by Shehryar Ahmad
In 2004, my brother Salman and I visited the birthplace of my mother Shahine Habibullah Khan Ahmad in Bassi-Pathanan, near Sirhind in the erstwhile state of Patiala, now Punjab, India. The decrepit ruins of Ashraf Manzil, named after my great-great-grandfather (“per-nana”) Ashraf Khan, had such a powerful effect on me that I will never forget the moment of coming across this place.
Junoon had been invited to perform as headliners at the closing ceremony of the Patiala Heritage Festival. After a brilliant show with the most magnificent back drop of the Yadavindra Public School and fireworks going off behind us to the tune of “Sayonee” and “Garaj Baras”, the Maharani of Patiala informed us that the Maharaja would be pleased to meet with us the following day. When Captain Amarinder Singh, C.M. of Punjab, had learnt that our mother was a born Patialan, and that we were descendants of Namdar Khan, he pulled out all the stops and gave us a royal welcome. Gifts were exchanged and a beautiful Patialan shawl was presented for my mother. We were invited to return again to Patiala with our mother and stay at the Palace. We were also invited to have dinner at the Palace that same night. The Maharaja took us on a tour of his Motibagh Palace which was laden with priceless art, and just the picture I had of a Raj-era palace full of historical photographs and paintings, tastefully decorated, lush green lawns, tons of space, the courtyards and the almost perfunctory “Baradari”.
Still in awe of the splendor before us, I was told that this new incarnation of the Palace was much more modest than the original Motibagh Palace which had 365 rooms during the reign of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh and now houses a National Sports Training Centre. The CM gave us the protocol normally accorded to foreign state dignitaries, with police escort and a press junket on our tails to boot, when we visited our ancestor Namdar Khan’s house in the heart of Patiala city. The quaint colonial era house was well maintained despite its age and the current occupants Mr. Sandeep Singh Sandha and family were extremely warm and gracious and took us in as if we were their own family, reminiscient of the Patiala State Motto “Mera Ghar Thera Saya” (My house is your shelter). They asked us to stay for tea. Their warmth, along with the style of the house brought back fond memories of our family house in Lahore where everyone moved from Patiala during partition. Namdar Khan’s house was on a street named after him as well in Patiala, Namdar Khan Road.
Our Great-great grandfather Namdar Khan was Chairman of the Council of Regents of the State of Patiala when the then Maharajah of Patiala, Bhupinder Singh (Grandfather of Captain Amarinder) was enthroned at the age of 12 years. Therefore he was in charge of much of the affairs of the State of Patiala, which was one of the wealthiest and most powerful of Princely States in India. Thus his place was preserved in Patiala’s Heritage. The Palace dinner held in our honor was a real treat, what with the CM, Maharani, Yuvraj (Crown Prince) Raninder Singh and his elegant and lovely wife Yuvrajni Rishma entertaining us along with just a few relatives and close friends, some visiting dignitaries and academics from overseas. As enchanting as all this was with the extreme hospitality of this exceptional royal family (The Crown Prince, an avid gourmet and gourmand, even assisted in preparing our meals with secret recipes passed down from the Afghan Royal Family!) nothing affected me like going to the home of my forbears. Alex Haley’s famous book and TV series Roots, or other such ”home-coming’ stories could not prepare me for the overwhelming experience of walking through the remains of what was once the aristocratic home where my grand parents were married, where my mother was born, etc. It was about a twenty minute drive on the now immaculate Grand Trunk Road when our police escort bid us adieu as we were passing out of their jurisdiction into Bassi Pathanan (“The Settlement of the Pathans”) which falls under the Fatehgarh SahibDistrict, owing to the Dargah there.
From then on local journalists, who had been waiting for us after having done all the research to find our hallowed Ashraf Manzil, guided us to our “Lost Ark”. It was through winding streets that we walked and finally came across a broken down shadow of a Franco-Persian ruin of a property in Bassi Pathanan. As we explored this house which was known to us only through the many memories passed on by our elders, an octogenarian gentlemen named Shyamlal Singh who was walking by heard the commotion and stopped in and told us he was a good friend of both Zahoor-ud-Din Khan, my nani’s father who our family called “Abba Mian.” Mr. Singh shared wonderful anecdotes of his friendship with Abba Mian, about the time when his motorcar (the first in the neighborhood!) broke down and the fact that his position as a Minister didn’t help the car to start! Shyam told us of how he would stop by regularly for tea and Zahoor-ud-din would cut flowers for him from the expansive and still beautiful bagh in the Ashraf Manzil estate. Mr. Singh also told us and the media present that day that all the residents of Bassi lived together like family, irrespective of religion.
There was a great sense of brotherhood among the inhabitants of Bassi; they all shared in each other’s joys and sorrows regardless of caste and creed. Their stories were so moving that I felt the possiblity, the dawning of a new era in South Asian history, when people would go beyond the petty politics of the recent century and re-learn the lesson of coexistence.
The experience left such an impression on my brother Salman that he decided to shoot a video in Bassi and Patiala for which the Maharajah subsequently gave his permission. Salman has gotten Indian classical singer Shubha Mudgal to lend her voice to the song entitled “Ghoom Taana”, theatre icon Naseer-ud-din Shah has provided a voice over for the video (as the role of our great grandfather Zahoor-ud-Din Khan!), and “Earth: 1947″
star Nandita Das has acted in the semi-autobiographical video to be released in August on the Independence Days of India and Pakistan this summer!
The United Nations has endorsed the video as efforts for a durable peace between India and Pakistan are being re-doubled. The Under Secretary General of the UN has even recorded a message to underline the UN’s single-mindedness in this regard. There are efforts to have major celebrities (i.e. Bono of U2, etc) get involved with the launch of the video this summer.
Shehryar Ahmad is the Group Head of Investor Relations, Marketing and Corporate Communications at BMA Capital. He previously managed the Pakistani rock band Junoon and can be reached at shehryar <at> bmacapital.comViews: 4931Share