A very wonderful and magic thing that writing can do is to bring back to life people that are no longer physically with us, and often so strongly that their very presence can be felt in our midst, and therefore, they are honored. I am going to bring you A.Q., who, young as I was, I took for granted all those years ago, and who deserved better. So here he is.......
I flew to East Pakistan (now Bangla Desh) in 1963 to teach at a company school. Sandwell & Co. built paper mills around the world and taught local people to assume control and management of them. I was to teach the children of the technical staff from Britain, Canada and the US in a one-room schoolhouse - a story in itself! The mill executives often gave parties to which local entrepreneurs and dignitaries were invited, and thus I met my friend and constant companion during my two-year stay, a young man my own age, Hammad, as well as his delightful uncle, and his uncle’s best friend, A.Q. Khan. A.Q., as he was universally known, was a shipowner, with a delightful compound in Khulna, the closest large town to our mill.
He was a warm and welcoming man, and soon became a central figure in my life and a dear and trusted friend. He was not a Bengali, but a Pathan, originally from the west. He had been married to an Indian woman, whom he had loved dearly, but who had died young, so he was a bachelor. He had established two rather unusual liaisons - both with married women - but this is secondary to the story, and these affairs rarely came up in conversation unless he was to tell, somewhat laconically, of his latest encounter with an irate husband.
He was very kind, A.Q. He had a bearer, who is actually a servant, jack-of-all-trades. Although A.Q. never made mention of it, he supported not only his bearer, but all of the bearer’s extended family, something he’d been doing for years, and his will provided for their future protection. His bearer’s name was Jabaar, and I grew very fond of him. Very early on in our friendship, I made it apparent to A.Q that I adored a dish called lamb tikka, which Jabbar and his wife made and cooked to perfection. I was never disappointed - on the many occasions we met and ate at the compound, my lamb tikka was always on the menu.
I loved to spend weekends in Calcutta, a trip of some three or four hours by car from Khulna. The company jeeps would take me to the border, of course, where I’d be met by other transport, but they were not comfortable and provided a very dusty ride. Thus, on many occasions, A.Q., learning that I would be going to Calcutta for a particular weekend, would not only offer me his car and driver, but would accompany me to the border himself, thereby turning a dull drive into a delightful trip, full of good conversation and good company. The cars were not air-conditioned, and the weather in south-east Asia is almost always unrelentingly hot and humid, so his graciousness was very real. Often, on my return, I would find him waiting for me at the border, proffering a welcoming coconut, the juice so cool and refreshing and the gesture so appreciated!
Sometimes - not often - he would come to visit me. He didn’t come often because, as he said, it would compromise my reputation. I couldn’t see why, but he was wiser than I, and knew that colonials in the tropics have little to do but invent and gossip. The British in our colony, I am sad to say, were particularly prone to this and one found their noses most particularly out of joint whenever “mixing with the natives” was involved. But I digress..... when he did come, he would bring Jabaar with him in the car, so that Jabaar could be charged with bringing the chairs and tables out to the balcony, this so as not to inconvenience my own bearer, Ali. Such delicacy!
I remember lovely lunches on A.Q.’s riverboats, and a wonderful party he gave for some of the mill personnel, complete with a belly dancer and classical Indian music. I remember quiet evenings of pleasant camaraderie, the cries of the night-busy town and the raucous bells of rickshaws muffled by the thick white-washed walls and the exuberant oleander trees of the compound. I remember his wise advice, slipped gracefully into meandering conversations. I remember my friend.
Shortly after I left East Pakistan, the war broke out which divided Pakistan into two separate countries. A.Q., as a non-Bengali, found his life uprooted, and I was never able to find him again, despite repeated enquiries at both embassies. He will be an old man by now. I would be very happy if he knew how much he had meant to me and how much I loved him. Unfortunately, as I told you, I was young at the time, and didn’t know myself. But I write this tribute to honour him.
Back to my Home Page:
Tales from Pakistan: Food for Thought:
Tales from Pakistan: The Khyber Pass:
Tales from India: Grand Hotel:
Tales from India: The Misadventure:
Tales from India: Photographs from Darjeeling: