There was once a young man in the early 1900s, who shone amongst his fellow students in intellect, honesty and good character. One day, he walked up to his aged widowed mother and told her that he had been awarded a scholarship for higher studies at Oxford University. The woman looked up at her son, inner conflict writ large in her eyes, as they filled with tears and said, “You will travel across the seas and be away for many years. Who will your sisters and younger brother turn to, in times of need? Who will carry me to my last resting place in case my time comes with you so far away?” There was no hesitation in the young man, as he smiled at the woman sitting before him – a woman, who had borne the rigors of an early widowhood to bring up and educate her six children. The professors in the Punjab University were appalled when the scholarship was surrendered with the simple explanation, “My mother’s happiness is more important to me than my scholarship”. This young man rose to dizzying heights in the Indian Civil Service, was made a ‘Khan Bahadur’, opted for Pakistan and became Chairman of the Public Service Commission a few months after independence.

It was perhaps in 1946 that Muhammad Ali Jinnah asked Muslim members of the civil service to return ‘honours’ awarded to them by the British. The man featured in the opening paragraph of our story was then holding the top slot in the War Risk Commission of India. He promptly had the words ‘Khan Bahadur’ cut out from his luggage, patching the hole with plain leather. Weeks went by and then one day, an old friend called him from Lahore to say that Quaid-e-Azam wanted his company at breakfast on the following morning. How the three hundred plus odd miles between Delhi and Lahore were covered in a car, cannot be recounted, but the rising sun found him entering Mian Manzar Bashir’s residence on Lawrence Road, Lahore.

What transpired at the breakfast table and how the meeting with the Founding Father fuelled the fires that were already burning inside him, was a story that I always listened with rapt attention – for this great man was none other than my maternal grandfather.

I know of another man, who when told that he should submit a claim for the property he had left behind in India, declined to do so, for the simple reason that he had enough to sustain an honourable lifestyle. When he was told that ‘so and so’ had been allotted ‘such and such’ property, he turned away with the words that he was not inclined to emulate ‘so and so’ nor yearned for ‘such and such’.

It was during a visit to the Annual Industrial Exhibition, in what was then Minto Park, somewhere in the late nineteen fifties that I spotted a middle aged individual, accompanied by a young boy, selling spiced chick peas and ‘aloo ke kachaloo’ from a push cart. They were dressed in immaculately white starched ‘kurta pyjama’ topped by white muslin ‘topis’. The duo was busy serving a steady stream of customers with quiet dignity that appeared to attract people. I was surprised, when my father led me to them and salaamed in a differential manner, telling me to do the same. The two adults exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes, while I stood shyly by. The man (I was told later) was the head of one of the richest and most respected families of Delhi. He and his family could have stayed back and ‘bought’ protection, like many others of their background had, but no – they chose to leave everything behind and brave the treacherous journey to the ‘Land of the Pure’. He who had travelled in a chauffeur driven car was now pushing a hand cart – refusing to occupy properties left invitingly open by their fleeing owners. Unwilling to lower his dignity, he had chosen to sell ‘kachaloos’ instead of begging. I don’t know where this family is now, but if any of their kin is reading this, let it be known that they will forever be held in high esteem as custodians of ‘morality and honour’ – in a land peopled by those, who are devoid of these attributes.