
If there is only us there can be no us & there can be no you if there is only you.(Author’s translation)

(Sarshar Sailani)

But you don’t look like a Muslim, authored by Dr. Rakhshanda Jalil & published by Harper Collins, India in May 2019. This book is a collection of forty essays divided in four contextual sections or themes. The essays covered author’s memoirs, anecdotes, critical reflections & reviews on Urdu literature. Before the text commence you will find a contextual verse of Sailani with dedication note of the work by author to her late father, Dr. Abdul Jalil Sahab. The section “the politics of identities” started with the journey of her late father from the mufassil town of Tarai plains of Himalayas to Delhi in the backdrop of partition politics & demographic shift.

Moving from the collective memoirs focused on the identities, the book moved to the cultural essays, exploring the lesser known facets of Urdu from the days of Khusru to the recent past of golden days when “Jay Siya Ram” was a common greetings in a practicing Muslims. The mosaics of literature concluded on the essay on the facets of unfortunate event i.e., partition in Urdu. Here the narratives of Batwara vs Azadi were explored. The last theme “Rubric of Religion” composed of essays starting from Chand Raat, Muharram, Shabe Qadr to Janmashtami, Holi, Bada Din, & Diwali. The last two essays explored Guru Nanak in poetry of legendary Urdu Scholars along with the literary review of Gita in Urdu & Persian from days of Faizi up to recent publication from India & Pakistan. Collecting a diverse essays in one manuscript with such a contextual title define the sociocultural history of Indian Muslims. The separate themes connected with each other by key word of “Identity” with blend of Urdu poetry & its translations is a reflection of authors long writing journey as a foremost literary historians. In the days when we find the hate mongering is used as a tool for the majoritarian regime to assert the power, the book explores in depth the rich flavors of Urdu poetry centered around Krishna & Ram as an Imame Hind.

Maslak-i-ishq hai parastish-i-husn
Hum nahin jaante aazab-o-sawaab

Hasrat Mohani

The identity of Indian Muslims that was evolved as an outcome of centuries old syncretic fusion & cultural exchanges has been central to the manuscript. On the other hand when neo-puritan ideologies finds the larger space in elite Indian Muslims in recent days, the authors memoirs on Muharram, & Eid Maulid gave a rich overview to readers with its cultural context in Indian Subcontinent. The starting essay described the preference of her late father. Dr. Jalil, a young medical graduate from an esteemed medical school who had chosen India over the so called promised land of Muslims. His home town located in lap of Himalayas in fertile plains of Tarai faced bloody riots with changing demographic shift due to influx of Hindu immigrants from Punjab & Sindh. He preferred to raise his children’s in land of Nanak & Chishti instead of availing opportunities that were easily accessible to educated middle class Urdu speakers in the newly created state on line of religions.

Ridiculed by favorite author

Dear Sir,
As a noted author & journalist, you had millions of admirers across the world. I am one among those who was brought up reading your rich reviews & write-ups in the late nineties.

A note of apology to Vir Sanghvi

Dear Sir,
As a noted author & journalist, you had millions of admirers across the world. I am one among those who was brought up reading your rich reviews & write-ups in the late nineties. Back home, my reading shelf still preserved some of the archival paperbacks of your editorial News articles that I read in my formative years of life. For me, you always stood as the face of sincere & honest journalism. As a food lover, I am still a crazy reader of your column, rude food. If you remember, the twitter handle Pilibhitstories quoted your gustatory click with the image of Om Prakash. This mason walked on his foot for the stretch of 800 km down to his hometown in Uttarpradesh. The portrait was featured by Hindustan times. It was not intended to request you for starvation & deliver them meals on the way. It was just a quote to Sagar Ratna & other multinational food brands Sarvanna Bhavan who can extend their support in the time when an innumerable number of individuals & NGOs are feeding these hungry souls on the streets of Delhi.

I love to share, write & click the pictures of food. From home cooked meals to street food, its seems to be compulsive…

Gepostet von Rehan Asad am Sonntag, 29. März 2020

If these brands can do the home delivery in the days of COVID-19, they can extend their hands for such philanthropies in a time of devastation.

I am sorry that my irrelevant quote on your tweet made you annoyed. But the rebuttal from your side was much harsh in tone. In days of social media trolling, we came across many abusive comments. The feedback received from such an esteemed journalist appears to be a nightmare for me. In this challenging time, when the pandemic had broken the nerves of one hundred ninety-nine countries, I could understand we got over-sensitized.

Pilibhitstories is not an anonymous handle. The handle runs by this asshole, who is your humble follower. Dear Vir, when I tried to write the feedback, you had already blocked the handle. This handle just shared the beauties of my home town tucked on edge on Indo-Nepal border in Western Uttarpradesh. As I am away from my home country & home town, this is only an attempt to connect with roots & surpassing the homesickness. As a responsible citizen, I always tried to maintain harmony on my social media posts. Hope Sir, I had not annoyed you. And this is a note of clarification from your humble reader.

Regards, Dr. Rehan Asad

Reflective story of communal harmony: From Indian expats of the Gulf region

Though it’s a Hindu festival, for Hussian bhai, it’s an integral part of his culture. From the early days, he arranged a feast for his friends among Indian expatriates on the last day of the festival.

18th January Pongal feast of Hussain Bhai at Al Majmaah, Saudi Arabia

Hussain Bhai with friends.

Long before the arrival of the COVID-19 & social distancing happened outside China, this took place in the days when back home witnessed nationwide protest on the newly introduced act, Citizenship amendment act.

It was around twenty-five years before Sayed Hussian came to Saudi Arabia in search of Job as a mechanic. Finally, his destiny took him to Al-Majmmah, an oasis town located two hundred kilometers North-West of Saudi capital city, Riyadh.  Hailed from Pudukkottai, aka Pudhugai (coastal district of Tamil Nadu in India), he work here as a supervisor of the automobile service center.

In the early days, Hussian & his family members missed Tamil culture & festivities. Pongal, a three days harvest festival of Tamils is one of the foremost that has been celebrated all across the globe among the Tamil diaspora. The name itself is derived from the ritual sweet dish prepared on this day with boiled rice, milk & jaggery.

A view of dinner in a traditional style dastarkhwan
A view of the dinner with traditional south Indian dishes

Though it’s a Hindu festival, for Hussian bhai, it’s an integral part of his culture. From the early days, he arranged a feast for his friends among Indian expatriates on the last day of the festival. In the previous ten years, the working city of Hussain also witnessed substantial growth with the establishment of a University.  Many multi-ethnic professionals that included doctors, engineers, & doctorates from diverse specialties from different countries joined University. The representation of the South India community was also increased.  By the time, the size of Hussain Bhai home arranged Pongal feast also swelled. On 18th January, this year also a feast was arranged by him. The guest belonged to the diverse faith & regions of India. You can find a North Indian, & South Indian guests coming from the diverse regions & religions (Muslims & Hindus). This was the diverse mosaic sitting on the oriental dining sheet (Dastarkhwan) spread inside the Arabic style Khyma (tent).

Arabic Khyma (Tent)
Sambar & Rasam

In a traditional south Indian attire, the host was attired in a white shirt & white lungi. The Banana leaves were not available far away from their country, but thanks to the cosmetic Banana shaped leaves that were used for serving the food. The guests were served with Rasam, Sambar, & traditional dessert “Pongal.”  The Hussain’s story is the strength, solace, harmony that existed in the deep roots of Indian culture. It is the strength of this syncretic culture that always stood over the work done by the hate mongers to divide the social fabric on the lines of caste, creed, gender & religion.  

A smiling portrait of the host with his friends

New Capital of Imperial India

In the time when the government approved central vista redevelopment project for Lutyens Delhi, the book will serve as a rich guide & reference material for the upcoming heritage researchers in the changing landscapes of Imperial Capital.

Cover page of the book

Connaught Place & the making of New Delhi| Book Review by Rehan Asad

The book Connaught place & the making of New Delhi was authored by historian Swapna Liddle & published by speaking Tiger, 2018. Its a story of the new imperial capital of Colonial India.

It was a grand ceremonial coronation Durbar of George V held at Delhi (1911) from where commenced the idea of the new capital of British Raj. In 1931, the New Delhi was formally inaugurated as the capital of Colonial India. From the birth of the idea in (1911) to the post independent changing face of New Delhi, the authors presented a vivid perspectives on the making of new capital. The book gave a detailed narratives of the controversies echoed in the imperial corridors from the stakeholders who opposed the idea of shifting a capital from Calcutta. How the middle of the Raisina hills was chosen as the site after rejection of initial plans with an intense struggle between the ideas of Lutyens & Lanchester. From the role of Lanchester in final plans to the inclusion of Swinton Jacob & Herbert Baker, the account discussed how the syncretic Indo-Islamic architecture got the final approvals in the plan of new city. Then the author explicitly discussed challenges & the task done by the city planners to preserve the ruined remnants of its by gone monarchies. While going through the text , a reader can find many interesting narratives & facade of Delhi that existed in the form of ignored ruins. The book is not only about the making of new capital but also gave you an insight of dilapidated monuments of its grandiose past. The formation of the grand Imperial capital, an idea that commenced with coronation Durbar ceremony held in December 1911. Once the decision & site was finalized, the biggest challenge was about its mighty ruined monuments that existed on its flanks. A huge exercise of marking those monuments was done. The Archaeological society of India (ASI) listing (1912) served as a preliminary record for creating another collaborative document. One of the three foremost monument that was located on the last point of the newly planned city was 16th Century Old fort/Purana Qila. The historic old fort as we saw today was inhabited by the farmers & zamindars as a village Indarpat. In 1913, the fort was cleared of its population & enormous work was done for the conservation in collaboration with ASI. The subsequent chapter discussed how the stratified layers of Colonial India social fabric played a role in creating a different grades of accommodation in the new capital city. Here the readers will also came to know, how each of the lanes got their names from its old remnants to the bygone days monarchs & the Indian princes of the Raj.

Back cover of the book

As a reader I came to know about some microcosmic facts such as the establishment of the plant nursery in Jhorbagh to meet the plantation supply for the new city. Finally the project was completed with an unexpected high cost & overcoming the backlash of world war I on 12 February, 1931. In this chapter, the authors weave the entire ceremony in a vivid story telling style integrating the role of all stakeholders with its landmarks. From the generous participation of princely estates to the art work headed by Munshi Ghulam Hussain, every fine details of final touch of project has been unveiled in this chapter. The chapter “Connaught place” that also form the part of the manuscript title discussed the detailed plan of its formation, it connectivity with other sections of Delhi & its pioneer stores from the luxury watches to the culinary joints.

The role of Connaught place as the living pulse of the imperial capital was elaborated. The concluding chapter presented the changing face of the New Delhi & Connaught place with Indian partition, its demographic shift & growth pf the urban sprawls in expanding metropolis.

Inner circle of Connaught place, c 1950s by Harrison Forman Source: University of Wisconsin online archives

This is how, the authors initial journey as an project initiative (2015) for the UNESCO world heritage site recognition of New Delhi & Shahjahanabad was transformed in a rich & well reviewed manuscript. The authors rich experience ingrained with her heritage awareness walks of Indian National Trust for Art & cultural heritage is deeply reflected in the writing. The citation of archival illustrations, maps & wide range of the references gave an added research value to the work. In the time when the government approved central vista redevelopment project for Lutyens Delhi, the book will serve as a rich guide & reference material for the upcoming heritage researchers in the changing landscapes of Imperial Capital. Hope it will serve the objective of heritage awareness.

A historic enclosure at Pilibhit

As we are celebrating the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of Gandhi Ji, this small square has an interesting connection with him.

Gateway of the park pic by Rehan Asad

Story of the neglected Ram Swarup park

Pic & Text |Rehan Asad

Located in the middle of the city, an old park without any plaques has an interesting story of its past. The gateway of a historic Ramswarup park got a recent facelift by a compromised municipal budget in a small city of Western Uttarpradesh (Pilibhit).  With few of the old remnants visible on the flank, almost the major portion of it has vanished with time. You will find traditional ear cleaners with red turbans wrapped on their imitating nineteenth-century occupational paintings left by the company painters. A small stall for exchanging torn currency & a man sitting for the repair of bygone days watch. This is the sight one can find in the front of Ram Swarup park located close to the ruined 19th-century colonial gateways build by British magistrate Drummond. Little is known about the exact date when this park was built. However it’s crumbled left kiosk with a cupola, the only left lakhori bricks structure in the historic square seems to be at least more than a century old. One could imagine its beauty when the nineteenth-century commercial enclave was adored by four beautiful gateways, & the square was nicely planned in the proximity of Northern & eastern gateways of Drummondganj.

The only remnant of old construction pic by Rehan Asad
Ram Swarup Park, July 2019, by Rehan Asad
Ram Swarup Park, July 2018 by Rehan Asad

It seems to be an extension of Drummondsganj. As we are celebrating the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of Gandhi Ji, this small square has an interesting connection with him. With a launch of famous non- cooperation movement Gandhi Ji took a tour to the small cities of United Provinces. On 31st December 1921, he visited Pilibhit after completing his tour to Shahjahanpur. He made several meetings with both Hindu & Muslim revolutionaries. The congress committees were formed even in the remotest corners of the district. It was here at this park, the father of the nation gave a speech to the audiences. From here he moved to neighboring district Lakhimpur. According to the district Gazette (1960), the visit made a huge impact & large number of British goods & clothes were boycotted. Along with the town, the village Sardarnagar (Amaria) & village Khamaria (Bisalpur) tahsil also witnessed active participation. Many of the youngsters from the district were arrested & jailed. Among them, my great grandfather, Sheikh Aminuddin & his cousin Sheikh Zakiuddin from village Khamaria were also arrested & put in district jail. Later on, they were shifted to District Jail of Lakhimpur for the next six months. The square of the historic park was surrounded by narrow lanes on its southern & eastern boundaries with old shops. Eighty eight-year-old Urdu writer & social worker Mr. Shams Jilani, a resident of Richmond City, Canada who was born (1931) at Pilibhit recalled that the square was known as Simons park in those days. Most of the shops were owned by the Punjabi Muslaman community. Still, the alley is filled with roadside hand-dyeing outlets, printing press & few old cloth stores running from generations.

Alley of Ram Swarup Park Pic by Rehan Asad

Another elderly resident of the city Ali Nazar Khan alias Abba Ji told: “I was seventeen years old when we were blessed with the gift of independence on eve of 15th 1947. I was among one of those who were engaged by municipal board to write on the gateway of the park “Yaume Azadi, with its date & year in Urdu script. The park was renamed after one revolutionary who laid his life in independence struggle as Ram Swarup Park”.

Portrait of Mr. Ali Nazar Khan, Pic by Rehan Asad

Slowly with the time, the boundary wall & gateway of the park crumbled. The enclosure left strayed for a long time. Till the last year, it was filled by the filthy waste material even though the new boundary walls & gateway has been erected. Fortunately this year some clearing of the waste took place even though the ground appears deserted. All the old plaques, construction dates have been lost in the ruins of the old buildings. Close to it, even the remnants of the Drumondsganj Northern gateway seem to be disappeared with time. The rest vanishes in history except the few heritage lovers & aged chroniclers were aware of the stories of its lost time.

Ram Swarup Park, July 2018, pic by Rehan Asad

Gandhi’s Delhi: A vivid piece on Gandhi Ji ties with Delhi in a span of thirty-three years

A reader’s review

Coverpage of the book

Do you know when Mahatma Gandhi first visited Delhi? How many visits did, he made in all those years & how long he stayed there? On his first visit, he reached the Kashmiri gate by Tonga. His friend Hakim Ajmal Khan’s Sharif Manzil offered generous hospitality.
For all these answers & narratives do read Gandhi’s Delhi. An account that narrates all the lesser know connections of Gandhi Ji with Delhi from his first visit made on April 12, 1915, till January 30, 1948, when he was shot down at Birla House by Godse. Research & compilation by veteran Journalist Vivek Shukla & published by Anuuyga books in 2018. The book started from the first visit of Gandhiji & continued sequentially covering fine details, narratives & rare events of his seven hundred twenty days of stay in all those years. In between, he cited the interviews & narratives of the resource persons whom he explores & interviewed for this research. The first four chapters of the book provide in-depth insights into Bapu’s connection with Hakim Ajmal Khan, role in the building of Jamia & Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce. A succinct chapter articulates on Dr. Ansari as a champion of Hindu Muslim unity & one of the great admirers of Gandhi Ji in Delhi.

The book covered in detail event happened during his last 144 days stay in Delhi. It was during these days his presence played an important when the city was burning with communal riots. The tactics of Bapu’s always worked as one-man army. In the cold days of Delhi’s winter, the emissary of peace paid a visit to the shrine of Qutub Sahab that was surrounded by the small villages in those days. This was with an intent to console the Muslim families who were harassed due to recent demographic shifts following the partition. Viveks account talk in detail of his last fast, & visit to All India Radio, an attempt to quell the wave of Delhi’s communal heat. Heart-wrenching last hours & journey to the next world was discussed in detail by the author’s journalistic style of writing. A moment when the apostle of peace was laid down by the forebearers of hatred.
The concluding chapters provide a description of Gandhi Museum & dotting his murals in India’s capital. A glossary at the end gave a brief description of all personalities that came up in the book “Gandhi’s Delhi

Masjid Sheikh Kabir, a lesser known 18th century mosque at Pilibhit

Background: Masjid Sheikh Kabir is one of the foremost among the undocumented remnants of 18th-century Ruhela monuments at Pilibhit, Uttar Pradesh. It seems to be one of the earliest constructed mosques of Ruhela settlement at Pilibhit. Prof. Iqbal Hussian cited Kabirpur in district Bareilly as the settlement named after the prominent Ruhela officer of Nawab Ali Muhammad Khan, Sheikh Kabir who rose to higher ranks in time of Hafiz Rahmat Khan. Syed Altaf Ali Barelivi, a 1931 history graduate from Aligarh Muslim University wrote in a Biographical account of Hafiz Rahmat Khan titled “Hayate Hafiz” that Sheikh Kabir was among the earliest friend of Hafiz Rahmat Khan and accompanied with him from Tor Shahmatpur to Rohilkhand on the invitation of Ali Muhammad Khan in 1739. The Pashtun history expert  told me that Tor Shahmatpur is now the part of Mardan District in North West Frontier of Pakistan.  A small locality in Pilibhit city Kabir Ganj was also named after Sheikh Kabir.

The roof of the verandah has been replaced in modern times, & part of it was renovated by Sheikh Wasi Ahmad Alias Muhadith Surti during late 19th century| Rehan Asad

Description of Mosque: In Pilibhit as common with other Pashtun settlements in North India, each of the chief ( Sardar) has a mosque after his own. I was not able to find the exact date of its construction but it was constructed somewhere in between 1740 to 1750 as it predates from the construction of the Grand Jama Masjid in 1769. This mosque was built by Sheikh Kabir who was among one of the leading Ruhela Sardar during the time of Hafiz Rahmat Khan. Its located approximately one kilometer east of the Jama Masjid with its main gate located on the court road. The current name of the mosque derives due to the presence of the Bel (Wood Apple) trees present in the orchard of old graveyard lying on the eastern and southern flank of the mosque. With few modifications added in the later days, the main body of the mosque retained its old structure. Located on the plinth, the main section of the mosque is accessed by the ten steps from the northern gate. The old vaulted roof of the verandah seems to replaced during modern renovation. Five arched facades leads to the inner section of the mosque. The inner section still retains its vaulted roof, the arched facade for the entrance, mihrab & taakhs on the wall. Traditional lime mortar (Surkhi Chuna) has been used as the cementing substance for connecting  Lakhori/Kakiya (small) bricks.

The central arched entrance to the inner section of mosque| Rehan Asad
Mehrab of the mosque in inner section/Rehan Asad

All the three ends were surrounded by the gardens that have been replaced by thick human settlements by the centuries except the eastern end. The main entrance that might be added later on is now located on the Northern side of the structure. Built on the pattern of the late 18th century mosque on first floor, the Northern wall gave space to the couple of shops. The verandah open in the courtyard and this section has been replaced by the later stage renovations. It was in 1871, one of the notable students of Mufti Muhammad Masood Muhadith Dehalvi of Fatehpuri Masjid, Sheikh Maulana Wasi Ahmad alias Muhadith Surati opened a school of Hadith in the premises and extensions of Sheikh Kabir mosque. Sheikh Wasi Ahmad was buried outside the prayer section in the premises of the mosque in 1913 after his death. It was from here the second name of the mosque derived as Muhadith Sahab Ki Masjid. Interestingly while I was exploring for the mosque, I came to know that great Urdu legend Ale Ahmad Suroor offered his Friday prayers during his childhood days with his father Maulvi Karam Ahmad in this mosque when he was deputed at Pilibhit during Colonial days as a postmaster. During 1974, this was narrated by the legendary poet to my father when he got a chance to meet him at the home of Prof. Ansarullah Nazar Sahab at Aligarh. The crossroad near the mosque also derived the name Belon Wala Chauraha from the nearby Bel (Wood Apple) trees standing in the graveyard of Sheikh Kabir Mosque.

One of the few Wood apple trees left in graveyard close to the mosque/Rehan Asad
Multiple shops were opened in the southern wall of the mosque| Rehan Asad

The local community is not aware of more than two and half centuries old mosque carries many layers of the historical timeline with it. The cupola shaped merlons sandwiched in between the parapet shaped design on the walls of the mosque are some of the remnants from its old construction. More popular as Belon Wali Masjid, except the old generation, hardly people could recall it as Masjid Sheikh Kabir.

Biswin Sadi: Vivid narratives of lost time

Cover page of book

A readers review by Rehan Asad

Biswin Sadi Memoirs, growing up in Delhi during the 1960s & 70s, authored by Jamil Urfi & published by Cinnamon teal. A must-read account for all those who want to recollect the lost time of Indian capital along with a few small cities of Uttarpradesh. The author, Abdul Jamil Urfi was born in 1960 at Aligarh as the eldest child of Dr. Abdul Jalil & Mrs. Mehajabeen Jalil. When he reached the age of seven, his family was relocated to Delhi (1967) in the upper-middle-class township of East Nizamuddin. In those days the locality was widely inhabited by the immigrant Punjabi community who came from Pakistan following the partition.

From the founder of the famous Urdu magazine “Biswin Sadi” Khustar Girami up to Andrews family, he provides a detailed description of the sociocultural dynamics of his diverse neighborhood. The narratives give insights on communal harmony , tolerance & cultural vibrancy of Nizamuddin East. A full chapter recollects authors nostalgia of the festivities celebrations, nikah ceremony of his sisters toy dolls, bhole bisre geet & ever popular BBC Urdu broadcasting.

The Urdu speakers are still sensitive with the Sheen Qaaf of language. The author has explained the feelings of Sheen Qaaf with hilarious real-life examples. While working in middle eastern country, I observed antipathy among Pakistani Punjabi colleagues against Urdu speaking community. One of the reasons might be linguistic chauvinism asserted by elite Urdu speaking bureaucrats during founding years.

The part of the book discussed the ancestral accounts of his family focusing on fine biographical details of late Prof. Ale Ahmad Suroor, a literary Urdu legend of modern ages & his late father Dr. Abdul Jalil. The chapter convented education reflects an upper-middle-class educational stratification that still echoes in our North Indian social fabric. In the early nineties, I would recall, the Minto- Circle (AMU) was filled by students from diverse North Indian schools in a race for availing internal quota of University. The big cities Anglo-Indian students tried to assert superiority over the public school while the poor chaps like me coming from small towns & cities convents filled the bottom of strata. While in the west, a major transformation happened in educational models in the last half-century. The educated middle-class mindset still affiliates success with certain so-called esteemed professions measuring it with yards of ranks & quantification of marks. The author gave a clear articulation of this mindset connecting it with his real-life accounts, precisely the notion of imposing career selection by father.

One of my ex Canadian colleague who was born as the son of Canadian minister had chosen physiotherapy as a profession in the early seventies. His British wife who was working as a nurse in Riyadh from the last twenty years was the daughter of Medical Professor & consultant of Pathology. Even forty years later, no one from a family of privilege medical fraternity in our stratified society would able to accept their children in these roles. Such discriminative mindset has evolved with our robust colonial education system & layered social orders. From the last two years, I saw twitter handle with name “90s kid” catching nostalgia by sharing of past ads, popular desi comics, Ghulam Ali Ghazals, & Jaspal Bhatti shows. Sometimes it catches lost days of Doordarshan.

Born at the end of the seventies, I could say that not much has changed then in eighties & nineties except the vanishing landscape of Urdu world. In the early 90s, two of my friends were disqualified in mintocircle entrance exam at AMU, Aligarh as they were not able to pass in elementary Urdu. The small cities convent school in those days don’t have Urdu as the third language. In early childhood, I saw old Madhoramji (The owner of city’s oldest Kirana shop at Pilibhit ) attired in Nehru topi, kurta & dhoti writing his customer’s orders in perfect Urdu. It was the biggest surprise for me at that tender age when in school, it was considered a Quranic language. Madhoram Ji passed in 2001 at the age of ninety-four & now his grandson sits on the same mat writing memos in Devanagari script.

Like other places, the author’s description of Pilibhit as one of the Mufassil towns has also been changed with time. The beautiful gateways of Drummond Ganj became ruins in the last forty years. The ornamental beauty of Bareilly Darwaza that existed much closer to his ancestors home has lost long ago. The naked lakhori bricks of Darwaza devoid of plaster are waiting for their sad demise. The much-revered Shahji Miyan was pir of my mother’s grandfather, Sheikh Haji Nisar Ahmad. A boorish middle-class village zamindar who paid a humble visit on every Thursday to his pir in the late 19th century when carts & horses covered countryside distances. Almost 125 yrs later many of his fourth & fifth generation descendants are in Karachi, Toronto, & other South Asian hubs of USA & Canada. During childhood Ammi proudly told us, it was a blessing of saint who once said, Nisar Ahamd “teri naslen puri duniya me phailengi”. Then I used to asked her : “what about those descendants who were struggling with poverty in village life after the abolition of zamindari”.

Bareilly Darwaza that stood close to authors grandfather home at Pilibhit. Pic by Rehan Asad

So Aligarh was Alma mater of mine & my father both. I stayed their for seventeen year & also listened stories from Abbu during childhood days. Just yesterday Abbu told me that in those days Shibli road was also residence of Prof. Mukhtar Uddin Arzu (Arabic), Rashid Ahmad Siddiqui & his provost Prof. Aulad Ahamd Siddiqui in addition to Prof. Ale Ahmad Suroor.
The authors eloquently written passages of by gone days connecting it with global political changes, usage of verbatim Urdu words, sandwiching of Bollywood accounts & poetic verses added a rigor to manuscript. A nicely written memoir touching multiple dimensions of a upper middle class Muslim boy who was privileged to be a grandson of literary parents & grandparents. In many ways, the account will fill you with nostalgia of by gone days that most of my generation had heard from our parents. As an educator himself he gave a critical & valuable insights that can be seen in many sections such as convented education & rites of passage.

The passages of bygone days connected with global political changes, usage of verbatim Urdu words, sandwiching of Bollywood accounts & poetic verses added rigor to the memoir. A nicely written memoir of an upper-middle-class Muslim boy who was privileged to be a grandson of literary parents & grandparents. In many ways, the account will fill you with the nostalgia of bygone days that most of my generation had heard from our parents. As an educator himself, he gave a critical & valuable insight that can be seen in many sections such as convented education & rites of passage.