Where Are You Originally from Behind?
The September Spotlight series comes to an end with this hilarious short story by Wajahat Malik.
Babu Sarfaraz reminisces about the golden days of the clerical glory of brown nosing, paper weights and red tapes and fondly remembers the big names that ruled the roost in Pakistan and were responsible for the state we are in today…
Dear begums and sahibs of high gentry, please allow me to drop my name without any offence. In a country like ours, where dropping names is akin to the dropping of daisy cutter bombs, my name should be considered as the odourless fart of an ordinary village mullah. In the manner of passing, please grant me the wish of announcing my name to your high lordships. Your humble servant, rather, the dust of your dainty feet, is known as Babu Sarfraz Khan of Tehsil Mansehra, Hazara, NWFP, etc.
The title of Babu in front of my name, my dear sahibs, is indeedly a peacock feather in an otherwise ordinary legacy of our family cap. This grand title was conferred upon my grandfather at the time of his untimely death, in the service of British Raj by none other than His White Highness Lord Francis Younghusband, the duke of Nutsville.
When his fairness Sir Francis Younghusband embarked upon his exploratory trips of an espionage nature in the mountains, my grandfather Ghulam Farid khan was hand-picked for certain higher and lower reasons by none other than his lordship’s ace Babu (head clerk), Syed Sarwar Khan of Peshawar to serve his lordship as his personal munshi (secretary or clerk). It is the same Syed Sarwar Khan, they say, who was, later on, issued hundreds of acres of land in the vale of Peshawar as well as the title of Khan Bahadur, and who was also responsible for hanging nineteen native cooks and bearers in the service of the great savage General John Nicholson, on the suspicion of spying for the rebel army of the Great Mutiny.
Your lordships, please allow this nobody to digress and reveal a little piece of information of historical importance for your brilliant tastes. While traveling on the Grand Trunk Road to the city of Peshawar, you cannot but discern an erection in the form of an obelisk gracing a hill right above Margalla Pass. My fair ladies and sahibs, this monument was erected in the remembrance of the same General John Nicolson, the great savage, who played a major role in quelling the Great Mutiny of 1857 and is reputed to have had a penchant for lynching and hanging the “dirty conniving Indians”.
Anyway, coming back to the subject, my grandfather started his career as a peon in the office of the Royal Survey of India and later kissed his way up and got promoted as a junior clerk in the mapping section of said organisation, in the town of Rawalpindi.
During his days at the office as a peon, my grandfather was a real sucker. He had seen the hunger and the hungry in his mountain village and consequently, developed a ravenous appetite to shoot up the career ladder. He not only fetched for Syed Sarwar Khan Bahadur, he sucked, polished and buttered things that get bigger by sucking, polishing and greasing.
Please excuse yours truly at this very instance, because for the sake of your refined lordships, this powder of your feet will use his timid discretion and avoid elaboration of the above-mentioned insinuations that are unbecoming for the ears of genteel and honourable people like yourself.
By the virtue of his traits of humble humility and loyalty, my grandfather always knew in the deep-down bottom of his arm pits, that he was cut out for bigger things in life. And so indeedly, he did earn the title of Babu as he trailed his lordship Sir Francis Younghusband in the dangerous mountains of the Himalayas with a ledger and ink pot in his hand. Khan Bahadur Syed Sarwar Khan acquired the services of my grandfather for this hazardous journey, because he knew that hailing from the greens of Hazara region, my grandfather Ghulam Farid was a hill man with a loyal heart and a brown-tipped nose. And he also knew that only Ghulam Farid, with his sturdy physique and humble nature, would be able to efficiently and clandestinely record, compile and file secret documents during this perilous mountain expedition of ‘The Great Game.’
But alas, after two months of traveling through the enchanted valleys and glaciers of these godforsaken mountains, my grandfather succumbed to a high fever on a freezing windswept pass and died peacefully with the title of ‘Babu’ wrapped around his cold and modest ego.
They say his lordship, Sir Francis Younghusband, on hearing the news about my grandfather, rode back from the head of the caravan to take a last look at his dying munshi. It is on record that when he entered the tent where they kept my grandfather under a huge paper weight so that he wouldn’t get blown away by the strong winds howling outside, Sir Francis Younghusband ordered said paper weight to be lifted off the frail body of my grandfather and in a fake booming voice thundered: “Ghulam Farid, for the past two months you have served me as an efficient lowly mountain clerk and, my dear bloke, you have served me well. I know you had the ambition to become a babu one day but my dear Ghulam, alas; I can see that your journey to the next world has already begun. And therefore, without any further ado, I Sir Francis Younghusband, the duke of Nutsville and the spy of National Geographic, with the powers vested to me by her royal majesty the Queen of England, hereby bestow upon you the title of huh, huh… Babu. From now on you will be known and remembered as Babu Ghulam Farid, the loyal and humble servant of the kingdom of Britannia”.
They say my feeble grandfather, upon hearing this babble, opened his yellow eyes, spat on the ground and too weak to speak, joined his index finger with his thumb and made a gesture of scribbling in the air. Then he clenched his right hand into a fist and slammed it in the open palm of his left hand. Sir Francis Younghusband smiled and nodded. They say as he turned around and sent for a pen and paper, he mumbled to a young Irish lieutenant standing beside him. “I can’t believe he wants me to write an official note for his entitlement. True to his vocation, the dying bugger still wants things in black and white and stamped. I say, young chap, once a clerk, always a clerk”.
And so, my dear people of high esteem, in this manner my grandfather earned the title of ‘Babu’, and brought pride and grandness to an otherwise modest and lowly family of the mountains of Hazara.
My dear sirs and madams, as we are still on the subject, please allow me the liberty of presenting yet another gift for your intelligent ears in the form of a different story that also arises from the meek origins of our family history. This time it is the brown tale of my father Babu Azad Farid who even surpassed my grandfather in the art of brown nosing, conspiracy and intrigue.
After the great divide of 1947 that was based on the algebraic theorem of a two-nation theory, we were finally liberated from the yoke of slavery of the white man’s burden and the cunnings of the ‘conniving Brahmin Hindu’. A few years before the surgery of the country of Hindustan, when the sun was finally setting on the fading canvas of the British Empire, my father, Babu Azad Farid, son of Babu Ghulam Farid, resident of Tehsil and District Mansehra, secured third division in his matriculation examination from the Government High school of Mansehra and promptly afterwards ran away from his home, as was the tradition in those times. On his way to Bombay to become a film actor, my father somehow got onto the wrong bus and instead of riding to stardom, found himself in the cold and wooded mountain town of Goragali. By the way Gora means white and Gali means street and whoever coined this name was surely joking and trying to be funny at the expense of the Gora Sahib.
Anyway, coming back to the story, Goragali, one of the highest mountain lanes of Pir Panjal range, was crawling with monkeys and white British bureaucrats who flocked to the cooler climes in the summer months to escape the scorching heat of the Indian plains. They temporarily shifted to these hill stations complete with their working desks, files, paperweights, household staff and of course their hot and panting memsahibs and practically ran the country from their tin-roofed bungalows perched on sloping hills overlooking their sprawling empire.
It is here that my father, a lowly Indian native aspiring to be a film star, was spotted and his shining talent recognized by a flamboyant butler who was shopping for vegetables in the tiny bazaar of Goragali. His Butlership major-domo, Simon Fernandes Prera, was not only the best but was also the most infamous Anglo-Indian butler of his time, this side of river the Ganges. Simon Fernandez Prera, an impeccable master butler, possessor of dirty immoral habits, had been recently fired from the visceral household of His Serene Highness, Lord Mountbatten, the 24th Viceroy of British India. The Vicereine Lady Edwina Mountbatten, the Countess of Burma, had personally thrown him out of the visceral household after he had allegedly taken the liberty of making a pass at her.
Even though Simon Fernandez was a known lecher, but they say that this time, in true and factual actuality, it had been deciphered through the twisted grapevine of Delhi high society that Simon had unfortunately chanced upon the fair lady of English blue blood while she was cavorting with the saffron-blooded Brahmin from the heavenly mountains of Kashmir, His Socialist Highness Sir Jawahar Lal Nehru, in a supposedly haunted store- room adjacent to the vegetable pantry.
Black listed, threatened, his image badly tarnished and his character certificate inked in red, Simon had in no time fled from the cloak and dagger alleys of old stinking Delhi and very shrewdly and quietly, made his way to the far flung mountain station of Goragali, where thankfully his reputation had not preceded him thus far, and so he was able to appropriate for himself the post of butler in the house of the Assistant Commissioner of Goragali Sir Sebastian Hayden.
But as the say, old habits die hard and so it was mildly rumoured, in all the mountain lanes of Pir Panjal, that Simon Fernendez Prera, the butler king of perversity, had once again succumbed to his lecherous demons and eagerly powdered, serviced and cheesed the bored, pretty and sexually crazed wife of the Assistant Commissioner, while the latter was away on deputation in the hazardous Gora Kush mountains of Bannu, foolishly chasing the wild Waziri tribesmen.
And so, by divine force majeure, the knower of all men, the voyeur of the secret society of Delhi and the creator of the finest Anglo-Indian cuisine, Butler Simon Fernandez Prera embraced my father in the vegetable shop of Goragali on that fateful day and vowed to take him under his wings and teach him all the secrets of becoming a successful and stiff-necked butler.
For two years my father toiled under the apprenticeship of Simon and learnt the fine arts of cooking, waiting, servicing, bowing, etc. In the kitchens, lounges, bedrooms and secret pantries of the commissioner household he heard and saw a scandalous lot, but looked the other way. And like a loyal and ambitious servant, he proceeded faithfully to accomplish and fulfill the tedious tasks of butlery that he was duly assigned.
But my lordships, all praise to your highly intelligent minds, please be reassured that despite being a hard-working man, my father was also a great schemer and was quietly and secretly dreaming of slipping into his master’s butler shoes. Wah, wah, my great brown sahibs, the plot thickens, just like the supper-time broth of the true white sahibs.
The local legend goes that every fall, when the northern winds blow, the whispering pine trees of Goragali still sing the tragic ballad of Simon Fernandez Prera, and his suited booted spirit still roams the heavily wooded slopes behind the commissioner’s house, where he was brutally murdered and his naked body found by a flute playing shepherd boy. When the police party arrived at the scene, they found his body neatly hacked into pieces, with his overworked member stuffed into his mouth.
His murder shattered the peace and tranquillity of the quite mountain town. Many English families instantly fled Goragali and its shaded promenades emptied as soon as the orange sun went down. For the first time in the history of the mountain lanes, a highly scandalous murder had taken place and it had badly smeared the holy and sanctimonious fabric of the puritan Christian society of Goragali. Many fingers were being pointed and many a tongue wagged.
The flustered and shamefully embarrassed Assistant Commissioner, Sir Sebastian Hayden, recently back from his expedition in the mountains of Bannu, had immediately ordered the police to probe the murder of his butler and so my poor father was endlessly interrogated and tortured by the white magistrate as a star suspect, because he was falsely accused by the nymphomaniac wife of the Assistant Commissioner for the murder of Simon Fernandez Prera.
Luckily, my father had always been thick-skinned when it came to physical or mental torture. It was an integral part of his training as a butler to take physical and verbal abuse under British Sahibs. And so, thanks to his resilience, he stuck to his pleas of innocence and did not break under the extreme physical and mental pressure. They kept him at the local police station while the investigation continued but, in the end, despite the nymphomaniac’s wrongful accusations and the many investigative attempts on the part of the white magistrate, the case had to be wrapped up as no proof of my father’s involvement could be obtained and the “bugger” would simply not confess.
Finally, with the help of Deputy Commissioner Sahib who had especially driven up from the town of Abbottabad for two days to oversee the investigation but had ended up staying for two weeks at the Assistant Commissioner’s house, the case was conveniently closed and filed in the dusty shelves of history. It is rumoured that soon after this appalling episode, Deputy Commissioner Sahib, well known for his partiality towards the fairer sex, promptly promoted Hayden sahib as a political agent and got him transferred to the non-family station of Waziristan.
Whatever you may say, my dear sirs and madams, please let me remind you how magnificent were those days of the White Raj, whence the goat and lion drank from the same stream, whence wheat flour was four annas per seer, and a big bag of sugar could be had for eight annas. Those were the glory days of the British Raj, but then came the year 1947 and the first great Muslim country of the world was born.
The legend goes that my father, after his brush with the bad paint of luck, made his way to the city of Rawalpindi and somehow got married to the cross-eyed and overly religious daughter of the butler of the Rawalpindi Golf Club (yours truly’s mother) and consequently got work at the club as a bartender. But soon after independence, my mother threw her dupatta on the steps of my maternal grandfather and begged him to get my father a halal job. Upon this emotional and kosher request from his daughter, my grandfather used his greasy connections and got my father appointed as the chief butler in the service of none other than the great architect of the Objectives Resolution himself, our first and soon-to-be-assassinated Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawabzada Liaqat Ali Khan.
In a country like ours, where dropping names is akin to the dropping of daisy cutter bombs, my name should be considered as the odourless fart of an ordinary village mullah
Dear Sirs, please allow me to inflate my timid ego for a change and reveal this fact of higher virtue: that my father Babu Butler Azad Farid was perhaps the first and the last man from the Hazara region who was employed for the most highly coveted and jealously guarded post of butlership in the premier’s palace. No doubt he went for the interview on the basis of sifarish (brown-nosing) and the connections of my maternal grandfather, but he was, in actuality, hired on the basis of merit and his professional capabilities and experience. Among other things, this included waiting at the beck and call of the master, the frozen statue routine, supervising, serving, being dignified and of course, practicing his working knowledge and command of butler English lingo that he had acquired while working for two years as an apprentice with major-domo Simon Fernandez Prerea.
The appointment of my father as a butler at the premier’s palace was a highly novel event because for many years the hill men of the mountain lanes, i.e., the natives of the hill stations of the Pir Panjal mountain range, have always been recommended by the Gora Sahib in their Gazetteers of the Mole Hills, as the best butlers, waiters and domestic cooks.
Therefore, by virtue of these kind of write-ups and commendations, the people of the mountain lanes have always laid claim to these high-class jobs and had never given the remotest opportunity to any other applicant to come close to these kitchens and pantries. But, of course, merit has never figured in these appointments as nepotism, sifarish and bribery have always been the way. So, my brown sahibs, imagine how in the face of all these impediments, my father managed to crawl into the impeccably ironed and starched shirt of a butler by smoothing all the wrinkles and creases of fate and adversity.
And of course, my father’s interview, convened with Sir Liaqat Ali khan’s principal secretary Syed Mashkoor Khan, came in handy as one talk led to another and it came to be revealed that Syed Mashkoor Khan was the youngest son of who else but his Braveness, Khan Bahadur Syed Sarwar Khan of Peshawar, who had already rendered many favours upon our grandfather Babu Ghulam Farid.
Upon the sudden prima facie of these facts and upon making this connection of the Babu Fraternity, Syed Mashkoor Sahib (May his soul rest in the file and ranks of heavens), bestowed another favour upon our already much-obliged family and against all odds and opposition by the people of the mountain lanes, hired my father as the ‘Chief Butler’ in the household of His Objectivity Nawabzada Liaqat Ali Khan.
My lordships, yours truly was born on the same fateful day that the bullets of that wretched Afghan assassin pierced the capitalistic heart of our premier Nawabzada Liaqat Ali Khan. Please allow me to digress once again to provide you another interesting and historical piece of information for your eager ears. It has been learnt through the political grapevine that on the horrible day of his assassination, the first premier of Pakistan was wearing tattered socks that were knitted in the design of stars and stripes.
Dear begums and sahibs of high gentry, it is here that I will bring the history of my family story to a full stop so as not to overburden your intelligence or cause any undue botheration to your sophisticated minds. But if the aimed points of the above story are embraced favourably by your lordships, grateful acknowledgement will overflow from the very bottom of my joyous heart.
And now as your humble obedient servant has taken the liberty to divulge the golden facts about his modest family origins, he would be much obliged to know, out of curiosity, about your praiseworthy family beginnings. So, my lordships, if you don’t mind me asking, where are you originally from behind?
Wajahat Malik reads, writes, dreams, thinks and sleeps in Islamabad and Mansehra. By profession he is a documentary filmmaker, producer and a TV presenter of travel films. He is an avid mountain climber, paragliding pilot, a self-professed social scientist and a keen connoisseur of absurdity.
About the featured artist: Donia Kaiser, born in Lahore, graduated from the National College of Arts (NCA), Lahore, with a distinction in miniature painting in 2011. Since then, she has been exhibiting her work both locally and internationally. Her first exhibition was a group show at Canvas Art Gallery, Karachi (2011). She has had two solo shows in Chawkandi Art Gallery, Karachi (2013 and 2014) and one at Galerie Steph, Singapore (2014). She was selected twice for ‘Spot Art’, which is a juried art festival held annually at ARTrium, Singapore. Her work was also shown at a private exhibition held at Deutsche Bank, Singapore. Donia Kaiser lives and works in Lahore.