I wish to write today about my father – Saba Dewan





I wish to write today about my father. Named Berindranath by his family, he named himself Zafar Payami when at the age of 17 years he began writing his first short stories in Urdu. Over the years addressed variously as Bindi, Binder, Zafar, Zafar Bhai, Binder Bhai and Dewan Sahib by his family, friends, political comrades, fellow writers and journalists, admirers and acquaintances he was Papa to my younger sister Samira and I.  


Papa was born on January 6, 1932 in a landed, joint family in Kapurthala, a princely state in then east Punjab. His mother died when he was barely three months old. His father Dewan Badridas was posted by the Kapurthala State to Bahraich in eastern U.P. (gifted to the Maharaja of Kapurthala by the British in the 19th century as reward for loyalty in the Revolt of 1857). Deeming Bahraich too remote and ‘hazardous’ for a motherless baby, his father’s widowed elder sister, Bibi Phool Kaur took Papa with her to  the ancestral home of the Bedi clan in which she had been married, in Dera Baba Nanak, also in east Punjab. Her own two grown up children, both sons, were studying in England and it was on little Bindi, my father, that Bhabhoji, as she was called by everyone, showered all her lonely love and attention.                


And so my father grew up, away from the urbane sophistication of Kapurthala in the rough and ready, rural environs of Dera Baba Nanak. Loved and pampered by Bhabhoji, Papa it seems refused to return to his own father who after getting remarried wanted his son back. This generated considerable unspoken strain between his father and Bhabhoji, who too was adamant to keep with her, her ‘little Bindi’. Under pressure from the family in Kapurthala however she would be forced periodically to send off Bindi to Bahraich only for him to be returned in just a few months by his father concerned about the boy’s descent into melancholia and ill health. Back in Dera Baba Nanak and Bhabhoji’s arms Bindi would bloom again.


With few children around to play with he would spend his time making stories. He would make stories of anything that caught his fancy – the ungainly and friendly baby buffalo in the courtyard transformed in his tales into a magical creature with the power to fly. At night when everyone was asleep it would take Bindi on its back for a ride over Dera Baba Nanak. As he grew older and took to reading with a single minded passion, his stories got peopled with the princes and bandits, minstrels and magicians he had met first in the books that Bhabhoji would order for him from Amritsar. Much inspired he wrote a story about the little prince who after being kidnapped by an evil king escapes from his castle in the deep forests and many exciting adventures later finds finally his way back home to his grieving mother. In later life, when he had finally made peace with his father who died soon after, Papa would say he wished he hadn’t written the story of the little prince.              


The tug and push over Bindi’s custody between Bhabhoji and his father and family in Kapurthala  seems to have been the leitmotif of my father’s growing years. When he was about 3-4 years old my father’s cousin and Bhabhoji’s younger son Pyare Lal Bedi or PL as he was called by everyone returned from England accompanied by his British wife, Freida and their little baby boy, Ranga. PL and Freida brought to Dera Baba Nanak exhilarating ideas of freedom, equality and revolution. Their deep involvement in the freedom movement and with workers and peasants’ organizations led them into a nomadic life punctuated with periodic prison sentences. Bhabhoji with my father in tow opted to leave the comforts of Dera Baba Nanak to live with her idealistic but often impoverished son and daughter in law as they moved first to live in mud huts in Lahore, where PL unionized the city’s rickshaw pullers while editing a weekly newspaper, ‘Monday Morning’ and then onwards to Kangra where he worked to organize Kisan schools to educate peasants about the dynamics of colonial and feudal exploitation.    


My father’s family in Kapurthala viewed PL and Freida’s political activity with a mix of respect and anxiety. The men in the family had earned their fortunes and status through service either to the princely rulers or the colonial state. While they admired their nephew and his wife’s renunciation of material comforts they were deeply apprehensive about their seditious political activity. More so when they saw the profound and in their view disruptive influence that PL and Freida had over Bindi. My father, barely 10 or11 years old, had taken to wearing coarse khadi kurta and payjama. While still in Dera Baba Nanak he had led his fellow students in the village school in a protest march against colonial rule. In Kapurthala on the other hand my father’s elder brother and cousins prided themselves over their natty suits and aspired for place in the civil services. On one of his dreaded visits to Bahraich, my teenaged father’s earnest but ham handed attempts to distribute political pamphlets about the double oppression of princely and colonial rule amongst the peasants left my grandfather, a functionary of the Kapurthala state in the area, seething with embarrassment and fury. The offending pamphlets were seized and my father sent back to Bhabhoji.   


My grandfather however softened when short stories written by his young, estranged son began appearing in Urdu newspapers and magazines under his pseudonym Zafar Payami. At a relatively young age Zafar was being noticed and noted within Urdu literary circles. By the late 1940’s, early 1950’s he was an active member of the Student’s Federation, the student’s wing of the undivided Communist Party. He did his graduation and post graduation from Allahabad University and though he did reasonably well in academics he seems to have spent less time in the class rooms and more in organizing political activity on the campus. It is in Allahabad that he forged his closest friendship. Ahmed Rashid Shervani was a fellow student, a comrade in Student Federation and was to become Papa’s best friend and brother for life. Chacha, Nisho Chachi  and their children, Tassaduq, Amina and Asiya have always been, family.


By the mid 1950’s Papa made his way to Delhi. He fell in love with my mother Manorma whose parents, Principal Chhabil Das and Sita Devi had been long time political associates and friends of PL and Freida. Dispensing with the fanfare and expenditure associated with traditional weddings he and Manorma got married in a simple ceremony that included besides the two of them, the bride’s parents, elder sister and brother in law and from the bridegroom’s side, PL, Freida and Ranga, Bhabhoji by now being too old and frail to leave her bed. No gifts were exchanged and no feasts organized. And my father and mother moved in to share a life together for the next 35 years.


Those early years of marriage were exacting but exciting. With the brazen confidence that only the young can have they set off, with little money in their pockets for a six month road and train trip across Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Jordan and Egypt. They would get stranded at places, go without food for a day or so but eventually get bailed out by the kindness of strangers. This was the beginning of my parents’ long and passionate friendship with the Arab world and especially Palestine. On their return they were both to write extensively about their travels, the issues facing the Arab countries and about the grave injustice being suffered by the Palestinians; concerns they were to remain faithful to through their lives as journalists, writers and friends of the people of west Asia.


These writings also marked my father’s entry into full time journalism. Prior to this though he would do some part time political commentary writing in English and Urdu for the All India Radio his focus lay in his Urdu fiction writings.  Life however poses difficult choices. The writer had to also become a journalist so that bills could be paid in time. He began writing political columns in English and Urdu newspapers and magazines as Dewan Berindranath and Zafar Payami respectively. He became well known for his regular columns in the Urdu magazine Shama for which he wrote both journalistic and literary pieces. His science fiction story – Sitaaron ke Qaidi – Prisoners of the Stars about the space odyssey of two little children was serialized by Shama and became very popular.  Years later when I was a little child and he read it out to me I cried. I did not care for little Atiya and her brother being trapped forever and ever in the galaxy. So he changed my version of the story. After an exciting journey in the world of stars the children return home safe and sound to their Mummy and Papa.


Papa would tell Samira and me many stories. Most were made up on the spur of the moment with magical characters we kept adding to as we went along. These my sister, papa and I would then act out. He would make poems for all the pets we had. He loved films. Braving my mother’s disdain for the ‘rubbish values’ propagated by cinema we would watch a film a week. He was non discriminating in his choice – good, bad, art, crass – he gave me my love for the films.





He loved food and music…we would eat out so often, little dhabas, roadside eateries, fancier places – it all depended on our mood and the money he had in his pocket. A favorite food itinerary began with kababs at Chhammi Kababi on Jama Masjid steps, moving to that lovely little place now sadly shut down, Flora located in Urdu Bazaar and then onwards for biryani at Jawahar in Matiya Mahal. Or we could skip Flora and go to Karim. Dessert was Bundu Khan’s kulfi, back on the steps of Jama Masjid.As I grew older I would love to sit with him and listen to music- mostly Hindustani semi classical genres like thumri, dadra and ghazal. He would explain the meaning of words I didn’t understand in Urdu poetry.


I remember finding him once with tears brimming in his eyes. He had been listening to Amanat Ali Khan on Radio Pakistan sing Ibne Insha’s – Insha ji uththo ab kooch karo iss sheher mein dil ko lagana kyaa… Insha ji get up and make your departure, this city is not for you. I was deeply distressed to see him cry. But I was too young. I could not understand his tears and had no words of comfort to offer. Instead I pretended I hadn’t seen his tears and hugged him like he said, a ‘koala bear’.    


He was however always there to give comfort and strength when the harshness of life suddenly confronted our childhood. I remember that on my 7th or 8th birthday none of the ‘posh’ kids from our neighborhood turned up for my party. Not one. Even though we had always gone for birthday parties to each others’ homes till then. The reason, my best friend told me when I went to call her from the neighbouring house was that I had invited also the ‘other’ poor children of sundry people who worked in the colony’s many homes. They too were my friends with whom I played in front of our house or in the park. What I hadn’t noticed though, since I was too young to notice such things, that over time my posh friends had gradually unfriended me, to use FB jargon. The social boycott, ordered by their parents, who feared the ‘contaminating bad’ influence that the children of the poor would have on their wards was now confronting me on my birthday party in all its ugly reality.


Anyhow all my non posh friends had come and so we had a party and it was great fun. But my heart did still hurt a tiny bit. Once all our little guests had left my aunt who was present, advised my parents to wean me away from my ‘unsuitable’ friends. She was genuinely pained to see me abandoned by an entire lot of friends on my birthday. My father then quietly called me aside. He said that I would have to decide if I wished to be friends with people who loved me as I was or those whose value for me depended upon who I played with. Very gently he explained the meaning of true friendship, loyalty and of the utter irrelevance of being rich or poor in making friends.    


Then there was the time when I had been a bit younger. And had come crying home because my friends kept asking whether I was Hindu or Muslim and laughed because I did not know. My mother a true internationalist at heart had said – tum kaho ki tum insaan ho – tell them you are a human being. At the age of 5 or 6 that had sounded incomprehensible.  Feeling intensely sorry for myself I had wept some more. My father had asked what I would like to be. When I replied that I didn’t know he said that till I made up my mind I might wish to say that I was an Indian. I had then asked – but what are you and Mummy? And he explained how he and Mummy didn’t believe in religion, were neither Hindu, Muslim, Sikh nor Christian. They were Indians and that was good enough for them. Perhaps I too might want to go along with that till I decided for myself what I wished to be. In retrospect now I understand that the identity he had chosen for himself was so apt. A child of the nationalist movement he was, an Indian. Not a patriotic, bursting with jingoist nationalism, Manoj Kumar or in today’s context Anna Hazare kind of Indian but an Indian who deeply cherished the idea of India – a truly secular, equal and just India. 


I look back and feel too that in many ways Papa was trying to be the father he never had. And Papa succeeded. He was a really good father. So good in fact that he turned his back on his own dreams, his ambitions. We weren’t rich but he and my mother insured we had a comfortable childhood and youth. In the times we were growing up a full time Urdu short story writer and novelist could never have hoped to be able to send his children to expensive schools, fulfill, within reasonable limits, all their desires and demands. My father gave us all this by moving further and further away from literary writing.


In the early 70’s he and my mother set up their own news and features agency, Press Asia International. Those were exciting times for them but very demanding. As a journalist Papa earned both respect and name besides of course the means to maintain a comfortable lifestyle for his children. He enjoyed all this. I think for a long time he even forgot about his earlier dreams though he did write short stories sporadically. These for some reason however he was reluctant to get published. It was only much later, on my mother’s insistence, that a bunch of his later short stories some of which were written during the period of militancy in Punjab, were published in a collection called ‘Dehshat’ or Terror.


His active political activism too had ended with the disillusionment that came in the wake of the rupture in the Communist party. He was now content, or seemingly so, with believing in a progressive, humanist philosophy, a Nehruvian socialism. He was however happy, proud and supportive when he saw me get involved in the political environment of Delhi university. When as a young woman I discovered feminism he gave me to read – The Origin of the Family, Private Property and State by Engels.  During my B.A. I was part of a group of women students that had challenged the retrogressive and unacceptable patriarchal mindset of the authorities in St Stephen’s College where we were students. In retaliation the principal, Dr. Hala had summoned our parents with threat of expelling us from his esteemed college. His shock was laughable when instead of apologizing on their daughter’s behalf, as he had expected, my parents thundered at him for presiding over such an appallingly conservative, anti women institution. The parents of my other friends too gave Dr. Hala a tough time. The meeting ended with a visibly shaken and perspiring Dr. Hala emerging from his office and assuring us that all that had happened so far was a ‘minor misunderstanding’. We were ‘his pride, his children’.


It was his personal and political commitment to freedom that made Papa accept, without much fuss, his daughters’ choices. Even when these were different from what he would have wished. He wanted both of us to be independent, have careers. However when Samira decided to marry Rakesh at a relatively young age he respected her choice. I was by then in a long standing relationship with Rahul. Papa had to learn to share me with him. It couldn’t have been easy given the closeness that I had always shared with Papa. But he made his peace by including Rahul within our special space. Rahul says it was a smart move. He got to keep his daughter close by keeping at his side her boyfriend.Smart or not I am eternally grateful that Papa never made me choose.      


In the late 1980’s Papa participated in some of the meetings and activities of the anti communal platform, Sampradayikta Virodhi Andolan (SVA) with which Rahul and I too were involved. Papa became very fond of Dilip Simeon, charismatic history teacher and guide to many of us and one of the founders of SVA. Enthused by ‘Daleep ji’ as Papa insisted on calling Dilip he even agreed to troop in to Ramjas College to speak at a public meeting organized there to protest against the Hindu right’s hysterics over Bhisham Sahni’s ‘Tamas’.  However Papa’s days of political activism were behind him. While he would happily join in for a few hours in SVA marches and dharnas, his own needs now led him towards Sufi mysticism. Papa would often go off quietly to spend a few hours in the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. In his later years Papa had also turned towards Guru Nanak. Though he had been brought up in a Punjabi family that was equally Sikh and Hindu he had never identified with the formal structure or tenets of any of these belief systems. His relationship with his two ‘Babas’, Nanak and Nizamuddin was intensely personal, free of the restraints imposed by formal religion.


The melancholy that used to so frighten his father in Bahraich had over the years become a constant companion of my father. I hope his two Babas gave him the solace he probably sought from them. He decided to go back to fiction writing. Shutting himself away for four years in a barsaati he had rented in Nizamuddin West market, not far from his beloved Dargah, Papa wrote the novel in Urdu he had not written while we were growing up. Called –‘Faraar’ – or Fugitive it tells the story of the partition, Bangladesh war and of those who denied shelter in the own home are condemned to be always fugitives in strange lands.


‘Faraar’ did not get the recognition Papa had hoped it would. I never read the novel. I was scared that it wouldn’t be up to scratch; that the critics were right in ignoring it. Meanwhile Papa took ill. Perhaps it had nothing to do with his heartbreak over the lukewarm response his novel had received. Perhaps it had everything to do with it – Insha ji uththo ab kooch karo iss sheher mein dil ko lagana kyaa… He would get well temporarily and then again fall ill. He died on December 10, 1989. He was just 57 years old.


As news of his death spread my mother, sister and I were surrounded by mourners. Absolute strangers would come to offer condolences and share their experience of his kindness and generosity. Quietly he had helped so many, many people in need. I wasn’t surprised. He had this old fashioned saying when he was alive – your left pocket should not know what your right pocket gives. Then the critics began taking note of ‘Faraar’, bestowing upon it acclaim. Frankly it made little difference. He was gone. I still haven’t read the novel. After his death for a long, long time I stopped hearing music. I couldn’t bear to hear ghazals without him by my side to turn to for meaning. Over the years I went back to music.  The time has come perhaps when I should read ‘Faraar’.      

(Courtesy: Saba Dewan’s FB post)

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