Grief is Another Country
We got the call from the hospital in the early morning: but it wasn’t unexpected, because my uncle had already been in the ICU for a week, seriously ill with fibrosis of the lungs and congestive heart failure.
We expected the call yesterday, and it did come, but not in the way we expected: my father rushed to the hospital at six in the morning; my uncle had suffered a mild heart attack in the night and was having difficulty breathing. The doctors wanted my father to be there in case my uncle died, but it didn’t happen yesterday.
The call came again this morning; my father and brother left for the hospital at five-thirty, just after the fajr prayers. My mother, sister and I stayed at home, watching the clock, clutching our mobile phones, lying down together, praying, holding our breath. My brother kept sending us text messages, updating us on my uncle’s condition.
He had another heart attack in the night.
His kidneys are shutting down. He’s essentially gone. They say it’ll take two hours.
He’s on a ventilator.
His blood pressure is coming down. Another hour at best.
By eight-thirty, the call came. My uncle had died.
— — -
My uncle, Zulfiqar Ali Shah, was born in Matiari, Sindh, in 1941. He was the eldest son of Sayed Muhammed Ali Shah Jamote, the sardar, or tribal head, of an extended clan of prominent Sayed families in lower Sindh. The Shahs of Matiari didn’t own as much land as other feudal families — the Jatois, say, or the Bhuttos — but they traced their lineage back to the Prophet Muhammed: having emigrated from Baghdad to Herat, and finally settling in the interior of Sindh along the banks of the Indus River, they enjoyed an extremely high status amongst the local men and women, Sufis who venerated the Ahl al Bayt — the People of the House, as Sayeds are colloquially known.
As religious nobility, the Matiari Sayeds were connected to the Talpur rulers and their court; the British recognized their influence and power, and cultivated them in order to gain strength and control over the Indian population, awarding my great-grandfather, Hassan Ali Shah, the title of Khan Bahadur and giving him a seat in the Collectorate of Nawabshah in 1901. Later, the Shahs of Matiari joined the Independence movement, then became increasingly involved in the political scene of Pakistan after 1947: my grandfather was made both an honorary justice of the peace and an honorary colonel in the Pakistan National Guards. Behind the scenes, they influenced vote banks, and lent their considerable support to candidates of both the PPP, led by Bhutto, and the Pakistan Muslim League, led by another important figure in Sindhi history, Shah Mardan Shah II, the Pir Pagara. They were consulted and listened to, respected and feared in equal measure.
When my grandfather died in 1961, my father Shafqat was fourteen, and his elder brother Zulfiqar, who automatically became the Jamote — the head of the family — on his father’s death, was chosen as the sardar of the biraderi, or clan. In an elaborate ceremony, the dastarbaandi, the heads of the families that made up the biraderi tied the ceremonial turban on my uncle’s head, passing the mantle of leadership from my grandfather onto his shoulders. He was twenty years old.
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We reached my uncle’s house shortly after ten a.m. His younger son, in a black sports shirt and trousers, his face haggard and drawn, had come home from the hospital, and was now directing workers to set up a tent in the car porch. He would change later into a crisp white shalwar kurta and receive the hundreds of visitors who would pour in later that day to offer their condolences. Inside the house, cool and dark, the floor laid with black and white marble tiles like a chessboard, I glanced up at the hunting trophies my uncle had collected — the heads of antelope, ibex, and rams — mounted on the walls. He’d been to Africa many times on safari; and also to England to shoot duck and pheasants on the great hunting preserves owned by the Arab sheikhs. I always found it hard to understand how he served on the board of the Sindh Wildlife Department and as the head of the Safari Club at the same time, but he saw no contradiction between both his roles of great hunter and lover of wildlife.
Upstairs, we went to the family’s sitting room, where white sheets were spread out on the floor and a few close female friends picked desultorily at a heap of prayer beads. We were to wait here, praying and crying, until they brought my uncle’s body back from the hospital in an ambulance — there are no hearses in Pakistan. A Friday death and a Friday funeral was considered a great blessing in Islam, but the burial would not take place until the next day, when his daughter would arrive from London. Tradition versus compassion: I was glad it was not my decision to make.
As I sat with the women of the family, I was unable to pray. My shoulders dropped and my head remained bowed as I discovered the physical weight of grief. I should have been reading the Quran, but my mind kept going back to the last Eid we spent together; how thin and weak he had become in the months since my brother’s wedding last summer; how strong he used to be, six feet tall with a deep chest and smooth, dark, unwrinkled skin. He liked to twirl on the ends of his long sweeping mustache as he puffed on a cigarette, and then later a pipe. I learned that grieving was like going to a different country, in which you traveled through the past, present, and future to get there. I kept expecting my uncle to walk into the room at any minute, and intone, in his stern, heavy voice, “What’s all this, Baba?” I kept looking for my uncle’s face and straining to hear his laughter coming from the next room. But of course, the room stayed silent except for our sobs.
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When my grandfather died in 1961, it was a perilous time for his two sons. They were two young men — a man barely out of his teenaged years and an adolescent boy — orphaned in a harsh, barren world, where the protection of a male elder was a necessity for survival on all levels. But the uncles and cousins of the extended family stepped in to unite in what was an extraordinary time for the entire clan. They stood with the young Zulfiqar and Shafqat, throwing their weight behind the two brothers, protecting them from the influence and greed of other families in the area.
My uncle and father had a hard task ahead of them: the farm that their father had left them was neither vast nor productive, and the brothers had to update and modernize in a time when men still traveled on horseback to oversee the planting and cultivation of crops. Zulfiqar set about the task of having dirt roads constructed to increase access to the fields, and straightening the maze of crooked waterways to improve the irrigation network. In this slow, painstaking manner, the two brothers introduced modern agricultural methods to the Jamote Farms, transforming it into one of the most fertile and efficient landholdings in lower Sindh. The brothers built a sugar mill in the 1990s, followed by an ethanol factory in 2000, which created thousands of jobs and turned Matiari district into a hotbed of employment and economic opportunities for the Sindhis who would have had to otherwise emigrate to the larger cities in search of a livelihood.
There was another man whose protection was vital to Zulfiqar and Shafqat Shah: this was Pir Pagara, the spiritual leader of the Sunni Muslim order of Hurs. The word Pir means “chief” in Persian; pagara is the Sindhi word for “he who wears the turban”: the Pir Pagara is the symbolic wearer of seven turbans, to indicate the depth of his power. He is revered as a holy figure by the Hurs, fierce Sindhi tribesmen who would give their life for their leader. Even today, the Hurs are seen as heros of Sindh: fearless fighters, brave and unafraid of death, and unheeding of anyone else’s command but the Pir — although their strength was weakened by the political machinations of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and later his daughter Benazir in the 1990s.
The power structure in Sindh revolved around the Pirs of various tribes and religious orders, and Pir Pagara was the most revered of them all. His father, Syed Sibghatullah Shah, declared his followers free (“hur”) from British rule, and led them in a deadly rebellion against the British, for which he was arrested and hanged in 1943. Shah Mardan Shah II was released from British custody and came back from England to rule and guide his people; so immense was his influence in Sindh that he was made the head of the Pakistan Muslim League in 1973.
Because my grandfather had played a role in securing Pir Pagara’s release from the British, and had supported the Hurs during the Pir’s detention, whenever Pir Pagara came to Hyderabad, he would always stay in my grandfather’s house, in the Cantonment at 17 Civil Lines. This gesture cemented the bond between Muhammed Ali Shah Jamote and the spiritual leader of the Hurs, making 17 Civil Lines a center of political activity for decades afterwards. After my grandfather’s death, Pir Pagara took the sons of the Jamote under his wing, creating a space for Zulfiqar to step into the political role that the people of the area expected him to play.
Zulfiqar Ali Shah gained power and prestige, representing the people of the area on the national political scene, but he also paid dearly for his loyalty to Pir Pagara. In 1972, Bhutto began a campaign of persecution against the Hurs to weaken Pir Pagara’s power base; he had six Hur fakirs killed under the premise that they were “dacoits”, or robbers. Then Bhutto had my uncle arrested and jailed twice in 1973, after he was elected to the Pakistani Senate on a PML ticket. My father, who had just returned from his masters’ studies in the United States, was next on the list to be arrested. My uncle and the elders of the family urged my father to leave the country once again. So in the middle of the night, my father secretly took his wife and infant daughter to the airport, where their car was driven straight to the tarmac in order to avoid Bhutto’s henchmen waiting at Passport Control. They boarded a plane back to the United States, where my father continued his studies at the University of Virginia and eventually earned a PhD in international relations.
My uncle served time in jail, which took a toll on his health; my father spent countless hours on the phone from America to Pakistan, trying to find out whether he was being beaten or tortured in jail — moments of heart-stopping fear for the young man who had come to revere his older brother as a father figure in place of the man he’d lost when he was barely fifteen. His health also suffered; when he caught bronchitis, the doctors mistook his tuberculosis inoculation for a full-blown infection, and treated him with powerful drugs he didn’t need, weakening him greatly as he wrote and defended his PhD thesis in those miserable, lost years.
My uncle was eventually let go, but then Pir Pagara was detained at the Rawalpindi Intercontinental Hotel by Bhutto when he ran for elections in 1977; the Hurs revolted, and several were killed in a standoff between the Hurs and the PPP government in Sanghar, near Matiari. My parents and I stayed in the United States until news came, on July 5, 1977 that Bhutto had been overthrown in a coup by General Zia. My father marks that day, my fifth birthday, as the day his exile had finally ended, and we could all go back home.
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“The body’s come.”
We all caught our breath, collectively: as women, we would not be asked to help in the preparation of my uncle’s body for his burial. Only male family members can touch a Muslim man’s body as they give it the ghusl, or final bath. The dead man’s clothes are removed, the space between his navel and knees kept covered with a cloth at all times. Someone has to press the stomach in order to release the bowels; the inside of the mouth is cleaned, and the ears and nose are plugged with cotton. An ablution is performed three times, then a full bath. Finally, the body is perfumed with rosewater and camphor before being wrapped in a white cotton shroud. I learned later that my father was too upset to participate in this ritual; my brother helped, along with a cousin, and another uncle, and my uncle’s eldest son poured one cup of water over his father’s body. In Islam, they say you should participate in the bathing of as many bodies as you can, in order to prepare you for the eventuality of death. But I think it only takes one to deliver the message.
I clutched a set of prayer beads and tried to whisper the Shahada as I waited for word that the men had finished with the preparations. Nobody told me directly, but suddenly all the women were rising to their feet. This would be the second time I’d view a loved one’s corpse; the last time was when I was twelve, and my grandmother had died. I was too young to fully understand the significance of the event, and cowered at the back of the room, confused and frightened, while my mother knelt at her mother’s side and kept her head bowed against the wooden platform on which my grandmother’s body was laid. You cannot touch a person’s body once they have received their final bath, and I always remember how the few short inches between my mother’s head and her mother’s body seemed a divide larger than the Atlantic Ocean.
We went downstairs again; the men milled about in the hallway, and the scent of roses grew heavier as I walked towards the back room with my mother, sister, and sister-in-law. There was my uncle, lying on a bed that had been stripped of its sheets, looking so small and thin in his white shroud. His head was covered and his jaw tied with white cloth. Only his face was visible, his head turned upwards, as if he were gazing at something above him. His eyes were closed, his lips slightly drawn back. In life, his smile had been broad, his laugh loud, his teeth large, like an old-time Hollywood actor. This quiet, still body on the bed in the dimly lit room was and wasn’t my uncle. I expected his chest to rise, his eyes to open. For one wild moment, I wanted to shake him, to cry out and ask why he wasn’t waking up. I held on to the foot of the bed and sobbed like a child. My uncle had died.
— — — — — — — — —
Zulfiqar Ali Shah Jamote’s loyalty to Pir Pagara impressed the leader so much that he once publicly proclaimed my uncle to be “the only friend” he had. Others took notice, too, of the young sardar’s willingness to go to jail for his defiance of Bhutto’s power plays in Sindh. Standing up to Bhutto in those days was an act either of immense bravery or a suicide wish; the Prime Minister could be vicious in his lust for power and revenge, but Bhutto eventually backed down in the standoff against my uncle and father, and then he was hanged and the family prestige remained intact, elevated even more by my uncle’s actions.
The people of Sindh began to regard my uncle as an icon: someone to look up to and seek guidance from in difficult times. The landowners of the area had grudgingly accepted the wisdom of his big ideas about modern farming; coupled with the previous decade’s scientific discoveries that heralded the Green Revolution in Pakistan, my uncle and his brother spearheaded a sea change in the manners and methods of the zamindari system. The use of tractors, lab-enhanced and engineered seeds and fertilizer, and an organized and methodical approach to irrigation was at first a mystery, and then an example to be emulated by rivals and allies alike. The innovation spilled over into the construction of the sugar mill, my uncle’s pet project; he foresaw agriculture-based industry as the key to moving away from the limitations of human labor and a political system that determined the allocation of water and other resources according to the whims of those who were in power.
My uncle’s later efforts in the political scene focused on the creation of a new Matiari district, carved out of the existing Hyderabad district during President Musharraf’s devolution drive in 2001. Matiari could step out of the shadow of the larger district run by the Shahs’ political rivals, and receive separate government money for development projects. Zulfiqar pushed the issue at the local level, and when the creation of Matiari district went through, ensured that his eldest son became the district’s nazim, or mayor. This was a canny move, one that earned him envy and ire from those who felt the feudals dominated the Sindhi political scene in order to protect and preserve their own wealth. Nobody could argue, though, that my uncle had put Matiari on the map with his prescience and ambition.
My uncle was like a figure out of an Ernest Hemingway novel: physically strong, machismo enveloping him in an aura that I always remember as the scent of cologne, cigarette smoke, and leather. He was the first Sindhi to travel to Africa on lion and elephant hunts; his reputation as a shikari, or huntsman, was the stuff of legends. He had firm, fixed ideas about the way the world worked, and an immutable sense of noblesse oblige: while his position as the head of the family and clan should never be challenged, it was his primary responsibility to protect and guide his children, his blood relatives, his workers — peasants, mill employees, household servants — and his people.
This didn’t mean that he was a saint. He could be domineering, aggressive, and pushy, often offending people with both his words and his actions. His ideas were big, sometimes bigger than what reality could afford. My father’s relationship with him was complicated, too: they made a formidable team, with my uncle pushing for expansion on every level and my father, the more practical of the two, turning those ideas into concrete results. But they argued over many things; each frustrated the other with their different approaches to life. In later years, they agreed to divide the management of their landholding so that the two could operate independently, and pass on their individual inheritances to their children without having to unpick the intertwined threads of an archaic joint system of zamindari. Still, the loyalty and love between them remained unquestioned for the sixty years that the brothers spent together on this earth.
My uncle had suffered from diabetes since his mid-forties; in 1999, he experienced his first heart attack, and had an angioplasty to treat the heart disease that ran in the family. The next ten years saw his health deteriorate even further: the arthritis that had plagued him for years began to ravage his body; he experienced crippling pain and had to undergo double knee replacement surgery in 2009. Then shadows appeared on his lungs, and the doctors investigating it returned a grim verdict: one lung had been damaged beyond repair; the other was operating at only 70% capacity. By all accounts, he knew that he was facing his last days: in early February, he made preparations to write his will, and threw a grand dinner for his daughter and son-in-law, to which he invited all his friends and close relatives. He greeted each guest and spent time talking to everyone, moving slowly, painfully, but unassisted. Three weeks after that dinner party, he was gone.
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We took my uncle’s body on the second day after his death to Matiari in a convoy of twelve or fifteen Land Cruisers, Pajeros, and back-up cars filled with armed guards. We flashed our emergency lights so that other travelers would not try to overtake us on the Super Highway, a road that both my uncle and father drove up and down between Karachi and Hyderabad all their lives. The desert passed us slowly by, flatlands and scrub brush, desolate mountains, twisting dust funnels that my father called jinn-ji-shaadi, the wedding of the jinns. Every once in a while, a sea-green Sufi shrine rose up out of the expanse, green flags fluttering in the dry wind. Finally, we crossed the Indus River, and desert gave to lush farmland, crops of wheat and sugar cane, mango orchards ripening for the summer season. Men and women worked in the fields, while children ran along the dirt roads, playing and romping in the dust.
As soon as we reached the compound of Wassi, the grand farmhouse which served as headquarters, meeting place, and family home, we separated from the men and went inside to the cool rooms of the haveli, the women’s quarters. Typically, the men conduct their business on the fields and in the autaq, the men’s quarters, and return to the haveli to eat, see their families, and rest at night. The same tradition was followed on this occasion: we sat inside the rooms and prayed, while the men took the body to an open field, the maidan, for the funeral prayers, and then to the ancestral graveyard for the burial. They kept in touch with us by mobile phone, letting us know of their progress — now the funeral prayers were being conducted — now they were moving to the graveyard — now the burial had taken place — now they were coming home, six hours after we’d first arrived at Wassi.
Only later did I learn what the funeral was really like, from my brother and father’s accounts, and from video footage that someone had taken and put on the Internet. It was searingly hot — about 42 C — and fifteen thousand people crowded into the dusty grounds of the maidan. A man on a loudspeaker tried to organize the vehicles and people, but when the Red Crescent ambulance crossed the field, lights flashing and siren blaring, the men broke away and ran towards it, all wanting the honor of bearing my uncle’s body to the place cleared off by ropes where the namaz e janaza would be performed. My brother’s friends formed a human chain around my father to protect him from the thousands of men who pressed forward to embrace him, touch his shoulder, weep with him, hold his hand. People exhorted him to be brave; they condoled with him and said that nobody would ever be able to replace Zulfiqar Ali Shah Jamote. They told my father, again and again: “Now you are alone. All the responsibility of the family lies on your shoulders. A heavy burden to bear.”
A maulvi stood at the head of the rows of men and lead the funeral prayer: the one occasion where you pray to God but do not touch your head to the ground in sajdah because of the presence of the body in front of you. I can see my father in the first row of men, standing taller than the rest of the mourners, his white hair and white shalwar kurta reflecting the burning sunlight, incandescent in his grief. And my brother, to the right of the maulvi, also wearing crisp white cotton clothes, a pair of sunglasses on his face. He is stern-faced, looking far older than his twenty-seven years: he is my father’s closest support from this day on, and his sense of duty intertwines with his fear for the future. Because my uncle’s death, in these times that the people of Pakistan shout for the blood of the feudals, throws into jeopardy the smooth transition and continuation of a centuries-old system that gives my entire family its heritage and identity. Who will be the next sardar? What will happen to the lands? Who will protect us now from the vultures overhead, waiting to pick at the bones of the dead?
And then the burial, in the graveyard where seven generations of my ancestors lie, leached into the ground they came from, lived for, worked on and died in. The white shroud is lowered gently into the grave, to calls of Allah-hu-Akbar; my brother and my father’s cousin are standing in the grave to receive it, to settle my uncle’s body into the shallow trough and ensure his head is turned towards Mecca. They put planks down on his body and cover the planks with a layer of mud, then roses and marigolds are laid on top of the mud, and they climb out of the grave, so that it can be filled in with the fertile, rich soil of Sindh. The ambulance, the empty stretcher returned to its depths, drives away without fanfare, and the men of the family make their weary way back to the compound, to receive more guests and begin the preparations for the funeral dinner, while the servants of my uncle’s household beat their breasts and wail that they have all been left orphans, now that my uncle has died.
This essay was originally published at InterlitQ