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    Letter From Pakistan: Ninety years of a full life [Part – I]

    Civil societyLetter From Pakistan: Ninety years of a full life...
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    Letter From Pakistan: Ninety years of a full life [Part – I]

    Rashad moved to Pakistan and lived in Karachi working as a glass vendor and frame maker. He got himself involved in progressive politics that was already under tremendous pressure. Most of the left leadership was underground as the Communist Party of Pakistan was banned in 1954.

    By Naazir Mahmood

    The ninth of July is a significant date for our family. My father Muhammad Rashad Mahmood completes his 90 years; he was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) on this date in 1932. He has lived a full life: from penury to relative prosperity, and from having to leave school at age 12 to having read hundreds, if not thousands, of books.

    His life is full of lessons that we as a family cherish; some of these we can share with others. Anybody who lives to be 90 without any medical condition, with all vital organs functioning, and with memory intact, can serve as a role model to those who want to live a healthy and long life – both mentally and physically.

    Here I share some of the snapshots of his life for my readers who may be interested in knowing about an old comrade who spent most of his life as a progressive activist and thinker.

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    My father was the third son of a Gujarati-speaking trader from Surat. My grandmother was born in Bursa, Turkey from where her family migrated to Hyderabad Deccan after the abolition of the Khilafat. Mir Usman Ali, the ruler of Hyderabad state, had offered refuge to many of those who wanted to move out of Ataturk’s Turkey. So my father has Turkish and Gujarati blood in his veins.

    Beginning of penury

    His earliest memory is of 1938 when his school in Bombay closed for a day when Allama Iqbal died in April. The same happened in November 1938 too, when the school observed a day off to mourn the death of Kamal Ataturk. The memories of the Khilafat Movement were still fresh, but, by then the Muslims of India had reconciled with the new Turkey that emerged under Ataturk. My father recalls the days of the Second World War when there were blackouts at night in Bombay for fear of Japanese attacks that were already targeting Calcutta (now Kolkata). He remembers how his family converged to listen to radio news about German and Japanese advancements.

    My father was 12 years old when the Bombay-Docks Explosions occurred in April 1944. He narrated to us this story exactly 44 years later in April 1988 when Rawalpindi became a victim of a similar tragedy after an army warehouse in Ojhri camp exploded. He recalled how a British ship – carrying thousands of tons of explosives – was destroyed in two giant blasts that frightened him to near death. The debris from the blast scattered across Bombay sank ships in the Victoria Dock, spread fire and killed hundreds. The real number was not disclosed but my father says it must have been in the thousands. Over a hundred thousand people were declared homeless.

    The same year his father died leaving six children and a young widow. That was the beginning of penury as the family shop closed and they were rendered homeless, living in single-room rented dwellings and moving from place to place. That was the time when a 12-year-old boy had to quit formal education and sell balloons and newspapers on streets of Bombay, never having enough to eat.

    Books – a source of joy

    Working at shops and hired by businessmen to work at small industries, how desperately he wanted to read. That was also when, at age 14, he became an eyewitness to the Royal-Indian-Navy revolt in February 1946 in Bombay. Indian shipmen rebelled and killed their British masters. Soon the revolt spread from ships to docks and throughout Bombay Englishmen became targets of the rebels. Both Congress and the Muslim League were reluctant to support the revolt. The Communist Party of India (CPI) considered it a popular uprising and wholeheartedly came out in its support.

    That’s when my father bought a newspaper that the CPI published and sold on the streets. As a teenager, he was encouraged to join the young communists working as volunteers for the party. Soon he was selling the CPI’s English, Hindi, and Urdu newspapers on buses and trams of Bombay and its suburban stations such as Andheri, Bandra, and Dadar. Bombay was already a cosmopolitan city teeming with millions of labourers and workers. The Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) held regular meetings discussing literary and political matters and young Rashad was a keen listener and observer.

    Giants such as Kaifi Azmi, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, Krishan Chandar, Niaz Haider, Devendra Satyarthi, Balwant Gargi, and even Josh Malihabadi frequented the PWA meetings. From 1947 onwards, our young teenager was an active worker of the CPI and the PWA. There was also the Indian People’s Theatre Association that he visited and watched plays by Balraj Sahni, Habib Tanveer, Ismat Chughtai and many more. The rest of his life was taking shape then and there. He questioned both religion and the sectarian politics that his Muslim friends were following. Senior PWA comrades gave him books to read and he devoured them with joy.

    An activist in Bombay

    In a couple of years, he had read most of the leading writers of his age. The PWA was a blessing for him as it had functioning libraries in Bombay from where he could borrow books that made him an avid reader. He was a volunteer at the PWA conference held in 1948 at Bhimri near Bombay. He travelled to Delhi with his senior comrades attending conferences and meetings that enlightened him in political and social issues. The second party congress of the CPI held in Calcutta in February 1948 elected BT Ranadive as party secretary in place of PC Joshi.

    Ranadive was general secretary of the CPI just for a couple of years but had a devastating impact of left politics in India. Ranadive supported the Telangana armed struggle and other revolutionary uprising, and became a Left adventurist. My father was observing all this and his mother was not entirely keen on his son’s hobnobbing with ‘infidels’, but he carried on. Poverty was all over and living conditions were pathetic; his mother contracted tuberculosis and died in 1950. He was just 18 and turned a whole-timer for the party. The policy of the CPI leadership under B T Ranadive was following a radical tack. The party elected a new leadership and ditched the path of armed struggle in India.

    National Awami Party

    The next five years Rashad spent as an activist in Bombay before migrating to Pakistan to live in Karachi where he worked as a glass vendor and frame maker. He got himself involved in progressive politics that was already under tremendous pressure. Most of the left leadership was underground as the Communist Party of Pakistan was banned in 1954 and even the PWA was not allowed to function.

    At age 23, he married and named his first son Nasir. In Egypt its leader Jamal Nasser had nationalized the Suez Canal and had emerged as a revolutionary leader, giving hope to other nations. In 1957, my father joined the newly formed National Awami Party after attending the inaugural session of the NAP at Haider Manzil – the residence of GM Syed in Karachi. Then he moved to Lahore and spent five years there working at various glass shops and attending literary gatherings as politics was an anathema to the new dictator, General Ayub Khan.

    To be continued

    Image: Wikipedia: Bombay Dock Explosions of April 1944

    The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets @NaazirMahmood and can be reached at: [email protected]

     

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