Published:  12:16 AM, 17 September 2019

The trouble with my Pathan heritage, really?


"You may take me for a Pucca Bangalee if you take a cursory look at me. However, deep inside me there are still vestiges of some Pathan genes. This is my own personal story. The story of my ancestors who came all the way from the mountains of Hindu Kush so many years ago only to transform them into local Bangalee."

I myself is a living relic of my ancestors. Like so many of them, I also call myself a Bangalee, notwithstanding so many Pathan genes in my blood.

Before I go into details of my heritage I want to lead you in a short tour of the enigmatic world of ethnicity and roots. Every other weekend we travel to Virginia to visit our in-laws. During our last visit, I stopped at the local barber shop for a long overdue tonsorial service.

The barber was a loquacious Greek who talked at length of his younger days when Indian movies were his passion. Among so many pretty bodacious Bombay beauties - Nargis was his femme fatale, and Lata, the nightingale, was his favorite singer.

That evening as we came out of an oriental store, I noticed a car parked just next to ours. My wife and I were astonished to notice that the driver, who looked every inch a Chinese, was listening to Indian music. But then we reasoned, "What's the big deal! If a Greek man can be fond of Indian music, why not a Chinese?"

But my curiosity had been aroused. And I went over to the "Chinese" driver and asked him if he understood the lyrics of the Asha Bhonsle song that was blaring through his car's speakers and he was listening to with such obvious delight. The mystery was solved when he replied, "Yes, I do.

My ancestors are Chinese but I was born in India." I must admit that this is the first time I had met a person like him. It left me wondering if he was a Chinese-Indian or a Chinese-Indian-American.

You see, increased mobility is globalizing our society in ways that are unprecedented. It is no longer uncommon to come across multiply hyphenated Americans like that Chinese-Indian-American fan of Asha Bhonsle. I am, myself, a Pathan-Bengali American!

In multiethnic countries like India, it may not be unusual for migrants from one state taking on the linguistic identity of another state. The famous journalist M. J. Akbar, the editor of Asian Age, is a good example. He is of Kashmiri heritage from his mother's side and of Bihari heritage from his father's side. But he grew up in West Bengal and, to all intents and purposes, he is a Bengali like you and me.

While I used to live in Florida I had an interesting encounter with a Pakistani. He used to work in a convenience store and was very popular with his customers. He didn't quite look like the average Pakistani. Furthermore his English lacked the distinctive touch of Urdu that is so common among his compatriots.

I soon found out the reason. He was originally from Noakhali and had migrated to Karachi when he was in his twenties. Needless to say, we always spoke to each other in Bangla once we figured out that we shared the same linguistic heritage. He assured me that there are hundreds of thousands of Bengalis like him who are settled in Pakistan.

Perhaps you have guessed it right that chauvinistic Pakistanis are not quite happy about the Bengalis who live in their midst in Pakistan. It is assumed that all such Bengalis must necessarily be illegal immigrants. Xenophobic Pakistanis have been campaigning for long to force the expulsion of all such "illegal immigrants" from their country.

Whenever I think of the "Biharis" or the stranded Pakistanis now living in Red Cross Camps in Mohmmadpur, Dhaka, it evokes a mixed feeling inside me. I can't figure it out for the life of me why an increasing number of Pakistanis now disapprove of their repatriation.

Nawaz Sharif's foreign minister, for example, was quite blunt about his feelings when he told journalists that he did not consider the Biharis to be Pakistanis. Those among the stranded Pakistanis who date back to the pre-1971 generation continue to dream of their PROMISED LAND.

But their offspring, raised in independent Bangladesh, have learned the language of the soil and do not necessarily share their parents' dream. Many of them are quite reluctant to journey to an unknown land a thousand miles away.

Concerning ethnicity, I myself have some interesting tale to tell. My grandmother told me how her father Serajul Huq Khan had helped a young man in his quest for education. That young man was no other than the father of Kabir Chowdhury. Halim Chowdhury unabashedly acknowledged his gratitude to my great grandfather when he told him with great feeling, "I can never repay the debt I owe you."

In British time, many affluent Bengali Muslims lent a helping hand to young Muslim boys of promise who were often groomed to be their future sons-in-law. The generosity of well to do philanthropic Muslim Bengalis left an indelible mark in the social evolution of East Bengal. In my personal life, thanks to such philanthropy, I have seen the rise of one famous civil servant, one notable physicist and a famous millionaire in Bangladesh.

When my maternal grandmother was alive we often teased her for her conspicuous "Peshawari nose." In fact, her facial feature was distinctively Pathan. I had been told that she was of Pathan heritage but had not discovered any concrete evidence till one of my uncles published a book on the genealogy of my mother's side of the family. The book is titled, "The Saber Khan Family: The Branches and the Roots."

The book starts with the life of Saber Khan, who is my grandmother's great grandfather. Saber Khan was an ambitious Pathan born in 1792. His great grandfather was Patla Khan. Even to this day, there is a lane in Puran Dhaka named after him.

Saber Khan's Pathan ancestors had settled in East Bengal more than four hundred years ago. It is said that they belonged to the clan of one of the Pathan Kings in East Bengal. Marriage outside the family used to be rare among such clannish families. That may be why many a descendent has retained his Pathan feature even after so many generations in Bengal.

The Saber Khan book has numerous charts to illustrate the different branches of the family and their current status. I found out that many of Khan's descendants have been quite successful in life.

The first Muslim civil surgeon in undivided Bengal, Dr. Fazlur Rahman Khan was a direct descendent. Abdur Raschid Khan was another notable descendent. Raschid Khan was a political activist of note.

He was active in Khilafat Movement, and later on joined the Non-Cooperation Movement with Deshbandhu C. R. Das. Rabindranath Tagore renounced his Knighthood to protest the barbaric killing in Jalianwallabagh. Abdur Raschid Khan, likewise, renounced his title, Khan Bahadur, after 1919 to protest British atrocities on the Turks. In 1921 he was imprisoned by the British for a year.

In those days, it was indeed rare for a Muslim Bengali to be jailed for his political beliefs and activities. In 1929 he joined the Swaraj Dal and was appointed by Deshbandhu C.R. Das to be the Secretary of the party. Raschid Khan went on to become the Deputy Chief Executive Officer of Calcutta Corporation.

I have found out from the book that the descendants of Saber Khan are now scattered all around the globe. I am sure many a reader will realize that he shares with me a common ancestor in that enterprising Pathan who had made East Bengal his home. Saber Khan's immediate ancestors were from Manikganj and Nawabganj of Dhaka. Saber Khan had moved to West Bengal but then moved back to finally settle down in Shainpukur, Dhaka.

My grandmother often told us about her sister-in-law Akhter Mahal Syeda Khatun. Khatun was a prolific writer at a time when there were very of them among Muslim Bengali women. Akhter Mahal's works drew praise from none other than Kazi Nazrul Islam during a short stay of the poet at her residence.

Akhter Mahal's untimely death deprived the Bengalis of a writer who had the potential to be another Begum Roqeya Sakhawat Hussain. The promising point is we did not let her literary gem vanish into the thin air.

Two of my sisters contributed their time and energy to build up a manuscript of her book. In 1978, a book comprising Akhter Mahal's literary works was published. In the publication ceremony held in Dhaka we had a formal gathering of relatives where some renown literary figures were guest speakers.

I found an interesting feature of commonality among descendants of Saber Khan, especially among those from Shainpukur and Azizpur in Dhaka and from Mirzapur in Tangail. They were conspicuous by their religious tolerance and maintained very amicable relationships with their Hindu neighbors. My grandmother was raised in a family with some Urdu influence. But I have seldom come across a Muslim Bengali in her age group who could take such a non-communal view of the world.

Shafique Rehman is yet another descendant of Saber Khan who has attained fame in the field of journalism. I have another cousin who is now a vice president of Motorola.

The liberation struggle was a trying time for all Bengalis. My relatives were no exception. Many of them participated actively in the struggle for liberation. An uncle from Shainpukur has many a story of muktijuddho for his nephews and nieces. He, more than other relatives, stands out in Bangladesh for his Pathan features and can easily pass off as a visitor from Quetta or Abbotabad in Pakistan. He is a physician by profession.

In 1971, as he went from village to village in the service of the Mukti Bahini, he would often be mistaken as a man "from the other side" till he was introduced as a bona fide Bengali. He spent much of 1971 treating members of the Mukti Bahini at different sites.

I am not a geneticist. But I consider the Pathan genes in me as good news as well as bad news. First the good news. Like the stereotyped Pathan, I will never forget the past, least of all what Bengalis had to endure in 1971. This, in turn, will help to keep alive in me the spirit of 1971.

And now the bad news. The rage and anger reserved for the marauding Pak army and their cohort is not conducive to maintaining the tranquility of my soul. In memory of my late ancestors I can only say, "Let the Pathans who love the land of Bengal continue to contribute their mite to keeping alive the spirit of 1971."


The writer is a social commentator based abroad

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