Streaks of optimism

SOCIETY

Streaks of optimism

My father was killed at the end of November. He was hit, and then run over, by a truck that was trying to overtake him from the wrong side. It was in the afternoon, in full daylight, on a newly made road as he made his usual careful way back from the farm. On the evening after his burial I wrote a short, savage text message to a friend that read, “This is how the poor die; in random, avoidable accidents that are nothing much to the rest of the world, and the end of the world for us, who are nothing much.”

And then I received a request to write something for the year’s end issue. I have chosen to write about my father’s life. It was a rich and full one, although lived largely far away from headlines. Like most Indians of his generation you will not have heard of him, and yet they are the ones that have, since Independence, been the people that have built the country that we now live in, whose contributions we too often take for granted.

His name was janaab Zamir Ahmad sahib, the son of Dr Mohammed Abu Nasr Moezuddin and mautarma Shafia Fatima of Gorakhpur, a town in northeastern Uttar Pradesh. Like his death, his birth also came too early. His father, who had retired from the military to become a civilian doctor, was called back to active duty because of the outbreak of World War II.

The shock sent my grandmother into premature labour. My father and his twin brother were, therefore, born two months prematurely, thrust out into a world at war and an India embroiled into a conflict not of its making, but which would still cost it many thousands of lives.

My grandfather, though, survived the war, and my father and his twin brother, despite being small enough to be held in the palm of a hand when they were born, survived as well. They would be seven years old before India gained its Independence, with a freedom to shape its own destiny.

A key part of that freedom has been to avoid being embroiled in wars, certainly not ones decided for us by imperial powers. To our west, Pakistan has either not had that choice, or not exercised it. Much of its unfortunate condition seems to stem from the fact that it chose, unwisely, to become involved with conflicts over which it had, and has, no real control; in the false belief that it could gain some advantage over India. The result has been that it now barely has control of even itself.
My father had this to be thankful for: that in almost all of his 69 years India remained a nation in control of its own destiny.

Initially, this was through the Non-Aligned Movement founded by the leadership of India’s Nehru, Egypt’s Nasser and Yugoslavia’s Tito. Abba would have been 20 years of age in 1960 when Gamal Abdel Nasser came visiting India. Part of that trip included a visit to Aligarh Muslim University where my father was studying. “He was such a large man,” Abba told me. “You should have seen the size of him as he walked down the line shaking our hands.” In those handshakes rested India’s engagement with the world.

Earlier this year, an Egyptian woman was stabbed to death in a German court by a neighbour of hers who she had sued for his racist remarks. A policeman rushing in shot her husband, critically injuring him instead of the attacker. Presumably, he thought that a white man was innocent when a brown one was not. At one point, this would have been taken up by Indians as their cause as well, but now we do not care. Maybe it is because we now sympathise only with the developed countries. We certainly would not wish to be associated with either of the two founder NAM states, with an Egypt under military rule (it has been under an official State of Emergency since 1967, except for one break of eighteen months in 1980) or a Yugoslavia that imploded in murder and war more than a decade ago. We have become more Un-Involved than Non-Aligned.

But Nasser’s visit in 1960, and the fate of NAM, was of peripheral importance to both India and my father compared to the events of 1961. The daughter of a Hindu bidi manufacturer in Jabalpur eloped with the son of his bitter rival, who also happened to be Muslim. The local press played up the incident as a rape, and more than 400 people were killed in the first major Hindu-Muslim riots that took place after Partition. Until this year I did not know that Abba had been part of a student delegation from AMU that collected money for the victims of the riot and gone to Jabalpur to survey the damage. Communal riots have continued since then, almost incessantly it seems.
Is there a hope that they will end, or at least that the guilty will be punished? The Lieberhan Report was tabled this year. Some people have been named, although by their conduct they hardly seem to have been shamed. If anything the report shows how little we can trust the institutions of the state.

If hope lies anywhere it lies in decent citizens willing to help victims. If I believe in India, it is because people like my father saw a crime as the act of a criminal, not a community. His Hindu friends were not responsible for some murderer, simply because that criminal also happened to be a Hindu.

There is another reason why I believe in this country, and that is because my father helped build it. Not as some grand politician or anything, but like so many honest, hardworking people of his generation he helped build the infrastructure of the country. He contributed his bit as a petroleum engineer with the Oil and Natural Gas Commission. Later, he would work in Saudi Arabia in the same capacity, but when he retired and started work on his farm, the name stayed with him and the villagers knew him as ‘Engineer Babu’.

My father was killed while riding an electric scooter he bought recently instead of his jeep. “No noise pollution and no air pollution,” he said. No safety either. Much of his life was hard. The pleasures he had were the ones he earned by hard work. And yet my father knew how to be happy, and always was. On the morning of his death he had tried on a hat I bought for him in France and was delighted by the fit.
 
There is a poem by Thomas Hardy in which he talks about looking at a harsh winter landscape, and seeing no hope when suddenly, “At once a voice arose among/ The bleak twigs overhead/ In a full-hearted evensong/ Of joy illimited;/ An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,/ In blast-beruffled plume,/ Had chosen thus to fling his soul/ Upon the growing gloom./ So little cause for carolings/ Of such ecstatic sound/ Was written on terrestrial things/ Afar or nigh around,/ That I could think there trembled through/ His happy good-night air/ Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew/ And I was unaware.”
That was my father. I hope he has gone to where that blessed Hope is.  

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