Grandfather at Noon Lahore, l957


Julian Samuel

Montréal, Canada

Copyright (c) 1997 by Julian Samuel, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Il quitta sa famille
laissa pousser la barbe
et remplit sa solitude de pierres et de brume

Il arrive au désert
la tête enroulée dans un linceul
le sang versé
en terre occupée

Il n'était
ni héros ni martyr
il était
citoyen de la blessure

Tahar Ben Jelloun, Les amandiers sont morts de leurs blessures (Paris: Maspero, 1976)

  1. It was a hot day and the publishers had been talking with my grandfather about his next technical drawing book. They were in the hall of his narrow three-storey house. While Mohammed Raffi was singing love songs on the radio, my brother was having an attack of worms, amoebic dysentery, and radioitis in the backyard, sitting on the potty. He sang along loudly. My olfactory skills were acute. Smoky worms as long as the Shalimar Express. The walls of my grandfather's house were yellowish, cool even during the summers. The bedrooms had a slightly greenish tinge in the late afternoon, and over the centre of each bed drooped gauzy white mosquito netting. During the day, shoeless servants would twist and knot these nets high above the beds, where they hung like cloth chandeliers. In the night the netting imprisoned my grandparents' snoring bodies.

  2. He had the house built during the summer of 1947, a summer unlike any other British India had endured. Coincidentally, on 15 August of that year, Independence Day in Pakistan, miles away in Palestine the farmhouse of the Abu Laban family was blown up by the Haganah, the Zionist military organization. Another partition and independence was about to transpire. The Moslem publishers were discussing aspects of the trade: how many copies of which books, what schools to distribute them in, which teachers would use them. My grandfather was speaking quickly. I had the impression that these business matters had to be cleared up before the family left for a hill station--a summer resort--in Mussourie, where he would rest from the busy schedule of writing, publication, and publicity. In these hill stations he would venture out into ancient markets, selectively buying amaryllis bulbs for his roof garden. His ability to make the bulbs burst into passionate pink and red petals was renowned throughout Christian Lahore. As a drafting teacher he was very well known throughout Pakistan, and later India. He was a sort of James Joyce of the drafting textbook world in post-Partition Pakistan. Strangely enough, although he was a Christian, he still wore his turra headdress, symbolically acknowledging his Sikh past.

  3. His asthma caused him to spit a lot, especially in the morning but never in public; never near Rang Mahal Mission High School where he taught. This school was founded, my tall uncle tells me, by the famous American Presbyterian educationist and missionary The Reverend Dr. Charles W. Foreman, DD. Apparently my grandfather never spat near the Lahore Cathedral, either.

  4. He gave private lessons to students in his office, which had greener walls than the rest of the house. Students would use thumb tacks to pin down the corners of sheets of very expensive drafting paper. They would hold T squares along the drafting board's edge with their left hand while their right would carefully, under the supervision of their greying teacher, draw the finest lines in the world with H2 pencils. I would, when I was allowed to pass through this office, see the time consuming drafting of square tables with elephantine legs, muscular chairs, toilets that faced in such a way as to avoid direct sunlight as well as any potential insult to anyone's religion. Once in a while I would see small English houses with sloping roofs emerging on the thin paper. English matriculation classes, I am told, were filled with poetry about dogs and wolves barking in cool valleys in Welsh villages. Who in Pakistan has a sloping roof, I wondered.

  5. My grandfather's technical books have been published in four languages: English, Hindi, Gurmukhi, and of course Urdu. The house was divided linguistically; he spoke Punjabi with his wife, because that was the language they most shared, and Urdu with the children, because it, like English, was to become the lingua franca of Pakistan.

  6. I would find at least five excuses to interrupt their drafting lessons. Bringing in water or tea for my grandfather to drink, I would see objects emerging on the tracing paper in oblique projection, side elevatian, top plans. The students worked diligently because they had to pay for these lessons. I had the nagging suspicion that he did not charge the poorer students, or at least he charged them less. Secularism.

  7. Many technical students still know about my grandfather's contribution to the art of drafting plans for a house, a table, or a chair. In fact, a few years ago, when I met a Lahorie engineering student at an internatianal party in Montreal and told him my full historical name and where I was born, a smile broke across his face. He told me he had studied my grandfather's books, although now these books are not much used. Mohammed Malikshah, the man from Lahore, was now doing research in atomic power at McGill and would soon be returning to Pakistan to contribute to the weapons program.

  8. My grandfather wrote A Manual of Scale Drawing and Technical Geometrical Drawing, among ather titles. Generations have been educated by his books and have helped, consequently, to reconstruct Pakistan from the chair up, as it were. He was also a landscape painter, but he did not become famous for his impressionistic renditions of British India. He depicted passive nature scenes: brooks flowing in and around trees with dark barks without a hint of modernist contortion; his paintings looked very English. There was a spatial ambiguity to the way he drew streams and small waterfalls: one can never really tell which way the stream moves--into or out of the picture, or if the stream is just hanging in mid air. He was not a great draughtsman in the pictorial sense. I have inherited some of this ambiguous spatial relationship, a kind of rendition of reality that did not do much for my reputation during my phase as an undergraduate student painter.

  9. My grandfather really had no excuse not to have been at least somewhat angsty in his landscapes, like the German expressionists who had seen some of what he had seen. The Germans saw Germany in the nineteen thirties and forties. My grandfather saw divisions between people and communal violence in the context of the Two Nation Theory, which was supposed to recognize a nation of Hindus and a nation of Moslems so that everything would work out. So much for the "Lahore" or "Pakistan Resolution." One has to look hard to find any conflict within his pictorial work. Not a very political man. In fact, he once did a loosely composed pen and water colour drawing of flower petals. Of course, the flowers had been drafted in barely visible trace lines first and then were built up with tiny brush strokes until they became real looking. I suspect that he may have copied them from a National Geographic of the time. I have never been able to understand why he inscribed "God is Love" in old-fashioned English writing below this painted arrangement. The writing probably took as long as the execution of the flowers themselves.

  10. His chalk drawings have a pristine luminosity, but I have the feeling they will always live outside the official art history of Pakistan. Understandable, of course; he had given up his religion to adopt another one, one from the West, or at least a religion which the West had reformulated and that grew up nearer Asia. And, as it was turning out, the promises of a secular state, as Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Islamic state, had implied in his many pre-Partition speeches, were far from sight.

  11. In the late fifties this religion was splintering and shattering my grandfather's family from the inside. Western ideas, such as Webberian sociology, were laid down as career options. He thought he was just listening to the American missionaries, but there was another process he did not anticipate: religion, in conjunction with other factors such as two-piece bathing suits and Two Nation Theories, indirectly created a dissatisfaction with Pakistan and what it could not offer. This feeling of Pakistani inadequacy pulled the younger generations to London, Toronto, and Washington. It was as though this Western religion were a kind of seed planted in the older generation, to find fruition in subsequent generations abroad.

  12. The fecund garden on the roof of my grandfather's house was L-shaped; the end of the long side overlooked the banana trees, the other side gave out to a military academy. The flowers grew behind gauze so that the savage and hungry Lahore birds would not peck off the effulgent petals. My grandfather thought the petals would bleed, he was that tender about his flowers. There might have been a problem with mice also. Missionaries picked the flowers when they came to visit: "It would be nice if your children's children could come to Sunday school." The missionaries spoke Urdu with sufficient skill to throw their victims into affectionate innocent smiles. This made their task easier.

  13. There were large church picnics under righteous white tablecloths spread on the ground in sunny parks with fruit bats. Stern obedient servants dusted off plates before sitting many yards away to have a slightly lesser version of the same food. Pakistani men stood around with hands in their pockets, jackets done up, shoes shining. No one in full traditional garb. An occasional touch to the Sunday trimmed mustache. Wives helped by giving the servants orders: "No, over there. Bring some cutlets here and take more salad over there." Black Morrises with wooden steering wheels. This was my Lahore.

  14. My grandfather's house was large, filled with visitors. A community of sweepers, servants, and beggars lived below us in shacks made of materials so flimsy a rainstorm would damage them irreparably. Some of the smaller buildings were made of mud. The hutty houses were brown and tidy, and I would whisk past them with my father on the back of his Triumph 175 cc motorbike.

  15. One summer day a servant was killed because he washed an electric fan with a very wet rag. His blue and bloated body was brought out into the open and everybody wept. I only learned to fully redirect my guilt years later in Montréal, when I began to use Marxism to understand the underlying social process of self-imposed guilt.

  16. In the blustery August of 1947 there was an attempt to burn down the house owned by Kahan Singh, which was my grandfather's original name. My short uncle was to tell me years later, "A good soul, however, came to the rescue when he revealed to the militant group that the owner of the house was in fact a Christian and not a Sikh." So really the family name is Kahan Singh, thanks to all the kind missionaries--the ones that came to Lahore during the time of the Slave Kings of Delhi and the others who had a comparatively shorter stay. There was modernity attached to the act of becoming victims to the sweet proselytization of the pink souls from America and London. I am not sure if my grandfather continued to paint after Partition. His house was generous, a continual train of visitors; and he had long walks after supper, often buying my grandmother a paan.

  17. One memorable summer before we left Pakistan, my brother and I spent a couple of months at our grandparents'. In the hot evenings we would sleep on the open roof, exposed to the Lahore sky and the circling satellites. "Here is the Russian one," my grandmother would say. We would try ten different ways to pronounce Sputnik. It always resulted in giggling fits. My brother and I would fight with each other to get on the fan side of the grandparents. He usually won because he was younger. The electric fan reluctantly blew a more or less cool breeze across our noses. There was moonlight everywhere.

  18. My grandmother's neck was soft. I'd place the tips of my fingers in the skin folds of her neck and count the gold balls in her necklace. If she moved in the right way during one of her boring accounts of what shapes stars would make if connected, I saw star clusters reflected in gold balls. I countered her astrological wisdom with little stories of what I had seen during the day; for instance, how the hermaphrodite street dancers--the Khusras--danced. I semi-invented a story about snake charmers; stories about a fight between a cobra and a mongoose. A yellow liquid came from the mongoose's gaping mouth as the snake slowly erased the mongoose's memory by coiling around it with a steel grip. I told her about the salt taste in mymouth when I saw the thing die. I once compared her hands, pointing to the heavens, with the paws of the dead mongoose who, I claimed, was pointing to the heavens, not from a nice bed, but from the gutter three floors below us.

  19. One of those nights the whole family, including an otherworldly religious aunt, was sleeping on the roof. We were having a riot of a time throwing things at one another while our grandparentss tried to tell us mythical bullshit stories about crows and bits of cheese, foxes who would get married when it rained and shone at the same time; stories of princes and queens and aging elephants in the Lahore zoo. My grandmother claimed that an elephant was lopped up into a hundred grey pieces which were buried throughout the twelve-gated city. In the middle of her story, the sky suddenly changed colour and became a deep blue, as in one of my grandfather's more sombre paintings. The moon also deepened in tone, going from bluish to grey, then suddenly to purple. We rushed indoors. I remember saying to my grandmother that we ought to bring in my surukhs, my tiny pet birds. But no sooner had I spoken than I heard them behind us in the room adjoining the large roof patio. The swirling dust must have upset them. The small, burgundy coloured birds flew in tightly arched paths in the cage. They had white spots near their eyes, sharp pointed scarlet beaks, and were tremendous fun to feed. Some months affer we had arrived in England my mother got a letter from my grandmother saying that there had been another dust storm "just like the one when the boys were here" and the birds had been accidentally left out in all its raging twelve-gated fury. They were hurled thirty-seven feet into the banana trees.

  20. My brother and I drove our grandparents around the bend in four days; we broke some beds by jumping on them from an eight-foot-high wall. It was a summer of homemade ice cream, personally selected watermelons, rides in tongas to Chandini Chouk to see the toy sellers, green parrots in murderously claustrophobic cages, visits to people who had pet squirrels, and servants who had baths in the afternoons. We visited my grandfather's childhood schools at Kot Radha Kirshan, about three miles from Clarkabad, and Mission School in Narowal, sixty miles southwest of Lahore. Some summer afternoons I climbed a jamun tree to eat the berries.

  21. There were scented rituals connected with this house on McLeod Road. There were the Moslem feasts when the moon become a sliver. We joyfully responded by taking candles to the houses of neighbours. We practiced a very healthy secularism, though not really out of fear. My grandfather never ate meat when Hindus were in the house. Even then, I had developed a neutrality towards Christmas, and later on, a neutrality towards the Christian faith as well. Flowers behind gauze.

  22. In the cool evenings when the sun was going down and the emerald parrots were returning in dusky blue spirals to their trees, we would have a reddish drink. There was chatter as the ice clinked and tinkled against the inside of the jug. Smooth dissatisfied servants wearing shalwar kamezes silkenly brushed the evening into blackness. The drink became pinkish when poured from the deep jug. I could see the faces of my grandparents through the glass; they looked distorted and unhappy. Multicoloured lizards with big blue green eyes would climb high up into the night and stars. My grandparents refused to let me have a BB gun.

  23. When my grandmother moved to Toronto after her husband died, she told me that they used to let the hut dwellers peek inside their living room to watch their television set. Now some of those hut dwellers have jobs in Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, and various other Gulf States. And with this injection of money into Pakistan, the Pakistani workers and prostitutes can now buy VCRs and colour TVs. All this took some fifteen years. There were many jokes about TV; people in 1982 used to say that they had mullahs stuck in their sets who did not disappear even when the power was cut off. General Zia or his ubiquitous representatives were, it seemed, on the air every second of any Islamic day. After the 1979 revolution in Iran, Iranians used to say that their televisions had grown beards, beards oozing out onto the living room floor. Grey beards and, very unfortunately, some young raven black ones also.

  24. Outside, right near the front door of my grandfather's house, there was a network of open drainage that had not changed since the time Alexander the Great had paid us a visit. They were called nalies. The colour of the water interested me very much. At the age of eight I was able to show an occidental experimental filmmaker's sense of fascination at the changes in the colour of the bathwater, at the spirals of moving hair and soap suds in the warm water, caught by the occasional twig.

  25. I claimed that I could tell which person had had a bath. One day after a temporary servant took a bath, the water in the nalie changed to burgundy, with hair oil superimposed onto the smell of Pear's Soap. The spirals moved slowly and travelled down the open duct; I followed them until they changed shape and slipped under Lahore.

  26. My grandmother had most likely given this servant the soap. Otherwise how would she have gotten it? Possession of the soap was a question of class and relative power. The servant was having her bath on the open roof near the water tank. I was not supposed to be looking at her. She was soaping her brown body unhurriedly in the sun; suds were running through her toes, which were more elongated than moon shaped.

  27. When I look back at the event, for it was certainly an event, I feel guilty because of a highly progressive left wing film I saw in India sometime during my first return, some twenty years later. This film depicted a landlord doing the same thing I had done as a child. I saw myself as the loathsome landlord, watching his servant taking her bath without her knowing. The landlord used to fuck her. There were no words between them. This initial sight had given me a bit of power, but I could not touch her. I suppose that feeling between guilt and access converted later in life into a phoney solidarity with the women's movement in the West.

  28. It was a large house, but still my grandfather's children were restless to leave the country for England or America. Some even left for Frankfurt to await the ineluctable unification of the two Germanies in 1990. The first documents had already started to arrive at the offices of immigration departments. For my parents, Lahore was becoming like a train station during Partition. The grandparents were unhappy, and I see misery prevailing in their eyes in the photographs they sent over to Toronto during the following decades. Christmas 1968: long faces. Christmas 1972: longer faces. And in the mid-seventies, photographs of one prestigious funeral taken in a big church. A Christian family in a confessional Islamic state. Soon they would all be gone. At seventy-two my grandfather died of coronary thrombosis. He lies at the cemetery on Central Road. After he died, my grandmother boarded a plane for the first time in her life. It was her first sight of Lahore from the view of the parrots. She joined us in Toronto. The other grandmother is buried in Glasgow.

  29. Sunset. October, some year in the late nineteen fifties. We have pushed up through the Suez Canal. The sea pulls us down, the sea pushes us up. Salt spray all around. Flying fish dead on the deck, snagged on rigging in the night. Wings of flesh. Elvis in Karachi. Elvis becoming the sea, the air. I remind my mother that if she had paid a particular radio station in Karachi more money, perhaps they would have played Paul Anka's "Oh, Diana" on my birthday. On my birthday we waited, but no Paul Anka. Instead, they aired a bit of semi-classical music by Ravi Shankar accompanied by that famous fiddler from the West--Yehudi Menuhin.

  30. There is a man talking to my mother. He is British and she is beautiful. My father is already in England, living in a small flat with a newly bought gramophone. We are moving up through the Red Sea. The Englishman has on a blue blazer and holds a tall flared sweating glass of cool beer in his stubby English hand. His shirt is open and the collar is folded out over the blazer. Still, he does not look good. My sister is sitting on a deck chair, reading Jane Eyre. We are on the promenade deck. The man's fingers are nicotine stained. A plume of smoke floats towards Pakistan. He inches nearer my mother. Her scarf flutters like Isadora Duncan's when she dies at the end of a black-and-white film.

  31. The white captain with a megaphone tells us, in Urdu, which surprises us, to move away from the deck's edge. Stormy weather. Human cotton moving into Britain.

  32. It was late afternoon when we boarded a large passenger ship with an oily black hull. I sat, waiting for the vessel to pull out of Karachi harbour so I could see Pakistan fade into the Arabian Sea. When I awoke it was night, nothing but the rising and falling of sea and the hissing darkness. Lunar sounds of the inky water. We had departed. Liverpool was to come much later, two or three weeks later, in a northern sunset. We stopped in Aden, and then slowly moved up through Gamel Abdel Nasser's well organized Suez Canal. Out on the sandy distance I could see people picking dates. Groups of camels stooped in twos and threes out on the watery desert.

  33. Port Said. Dolphins in the smelly Mediterranean. The Rock of Gibraltar and the Bay of Biscay. A strike by dock workers at Liverpool--a vision of the great West.

  34. The Lahore house was empty. In Agincourt, a plaza ridden suburb of Toronto, there was talk that we ought to sell the old house to a Christian family. When I went back to Lahore in 1982, a carpet dealer had a soosth shop there. The carpet dealers were discussing General Zia in very negative terms, which made me feel good despite the initial shock of seeing my family history turned into the fine, redundant weaves of moderately priced carpets from Kabul. The grandparents had failed to hold things together. A persistent cool breeze, like the one that deepened the colour of the moon and killed my pet birds, had blown their kids into the distance; my mother, father, and brothers and sister had made the dusty train journey to Karachi, then by ship to the port of Liverpool. They rode an old smoky coal-driven train to Middlesex and Wimbledon with its sunny gardens and the smashed shell of a pet tortoise. The English neighbours were disgusted by the Pakistani kids who had used tennis rackets to open its shell. [1]


  1. "Grandfather at Noon: Lahore, 1957" was first published in Julian Samuel's novel, Passage to Lahore (Stratford, Ontario: Mercury Press, 1995); the book has been published in French under the title De Lahore à Montréal. Back

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