Once upon a time, though briefly, I was a sailor. So, sailing down memory lane, my mind goes back to a particular day when I experienced the lowest form of life – running to pick up left over food which a house wife was seen throwing into a ditch – while working in a field under the supervision of the Japanese Military Police. A day or so later I was subjected to many sessions of torture at the hands of Japanese Military Police. I was 18 years old – a teenager – I had passed out of the Training Ship Dufferin in Bombay, and was serving as a cadet aboard the good ship “Chilka” of the British India Steam Navigation Company Limited, when it was shelled and sank in the Indian Ocean about three hundred miles west of Sumatra.
The year was 1942 World War II had begun three years ago. After six days in a lifeboat, we landed on Nias Island and, within a month or so, I was taken prisoner by the Japanese.
I wish to share with you, my experiences during that period, and of my chequered career – in the truest sense of the word – doing nine different jobs in the course of forty years of my working life.
I feel I must, however, recall a day in the year 1923, as I came to learn when I grew up, when a drama was taking place in Bait-ul-Amn, the home of my parents, in Dhaka. A mid-wife, as was normal in those days, was helping my mother to deliver a child. Among the ladies who were present was a cousin of my father who had been pacing up and down with prayer beads (Tasbih) in her hand, anxiously hoping and praying that the new born would be a boy.
It was around the time of evening prayer (Maghrib), that a cry was heard and, by the grace of God, my mother had a safe delivery. My father’s cousin Afrozi Begum, must have rushed in with joy when she heard that it was a boy, and she wasted no time in wrapping me up and getting into the car to drive me to her home in Ahsan Manzil..It was 22nd October 1923.
It is difficult to imagine the feelings of my dear mother at the time. What she must have gone through knowing that her new born baby, whom she probably did not even see properly, was taken away to be brought up by someone else.
The noble lady that she was, she bore her pain with patience and perseverance, keeping up a brave front as she was only fulfilling a promise that she had made to one of my father’s dearest friends and relatives Mumtaz Phuppa, as we called him. He was very fond of children but after many years of marriage he could not have one of his own. I am not sure how exactly it happened, but, when my mother was expecting a child, she promised him, that if it were a boy he could adopt him.
I was two years old when I remember vividly seeing my Phuppi (aunty), who had brought me home soon after I was born, propped up in bed. She passed away, I believe, a few days later. During her life time, Mumtaz Phuppa had married a second time. Her name was Farhadi, the daughter of Khwaja Alauddin. When I grew up I knew her as my mother and I called her Ammi and Mumtaz Chacha Abba; while my own parents were Papa and Mama.
I was brought up with loving care and was thoroughly spoilt. A young man was employed to take care of me and I called him Ghafoor Beta. He had a speech impediment and it is believed that I picked up that habit from him as I began to stammer quite badly as I grew up. My earliest recollection of him takes me to Calcutta where he used to walk me to school. It was a Convent in Dharamtalla where I first learned to read and write.
I still remember the face of the pretty teacher who used to tell us to put our heads down on the desk and sleep during the break. There was an end of term celebration and all the children were given lemonade, ginger ale and other cold drinks, and Ghafoor beta, who had come to collect me from school, got busy helping to open the drink bottles.
Mumtaz Phuppa and Farhadi Nani (she was the first cousin of our grandfather Nawabzada Khwaja Atiqullah) – Abba and Ammi – showered their love and affection upon me and did everything to make me happy. I was so thoroughly spoilt that every Friday I was dressed in silk clothes and was allowed to eat ‘pan’. I travelled with them to Lucknow and Allahabad, and have vivid memories of our stay at the Samavaya Mansions in Calcutta, where Mumtaz Phuppa was doing some business. I even remember going to his office and scribbling something on a paper.
Another person, who used to love me dearly, was Chachi’s mother, whom I called “Piari Nano” (Begum Khwaja Alauddin). It was she who looked after me when Chacha and Chachi went to perform Hajj and I was left under her care in Dhaka.
I was three years old, in 1926, when Mumtaz Phuppa and Farhadi Nani had their own first child. He was named Sohail. He was followed by two girls – Humaira and Zubaida – and later, by Sajjad, Zubair, Amer and Jamil. Having been blessed by their own children, they felt that it would be right and proper to return me to my own parents. I was then about six and remember so vividly how upset and distressed I was having to part with them.
My own parents were strangers to me and I could not bear the thought of living in a strange household. They brought me over to my parent’s home, and when they were leaving, after handing me over to my parents, I was so emotionally charged that I remember crying and rushing upstairs to jump out of the window. It was indeed a traumatic experience for me, and I had to start adjusting to the new life of strict discipline – no silk clothes, no ‘pans’ etc. It had been arranged that I could go and spend every Sunday with my foster parents. It became a routine for me to cry my eyes out every time I left them to come home in the evening.