HARKING BACK: The case of the mysterious ‘sea chest’

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Oct 19, 2014


In the ‘attic room’ under the staircase of young Ali Aftab Ghias’s house lies a grand sea chest. I mean a genuine American buffalo hide cornered sea chest. It always was a sort of mystery box that belonged to 99-year old Agha Gee, that is till he passed away in July 1997.

The huge sea chest was put aside under the house staircase, as if stored away in the attic, and almost forgotten. No one was able to ever open this mysterious massive box till one day recently a ‘lock master’ prised it open after struggling with it for an hour. The result was a treasure trove, a gateway to a unique family history.

In 1938 Ghiasuddin Ahmed had| sailed back from New York in the steamer ‘Pride of St. Louis’ for home to the Lyallpur Agriculture College in ‘India’. A scroll found in the sea chest contained a Masters degree, graduate division, from the University of California at Berkeley in ‘Plant Physiology’.

Every time I had met him he would smile, clasp my hand and tell me, in chaste English, and without fail the same thing: “I suggest you store your protoplasm, for you are a pure form of species”. I would blush, smile and then listen to an amazing brief lecture on some interesting matter. It always was very interesting.

In the sea chest there was an exquisite snuff box of gold belonging to his grandfather, and then there was a leather pouch in which his great grandfather received his pension as well as a gold watch presented on behalf of Queen Victoria. Lest I forget the shoes, the classic sort with which gaiters were worn, and then there were amazing bow ties and collars, naturally all from Selfridges of London.

Then there was a classic monocle from ‘The Strand’ in London, the sort Mr Jinnah used to wear. He was a natty scholar on his way back via London.

Before I return to the amazing ‘Agha Jee’ as he was lovingly called by everyone, let me cut out to the small village of Partanwali near Sialkot, where last month a wedding was taking place. As the guests had settled down a man in a huge turban got up and sat midway on the staircase going to the roof. He opened an old book and started reciting the family history of the bridegroom going back 300 years.

Yes Sir, 300 years, for that is the benchmark of the ‘Mirasi’ clan. As he reeled off names very soon people noticed that the family were all Sikh names. The bridegroom’s father rushed forward and filled his hands with bank notes and that shut his mouth. Everyone looked to one another and smiled. Obviously there was no pride left in family history, and purely for communal reasons.

Let me now hop to Bazaar Hakeeman, inside Bhati Gate, Lahore, and to the shop of Hakeem Munir. He is a well-known hakeem of the area, and in the back room of his rather dusty shop is a stack of books. I have known him for years now for he was once the custodian of the family history of everyone in his ‘illaqa’. I asked him to read the history of the milk shop owner who sits of the corner of Tamakooanwali Gali. We called him Mhanna Pehlawan. Out came a book and soon the milk seller four generation down was a Hindu of the Gujjar clan of the Kassee goth (clan). They dealt strictly with cows, never buffaloes.

Listening to Hakeem Munir was a delight, for a world of colourful characters came bursting forth, including how he was beaten up for converting to Islam. Imagine the shame it had brought to the family. It is a hurtful perspective to which we are, sadly, insensitive.

Now let us skip to the village of Seelan on the northern side of the Lahore-Sheikhupura rail track. There, till last year, lived the 120-year old Shah Gee, or more correctly Syed Hussain Shah. He was a sort of seer, a sage with special powers, or least this is what most believed. I was called over by his family to witness the arrival of a Hussaini Brahmin from ‘beyond’ who was there to record his passing away. Belief takes strange forms.

The man in saffron opened a leather-bound book, recorded his death as well as the names of all the new arrivals and noted the proceedings of the day. He then got up, collected his dues and left, walking towards what everyone believed was ‘beyond’. I had earlier asked him what he meant by ‘beyond’. He smiled and said that walls and fences do not stop me, for he had to serve the entire sub-continent. The concept of ‘beyond’ is best left to those who believe in such things.

Now to the amazing Agha Ghiasuddin Ahmed. It is clear that young Ali Aftab Ghias has to handle his long amazing family history. His father Aftab Ghias is a banker in Karachi, his grandfather a retired brigadier Khurshid Ghias, his great grandfather Prof Ghiasuddin Ahmed, who retired as principal of the Agricultural College Lyallpur, his great great grandfather Ferozeuddin Ahmed, the police officer who won a 14-carat gold watch at the turn of the last century for bravery, and then his great great great grandfather Fatehuddin Ahmed, among the first English language schoolteachers in Punjab after 1857.

On the walls an array of photographs hang, an amazing collection that came from the mysterious sea chest that still lies under the staircase. Ali is lucky for he knows his roots, firmly grouted in the soil of Punjab. I write this column for the reason that I was recently visiting a school in DHA where I asked a student about his family. He refused to reply. I persisted and after some hesitation he said: “My father never tells us who we are”. His few words described the sociology of our times. I am sure the new generation will find the will to know who they really are.

Published in Dawn, October 19th, 2014




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