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Bringing home laurels
The book describes in detail the events of the author’s personal life, including some instances about the creation of Pakistan. My time in Malaysia was memorable. It is not possible to narrate all of my experiences, so I will only write about a few. The ambassador’s residence in Kuala Lumpur was a virtual palace, spread over several acres. The living quarters of my house staff were commodious and comfortable and for the first time, despite all the years I had put into the service of the government, I realised that the salaries of my cook, waiter, ayah, driver and watchman were to be paid not by me but by the state. Food and other necessary provisions one bought at the duty-free shop at one-fourth of the market price. Besides my salary, there were generous allowances for entertainment.
Since my sons had completed their education and my daughter was married, that left just the two of us, husband and wife. We had plenty of time and opportunity to entertain and make friends for Pakistan. I realised soon after arrival that not only the host government but also people in general were browned off with Pakistan.
Let me give the background. Indonesia had long had an eye on Malaysia’s oil-producing region of Borneo, which it finally invaded and fighting between the two countries ensued. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was foreign minister at the time and Indonesia was very popular in Pakistan because of the unstinted support it had lent Pakistan during the 1965 war with India. Sukarno had coined the slogan ‘Gunjung India’, which in Bhasha meant ‘Destroy India.’ When the Indonesian invasion came, the Pakistan National Assembly was in session and Bhutto happened to be addressing it on that day. He became so emotional that while offering all possible help to Indonesia, he announced that diplomatic ties with Malaysia were being snapped.
I was present in the Assembly, listening to Bhutto from the officials’ gallery. As he finished his speech and left the chamber, a messenger rushed towards me, saying the foreign minister wanted to see me immediately. I followed him out and found Bhutto in great pain. He asked me to take him to the military hospital. I put him in my car and drove him to the military hospital, which was close.
Several doctors arrived to examine him and found that his appendix had burst. Immediate surgery had to be performed but certain paper formalities had to be completed, such as permission to operate, which only Begum Bhutto could accord. The hospital told me that it would begin the procedure as long as I made sure of obtaining Begum Bhutto’s assent. She arrived shortly, along with Fazal Elahi Chaudhry, the speaker of the National Assembly. Agha Shahi and Gauhar bhai also came when they heard of Bhutto’s emergency surgery.
I recall the two of them saying that in his emotional outburst Bhutto had snapped ties with Malaysia without the president’s or the cabinet’s approval. The president had been informed of it now and was said to be hopping mad. But let me get back to Malaysia.
When I arrived in the country, it was quite clear to me that the memory of that diplomatic slap still rankled with my hosts. I realised that Bhutto, knowing my open and friendly nature and my outgoing habits, had sent me here so that I could dilute the bitterness that the Malaysian government still felt about Pakistan and Bhutto in particular. The embassy had a prime location, right in front of the old assembly building in Kuala Lumpur. When the Pakistan government had bought it for next to nothing, it lay empty and nobody seemed prepared to live in it or buy it. Everyone in Malaysia believed the building was haunted, so Gen Sher Ali Khan, our ambassador, went ahead and bought it.
He was followed by Habibullah, whom I had now replaced. The ghosts had obviously fled after the Pakistanis arrived. I quickly established a friendship with Hussain Oan, the prime minister, who would come to play at the Golf Club after his morning prayers. That became my routine as well and we would play together and spend much time together.
Dr Mahathir Muhammad was deputy prime minister and minister of education. Because both of us were fond of books, I got to know him well. When Gauhar bhai visited me once, Dr Mahathir Muhammad invited him for dinner along with several other ministers. The chief justice of Malaysia, Tan Sri Gill was of Punjabi extraction and spoke the language. We became very good friends.
Once when Bhutto organised a jurists’ conference in Karachi, I was asked to see that a high court judge attended the event. I had been given just 15 days’ notice. When I phoned Justice Gill, he told me that because of a heavy backlog of cases, it would not be possible for him to spare any of his judges for the conference. My response was delivered in Punjabi, ‘It is a question of my izzat.’ ‘Why didn’t you say so first?’ he replied and went to the conference himself. I am still friendly with his family.
I also became close friends with industry minister Musa Hinam and we have often met in London since. He also visited Pakistan a couple of times. The prime minister of the state of Saba once invited my sons Babar and Imran to fly with him in his personal plane to his state, where they were given the run of the place for the next seven days. In the diplomatic corps, ambassadors tend to address one another as ‘Your Excellency’ but it gets tiresome.
The Egyptian ambassador suggested one day that those of us who had close links should call each other by first names. That may have been a no-no in the stiff and formal world of diplomacy but it made life much easier for some of us.
I was asked by Islamabad to arrange an event marking the birth centenary of Quaid-i-Azam. A small sum of money was sent but it was not enough, so I called in a number of leading Pakistanis in Malaysia, and proposed that we should mark the occasion with something grander than just a reception.
Once the Chinese ambassador, who was believed to be among Mao’s friends, came to me and said that he was going to go to China for just a day because the chairman was very ill, but he did not want it to become public. He suggested that I should arrange a dinner for him two days hence to which I should invite only Pakistani friends. By the time word got out of the invitation, he would have returned and no one would suspect anything. I did the necessary, and that brought us quite close.
In 1976, I was asked by Islamabad to arrange an event marking the birth centenary of Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah. A small sum of money was sent for that purpose but it was not enough, so I called in a number of leading Pakistanis, including the local heads of the PIA and Habib Bank, and proposed that we should mark the occasion with something grander than just a reception. We set up a five-member committee and managed to collect enough funds to draw up an elaborate programme, including receptions and meetings to which ambassadors, ministers and politicians were to be invited. The ceremonies lasted three days, with one meeting presided over by Dr Mahathir Muhammad and attended by the Sultans of Sarawak and Nagri Simblan. The president of the local university and three of his professors spoke about the life and achievements of the founder of Pakistan, describing him as one of the great statesmen of the world, who had established a separate homeland for the Muslims of India, freeing them from Hindu domination. We also arranged an exhibition of Pakistani crafts and manufactured products, including clothes, books and even fine Pakistani basmati rice and succulent mangoes. The exhibition also showed our hosts what a beautiful and exciting country Pakistan was. On the third day, we arranged a grand banquet, courtesy of PIA, to which we invited leading Malaysian personalities. Every guest was given a memento to remind him of the Quaid’s centenary. Many people told me that they could not remember as grand a diplomatic reception as ours. The British high commissioner, who was not happy with me because I was the only envoy who had not attended his banquet for Lord Louis Mountbatten, also turned up. No Pakistani can forgive Mountbatten’s dishonest role in the partition of India and how he played into the hands of those who wished us ill. Of course, in my letter of regret to the high commissioner, I had written that I would not be able to attend because of ‘certain family engagements.’
We also celebrated the birthday of Allama Muhammad Iqbal with great enthusiasm. The meeting began with a speech by my wife Nasim, in which she elaborated upon the finer points of Iqbal’s poetry and its significance. She made quite an impression that day and began to be invited to literary and cultural events, not because she was the ambassador’s wife, but because of her own literary merit. Newspapers interviewed her often. It was there that she learnt the art of copper tooling. The resultant exhibition of 25 of her works in that medium was quite a hit. Some of her work still hangs in our home. Till then, I had not been aware of her artistic talent. A book on Pakistani food, written by her, was printed in Pakistan many years later during her lifetime. It sold quite a few copies.
I was also ambassador to Singapore, Brunei and Burma and worked hard to promote trade between Pakistan and those countries. Malaysia also resumed the supply of palm oil and railway sleepers that it had stopped exporting to us after the break - up of relations. Pakistani fruit too began to be imported by Brunei and trade with Burma grew. At the Kuala Lumpur airport, a special VIP waiting room was built for the Pakistani ambassador, next to the existing ones for the envoys of the United States, Britain, China, Russia and France.
Because I came from a Muslim country, the governor of Sarawak invited me there for a visit. I learnt on arrival that I would have to preside over a ceremony at which 150 animists were to become Muslims. One by one, I had each of them repeat the kalmia after me, which is all that it takes to become a Muslim. Maybe, God will forgive me on judgment day for having played a small part in helping his tribe flourish. I had heard much about the primitive people of that state, who lived in the interior, and expressed a wish to spend a night in that area.
The governor and the deputy commissioner tried to talk me out of it, citing the difficult and tortuous route I would have to take but I was adamant. Finally, they relented and my wife and I, accompanied by the deputy commissioner, set out. The road was bumpy and at places no more than a track. There was also a long river crossing after which we found ourselves at the edge of a thick jungle.
We went in and soon came to a village where we found a gathering of women and children, all half naked, holding garlands that they put around our necks. Thereafter we were directed to a half-furlong long veranda, from whose ceiling hung human skulls. We were told that this was where we were going to stay for the night. All along the veranda, separated by fifteen feet, were doors opening on a long, sprawling house, where, we were told, the entire village lived. The veranda was known as Long House.
We were served tea, which was followed by dancing. Half naked men and women began to jump up and down to the beat of drums. I was invited by the oldest man in the village to join the dancers, but I declined. However, the deputy commissioner told me that I could not say no as it would amount to insulting the entire village. I noticed an old woman leaning against a door and walked up to her and invited her to dance. With some difficulty she unglued herself from the door and she and I began to dance with the entire village clapping and screaming, ‘Pakistan, Pakistan,’ I was obviously a hit because every villager walked up to me and kissed me on my forehead. Later when I asked where the bathroom was, I was pointed towards the jungle, where, I was told, there was a pond that served as the communal bathroom.
When we left, the entire village came out to say goodbye and garlanded the two of us. I asked about the skulls hanging from the ceiling and learnt that when a young man asks for the hand of a young girl, her family challenges him to go and kill an enemy and bring back his head as a souvenir, which is then hung from the ceiling. Only after that, does the marriage take place. During British times, the state was called Borneo and this precisely was the region that Indonesia had invaded.
There is a large Hindu and Sikh population in Malaysia. The Sikhs invited me to one of their religious functions where I spoke about the founder of the Sikh religion, Baba Guru Nanak, who believed in the oneness of God. I also said that he had performed Haj in the company of Baba Farid Shakarganj, 40 of whose quatrains are part of the Holy Granth Sahib. This speech endeared me to the local Sikhs but it was not without its complications.
Some time after I was invited to be the guest of honour at the inauguration of a new gurudwara. I noticed that my Indian counterpart, Surbir Singh, was standing behind me as I snipped off the ceremonial tape to gain entry to the newly built place of worship. A few days later, a local Sikh community leader, Sardar Sarbir Singh, who was from Rawalpindi originally, showed me a letter that the Indian ambassador had written to the Sikh community urging that contact with the Pakistani ambassador should remain formal because it was his function to pry out secrets and keep his government informed of them.
Despite this letter, my relations with Sardar Sarbir Singh remained close. One day his wife Neelum called to say that one of her husband’s childhood friends called Bhola, a journalist, was visiting them and wanted a visa for Pakistan. She said she knew that visas to journalists required permission from home division but requested an earnest effort to hurry things up, otherwise she would have to put up with the guest is another two to three weeks. I asked that the applicant’s passport etc should be sent to me right away. The driver brought the passport, on which I affixed a visa and sent it back, having asked the driver to wait. I informed the government of my ‘irregular’ act but said such steps were sometimes necessary for good diplomacy. This journalist was Kuldip Nayar, who later became the Indian high commissioner to London.
I was happy in Malaysia, and so was my government. Little did I know that I had become the subject of rumours. I took a trip to Karachi for the wedding of the daughter of my good friend Mahmood Haroon. On the wedding day, who should walk across the room to me but Air Marshal Nur Khan, then chairman of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), ‘When are you returning to take charge from me?’ he asked right away. I did not understand and thought it was a joke, so I replied, ‘Whenever you have a minute, just let me know.’
When I made inquiries, it turned out that during a certain meeting, Bhutto, who was not happy with the way things were being run at PIA, had said that he would have to hand over the airline to a friend of his who had experience of tourism. Within days, the rumour that I was the next head of PIA had spread in the entire country. I also heard that in a meeting on Afghanistan, Bhutto had said that several of his ambassadors had responded to his query as to what attitude Pakistan should adopt towards Sardar Daud, and the best response had come from Tajammul Hussain, who, it was obvious, understands foreign policy.
In those days, Aziz Ahmed, minister of state for foreign affairs, was said to be close to retirement and rumours were around that he would be replaced by Agha Shahi or someone else. That ‘someone else’, some people claimed, was Tajammul Hussain. Niaz Naik was additional secretary at the Foreign Office, and his elder brother Ijaz Naik was an old family friend. Once when I ran into Niaz Naik, he said to me, as a younger brother would, ‘Tajammul bhai, please look after us.’ These were of course all rumours or perhaps Bhutto’s way of scaring his subordinates.
The 1977 elections led to widespread agitation as they were perceived to have been rigged. Negotiations between Bhutto and the opposition parties were long-drawn out and frustrating and when they appeared to have finally come to a conclusion, the army moved in and overthrew the government on the night of 4 - 5 July. I did not like Zia’s coup but remained in my post.
The English version of Tajammul Hussain’s autobiography is a translation by the noted writer and columnist Khalid Hasan of the Urdu original Ju Bache Hain Sang. It is thus a double jump for Tajammul to ensure his place as a winner in the literary arena, even in the heats. Tajammul’s life has been like an open book, rich in scintillating detail but without the pretence and pride often associated with autobiographical ego trips.
It’s a tale joyfully told and with a finesse which equally delights his friends and the common reader. The natural flow of the narrative and the ready wit carry the reader merrily along with the writer.
Betrothed to laughter and lightheartedness to all outward appearances, Tajammul has a deeper side too. Submerged in his normal, everyday buoyant behaviour, it comes palpably into play through his writing. The two titles bear testimony to the two sides of his personality — the real and the apparent.
The title of the Urdu original Ju Bache Hain Sang is borrowed from one of Faiz’s famous poems: ‘Gather up your stones for your need them no longer. My stricken body I’ve already sacrificed…’ The very choice of the couplet reflects the pathos and angst alive deep within his soul.
The title of the English version It Was Only Yesterday underlines Tajammul’s deep-laid nostalgia, the haunting remembrance of the past and the burning desire to hark back to it. In the sheer joy of living, his role remains as full as ever, even after youth and much of the strength associated with it is no more. Only memories remain, however, like a periodically recurring heartache. The pathos yields the way to a depressive pain of living in the words of the immortal Ghalib: Uth-ye bas ke lazzate khawabe sahar gai (Depart for the joy of the pre-dawn dreaming is long gone).
Even his beloved city Lahore would be an arid desert without old friends and cup bearers of his youthful days. He misses them all sorely. ‘Much of my life has been invested in my friends and no one can know me unless he knows that aspect of my character. We formed a close circle of friends when we joined college in 1941. These friendships have lasted our entire lives. But nothing is forever and most members of our 1941 bunch are no longer in this world. Barring few, nearly all of them are gone to leave his heart, stabbed with the bitter and sweet memories of the past as if it was only yesterday.’
He sums up the essence of the book in the opening lines: ‘One does not have to rely on one’s material accomplishments in order to write the story of his life… what matters is how artfully the story is written and how well the difference between one life and another is brought out’.
Tajammul doesn’t need to be shy of the inadequacy of his ‘material accomplishments’. He had a varied and rewarding career as a bureaucrat. During his charmed career he had been the financial czar of West Pakistan (now Pakistan), boss of the tourist industry and a civilian finance man seconded to the armed forces.
He gives a gripping account of his life in jail along with such luminaries in the vanguard of the Pakistan Movement in the Punjab as Mian Iftikharuddin, Sardar Shaukat Hayat Khan, Malik Feroz Khan Noon, Nawab Iftekhar Khan Mamdot and others of the ‘aristocratic bunch of leaders’ ordering their food from Faletti’s Hotel.
One of his cellmate’s ‘tiffin’ would be accompanied by a small flask supposedly containing cough syrup. Tajammul, having smelt the rat helped himself to the contents without annoying the gentleman.
He also has a lot to say about his friends in the armed forces. He fondly recalls Generals Akhtar Malik, Bakhtiar Rana, ‘Joe’ Yousuf and others. In the Rawalpindi Club circuit he had been as close to Yahya and Hamid, but not as intimate. He has a good word for them as a class: ‘The generals of those days were not much different from Yahya Khan. Today, when I hear stories about the wealth accumulated even by junior officers, I am astounded.’
Tajammul’s narrative is a veritable journey through the corridors of power and literary circle of the 1950s and ’60s. It is a good read; which elicits from the reader a sort of uncertain smile and repressed sigh as it recounts that golden age.
‘84 years have been passed in the blinking of an eye. I have borne the blows of the separations that time has brought. It is not possible for me to write about them all but if God gives me a little more time and the ability to write, I will record that fascinating story also.’
So help you God, my friend! — Brig A.R. Siddiqi
Excerpted with permission from It Was Only Yesterday By Tajammul Hussain Sang-e-Meel, Lahore ISBN 969-35-2136-6 222pp. Rs450