Fearless Dreams: an outstanding life, a brilliant mind
Fearless Dreams: an outstanding life, a brilliant mind – Tillism طلسم
The fearless dreams of Abidah Puhpo
We are sitting in the front lawn of my grandparents’ house. Abidah Puhpo shows me a verse she has written in فارسی farsi—or “Persian” as we know it in the West:
“I’d rather die deceived by dreams than give
My heart to home and trade and never live.”
It’s a verse from The Conference of the Birds by Farid-ud-din Attar, and her calligraphy is exquisite. Abidah Puhpo has been trying to teach me how to write with a hand-crafted reed pen, but my hand isn’t as steady as hers. Anniqua’s attempts are worse, so I don’t feel too bad.
What is Your dream? I ask with all the inquisitiveness of an adolescent.
When I was younger, I dreamed of going to England to study. Your grandfather made arrangements for me to go but it didn’t work out. Ami wanted me to go too but was worried because her younger brother, Baqir, died there. He was studying at Catz – St Catharine’s College in Cambridge. He is buried in the Cambridge City Cemetery.
I want to ask her how he died, but she starts telling me about her other uncles —Baqir’s brothers. All four joined the British Indian Army before the Partition of India. They all became Generals, she says with pride.
An amazing memory and a keeper of stories
I can tell by the way Abidah Puhpo speaks, how proud she is of her uncles’ accomplishments, but she herself is no less accomplished. Fluent in five languages, she has translated one of my books into Urdu. Her choice of words has made my stories come alive. They sound better than my English words. She is the keeper of our family stories. Her memory is flawless. I watch her speak and wonder how she will narrate her own story. I want to know more about her, herstory.
Afternoon tea at home
It’s Spring and the days are getting warmer. The morning sun streams through the leaves making patterns on the tea trolley. I put down my cup and saucer, pick up a few pistachios to nibble on, and lean back. Abidah Puhpo is still talking. Her voice is calm and comforting. I listen to her words with my face to the sky, eyes closed.
I started learning فارسی all by myself, she says. Rumi and Saadi are my favorite. Attar is excellent too. Their works are marvelously impressive. I remember reading the complete Shahnameh by Ferdowsi, all its sixty thousand couplets. In the summer holidays, I’ll teach you and Anniqua Farsi, she adds as an aside. Remember the story I told you of the mythical bird, the Simurgh that lives in the mountain tops of ancient Persia?
I open my eyes and say, Yes, I do. It’s the same Simurgh as the one in The Conference of the Birds, isn’t it?
I love this story. The Simurgh has lived through three global extinctions. She is the wisest being in existence. The flock of birds who go in search of her, to beg her to be their sovereign are:
“… a wretched, flimsy crew at best,
And lack the bare essentials for this quest.”
Of the whole flock only thirty complete the journey. When they arrive at their destination, all they find is a crystal clear lake. Looking into it, they see their own reflection and discover the truth. They are their own respective monarchs. There is no need for another.
Gardens, flowers, and butterflies
Sitting up again, I notice that the weave of the wicker chair has left a pattern on my arm. I rub it gently as I look past Abidah Puhpo at the pink and purple hollyhocks and zinnia in full bloom. Noticing my glance, she speaks again.
Both these flowers attract butterflies and bees. I’ve been planting them since I was a little girl. We had gardening books and magazines from England in our library. I loved looking at tools for digging flowers beds and taking out weeds. My father and uncles used to buy them for me on their trips to England. I bought seeds through our local catalogs – roses, lupines, sweet peas, poppies, chrysanthemums – so many other flowers.
It’s true. The only person in this house who takes an interest in the gardens is my aunt. And unlike other members of the family who prefer to supervise work and take credit for the results, she actually does the work herself. She is tall and slender. Her hands are long and slender too. I wish my hands were not so large and square. I feel so disproportionate.
When you and your sisters were little, you’d run around the flower beds in summer dresses that I made for you. You looked like butterflies and I loved watching you.
She looks in my direction and I know she is looking at the five-year-old me, not the tall skinny teenager enjoying a mid-morning snack beside her. I pour us both another cup. This taste of bergamot in my steaming cup of tea will remain with me forever —remind me of my brilliant aunt who earned a degree from one of the best universities in Lahore and who once dreamed of completing her studies in England.
When Abidah puppho told my teenage self that her uncle Baqir was buried in England, I decided to find his grave and say a prayer for him some day. Look in the Muslim section of the Cambridge City Cemetery, she had told me. .
Anniqua and I in Cambridge
Decades later, Anniqua and I sit sipping Earl Grey tea at the Starbucks on Newmarket Road in Cambridge.
It’s cold and wet outside, as Octobers in England usually are, but a little rain won’t stop me. Especially as it was my idea to track down Baqir’s grave. Visits to cemeteries are always my idea. Anniqua wants to warm up a little first, that’s why we’ve popped into Starbucks.
Baqir didn’t join the British Indian Army like his brothers. I tell her. He was a scholar, and intellectual like Abidah Puhpo. I think that’s why she has a soft spot for him. He was studying law at St Catherine’s College.
Anniqua reads out loud, Cambridge, the center of learning and creativity since its inception in 1209, did not grant women degrees till 1947.
Abidah Puhpo would have received a degree, I say, if she’d been able to come here. I’m still shaken by Anniqua’s astounding revelation, even though I know first hand how slowly higher education catches up with the real world.
So what exactly happened to Baqir? Anniqua asks.
میبل اور میں (Mabel and I) by Patras Bukhari and Raja Mohammed Baqir Khan
I look out through the café window. The glass is wet and blurry with the constant drizzle. It’s 1922. A motorbike screeches past on the damp cobbled streets of Cambridge. Baqir, a young Indian, in a beige trench coat whizzes past spraying the window with puddle water. He is a law student at St Catherine’s College riding a brand-new pair of wheels. His father sent him money from home.
The stud farm in Montgomery, India, is doing very well. There are new books in the panniers on Baqir’s motorbike. He may be on his way to his own ‘Mabel’, but we’ll never know. Baqir will never reach his destination. I know that. Abidah Puhpo told me his story. He will have an accident today and tomorrow this time, they will have buried him in the Cambridge City Cemetery. I want to shout out to him, make him slow down. My mouth opens but no sound comes out.
Anniqua’s voice pulls me back to the present. She’s reading a book on Baqir’s eldest brother, Akbar – which literally means “the greatest”. She reads out a passage from her Kindle:
Here is the officer of the old school, admired by the British establishment, with a solid thirty-year career behind him, among the chaos of the division of Punjab, putting on a brave face. In many ways this period was the pinnacle of his career. He was made aide-de-camp to Jinnah, the Quaid-e-Azam or great leader, who referred to him as ‘my aclota – my one and only general’.
We’ve both heard the histories of the four brothers who were Generals in the British Army in India. They are also archived in military books, in the Indian sub-continent and the UK. The eldest, General Akbar, led the one and only Indian unit at Dunkirk. Not a single Indian life was lost there. He was a brilliant military man whose portrait hangs in England’s Imperial War Museum.
Where are the intellectuals with their fearless dreams?
But what about Baqir? Who has spoken of him? Who recorded his story? We need to find the stories of the intellectuals of that time, I say to Anniqua, not just war heroes.
Yes, she agrees, and immediately starts swiping through the Amazon app on her phone, her clicking finger ready to strike at a moment’s notice.
Click here to find out how Robert Frost and Patras Bukhari knew each other and why Patras is buried in New York: A Meditation Room, A Headstone, and a College Dorm
Create Cultural Memories through Literature and Art
The quality of life we enjoy (without much thought) is based on the efforts of those who came before us. So, what is your legacy going to be?