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My uncle, the Banyan

Dr. Manzur Ejaz

September 12th, 2008

5 / 5 (3 Votes)




My father in his element
at Burjwala


Ancient burj, or ruined tower, from which the village took its name


Chacha with his wife


Chacha could only read
Punjabi Gurmukhi


I think back on my life in the village and know that Chacha and my father were the great, shady, generous Banyans that protected and nurtured us. There they stood, tall and majestic, with their deep, deep roots in that ancient soil


My father, known to be a strong man in the village, would wail like a child whenever Chacha read those lines. They reminded him of his early life as an orphan and the cruelty of his aunt. As I write this, my eyes are wet with tears


Chak 60/5L Burjwala is an old and busy village in the district of Sahiwal (then known as Montgomery) in central Punjab. I grew up in Burjwala in the 1950s; it is the place I call home although I have lived in Virginia, USA for more than two decades now. In the early ‘50s, Burjwala was as it had been for centuries. The village takes it name from “burj,” or tower. I always think of the tall and imposing structures of the Mughal era or its successor, the British Raj, when I recall the name Burjwala. I think of these towers of our ancient land and I think of Chacha Elahi Bakhsh, a towering figure in his own way. In fact, I think of Chacha more as a borh or Banyan tree, rather than a burj or tower. After all, the Banyan is the most celebrated tree of the Indian subcontinent, along with the Peepal, for under these trees have the peoples of this ancient land found solace and enlightenment.

It was no different with Chacha as he ambled towards our home in his slow and measured gait. Most times, he would end up in the front baithak (sitting room) where my father would be puffing on his huqqa while trying to resolve some community dispute. Chacha would not care about the matter at hand and, having plonked himself besides my father on his large manja (charpai), he would proclaim, “Lya bai jawana kitab” (Bring the book, young man). By then we knew that Chacha would be the pivot of my father’s attention and he would have no more truck with anything or anyone else.

Chacha called everyone “jawana,” from a child to people older than himself. If my father were away, Chacha would sit by my mother and smoke his huqqa until his partner returned. My mother, in her fifties then, was Chacha’s niece many times removed. Yet Chacha still called her “kaki” (little girl).

For all his big talk, Chacha Elahi Bakhsh was of small frame, swarthy complexion and a well-shaped small grey beard. Like everyone else of his generation, he wore a turban typical of Arian farmers. Other than being short, Chacha had no other physical peculiarity. Looking at Chacha’s small frame, no one could imagine that this man had come to the Ganji Bar in the early 20th century to turn his 25 acres of desert into rich farmland where anything could be grown. Soon after the British built the canal colonies of the Punjab and took water to virgin and barren lands, farmers from the older riparian areas of the province staked claims to this land. Not only did Chacha’s land prove fertile but he succeeded in fathering eight sturdy and bright sons with his wife, who was six feet tall and the belle of the village. But Chacha was through with that part of his life. Now, as he puffed on his huqqa, he read Punjabi books and said all his prayers in the mosque. I don’t remember ever seeing him work.

Chacha was an avid reader but he could only read Punjabi in the Gurmukhi scri pt. He could not read a simple letter if it was written in Urdu. Forty or fifty years back there were many people who, like Chacha, could only read Punjabi but could not write a single word of Urdu. Now the whole tradition has been reversed: if one asks anyone in the villages to read Punjabi they become offended or take it as a joke.

It seemed to me then that Chacha and my father’s peculiar bond dated from time immemorial. Chacha would always ask if a new book should be started or an ongoing story should be finished first. Usually, Chacha would start a book and read a number of pages out aloud and put a bird feather where he ended; he would begin again from that page the next day. Chacha read out almost every book there was in the village for my father and some of the books were read many times over. My father could not read, but listening to a classical piece of Punjabi literature was an act of worship for him.

Heer Waris Shah, Maulvi Ghulam Rasool’s Yousaf Zulekha and the epic Dastan-e-Amir Hamza were their favourites. I will never forget Maulvi Ghulam Rasool’s mourning lines that depict the separation of Yousaf from his father. My father, known to be a strong man in the village, would wail like a child whenever Chacha read out those lines. These verses reminded my father of his early life as an orphan and the cruelty of his aunt. Besides me, all my siblings and my mother had memorised those lines. And as I write these lines today, far away in Virginia, my eyes are wet with tears.

We did not have Maulvi Ghulam Rasool’s “Dastan-e-Amir Hamza,” published in four large sized volumes. My father sent Ghulam Muhammad Ruldoo, the village shoemaker, to get these books from Lahore. On arrival, the books were bound in thick leather. My older brother still has that voluminous and precious book.

Father being a voracious collector of every story, we had in our home all the minor folktales of the land of the Indus, from Pooran Bhaghat to Sammi Dhool. Mr Ruldoo went on regular expeditions, urged by my father, in search of books. He visited melas (folk festivals) and urs (anniversaries) of Punjabi Sufis. He combed the book stalls for new and old Punjabi classics published by Lahore’s Kashmiri Bazaar merchants.

And then the new books arrived at their destination, our home, and were handed over ceremoniously to Chacha Elahi Bakhsh in response to his trademark greeting, “lya bai jawana, kitab.” It was a thing to behold, Chacha reciting from a book for hours in his low rhythmic tone. I now know that had Chacha let his voice rise to a high pitch, he could not possibly have gone on for hours, hence the growl. We heard all the books Chacha recited for my father. No one was a greater teacher to us than Chacha. All my siblings and I learnt our classical Punjabi literature as we grew up, listening to Chacha. Of course, it was calamitous if ever Chacha fell sick or had to go to town. My father then asked one of us, his children, to fill in for Chacha. We were no match.

In the month of Muharram, only jangnamas (stories of the martyrs of Kerbala) were recited in our house. I don’t know why Chacha never recited jangnamas. He would either not visit us during Muharram or would sit silently by smoking his huqqa while my sisters recited the jangnama. Both of them had such melodious voices! I tried occasionally to keep them company, and I was praised for it. Soon, the praise went to my head and I began imagining myself a professional naat khwan, a hymn singer.

I think back on my life in the village and know that Chacha and my father were the great, shady, generous Banyans that protected and nurtured us. There they stood, tall and majestic, with their deep, deep roots in that ancient soil. They were real, honourable and thinking human beings. They had no declaration to make or agendas to pursue. I ask myself whether they were illiterates or the organic intellectuals of their own world. And now, whenever I return to Pakistan and see my “educated” nephews and nieces full of religious and racial hatred, I wonder who is truly learned – they with their degrees or men like Chacha, the great Banyans who gave succour to whole communities and shaded us from the vagaries of life.

Dr Manzur Ejaz is a former academic and lives in Virginia

Courtesy Friday Times


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