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Authors: Bapsi Sidhwa

Their Language of Love

BOOK: Their Language of Love
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Bapsi Sidhwa
 
THEIR LANGUAGE OF LOVE

For my son Khodadad Kermani (Koko)
and the childhood years lost to us both

A Gentlemanly War

It was 1965, and Pakistan and India were at war. The bone of contention was, as always, Kashmir.

The Pakistan army—one seventh the size of the Indian army and beleaguered on more fronts than it could handle—had concentrated on the Kashmir and Sialkot fronts. Within a day of the onset of the war it was rumoured that the Indian forces had crossed the border into Pakistan at Wagah, only sixteen miles from Lahore.

The Indian army had, in fact, advanced to a wide canal inside the border so easily that they had come smack-up against a psychological barrier: they did not believe that Lahore was left virtually unprotected. Certain that a cleverly camouflaged trap was waiting to be sprung—and calculating that a strategic retreat would be disastrously slowed by the narrow bridge across the canal—the Indians had brought their infantry, three-tonners and tanks to a precipitate halt.

The rumour of the Indian army’s advance percolated with so much insistence that we guessed it was at least partially true. We were confident though that Lahore, a thriving metropolis of eight million, would never be left unprotected.
People like us—perhaps because we belong to a class privileged by some wealth, some education; a class linked by a web of friendship or kinship—often find ourselves in the peripheral swells that edge Pakistan’s erratic political shores. This marginal connection is expedient. Affected by every shift in the balance of power, vulnerable to each new ideological nuance, this class cannot afford to be distanced from politics.

Our family owns the only brewery in Pakistan. Soon after Partition in 1947, my father (and later my brother), sensible of the politics of Prohibition in an Islamic country, branched also into bottling fruit juices and the manufacturing of glass. When our ancestral wine shop in Lahore—redolent of liquors, whisky and wine that had leaked into jute sacks—was ordered shut during the stricter Prohibition imposed by Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977, it was turned into a sad little affair stocked with toilet paper, pickles and lentils.

Towards the end of his office, beset by the riots engineered by powerful opponents, Mr Bhutto had capitulated on many such issues. Ironically, when the religious and political right had earlier accused him of drinking alcohol, he had roared: ‘Yes, I drink … I drink whisky—but not the blood of the poor!’ And the adoring masses had swept him to electoral victory on such demagogic declamations.

But to trace the fluctuating history of Prohibition, which has existed since the inception of Pakistan, is to track the incursion of religion in the opportunistic politics of the country. That is not what I aim to do. Rather, I want to trace my tenuous connection with Mr Bhutto—the ambience that
surrounded him before the crest of hope in our hearts surged him to power, and not our despair at the loss of hope when he was hanged. I want to give my particular (perhaps flawed) view of events as inferred from the currents that intersected our lives with Pakistan’s history, notably the Seventeen Day War, with the compassion that is integral to the human heart.

I first saw Mr Bhutto at the bar of the elite Punjab Club in Lahore. The son of a feudal lord from Sindh, he already had a reputation as a playboy. From the buzz that circulated about him, one knew that he had political aspirations.

On the evening Mr Bhutto was pointed out to me, he sat in the bar of the Punjab Club, leaning against the counter, facing us. His feet resting on the cross-bar of the stool, a casual arm thrown round a bar-buddy, he formed the centre of a convivial group of eager acquaintances. A lick of dark hair marked his bronzed forehead. In a face slightly flushed with drink, his eyes shone with amber light. Confident, debonair, aware of all the stares drawn to him, he appeared marked for success.

I next saw him, after a lapse of about three years, under entirely different circumstances, at the Brewery Lodge in Rawalpindi. It was during the 1965 War. Mr Bhutto was, by this time, the ‘brilliant’ young Foreign Minister in General Ayub Khan’s Martial Law Cabinet.

General Ayub Khan had requisitioned the Brewery Lodge, our residence in Rawalpindi, for State use when he shifted the capital of Pakistan from Karachi to Islamabad. This was after my father died, during the first Martial Law. That was before the terror inspired by the military
rulers had been accommodated by the cosy nepotism and escalating corruption that were to follow. When served with the Requisition Notice, my brother Rustom, who was barely twenty-two and not yet married, discreetly removed himself and his belongings across the narrow strip of road to Vine Cottage, one of the three identical houses reserved for subordinate executives.

In 1965 Islamabad was still a gentle roll of stubby olive brush in the Margalla Hills, a frill at the base of the Himalayas. Constantinos Doxiadis, the Greek city planner, had mapped out Constitution Avenue, the imposing route to the Secretariat. The area to the East was staked out for the Foreign Missions. The design of President House and the Secretariat were entrusted to the American architect Edward Stone. Construction had already started on lesser government buildings.

In the meantime Rawalpindi—or Pindi, as Islamabad’s twin city is also called—became the interim seat of the Military Government.

The main Brewery bungalow, despite the unassuming ‘Lodge’ ensconced in its name, was a lofty-ceilinged colonial mansion entirely befitting the industrial barons of the British Raj who initially inhabited it.

It was the third day of the war. The theatre of war had shifted south to the Punjab plains. The pounding of shells inside the Pakistan border near Batapur—only eleven miles as the crow flies from our house in Lahore—had turned us into
startled insomniacs. Trenches were dug in the back lawn, but the agitated snakes that suddenly glistened in the freshly gouged bunkers were more lethal than the phantom shapes of Indian bombers gliding overhead.

That night we forgot to take our infant daughter Parizad from her cot when the sirens sounded for the third time. Like alert shadows, we sat in wicker chairs on a side lawn in the pin-drop silence. There were no lights even in the congested area around Gulberg Market next to our house. It was only when an airplane suddenly loomed directly above us, its lowering span blotting out the stars that I realized the baby was not with us. With an alarmed cry, mortified by my negligence, I ran into the house to snatch my daughter from her cot.

Six-year-old Feroza was asleep by the time the all-clear siren sounded an hour later and Cyrus and I carried the children inside. The minute his head touched the pillow, Cyrus was snoring. I slept fitfully.

The next morning, as we were having tea on the veranda, I told Cyrus, ‘If you don’t want to go, don’t! I’m taking the children to Pindi.’

‘Have you seen a single bomb?’ asked Cyrus, calmly looking up from the steaming tea he was slurping from his saucer.

‘I’m not hanging around to see bombs drop! The area around the Ravi river has been bombed—that’s enough.’

‘Those are rumours—if you believe all the rumours that are flying about you’ll go mad.’

Cyrus moved his chair to get away from a shaft of early sunlight edging into the veranda. His eyes are sometimes
grey, sometimes green, and they cannot abide glare. At such times I appreciate my own brown eyes and the thick fringe of downward-sloping eyelashes that protect them.

‘It’s not the bombs I’m so worried about, Janoo,’ I said, using the endearment instead of his name in order to be more effectively persuasive. ‘Once the bridge across the Ravi goes, we’ll be trapped like rats. We won’t be able to get out of Lahore. Have you thought of what’ll happen once the Indian conscripts occupy the city?’ I said, articulating the terror that was increasingly invading my thoughts. ‘Didn’t you hear the pounding of shells at dawn?’ I asked, and in that instant of quiet, we heard a distant thud and then another.

‘Oh my God! They are so close!’ I cried, my hand flying to my chest. Despite the heat I was cold.

Cyrus got out of his chair to stand behind me. Brushing the hair off my forehead, cupping my raised face in his hands, he lightly kissed my forehead. ‘They won’t dare occupy Lahore,’ he said, with smug conviction. ‘Bill Peterson says an American aircraft carrier is already on its way to the Indian Ocean.’

I looked at my husband in astonishment. Lahore is almost a thousand miles inland. What good would an American ship, miles away in the Indian Ocean, do Lahore? Did he lack imagination so utterly? Hadn’t he realized the havoc an occupying army running amok could wreak? What those armed men would do to the women? To Feroza, who was only six and tall for her age? The thought of victory-drunk thugs laying hands on my daughter was unbearable. I shook my head to banish the horrifying images these thoughts
conjured up. ‘A lot of good
that
will do us when the thugs rape us in Lahore!’

I was trembling by now.

‘You think I’d let anyone lay a finger on Feroza or you? On your body?’ His voice vibrated with a hard, protective edge. I knew then that he would lay down his life protecting us—but what would his valour amount to in the face of a swarm of sex-crazed men bent on mayhem? Yet, in the sweep of his eyes and the low timbre of his voice, I had seen myself reflected; and the glow from the strength of his feelings spread a reassuring sensual warmth within me and submerged my doubts.

I never thought of myself as beautiful except when he looked at me like this.

I am shy of appearing in the nude. Yet, after our lovemaking, I sometimes slowly rotate before the mirror and imagine my body voluptuously posed on the centrespread in
Playboy
as Cyrus would have it. Propped up against pillows Cyrus gazes at me in the mirror. Then, even the hated bump on my nose enhances the contours of my cheeks and chin and full mouth and I feel confident of my good looks.

‘It’s been a rather gentlemanly war so far,’ Cyrus said, startling me out of my reverie. ‘Hardly any civilian casualties—only officers and conscripts dying.’

Cyrus poured more tea into his saucer, an inward, dreamy expression on his face.

And it struck me again that Cyrus, and not only Cyrus but all the men I knew, had been more exhilarated by the onset of the war than appalled by it. While we women panicked and
visualized the dreaded scenarios our minds conjured up, the menacing atmosphere was electric with excitement for the men. Cyrus and his friends rushed about forming auxiliary groups, oiling shotguns, swapping know-how and the latest news of the Indian advances on various fronts. They shouted at us to stay indoors, and themselves scrambled aboard rooftops to cheer the careening, bullet-spitting fighter jets duelling in the clear blue sky as if they were cheering along hockey matches between India and Pakistan.

‘I don’t care what your Mr Peterson says. He is American, but he’s not God!’ I snapped. ‘You can find out how gentlemanly they are for yourself!’

The next morning, deprived of sleep and in hyper-drive, I flitted about the house in confusion. What did one take at such moments? What dared one leave behind? No item seemed of preeminent importance; neither was any item unimportant. I couldn’t for the life of me think of what to pack. In my distracted state I made a stack of the handwoven silk saris, shot through with gold zari and shoved them into a suitcase. I packed little that was of any practical use.

The car was already loaded. Parizad’s milk bottle and other paraphernalia were in the carry-cot. A flask of boiled water, secured between packages of omelette sandwiches and roast chicken, sat on the empty front seat. Khan, the driver, his wet hair slicked back, stood by to open the car door. He wore a crisply starched shalwar beneath his fashionably long shirt which hung below his knees.

‘You’ll be back soon, I promise you, Jaan,’ Cyrus said, kissing Feroza and then the baby gurgling in my arms.

‘Look after yourself,’ I said, as sudden tears stung my eyes at the thought of abandoning him to the vicissitudes of the war at our doorstep.

‘Please come with us, Janoo,’ I pleaded, in a last-minute effort to make him come with us. ‘We should be together at a time like this—I can’t leave you alone.’

‘Don’t worry, I won’t be alone. I’ll look after myself … Someone needs to protect the house,’ he said, in an almost comical mix of martyrdom and impatience.

And the Godrej steel safe in our bedroom, I thought. It held, besides my jewellery, his precious stock of smuggled Black Label Scotch whisky.

‘Remember to put my jewellery in the bank,’ I said, leaning out of the window as the car began to move.

Half an hour later our little, furiously tooting Mazda jostled amongst the honking, blaring brigade of cars, trucks, scooter-rickshaws and bullock-carts that jammed Durbar Road. The bridge that spanned the river lay a few miles ahead. As we were inching our way past Data Sahib’s shrine, on an impulse I told the driver to turn into the lane that led to it.

Our families have a long-standing relationship with the Patron Saint of Lahore. I’ve visited the shrine ever since I can remember, first with my mother and later with Cyrus and the children.

People of all faiths flock to the eleventh-century Sufi saint’s shrine from all over Pakistan, and before Partition they came from all over northern India. Even now when
Sikh and Hindu pilgrims from across the border in India visit the temples and gurdwaras they left behind when they fled Pakistan during Partition, they never fail to pay their respects to the mystic known for his miraculous power to grant wishes.

BOOK: Their Language of Love
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