A Memoir of the 1950s Pakistan – I

Eric Rahim

I start with some ‘pre-history.’

During the 1880s, the economic landscape of Western Punjab (now part of Pakistan) was radically reshaped. Through a vast irrigation project, consisting of a network of canals, large tracts of arid and barren lands were brought under cultivation. There were no individual property rights on these lands by the original inhabitants, and they were declared as ‘crown lands.’ There was a planned migration of people from the relatively overpopulated districts of Punjab to these thinly inhabited, mainly pastoral and waste lands. The migrants were settled in well planned villages on the basis of religion, caste, and the area they came from.

‘Rais’ (roughly, aristocratic) families associated with the pre-British political structure who had assisted the British in the suppression of the ‘Mutiny’ of 1857, or during the campaign to subdue north-western regions, received relatively large areas of land, say, 25 squares (a square is equal to about 25 acres). Families at lower levels in the social hierarchy (‘sufaidposh’), who also helped the British in one way or another, received in the region of 10 squares. The third category was the ‘abadkars’, the landless cultivators from the relatively overpopulated areas.  They received between one to two squares. Some of the crown lands were sold by auction.

I was born in 1928 in one such village, in the district of Lyallpur (now Faisalabad), which was part of the ‘Chenab Colony’. (The new settlements were referred to as ‘Canal Colonies’.) The village was located between Jhang city and Gojra, a railway station on the line between Lyallpur and Multan and beyond. It was predominantly a Christian village. Christian missionaries must have persuaded the Punjab government to allocate some villages exclusively for Christians. It was established around the year 1900. There were about one hundred families. Each received one square of land (about 25 acres). Later some Hindu families arrived and opened grocery shops, and four Muslim families who were blacksmiths or carpenters. There were two Muslim barbers.

The missionaries set up one middle level school for boys and one for girls in the village. At a later stage they also set up a hospital. It was more like a small medical centre, and it functioned only when a British doctor was available. The nearest (proper) hospital was in Gojra, about eight miles away. Some Muslim boys from neighbouring villages attended the school. The medical centre, when open, also provided services to neighbouring (Muslim) villages. There was also a post office, manned by a primary school teacher on part-time basis. 

My grandfather, with his family, arrived at the time when the village was established. He was not a cultivator, unlike the other families who had been settled in the village.

Abdul Rahim Khan was born in a Muslim family in Malir Kotla. As a young man he had come under the influence of Christian missionaries and converted to Christianity. The missionaries arranged for him to study medicine and he qualified as a Licentiate of Medical Practice – LMP (a qualification below MBBS). LMPs were referred to as doctors. The missionaries must have thought it would be good to have a qualified LMP in the village.

Abdul Rahim Khan had eight children, six girls and two boys. I think he arrived in the village with four children, and four, including my father, were born later. Two of the girls became doctors (LMPs), one became a nurse and three school teachers. My uncle graduated as MBBS from King Edwards Medical College, Lahore, and joined the railways – the North Western Railway (NWR) had a network of their own hospitals. (He retired as divisional medical officer after Partition). My father was the only one whose education did not go beyond what was available in the village. Rahim Khan died soon after the last child was born, so that the land was managed by my grandmother. My father took over from her when he reached the age of 19 or 20.

I say this to draw attention to the fact that the level of education in my family gave it a special status in the village. And as a result, I grew up as a child with expectations very different from those of the average boy in the village. Visiting my uncle in Saharanpur and Rawalpindi I must have seen him as a role model and subconsciously formed the expectation that as a grown- up I would live in the same manner as he did. Under the Raj officers of the executive class lived in grand style.  

I have mentioned that there were some Hindu and Muslim families in the village. There was complete respect for the two religions. As a child I never heard anyone making a disrespectful remark against other religions. Hindus and Muslims would not eat with each other or use each other’s utensils, nor would they eat with Christians. I remember as a child asking why the Muslim barber who came to our house to cut my hair would not accept a drink of water from us. My mother replied that that was his religion. And that was that. Muslims and Hindus and Christians lived their cultural lives separately, but harmoniously.

From the time of the founding of the village there had been no significant economic or social change; the same pattern of life was repeated year after year. In 1939, with the outbreak of the Second World War, this pattern was completely disrupted. British and Indian army officers arrived in the village in military vehicles to recruit young men. Many young men who were surplus to the requirements of work on land were happy to enlist. I remember one half-witted young man telling the British officer he would go and kill Herr Hitler. The traffic between the village and Gojra (our route to the outside world) multiplied. Before there was one tonga (two-wheeled horse carriage) plying between the village and Gojra, now there were four. Money started flowing to the families whose sons had enlisted and prices of agricultural commodities started to inflate. The life of the village irreversibly changed.

It was at this time that my father, on the advice of my uncle, decided that I should be sent away to a school where the quality of education would be better than what was available in the village. I was sent to Batala (in Gurdaspur district) where there was a good boarding school attached to a mission school, named after the Baring banking family. The school and the hostel had been funded by an endowment from this family. (The Baring Bank was a British merchant bank, founded in 1762. It was brought down in 1995 when it suffered a loss of £827 million pounds as a result of the reckless speculation by one of its traders.)

The boarding part of the school was a nice place, a sort of mansion house with an annex which the Church of England missionaries had bought from a Sikh prince. It was located outside the city, with vast open spaces, lots and lots of mango trees. (Plenty of fruit for stealing at night.) It had extensive playground facilities, and a swimming pool. The principal of the school with his family lived in the upper floor of the house. He had a master’s degree from an American university, and spoke to us only in English. All the other boys in the hostel came from professional families. I was the only ‘country boy’, but I soon   became ‘urbanised’.

I was in Batala from 1939 until 1943 when I matriculated with a modest second class. There are two points worth mentioning.

It was in 1942, when I was 14, that I first became aware that there was an independence movement going on in the country.  This was when the Indian National Congress launched its ‘Quit India’ movement. I observed a general ‘hartal’ (small shopkeepers shutting their shops) and people demonstrating in the city. I heard one teacher say to another that if things took a bad turn the boys would have to be sent home. The events made a vague impression on me, but I was not able to articulate any questions on the subject.

The second event also took place when I was 14. One day when I was walking idly around in the grounds of the hostel I saw two men, neatly dressed in shalwar-kameez approach me. They said they had come from Qadian, a small town not far from Batala. Qadian was then the headquarters of the Ahmadia Muslim sect – not regarded as Muslim by many Muslims. (In Pakistan they are officially treated as non-Muslim.) They had come to have a debate with the Christians, and asked me if I would take them to someone with whom they could engage. I took them to our Farsi (Persian) teacher (the only teacher whom I liked) who lived nearby. He opened his house gate, greeted me nicely and asked the purpose of my visit. I told him what the two gentlemen were looking for. Quoting a verse from the New Testament, he said it is written not to throw your pearls before the swine, and shut the door.

The two gentlemen were naturally deeply hurt. I was left confused with the whole episode. As I mentioned earlier, I had been brought up with complete respect for other religions. This was my first awareness of inter-religious   tensions. (The Farsi teacher was a recent convert from Islam to Christianity. I think it was the Sunni Muslim in him who responded with such vehemence.)

After the completion of my studies in Batala, I was sent to Murray College, Sialkot. This was a Scottish missionary institution. There were three Scotsmen on the teaching staff, including the principal. 

I lived in the students’ hostel. This was a different kind of life from that in Batala. There were no restrictions as there were in Batala. I could miss my lectures if I wished (I did not); there was no compulsion to go to church, and you could go to the cinema whenever you wished.

I had no guidance on the choice of my subjects. I chose the easiest option – arts, which included history, Farsi, psychology. English was compulsory. 

Apart from about fifteen Christian students, all the hostel residents were Muslim. Most of them came from landowning families in the district. They were all ‘country boys’, as were most of the Christian students.

There was absolutely no political activity, even debate, in the college. Student organisations associated with the Muslim League or the Indian National Congress did not exist in the college. I do not think that the word ‘Pakistan’ was yet part of the vocabulary in the college.

As far as my intellectual development was concerned, the only thing I can mention is that I started to read books outside the prescribed courses. I borrowed from the college library Jawaharlal Nehru’s Glimpses of World History and tried to read this massive volume. I remember reading a collection of short stories by Rabindranath Tagore and Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield.

During the summer vacations of 1943, I visited relatives in Saharanpur, Dehra Doon and Delhi. They say travel broadens the mind. A visit to the Doon School in Dehra Doon, India’s Eton, brought into my consciousness an entirely new   world. (The school was closed for the summer vacations and my uncle, with whom I was staying, was able to arrange a tour of the facilities of the school,)

I left Sialkot in 1945 with a middling second class.

Eric Rahim is an Honorary Senior Lecturer at Strathclyde University, UK. Before he left Pakistan in 1958, he used to work as a journalist at Dawn, Karachi and later at Pakistan Times, Lahore. He has also been instrumental in setting up Democratic Students Federation in Karachi in the 50s. He is the author of A Promethean Vision: The Formation of Karl Marx’s Worldview (Folio Books, 2020)

This memoir was published in Criterion Quarterly, January-March 2019, vol. 14, no.1.


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