Old soldiers get going in Toronto
It has been said that if three Pakistanis find themselves on a desert island in the middle of nowhere, their first week would be a time of great friendship and joy in celebration of their good fortune, having managed to swim ashore to safety through perilous shark-infested waters. There would also be much satisfaction over the island having enough coconut trees and edible plants to feed an entire regiment, not to forget several gushing springs of cool, sweet water to drink from. In short, it would be a tiny little paradise with nothing to spoil it.
Will they live there happily ever after, occasionally scanning the horizon for a passing ship to take them home — which they are unlikely to be missing, given old unpaid bills, crippling mortgage payments and nagging wives? Or will it be otherwise? Chances are it will be otherwise. In the second week they would have stopped greeting one another and set up their own separate associations notwithstanding the fact that the membership of all three would be a single digit each. A bit of hyperbole that may be, but this is how things often turn out in Expatriateville. Take the United States for example. There are more associations of Pakistanis in some towns than there are Pakistanis. A good bit of the time, they are at each other’s throat. Litigation and court cases are not uncommon, contending lawyers being the only winners.
Since that sort of thing is the norm rather than the exception, one can only tip one’s hat to a group of retired officers of the three services, the Pakistan Army, the Pakistan Navy and the Pakistan Air Force, in Toronto who decided to get together to form what they call the Pakistan Armed Forces Association of Canada. They held their first gathering in Toronto on September 7 and some gathering it was, with great food to go and a band. Before things went live, there in the background was Madam Nur Jehan singing her heart out in her tribute to the fighting soldier — Kernail ni Jernail ni. For patron-in-chief, the Association had that vintage soldier and gentleman, Gen Jehangir Karamat, who had travelled all the way from Pakistan to be present. It was clear from his demeanour that he was happier in the company of soldiers, sailors and fliers than he would be as the interim prime minister of the interim government that everyone talks about but nobody believes will ever come to be. It is like that pot of gold where the rainbow ends that no one can ever get to.
It was not until the late 1960s that Canada opened its doors to non-European immigrants, which was when the first Pakistanis came to Canada; among them were officers from the services, one of them being Major Roy Joshua, a decorated officer of the Armoured Corps. Like the rest, he struggled and eventually carved out a place of comfort in his new surroundings. As time passed, wistful memories of happy days passed in the army began to get to him. Nostalgia is one of the most powerful emotions that a human being can experience; Roy was not alone. There were many others who felt like him. They realised that while it is not possible to resurrect the past, something of it could be retrieved by coming together with those who had once lived the same life. But it was not until the summer of last year that the idea of forming an association took birth. Roy mentioned it to Gen Karamat who had just ended his time as Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington and was visiting Toronto. Karamat, whom Roy had known as a captain during the 1965 war, encouraged him to go ahead.
Roy turned to Major Faheem Ataullah Jan, another Armoured Corps officer, and Major Javed Rahim Bakhsh, and the three of them got things rolling. Before long, they were joined by Vice Admiral Shamoon Alam Khan, Lt Col Farrukh Qureshi and Squadron Leader Sohail Saeedullah Khan. The September 7 gathering was the first “big do” that the Association had mounted and it went like a house on fire. A Canadian girl had them dancing in the aisles with her perfect rendition of Punjabi songs, starting with Madam Nur Jehan’s classic ‘Sanoo nehar walay pul te bulla ke te chan mahi kithay reh gya’. Present also that evening was the oldest member of the Association, Major D L Speedie, who was commissioned in 1942 and who fought in the Second World War. He gallantly walked up to the microphone and was lustily cheered. He said he did not see well, he did not hear well, but he felt great to be there. This old soldier certainly showed no sign or intention of fading away. The honour of being the oldest member was clearly that of Dr Mehdi, who is in his 90s and still batting with the steadiness of, say, Hanif Muhammad. He was helped to his feet by those on his table and he took a bow. Many minutes were to pass before the cheering died down. Also present was Esmond D’Cunha, who won the Sword of Honour and the Norman Gold Medal, a rare double, at the PMA in 1957.
What I found heart-warming and reassuring about the Association is that the principal initiative for its founding came from Major Joshua and Major Javed Bakhsh, both Christians. Given the way Pakistani society has treated its non-Muslim citizens, their continuing patriotism and love for the country deserve to be saluted. The Association describes itself as “a non-political and non-religious body”, making it clear that “any issues that impinge upon personal beliefs and convictions of members will remain strictly outside the ambit of its activities”. That is the way it should be. Another admirable step that the founders took was to invite those who are now Bangladeshi citizens but who were commissioned before the break-up in 1971 to join. One Bangladeshi officer was there that evening and more are expected to follow his lead.
Every evening has its low point and this evening’s low point came in the form of the Consul General of Pakistan in Toronto, Tassadaq Hussain. He was thanked for his presence “despite another engagement” and then asked to say a few words. The Consul General, who the audience was informed had served in Beijing, Qatar and another place I can’t remember, spoke for ten minutes but no one was able to understand a single word of what he said. His language, I concede, did sound like English but of a version and form not known to anyone present. Reluctantly, I add that his wife was the only one clad in a black Saudi–style, off-colour abaya and a mummifying white hijab that encased her head and areas right up to the chin. I have only two questions of the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri. One, is Mr Tassadaq Hussain now typical of those sent abroad to represent Pakistan? Two, are Pakistani diplomats’ wives now encouraged to wear abayas and hijabs as living manifestations of “enlightened moderation”?
And on that note, I rest my case.
Khalid Hasan is Daily Times’ US-based correspondent