Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Men at Their Best

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I have known Brigadier Humayun Malik since, I think, 1974. He was commanding one of the brigades of 6 Armoured Division where I served as an anti-aircraft artillery (now Air Defence) officer. But he came to know me only when we met twenty years later when he was working with the Houbara Foundation. I introduced myself and it was like meeting an old friend. Now, with so many years of having benefited from his company I feel that if he had not joined the army, Brigadier Malik would have been a writer.

Brig Humayun Malik with his childhood friend, the late Aslam Malik
Brigadier Malik is a true officer of the classic mould and a great raconteur with a remarkably sharp memory that dredges up even minor details of events more than half a century ago. He was the teller of the story of Karam Hussain Shah, that man of admirable fortitude who could only thank his Lord when his only child, a son, died – a story told in this blog.

On a recent Sunday, we sat on Brigadier Malik’s veranda drinking tea with carrot halva (prepared by a unique recipe rendering it crunchy) and we talked of many things. There were two high points of that wonderful sunny morning. First, I asked him what he thought of the famous Alam Khan brothers, all nine of them, who had served with distinction the three armed services of Pakistan. He said he knew five of them quite well, two of whom are no longer alive. He was all praise for the Alam Khan brothers. ‘They were all good men,’ he said.

Brigadier Malik (9th PMA) joined SSG at the same time as Brigadier Zahir Alam Khan (4th PMA), the eldest among the siblings, and ended up being his roommate. The two captains had a room with two beds and a centre table in between, besides the other regulation furniture. Now, everyone who knew ZA, would remember he had always worn thick-rimmed glasses with rather thick lenses. Every morning ZA’s orderly would bring two steaming mugs for his sahib. One had tea and the other hot water for the shave and place them on ZA’s side of the table.

ZA would sit up on his bed for that was how we shaved in those bygone days, take a sip of the shaving water as he dipped his shaving bristles in the tea and yell for his orderly that there was again no sugar in the tea. The orderly would reappear, switch the mugs around, dip the brush in the correct mug and ZA would merrily carry on, undaunted by the myopia Nature had blessed him with.

Brigadier Malik says this little revue never failed and the good ZAK never wizened up. Nor did he ever put on his eye-glasses first thing in the morning!

Now, those who saw the iconic ZA would also remember that, despite the winged dagger of the commandos that he wore on his breast, he did not seem to be a particularly tough sort. This was, I suspect, in part because of the way he walked with his shoulders hunched together. Whatever it may have been, one of the first exercises being a long route march to be executed in groups of two, Brig Malik craftily had himself paired with ZA.

‘I thought this weakling would be easy to go with since ZA would be the first to call the rest halt and I would condescendingly concede.’

And so, with thirty pounds each on their backs, the officers set out. They walked. The minutes turned to hours and the hours crept slowly by as the miles passed, yet they continued. According to Brigadier Malik, ZA simply put his head down and tramped on, occasionally pushing his eye-glasses against the bridge of his nose. The march (which, I think, was thirty miles) was accomplished without ZA ever calling the halt.

‘There is physical toughness all right,’ says Brigadier Malik, ‘but there is a mental toughness which ZA possessed as I learned. He had the ability of putting mind over matter.’

And that was what made the late Brigadier Zahir Alam Khan one among the best commandos the Pakistan Army ever produced.

The other story gleaned on Sunday can rightly be titled The fruit vendor and the Attorney. The vendor daily visited the Malik residence in Mozang Road back in the late 1940s with a large and loaded wicker basket on his head. Brigadier Malik remembers his mother one day inquiring of the elderly man how life was treating him. ‘Sohnay Rub da shukr a.’ The good Lord be thanked, said the man. He went on to say that he had no complaint and that he slept with a full belly.

Now, in the Lahore of those far off days, there were only a hundred odd cars. One of these was owned by an attorney of very high standing who lived in a huge mansion in Lawrence Road. We who recall the yellow or grey-washed bungalows of this upper-class residential street still have a vision of the tree shaded gardens, the porches and bay windows. Most of the houses bore the surname Chopra on the gate posts. The Chopras being Hindu business owners left these properties behind at the time of Partition which fell to the incoming Muslims, most of whom were of meagre means. But gone is this little memory now because the single generation riches of Pakistani Muslims dictated the pulling down of those beautiful mansions and parcelling out the gardens into small one-kanal pieces.

In any case, the attorney of Lawrence Road was friends with Brigadier Malik’s father and frequently spent time with him. Shortly after he had heard what the fruit vendor had to say about life, the young Humayun Malik had occasion to hear the successful lawyer carry on. He griped that despite his suitability to be elevated to the bench, he was overlooked while a much less competent man had been favoured. He carried on, too, about the gross injustice of other things life was throwing at him.

When the attorney was gone, the boy mentioned to his father the fulfilment expressed by the poor fruit vendor in comparison with the rich attorney’s moan against the injustice of life. The senior Mr Malik told his young son that there were folks in this world who could never be satisfied with their lot. That there was always something more they needed. If the attorney were to be elevated to the bench he would yearn for the supreme court and if he got that, he would be unhappy for not being the chief justice. The best person, it was said, was the one who knew how to find satisfaction and happiness in what was to be had.

Quizzing an elderly man about the long-forgotten memory of Karam Hussain Shah
It has been said, ‘Riches is not how much you have, but how little you need.’ Surely truer and more meaningful words could scarcely have been said in praise of the art of finding happiness.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 28 February 2014 at 10:58, Anonymous Tahir Majeed said...

Great Man No doubt

At 28 February 2014 at 10:58, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

Great people 2 be remembered

At 28 February 2014 at 10:59, Anonymous Javed Akhtar said...

Great man. My Yoga mate.

At 28 February 2014 at 11:00, Anonymous Liaqat Toor said...

An old timer we all can be proud o

At 6 May 2014 at 16:00, Blogger Shama Mir said...

Humayun Malik is the world's most eloquent story teller. As the favourite uncle, who always had the same story plot, it was amazing how each time the expression had some new flavour to offer. I have always seen him as a versatile speaker, an acrobatic performer with the most friendly eyes. My heart still sings, "Ging gang goley goley" when I meet him. His attitude to life is admirable.
Happiness is: a Range Rover, a pair of gum boots and an officer in command! ☺

At 8 May 2014 at 08:34, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Truly spoken, Shama. When he commanded men, he was one of the best. As a friend he has no second. And he is truly the finest raconteur I have had the good fortune of hearing.

At 8 May 2014 at 11:24, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nothing inspires me more than reading the story of such men. Thank u for bring such men into lime light, though they had their own shining lives.


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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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