A Great Migration – Tribute to my Grandfather

I.  In 1947 a country was split into 2, actually 3 pieces. What occurred at the hands of the British under the Raj was at such a

grand, complex scale that history could not even capture its magnitude. History today speaks of the World Wars, the “discovery” of nations, of empires rising and falling. Of Rome, of Greece, of the Ottomans, and the Mongols. In passing, at times, history also mentions the greatest migration of all time.

II. Featured on the February 1937 issue of Time Magazine was “The Richest Man in the World,” Lieut. General His Exalted Highness Sir Mir Osman Ali Khan, the Nizam of Hyderabad.  He, like his predecessors, was a patron of literature, art, architecture, culture, jewelry and rich cuisines. Under the Nizams’ rule, even during the British Raj, Hyderabad was an independent kingdom in which schools, colleges, madrasas and universities flourished. In 1937, my nana, Pappa as we lovingly called him, my grandfather, was ten years old.

III. Under the shade of the gulmohar trees in Hyderabad Deccan, Pappa grew from boyhood to manhood, entranced by and submerged in books. The son of Maulana Syed Ahmed Raza, he was raised in a devout Shiite family. This was, perhaps, the basis of his spirituality, because he was not a man who adhered to dogma. He fastidiously read everything, from history and literature to poetry and religious commentary. His memory, razor sharp, allowed him to remember it all. He always recalled the exact lines of a beloved poem at the very moment it was relevant. He would bow his head and chuckle when he told the story of how he put a religious maulvi in his place during a long train ride from Deccan. The man had provoked Pappa, sneering at his choice of reading material (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, his favorite). My Pappa posed a series of questions about religious history, text, and theory — questions this “religious” man could not answer, putting him to shame and shutting him up for the rest of the journey.

IV. My first memories of Pappa are of him standing outside the looming black iron gates of his house in Karachi. His crisp, white kurta and pajama blowing with the gentle warm summer breeze. His arms crossed behind his back. As soon as his gaze set upon us approaching, his face would break into the warmest, largest smile I have ever known. Inside, he would sit perched on his takhat, reading the newspaper or a thick book. Often he would put it down and give us his opinions on politics, religion, conspiracy theories —  always supported by detailed references to history, facts and figures.

V. In 1947, he migrated to Pakistan and never looked back. He believed in Jinnah’s vision for a separate country. An admirer of Jinnah’s intellect and abilities as a solicitor, a profession my Pappa wanted to pursue himself, he never failed to defend the reasons for Pakistan’s existence.

VI. When I decided to attend law school, it was my Pappa who was the proudest. He would effortlessly recite all of the amendments to the US constitution, making me nervous and insecure about my ability to ever remember them. He would boast to friends about my chosen profession. His admiration gave me confidence.

VII. Pappa was the eldest of a slew of younger siblings, all very different from him. While they would stick together, he would often stand apart. Yet, his entire life, he remained the subject of great admiration amongst his family, friends and everyone else who knew him. He disarmed people with his sharp, perceptive conclusions, his analysis, opinions, and positivity, which never faltered. Even when things were far less than perfect.

VIII. I often come across people who speak of their grandfathers’ achievements in the public sphere.  My Pappa was not a renowned writer, poet, or professor. He was not a scholar or founder of any organization, trust or foundation. But he was admired by all of the above. He saw things as they were and accepted them.  He remained content with the path that was before him and recognized that the grass was never actually greener on the other side.  This is the legacy he left behind. His children have inherited his warmth, his smile.

IX.  In 1999, he migrated yet again, this time to the U.S.A. I often wondered how he could stand such a drastic change so late in his life. He never spoke of it. He simply adjusted to a new rhythm for life, even during tragic circumstances. I remember him sitting on his bed, his arms crossed across his chest. He held a thick book, naturally. I cannot remember what book it was, but I remember him saying that some of the most successful people in the world suffer the most. Their wealth eats away at their happiness. This did not mean he opposed success in terms of wealth. It only showed his ability to see things as they were, not more or less.

X. When I saw my Pappa for the last time, I remembered the poem he often quoted. He learned it as a boy, when he rode by a house that was once marvelous. It was left deserted, its lawns overrun by weeds. The iron gates rusty and bushes covering the stones. Under moss and ivy, my Pappa would spot the name that was probably once lovingly, given to the home, “Sweet Auburn.” Although withering underneath the weight of time, my Pappa marveled at the house, the name, and perhaps the passing of time.  The poem was etched in his memory, as was the house. Deserted, but filled with memories of lives once lived. Pappa became quiet and pensive near the end. We were grateful for the abundant memories and stories he relayed when he was healthy. I hope they remain etched in my memory for all of time, like Sweet Auburn stayed etched in his.

Sweet Auburn by Oliver Goldsmith

(from the “deserted village” /1770)

Sweet Auburn! loveliest village of the plain,
Where health and plenty cheer’d the labouring swain,
Where smiling spring its earliest visit paid,
And parting summer’s lingering blooms delay’d –
Dear lovely bowers of innocence and ease,
Seats of my youth, when every sport could please –
How often have I loiter’d o’er thy green,
Where humble hapiness endear’d each scene;
How often have I paus’d on every charm –
The shelter’d cot, the cultivated farm,
The never-failing brook,the busy mill,
The decent church that topp’d the neighbouring hill,
The hawthorn bush with seats beneath the shade
For talking age and whispering lovers made;
How often have I bless’d the coming day
When toil remitting lent its turn to play,
And all the village train, from labour free,
Led up their sports beneath the spreading tree –
While many a pastime circled in the shade,
The young contending as the old survey’d,
And many a gambol frolick’d o’er the ground,
And sleights of art and feats of strength went round:
And still, as each repeated pleasure tir’d,
Succeeding sports the mirthful band inspir’d –
The dancing pair that simply sought renown
By holding out to tire each other down,
The swain mistrustless of his smutted face
While secret laughter titter’d round the place,
The bashful virgin’s sidelong looks of love,
The matron’s glance that would those looks reprove.
These were thy charms, sweet village! sports like these,
With sweet succession, taught even toil to please;
These round thy bowers their cheerful influence shed;
These were thy charms – but all these charms are fled.

* My grandfather, Syed Ali Raza Zaidi, passed away in the early morning of April 4, 2013. He was at home, surrounded by his wife, children, grandchildren, and his great-granddaughter. And of course his books.  

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