Growing up Red

The first time someone called me that, I didn’t know what it meant but the venomous tone left no doubt that it wasn`t a compliment. I must have been in class 6 or 7. It was a time of `Islamization` under the harsh regime of General Zia-ul-Haq. Things had already changed a few years earlier when Mr. Bhutto, in order to appease the Islamists, had taken a rightward turn. For a while, we had all worn shalwar kameez to school instead of shorts and alcohol had been banned. It wasn`t enough to appease the Mullahs, of course, who were delighted that Mr. Bhutto had decided to fight them on their turf. Elections were held in 1977, things went from bad to worse and the rest, as they say, is history.

All this though, I understood later. At the time, in my pre-teen innocence, I was just puzzled as to why I was being accused of being a `dehria`, whatever that was. Unfortunately for me, I had missed the `liberal` part of Mr. Bhutto`s regime, when, for a few years, the Army had been cowed and there was (I was told by my family) a flowering of culture, arts and freedom. It was to be a short lived euphoria. The Baluch demanded autonomy, Mr. Bhutto sent in the Army, muzzled the Left and ignored the demands of common people for food, shelter and employment thus undercutting his own base of support and sealing his fate. But all this was also unknown to me at the time. All I knew was that I had been raised in a liberal family where no one went to the neighborhood mosque, although we did go to the Badshahi mosque for Eid prayers and my grandmother prayed religiously.

My maternal grandfather, ‘Nana’ to us kids, who I later found out was one of the root causes of my `trouble` was mostly absent. He had been in self imposed exile since being imprisoned in 1951 when he had spent 4 years in jail for the infamous Rawalpindi conspiracy case. For those unfamiliar with this episode in Pakistan`s history, it was a plan by some senior, left leaning Army commanders to take over the government of then Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan and create a Republic in the mold of Nasserite Egypt. The renegade officers approached the Pakistan Communist Party of which my grandfather was a member and requested their support but before the plot could be implemented they were arrested. After this, the Communist Party of Pakistan was permanently banned from Pakistani politics, perhaps not coincidentally, at the same time the McCarthyite witchhunts were being carried out in the US by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Being the solitary type, I didn’t have too many friends in school anyway so being called an atheist (and later a ‘Kammunist’, which left me equally mystified) didn’t help matters. I remember thinking “What the heck does that mean and why are they calling me that?”
For a while, I rebelled against the liberalism of my family by going to the mosque everyday and even trying to grow a pubescent beard. My father found it amusing but to his credit, never dissuaded me. His stance was ‘Let him discover his beliefs for himself’. After a while, I found it boring and besides, it didn’t help with the accusations of atheism and Godlessness in school. I suspect there may have been more than religious motives at heart.

I was an above average student, tall and ungainly, and, thanks to my English grandmother, fairer than most boys in my class. I was also, thanks to her, fluent in English. Even though I was tall, I was uncoordinated and entirely uninterested in sports, much to the chagrin of my “PT” (physical training) teacher. I had inherited a love of books from my family though, and read voraciously so that school came relatively easy to me. This grated on others who struggled with classes and found it easy to vent their anger by calling me ‘dehria’, ‘communist’ etc.
At first the military government of Zia ul Haq seemed relatively benign. We enjoyed time off school during the civil disturbances, watched TV during the day which was a novelty, and even enjoyed the sight of soldiers patrolling our neighborhood. But when my uncle was arrested and jailed as a ‘leftist intellectual’ and my father lost his teaching job at the university I became afraid. I remember my father giving instructions to my mother on what to do in case the soldiers came to arrest him.

Once again, my grandfather was in exile, this time in Beirut, working with the Afro-Asian Writer’s Association and Yasser Arafat’s PLO. He got out of Beirut just ahead of Ariel Sharon’s tanks during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and, now old and frail, finally decided to come home. I was 14 by this time and able, finally, to understand a little bit of what was going on. We got used to the military intelligence contingent parked outside our house. Nana never seemed to mind though. My father still tells the story of finding my Nana walking to the post office with a man. When my father asked Nana who the man was, he replied he didn’t know, the man had come up to him on the street and asked if he could accompany him. My father then told him that the man was an undercover police officer and asked the man to produce his identity card which the man sheepishly did.

My Nana died in 1984 after a brief illness, succumbing to emphysema brought on by his life long smoking habit. His funeral was the biggest I had ever seen, the procession lasting for a mile or more even though I did wonder why we had to mourn in public. I suppose, as an adolescent, I had a hard time accepting him as a public figure who belonged to all those who loved him, not just to his family. A couple of years after that, Benazir Bhutto returned triumphantly from exile and a couple of years after that General Zia died mysteriously in a plane crash.

While Pakistan was struggling with its short lived experiment in democracy, I graduated college (where the label of ‘dehria’ and ‘communist’ followed me), then went on to medical school. By this time, I had a close circle of friends who protected me and, in any case, no one had time in medical school to delve into anyone else’s personal life. The few new friends I made were ardent admirers of my Nana’s poetry. One of them, now a highly respected cardiovascular surgeon, especially liked to recite ‘bol kay lab aazad hain tere’ while cutting up dead bodies in the ‘dissection hall’ surrounded by fumes of Formalin and preservative. I tried to keep my heritage a secret the best I could during medical school and, for the most part, succeeded.

Many years later and many, many miles away from Lahore, in Little Rock, Arkansas, I was at dinner at a friend’s house. He introduced me as ‘the grandson of the great Faiz Ahmed Faiz”. I was nonplussed to discover that the assembled guests, mostly doctors, were delighted to hear this. The inevitable question soon followed “Aap bhi Shaairi kartay hain? (Do you also write poetry?)”. I was secure enough now in my own identity to accept their affection and admiration for Nana gracefully and since being a ‘dehria’ was no longer an issue, it didn’t matter.

I was asked a few years ago to write something in remembrance of my grandfather for a CD-ROM that was being produced on his life. I wrote “In life, he was called a communist, an ‘atheist’, a ‘Russian agent’ and all manner of vile things. Now, after he is safely dead, he is a ‘national treasure’, Pakistan’s poet laureate, and has his face on a stamp. I think he would have accepted the accolades the same way he shrugged off the epithets: “Choro bhai, theek hai (Leave it be, it’s alright)”.

As for me, I no longer carry the label on me, though some of my old friends still tease me about it. I’m more familiar with my family legacy now and proud of it. And in this day and age of globalization, labels seem to have become irrelevant anyway. Even though both my sons were born in the US, I intend to educate them fully about who they are and where they came from. They will likely not grow up “Red” though I hope they will be proud of their family legacy too.

Editor’s note:
This article was originally published at You can access this article at

About Ali Hashmi

Ali Hashmi is a Pakistani psychiatrist, practicing in Arkansas, USA.
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