Monday, February 28, 2011

My Legacy - who I am and why I am this way Part 1

A legacy is a heavy burden to carry. And when that legacy has more questions than answers it obsesses you and colours every aspect of your life. You tend to find connections in your present to the past events obscured in history. It propels you on a path that is completely different from your peers and perhaps even alienates you to what is happening around you.

I was born with one such legacy. A mystery which has consumed me since I was 5 years old. At the age when children are told fairy tales, I was being told about my grandfather. When children start to dream about what glories their future will hold, I was thinking about how I would be able to fit in the missing jigsaw puzzles of my grandfather’s life. It is no wonder that I grew up with an avid interest in history. Later on as life unfolded I was able to piece together some aspects of this story and I started wondering how events which happened over a hundred years ago are still shaping the present.

Those who know me well are aware of my almost fanatic adherence to my privacy, so they may wonder why suddenly I have decided to share this story. There are 2 reasons for divulging this story and putting it on the Net. One, because I am hoping that by chance someone would stumble on this who can provide me help in filling the gaps and secondly, because I don't want this story to die with me (don't worry folks I intend to hang around for a long time) but I am really the last of the bloodline of this part of the family and perhaps the only person who knows these bizarre aspects of my grandfather's life, sharing this story is my way of preserving his memory.

The starting point of this story is my mother’s father Ibrahim Bey. My mother was just 11 at the time of Indian partition when he left her in Lahore and went back to Ahmedabad to wind up everything. He was shot on his way back and my mother never saw him again. Even during his life he spent long spells of time away from home so the events of his life are very sketchy. It seems that he had migrated from Turkmenistan at the age of 5 along with his father Ismail Bey to Afghanistan where his father passed away and he was raised at the Afghan royal court. In his teen years he left Afghanistan and came to Lahore where he married my grandmother who was the daughter of one of the Afghan courtiers. He later set up permanent residence in Ahmedabad where he owned a workshop called Russian Autos. My mother tells me that he displayed the sickle and scythe emblem of Russia on the wall of his workshop which it seems had to be covered up during World War II. All employees including himself were issued 2 uniforms and he would be one of the first people to cover up the frays and tears with patches.

On the surface the story up to this point seems pretty normal but these were just some aspects of his public life. His private life was a different matter altogether. It seems that when he married my grandmother they honeymooned in Kashmir and he drove her there in a car. When my grandmother enquired where he had acquired this car from he simply said that it belonged to his boss (at that time Russian Autos was not established) They stayed there for over a month and my grandmother always wondered which boss in the world would lend his car to an employee for over a month? Remember this was the early 1930's cars were not something common people owned. He disappeared for months and upon his return merely said he was with his boss. My grandmother never found out who he worked for or who this mysterious boss was. These long periods of absence along with his reluctance to share the details of his work eventually ended up in the couple’s alienation and finally divorce.

My mother remembers that he had a huge wall safe and at times it was stacked with money and there were other times when it was completely empty, no one knew where the money came from or where it was spent. She was very close to her father and she recalls that her father had a contraption which he kept hidden and at times late at night she saw him fiddling with it under a blanket covering his head and the machine, she later understood that it was a wireless transmitter and receiver. So what on earth was he doing with a wireless? He was an extremely well dressed man and followed very strict etiquettes especially at meal times. It was also known that he provided safe passage and refuge to Muslims from Central Asia but the British suspected him of being a Russian spy. Some claimed that he was working for the Turkish liberation movement, a fact which years later was acknowledged by Ismet Inonu himself in a letter addressed to my mother. So was my grandfather a double agent? Or was there more to his story? Who was he? What did he do? These questions plagued me as I was growing up. I felt that I had to know the answers. I saw my mother reminiscing about the past and saddened that she would never be able to know the truth. Her grief was compounded by the fact that he had left a diary for her with his friend but since this was the time of Indo-Pak partition, and she was in Lahore while her father's friend was in India she never saw him again nor did she get her father's diary.Her distress caused me to become even more committed to unraveling this mystery, even if it was merely to give her peace.

By chance my father befriended an Uighur gentleman called Mr.Sabri. He was in exile and apparently dodging the Chinese government. It was he who had urged my mother to write to Ismet Inonu and it was he who gave me my first clue as to my grandfather’s ancestry. One day he gave me a book in which there was an old black and white picture and told me that this was my great great grandfather. I was just 9 years old at that time and didn’t have the sense nor the capacity to take the matter further. The book disappeared for years and recently resurfaced among old papers and letters. I started researching the person in the old photograph - he was Yakub Bey Amir of Kashghar. As I looked at the events of his life I started seeing parallels in my own. As I studied his fall and death some of my grandfather's bizzare actions started making sense.

For those who are interested I will be sharing the results of my findings in the next part of this article.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

From Promethues to Adam and Eve - the story of human evolution

Fire has played a crucial role in not only the development of our civilization but our evolution as a species as well. It was the consumption of cooked food that allowed humans to digest foods which were impossible to do so otherwise which in turn allowed our bodies to absorb a multitude of much more complex nutrients. Some say that it was these nutrients which led to the evolution of the human brain in its present form. The brain which made us the dominant species of this planet – the rulers of Earth.

According to Greek mythology Prometheus and Epimetheus were two Titan brothers. Prometheus (whose name means foresight) convinced his brother Epimetheus (meaning hindsight) to side with the Olympian gods in their war against the Titans and thus became a few of those rare Titans who found favour with the gods. Prometheus tricked the gods during an arbitration between them and the mortals. Zeus saw through this deception and was enraged and as a result he decided to withhold the gift of fire from mankind. Prometheus managed to steal the fire from the gods and gave it to mankind which of course made Zeus even more angry.

Prometheus being someone who had foresight warned his brother Epimetheus not to accept any gift from the gods since he knew that the gods would not let the stealing of fire go unpunished. However Epimetheus being hindsight personified never learnt anything until after he had suffered the consequences, hence he accepted happily Pandora - the first mortal woman. Pandora was accompanied by a box which contained gifts from the gods. Curious to know what the box contained she opened it and released vice, passion, labour, old age, sickness and other innumerable evils which would forever cause misery to the mortals.

Although there are slight differences in the story of Adam and Eve in the Judaic, Christian and Islamic tradition, especially as Islam rejects the concept of the original sin, by and large the facts of the story are the same. Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge (the forbidden tree according to Islam) which caused them shame and subsequent expulsion from Eden and the sufferings of mortal life on Earth.

What I find fascinating is how the Greek mythology and the monotheistic religions both seem to be pointing at the same thing albeit from completely opposing directions. The very thing that makes us human i.e our capacity to think is what causes us so much misery and pain. Animals operate on instinct and although we do find emotions present in animals, it is only the human race who feels guilt, lust, anger, emotional pain, depression etc. All these emotions are a result of our ability to process thoughts, in other words result of the advanced human mind.

As I mentioned earlier the role of fire in the evolution of the human mind has been critical, hence the result of the stealing of fire by Prometheus did perhaps open a Pandora’s box in a way. In the monotheistic traditions, even though there is no mention of fire, but again it was the result of eating the forbidden fruit which led to all present day human woes. Perhaps in these traditions we are not talking about the cause i.e. fire but the effect which was the development of the human mind as a result of the food we started eating. Or perhaps the very act of defiance was the first step in being human i.e. Adam and Eve took a decision, a very human characteristic.

In any case it seems that human beings realized early on that the very thing that makes us God’s ‘supreme creation’ is also what makes us most vulnerable to pain. The more we quest knowledge the more we realize how little we know, the more we have the more we want, the more pain we are in the more we crave to be happy, the gap between what we have and what we want seems to be never ending and ever widening and it is this gap which is at the source of our unhappiness.