Searching For Aftab Manzil

7 Jul

Nana: Aftab Omar's only son who died in Pakistan without ever being able to return to his childhood home

In 1947, Aftab Omar and his wife AshfaqJehan Begum packed a suitcase, locked the front door of their house in Meerut, got on a tonga for the railway station and left for Pakistan. They took nothing but a few clothes. They did not know that this would be the last time they would look at the house where they had raised three children and left countless happy memories. (The also had a teenage daughter buried in Meerut.) As the border between India and Pakistan became increasingly unbreachable for the common man, Aftab Omar and his wife died without having ever returned to the home they loved—leaving it as if they were going away for a week or two.

Fifty seven years later, in 2004, my cousin Ammar and I, great grandchildren of Aftab Omar and Ashfaq Jehan, returned to Meerut to find our great-grandparents’ house. We were accompanied by three Indian friends whom I knew from college abroad who had grown up near Meerut. As we filed out of Simran’s shiny new car, we all felt a sense of adventure as we set out to find this house. Splitting up in the old market, we started asking people if they knew about the house and shared with each other any information we found. I was surprised by how helpful people were. They ran around asking others and soon the whole market was abuzz with the news of Aftab Omar’s relatives looking for his house.

Not making much headway, we went to another part of the market. And as we were walking away from there, a young boy came running to ask if we were searching for Aftab Manzil. We were! He asked us to follow him. He led us to a courtyard, where an ancient woman sat surrounded by her children and grandchildren. She stood up to greet us and, hugging me, started to cry profusely.

She was the daughter of the gardener, Pirbhu, whom Aftab Omar had entrusted with the keys of the house before he left. She had been a young child then. She had played with my Dadi and Nana (paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather), who had grown up in the house. She described to me how bitterly her father wept when Aftab Omar and his wife had left, and how he had waited till his dying day for them to return. She walked us around what remained of the once vast grounds of the house. It was strange to be walking with this woman whom I had never met before but who spoke of my family as her own.

I am not the only one. Thousands of friends and families were divided at Partition and never reunited. The horrors of the division of the subcontinent are not alien to the children who have been raised on the stories of the massacre that took place during and after Partition. But if you probe deeper, you will find thousands of narratives of the friendships and loves lost and yearned for on both sides of the border. There are eyes that long for friends and family on the other side of the border and the familiar, fond places of their youths and childhoods.

And every few years, because of circumstances and geopolitics, the two countries try to undo the failings of yesteryears. We play a cricket match or two. We start a bus service. We have high-level talks. Some of our singers visit the country and sing songs together. And then, one unfortunate event stalls the entire peace process and brings us to the verge of war. While the frequent CBMs are great for making us all feel good for a while, they do little to create the needed lasting peace or friendship in the region.

Therefore, it is time for governments on both sides of the border to recognise that appealing pictures and cultural exchanges do not make for lasting peace. There is need for a longer-term commitment to peace in the region. A political agreement between the two countries needs to be worked out, which guarantees an atmosphere of cooperation and trust between the governments. Pakistan must, on its own side, work to find and convict any and all involved in the heinous attacks in Mumbai. And India must come clean on its involvement in the Baloch insurgency. It is high time both countries realised that hostility benefits neither.

In the same vein, Pakistan and India need to cement their ties in something a little more concrete than handshakes at SAARC summits. The cost of aggression and hostility should be higher than the price of cooperation. What Pakistani politicians do not realise in their myopic vision is that the economic and strategic benefits of cooperating with India far outweigh the short-lived popularity gained from hating it.

The two countries must cement their relationship in strong economic ties, either in the form of trade agreements and joint business ventures. Common economic interests will prove to be much more effective war deterrents than bombs. Economic cooperation can bind both countries in a symbiotic relationship that requires peace and mutual trust.

But seeking such measures from both sides will not be politically easy. The present generation on both sides of the border has been raised on doses of hatred for the neighbouring country, and mistrust and hate run deep not just on the political level but also the cultural. This requires a comprehensive review and purging of textbooks in both countries of biased contents and hate-filled propaganda against the other country. And it requires media cooperation and promotion. None of these tasks is easy to undertake or quick to perform.

An idea that might be easier to implement is to allow exchanges between school and college students across the border. The future, after all, lies in the hands of young people. And maybe we should put aside the textbooks filled with hate and allow our young people to communicate openly and freely with each other. Nothing is more effective in combating stereotypes than personal interactions on a sustained basis. And maybe through these interactions young Pakistanis and Indians will discover new friends. And before they become too tainted by the biased opinions of media persons like Zaid Hamid and Zakir Naik, they can maybe learn to appreciate their friends from across the border for their humanity, their friendliness and for our shared language and culture. And maybe we can once again learn to coexist in peace, as we had for centuries, and restrict our battles to cricket fields and hockey grounds.

Published in The News July 8th, 2010

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13 Responses to “Searching For Aftab Manzil”

  1. Mackers July 7, 2010 at 10:20 pm #

    Sehar, while all these peace measures are well and good, I am pretty sure we can’t break this impasse unless the main, and perhaps only , bone of contention between us is resolved. Kashmir!

    I am inclined to think that if it weren’t for the Kashmir issue, we would be, today, the friendly neighbors Jinnah envisioned us to be.

    The untenable position that Pakistan and India have taken regarding this issue needs to be resolved. This issue is the reason we can’t make peace with India,despite ethnic, cultural, and linguistic commonalities, why we have a super inflated military budget (which could be much better utilized in education), why terrorist organization such as jhangvi and the sipah exist, and partially why we have an unstable democracy – with a history of coups- and why we have such fundamentalist madrassas.

    It’s time that we grow-up and realize that neither Pakistan nor Indian can wrest control of a united Kashmir. It’s time we stop deluding ourselves and move on

  2. deo July 8, 2010 at 12:44 pm #

    Informed, thinking and intelligent Pakistanis need to re-evaluate necessity and history of seperation honestly.
    Pakistan is in trouble. A wounded tiger is more dangerous.
    Pakistan may benefit , if they accept a friendly dominence and assured protection from an increasingly powerful neighbour(instead of pulling it down in vain) like past and present Canada; vis a vis USA
    Indians are not likely to go for any prospects if merger or assimilation. Don’t fear that for sure

  3. ArsalanKh July 8, 2010 at 6:53 pm #

    Interesting. I remember once my father who was born in India and migrated to Karachi Pakistan with whole family, gave a call to some relative over there in India. The relative was my father’s cousin and dad called her ‘appaaa’ and talking to her first time or second time after coming back to Pakistan. Its been quite many decades since they talk. Apaa of my dad, She cried for so long and couldn’t talk. It was so emotional to see dad on phone like that. Dad had to invite her for my sis wedding.

  4. farhan July 9, 2010 at 1:55 am #

    Your sentiments are true and I don’t doubt that there are peaceful people on both sides.

    It must be great to visit India and get a warm welcome from those whom your family left long time back.

    You were lucky to have such good Indian friends who would take you for such an adventure.

    Hope everyone can think this way and understand.

  5. naveed tajammal July 9, 2010 at 2:48 am #

    You may have a point,in your article as per your own perceptions,however a counter arguement will always be there;the other side of the coin,you are requested to, kindly read my Review or critical analysis of Atizaz Ahsans book”Indus Saga’by typing my name on the google search engine.In nut shell we have nothing in common with what we call as INDIA,in all the three aspects,ethnic,linguistic or cultural,kindly read the review from an academic point of view, for further study go,on my review on the syllabus,being taught to our childern in our english medium schools,this comes under the Historical syllabus,both the articles are also on the Blog of Yasmeen ali,and she has,already, forwarded the link to you,my mailing address is listed above,i would love a critique if any on my above cited two articles.

  6. Jay Shah July 11, 2010 at 11:20 am #

    >> You were lucky to have such good Indian friends who would take you for such an adventure.

    Dear Farhan – I don’t think Shehar was unique one or lucky one to have friends in India. In general, common people in both countries are friendly and hospitable.

    If luck plays a role then I was lucky to find Hamid Omar and his family (Aftab’s family) though his Offroaders’ club pictures Nani Madar that I wanted to do pilgrimage of. “Na Jan na pehachan” – I just sent an email that I wanted to visit Hingol and would they guide me and I got reply from Salman Ali “Aa jao, hum apko yatra ke liya le jayange.” And based on that email and my Guru’s blessing -against protest from my friends – I went to Karachi and God gave me Hamid Omar as my new brother as if from my last life. Everyone that I came across – from doorman to taxi driver to waiter to shopwalla to temple priest to street people to CEOs – were friendly and extremely hospitable.

    People are people – it is the politicians who make the world that we live in and we elect them so we have to look within and elect those who will bring peace. Peace that will make this subcontinent prosperous and powerful. Peace that is badly needed. We can find all the
    “old” reasons – be it Kashmir or Balochistan or separation or religion etc. – to impede peace but it is to the detriment of subcontinent.

    As one article pointed out that India and Pakistan started the journey at the same time but there is now a vast gulf of prosperity between the two. At present the small fanatic minority has taken over and the silent peace seeking majority on both sides has to rise and confront the vocal fanatic minority.

  7. thoughtsoflostsoul July 12, 2010 at 2:51 am #

    As far as i see, India and Pakistan will continue to bleed each other for next 3 to 4 generation more and then will come to realise futility of hatred and then may be we may have EU sort of thing, hopefully before this 3 or 4 generation comes, we do not blow each other up….that would be pity!!!… Anyways as Churchill said jaw jaw is better than war war, hopefully Indian and Pakistanis can have more of jaw jaw….. but i don’t know whether i am right or wrong; but going through Pakistani blogs and newspapers i have a feeling that even liberal Pakistanis try to interpret and show liberalism and secularism through islamic angle. One more thing; I never understood why “Junaid Jamshed” (he got such a beautiful voice) left music and said its haram; because according to me; music is the soul of man. I take junaid as idicator of middle class thinking in Pakistan, and the amount of conspiracy theory in Pakistani news papers is simply amazing; if you just ask few very simple and rational question the whole edifice of conspiracy would fall. For eg America wants to destroy pakistan and take its nuclear weapons; i simply laugh at it, the day america decides to do it, no one can stop it…..on the contrary it America which has invested billions of dollars in sustaining of Pakistani economy.
    Anyways it was nice to read through your blog and I hope on this planet earth we have more rational people like you……:)

    • Jay Shah July 12, 2010 at 10:54 pm #

      >> As far as i see, India and Pakistan will continue to bleed each other for next 3 to 4 generation more …..

      That will be too late and the gap can potentially be huge. Dr. Farrukh Saleem wrote this column in Dec 2007 (I can not find the original article in the archives of Some spirited dialog at

      Apart from various official attempts that take one and a half step forward and one whole step backwards there are some grassroots efforts like

      Free flow of allowing visitors to go back in their memory lane of their childhood (like in this article)will be a powerful grassroots peace building effort.

      This is possible only in this generation and there is not much more time than next 10-20 years. The second generation does not have the roots and they are impacted by the “propaganda” on both sides and they will draw harder lines. I know that I was rather coldly questioned by youngsters in India that why did I go to Pakistan. The first generation understood.

      When I gave a talk at the Rotary Club meeting in India about my visit I asked the following questions to an audience of about 60 people: How many of you have gone overseas? How many of you have gone to Singapore? How many of you have gone to UK ? How many of you have gone to Australia? How many of you have gone to Europe? How many of you have gone to USA? The answers ranged form 40-70% had done one or more of this trip. When I asked – How many of you have gone to Pakistan? Not a single hand went up. So I asked how do they know anything about Pakistan? Wel..l, mostly from newspaper and TV. I am sure similar answers will be in similar meeting in Karachi!

      After my presentation was over more than 50 people came to me and personally thanked me to show the other side and to open up their thinking.

      We need more such exchange in the life time of this generation. Time is running out.

      Jay Shah

      • Yogesh April 17, 2011 at 8:20 am #

        (North) Indians and pakistanis are not all same people.

        The group which can be associated with pakistanis is punjabis but they all are not punjabis genetically.
        Let’s examine this province of punjab.

        -you have millions of people in punjab from families of Sayyed, Qureshi, shah, Salara, Awans, the Khagga, the Dhund Abbasi, the Dhanyal, the Hans, the Hashmi (Nekokara), the Kahut and the Bodla,Thaheem …their ancestors started comming to south punjab once it was part of ummayad caliphate and later abbasid caliphate….Muhammad Bin Qasim himself came up to Multan with 20000 Syrian Cavilary.
        – The families whose ancestors converted to islam include jatts, rajputs , araees and few other muhajir families and they are in large numbers but not in majority.
        -There were mass migrations from muslim areas of central asia and persia to muslim ruled indian subcontinent due to Mongol invasions…and from Karachi to Punjab..people with their decent could be found ranging from sindh to northern pakistan and even in kashmir……
        – In Punjab tribes who claim to come from afghanistan are gardezis (from gardez) a shia tribe in south punjab, sadozai ( again from Tarnak, Kandahar, and Kabul and are decendants of ahmed shah abdali) are spread out from peshawar to lahore and kashmir with some decedants even in present day india.
        – Northern Punjab…u have people like niazis (pushtun tribe but mainly in mianwali, with significant niazi diaspora in lahor, karachi, islamabad , chakwal, parts of afghanistan)…some also call these ppl “punjabi pathans” espeacialy those in punjab…some famous niazis include imran khan a famous politician.

        So Pakistan is a country with 170 million people with diverse ethinic backgrounds including arab, indian, persian, afghan, central asian.
        Source: taken from some pakistani site

        Point being most invaders and their armies who were many thousands in numbers settled in northern part of sub-continent and considering high growth rates among muslims, it can be said that significant proportion of their population may be outsider.

  8. Jay Shah July 13, 2010 at 11:02 pm #

    This is why I say this is the generation that can bring peace – they have the shared history

    I really wish more good will be coming from these talks and soon!

    I hope they read the quote from Norman Schwarzkopf – “The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it.” –
    and make peace happen!
    Jay Shah

  9. Ali July 14, 2010 at 6:27 am #

    Yeah, peace is very important if we want to live, we our two neighboring countries and without each others support, we cannot survive good.

  10. Blank July 24, 2010 at 7:14 am #

    “And India must come clean on its involvement in the Baloch insurgency.”

    I strongly object to this statement. Pakistan is holding an empty card and trying to bluff its people and India.

  11. Yogesh April 17, 2011 at 8:24 am #

    As far as Peace is concerned, its highly needed for both countries to grow and get their population out of their issues but people should be clear that they are not brothers, just neighbors. Sad to know about families which were divided, if partition had to happen it should have been complete, muslims from north india should have moved to east-west pakistan while all non-muslims from these places should have migrated to India. lucky that all my relatives moved to India in 1947 🙂

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