Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Who remembers Karam Hussain Shah?

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My friend Brigadier Humayun Malik has a canny eye for detail that makes him a storyteller par excellence – a storyteller of the old school. And this is the true story of a man called Karam Hussain Shah as told by my friend the brigadier. Karam Hussain Shah of the village of Chhoi lying some twenty or so kilometres southwest of the town of Attock on the highroad to Basal. Though I tell the story in the third person, there isn’t a grain of addition or subtraction. It is told in the exact words of Brigadier Malik.

The year was 1959 when Malik, as a young captain in the Special Service Group (SSG) was posted at Attock Fort. Among those of his commando company was a soldier called Nazar Hussain Shah. A stout, handsome specimen he was of the trans-Sindhu country of Attock then called Campbellpur. Yet shy of his twenty-second birthday, he was as fine a soldier as they made them in bygone days.

Now, in the SSG of those days, in order to promote initiative and independence, one was not required to get sanction from superiors in order to leave the station for the weekend. All one did, and this included NCOs and enlisted men as well, was sign a register and put down the time one was expected to return at the end of the furlough. What was taken for granted was that no good man will ever overstay his leave by so much as a minute. No matter howsoever he may, he will make it back to base at the appointed hour. Those were the rules of business at SSG and they were strictly adhered to.

And so it was that one day Nazar Hussain went away to visit an uncle at Nowshera for the weekend. On the Sunday evening Captain Humayun Malik received a telephone call from the Station Master at Attock Khurd (the station nearest to Attock Fort) that the body of a beheaded soldier in uniform had been found on the tracks and that SSG being the nearest army he was being informed to take appropriate action. What the captain and his two men saw at the station was this: the body of Sepoy Nazar Hussain Shah lay between the concrete of the end of the platform and the track while his head lay upright in the middle of the two tracks. The eyes were open, the face calm, hair scarcely ruffled and the maroon beret was only slightly askew. There was no other sign of injury on the face. Nearby lay his overnight bag with its change of clothing inside.

Inquiry revealed that Nazar Hussain, seen off at Nowshera by his uncle, planned to disembark at Attock Khurd. Only he had not realised that he had boarded an express train that did not stop at his station. As the train clattered over the sidings and began to sweep past the station buildings without reducing speed, Nazar Hussain would have felt a pang of panic: the train would stop at Campbellpur seventeen kilometres away, and even if he were to jog back along the tracks there would not be time enough for him to return to base on schedule. And in those days buses were not as common as they are now.

To be late was to lose face. And so, impetuous as his youth made him, Nazar Hussain attempted to get off the speeding train. Even in those pre-diesel steam locomotive days trains did a good eighty odd kilometres on level stretches. The platform had very nearly ended when Nazar Hussain hit it. He tried to run along, but that is no speed for a man’s legs to work at. He had no control; he stumbled and fell. The train sped on; the driver staring hard into the night ahead was oblivious of the loss of a young and priceless life. Only those who shared his compartment and perhaps saw him disappear into that narrow slit between the speeding train and the concrete platform knew of the fate that befell young Nazar Hussain. Even they would only have sent up a prayer for the Lord to preserve him.

Captain Malik found Nazar Hussain’s body where it had fallen between the track and the concrete of the platform, his uniform stained but slightly from the final gush of blood. In his attempt to get back on time, young Nazar Hussain had delivered himself into the hands of death. Now it devolved on the captain to take the body home. The dossier said that he came from Chhoi. With the enshrouded body in a coffin following in a truck the captain rode ahead in a jeep. Past Campbellpur they took the road to Basal. At the Chhoi rest house that overlooks a bend in the highroad, the convoy paused to ask for Karam Hussain Shah, the dead man’s father. He lived a little distance outside the village, they told the captain.

Leaving the highroad the captain led his brief and sombre convoy down a side road. Past a small graveyard, across a pebbly stream and up an incline where there were a few scattered farmsteads. Near one house he paused, got off the jeep and called out aloud, ‘Karam Hussain Shah?’

It was a simple mud-plastered house with two rooms, a veranda and a courtyard in front. A flock of chickens and a few goats browsed around the yard. A man that Captain Malik hadn’t noticed working in a plot of land stood up. Tall and slim with a grey beard and a kindly countenance Karam Hussain Shah, a retired corporal of the First World War, marched up and saluted smartly.

‘Captain sahib! Welcome. You come in peace? What brings you to my humble home?’ he asked. He wore a coarse homespun cotton shalwar-kurta. The kurta was the old-fashioned kind that did not come with buttons down the front, but with one shoulder open that was tied together with a simple tassel. In Malik’s estimation Karam Hussain at that time was about seventy years old.

‘Nazar Hussain, the one who is in the army. I have come about him,’ said the captain.

‘Yes, that’s my son, captain sahib. What of him?’

Whatever plans the young Captain Malik had in his mind of gently breaking the news of the horrible death, dispersed of a moment, ‘I am sorry to tell you, sir, that your son is dead.’

‘What do you say?’ said the man, ‘What is that again, captain sahib?’

The captain repeated his grim words and half expecting the man to fall down in a swoon prepared himself to steady him. At best, he thought, there would be a beating of the old chest and a wailing litany of the injustice of Providence. But Karam Hussain Shah, tall and erect, appeared taller still to the bringer of the sad news as he looked skyward and raised up his hands in orison.

‘He was Yours, Lord. You gave him to us and You took him away. You are the Almighty. Your will is done, all praise to You.’ The voice, clear and loud, did not waver. No tear rolled down the wrinkled cheeks. And then, ‘Come, captain sahib, let us bring him home.’

But then realising his own lack of decorum, he hurried to lay out the charpoy that was propped up against a wall of the house.

‘Sit yourself down and rest. You have already gone through a lot of trouble to bring my son home. I’ll take care of everything now.’ Karam Hussain said making himself busy.

The mother of the dead man who was inside the house called to ask what was going on.

‘It is Nazar Hussain. He has come home,’ said the old man, and then turning to the captain, ‘You know, these mothers are mad. They cannot keep control over their emotions.’

Perhaps it was the way Karam Hussain Shah had announced the return of their son, perhaps it was the perspicacity that only mothers possess, that the old woman recognised something was drastically amiss and started to weep.

‘Nazar’s mother, you silly woman, why do you cry? Our son has come home to us.’ Karam Hussain tried to comfort his distraught wife who knew no comforting. ‘It is the evening of our time, blessed woman, and soon we shall be reunited with our son. What if he had gone earlier leaving us a long and empty life to live?’

Meanwhile, people having seen the sad convoy and having sensed something amiss were streaming in from nearby habitations. The coffin was unloaded and brought into the courtyard. After some time Karam Hussain asked if he could see his son’s face. He took a long look, and kissed the cold young forehead before replacing the lid of the coffin. Still no tear flowed. Still there was no dent in the serenity.

At that time the SSG commandant was a certain Colonel A. O. Mitha who later won acclaim as one of the finest generals of the Pakistan Army. And Colonel Mitha had sent three thousand rupees and some rations for the family of the deceased. But in the short while that he had spent with Karam Hussain, the captain knew that the man would never accept any gifts. He thought it wise to discuss the matter with one of the relatives who had meanwhile arrived. No, it was said, the man was too dignified and self-respecting to accept anything. Nevertheless, since the gifts came from the commandant, the captain decided to talk to the old man himself.

‘You are very kind, captain sahib,’ said Karam Hussain. ‘But we have no need for what you bring. If we needed anything we would take it. Trust me, our needs are all fulfilled.’

The funeral rites took place and before that day in late March ended forty years ago, young Nazar Hussain Shah was buried in the graveyard that lies athwart of the road leading to the village.

Thereafter every weekend Captain Humayun Malik visited the aged couple bearing whatever gifts he thought prudent. He brought them multi-vitamin pills telling them it was not medicine but a pill to give strength and good health. Many weeks later he discovered that they had not been touched. The couple said they had plenty of strength and good health and did not need the pills. Another time he brought a shawl for the woman and found that she would not use it but had kept it away carefully in a trunk. If he brought fruit they shared it with him and saved the remainder for his visit the following weekend. Time and again he asked them if he could bring something they actually needed. Always the answer was the same: they were content, there was no want. The only offering that was ever used was a cardigan that the captain took for the old man.

And so the year 1959 wore on. With each visit Captain Malik came to know them better and only came away with greater and greater respect for these two people of peerless dignity and character that no lust for any worldly possession could sway. Here were two people who had suffered the loss of their only child born after seventeen years of wedlock with remarkable perseverance – perseverance that is the mark of an unblemished spirit. Here were two people at peace with themselves and with their Maker. Here were two people who were religious in the true sense of the word, but who did not make a show of their religiosity.

Over the year Captain Malik learned that the upright and honourable Karam Hussain had left the family home in the village to his half-brother because the sister in law had once voiced the concern that being the elder, Karam Hussain might deprive the younger of his rightful share in the family’s meagre holdings. Such was the man’s character that just one word had caused him to give up the house and move out to his own share of agricultural land. And this holding too was no more than a couple of acres. There he built his home and in peace worked his land, sending his son to the army in the tradition of that part of the country.

Some months later Malik moved to Cherat. Two months later, on the first weekend after returning to Attock Fort, he visited Chhoi again. The house of Karam Hussain was locked and deserted. Neighbours said the man was dead and his wife had moved back to the village. Malik tracked her down.

‘Remember he had said it was the evening of our time?’ she said. ‘Simple man. It was the evening of his time only. He has left me to bear the burden alone.’

That was the last he saw of her. He was transferred to Nowshera and when he visited early in 1961, even Karam Hussain’s widow, whose name Captain Humayun Malik had never learned, was dead. She was buried next to the two men who had left her earlier.

In Attock recently I took time off to visit Chhoi that has expanded into a conglomerate of three little villages. The only Syeds lived in the hamlet to the west, said the man. The winding road dipped and passed through a graveyard. Beyond lay a small stream. At least this much hasn’t changed, I thought. A group of men waited by a pick-up truck to get a ride into Attock. The oldest was no more than forty, and none of them had ever heard of Karam Hussain Shah whose son had died in an accident forty years ago. There were only two Syed households in the village and their oldest men were but boys, one of whom rode as helper on the pick-up truck. Neither had ever heard of Karam Hussain.

Someone said something about Daud Shah. Yes, he was almost fifty and he would remember, said another. But Daud Shah was away and would not return for many days. Another man came around to ask questions and vehemently deny the existence ever of a man Karam Hussain Shah in Chhoi. And he knew, he said, because he had spent all his life in the village.

‘Why are you interested in this dead man that no one seems to know? Are you a relative?’ he asked somewhat aggressively.

I had nothing to do with Karam Hussain, I said. I had only come to talk to his kin and learn something more of a man whose soul remained intact until the last day of his life. A soul that was not riddled by lust, mendacity or baseness. I had only come to talk about a man who was a giant among men, and the good woman, his partner for life. I did not tell them for fear of sounding corny that I had imagined the village would be proud of having had children of that stature. But I did say to them that Karam Hussain Shah was the kind of man that Mr Jinnah had made this country for. Not for the pygmies into whose paws it has now fallen and who are bleeding it to death. I told them too that I was sorry they did not remember Karam Hussain and how they stood to lose for this lapse of memory. The loss was not his, entirely their own.

The only likely explanation for this collective amnesia is that perhaps Karam Hussain’s half-brother who in 1959 was about sixty or something, had no male children and the daughters, if there were any, moved away after marriage. If there was a male child, though I find that unlikely, he too might have moved away so long ago that even the memory faded. And young Nazar, Karam Hussain’s only offspring, had died a bachelor. Surely his childhood mates would remember him. But where were they?

For the past many years piety and godliness in our part of the world has never been seen to lie within. It rests on the tips of forked tongues and is exhibited by false and pompous shows of verbose hypocrisy and hands raised in faithless orison for cameras to see. So long have deceitful men with rotten souls brayed words devoid of substance and spirit into our ears that we take such braying to be religiosity. So long have utterly impeachable men with practiced countenances of piety made shows of donating from ill-begotten wealth to this mosque or that shrine for all to see that this deception has come to pass for godliness. So long have professional mullahs paraded their several versions of Islam that it has lost its essence.

Karam Hussain Shah did none of that. His dignity would never have allowed him to stoop so low. There isn’t a mosque in Chhoi that carries a plaque with his name, nor a shrine – even his grave is unmarked and thus unidentifiable. Consequently, so far as the pygmies of today are concerned, he wasn’t a good enough man. He is forgotten because in this spiritually impoverished society of paraplegic souls there is no need to emulate a man like him. We have forgotten Karam Hussain Shah and his good wife whose every need was fulfilled by a richness of the spirit that we are not acquainted with today. This act of forgetfulness has taken nothing away from those two good people. Only we have rendered ourselves the poorer.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 5 July 2013 at 10:57, Blogger Haroon said...

Now you have made me shed a tear for a man I did not know or could not have known. Beautifully told.

At 5 July 2013 at 12:58, Anonymous Saima Ashraf said...

You are importing a true writer out of your inside store Salman......Is it you writing all these?:) Honestly I was taking you only as a tourist and historian. Jealous of you:)

At 5 July 2013 at 17:40, Anonymous Umer Jamshed said...

That is as apt a tribute as words can ever pull off. Thank you for telling us the story of this incredible mortal who once walked chaste amid a sordid crowd. I am sure few from this rare breed of mortals still walk the Land of the Pure, but like those before them, they slip in to oblivion.
Had you shared this or similar article on Express Tribune blog few months ago?

At 8 July 2013 at 11:59, Anonymous Shajia Abidi said...

And for some good amount of time, I thought people like him doesn't exist. Thank you for sharing this amazingly inspiring incident.

At 8 July 2013 at 23:17, Anonymous Abid Hussain on Twitter said...

"Karam Hussain Shah ... a giant among men."

Salman sb, this was a most moving tribute. Beautifully written.

At 8 July 2013 at 23:19, Anonymous Qissa Khwani on Twitter said...

‘Come, captain sahib, let us bring him home.'

At 10 July 2013 at 21:31, Anonymous Anonymous said...

After reading this, Ii don't think I will be able to forget him for a long time.

At 10 July 2013 at 21:39, Anonymous Aghader said...


At 11 July 2013 at 00:14, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

We still have such people around? Very moving story.

At 13 July 2013 at 16:26, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Moving story all right, Nayyar. But this is Kalyog in Hindi. We may call it an age of Qaht ur Rijal - Famine of Good Men.

At 14 July 2013 at 07:24, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Saima, This story appeared in The News on Sunday in Jan or Feb 1998. It is part of my book Sea Monsters and the Sun God.

At 2 March 2014 at 06:10, Anonymous Arvind said...

Came across this story again during my weekend browsing.
I have read this story many times and would do so many times over again. Just to keep my conscience refreshed.

At 6 March 2014 at 14:40, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Hi Arvind, thank you so much. But I hope it can jog the conscience of at least a few Pakistanis too.


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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

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