I read of Sahibzada Yaqub Ali Khan’s death with great regret and guilt — guilt because, since having moved to Lahore in 2011, I could not meet him. I always meant to but every time I went to Islamabad I was so busy and visiting for such a short time that I could not go to his house.
I had first heard of Sahibzada Sahib when he was a lieutenant general and in high military office in the former East Pakistan. This was the December of 1971 and I was then a young officer in the army. I was sitting in the officer’s mess of Probyn’s Horse, a famous armoured regiment, of which Yaqub Khan had once been an officer. While sitting alone at some distance from them, I heard two senior officers mention General Sahibzada and the military action in Dhaka which had taken place in March that year. What I heard was music to my ears. It was that General Sahibzada and Admiral Ahsan disapproved of military action there and had resigned their commissions.
I too completely disapproved of it and had decided to resign my commission since I realised I could not be part of any army since all armies have to obey orders and these might be against one’s conscience. I felt completely alone since nobody I knew had views like mine. Even my family was against them. I wished I could talk to this man who probably thought like me.
But I found nothing more about Sahibzada Sahib’s views. In any case, I was in the field and he had been retired and was in Islamabad.
About 25 years passed and Sahibzada Sahib went on to become an ambassador and then a minister and held other high state posts. I too resigned and completed my PhD in England and returned to Pakistan to join the Quaid-i-Azam University. I wrote a number of books and also contributed articles in the English press every week.
One day I received a call from somebody who said he was the PA of Sahibzada Yaqub Khan and that my number had been given to him by a person who knew me as well as Sahibzada Sahib. I was surprised but I immediately talked to him. His voice was very cultivated and refined and he spoke excellent English. He told me he was interested in my work on linguistics and he would be glad to meet me. I immediately fixed the date and went to his house. I knew he would be a stickler for time so I reached precisely one minute before time. The man at the gate took my visiting card in and in a minute he himself came to the front door. Impeccably dressed in a smart suit he looked as I thought he would — like an aristocrat.
We talked of languages, Urdu literature and the classics of world literature. Politics he ignored and I too had to desist since my views were very different from his in this field. He showed me his books which were mostly classics and some were presents by famous people. I told him that I too was fond of collecting books but I had to collect all sorts of items and not just classics. His special interest was in the Sapir-Whorf theory since he mentioned that people speaking one language did not seem to have words for concepts in another language.
I once told him that I was doing research on linguistic politeness and that words for thank you did not exist in Urdu and Punjabi though, of course, educated people borrowed them from Arabic (shukr), Persian (Meher), Sanskrit (Dhannewad) or English (thank). He told me a story which it is best to repeat. He said in his low cultivated voice:
“We were in the desert and all the soldiers were thirsty and some even fainted. They had bloodshot eyes, haggard, emaciated looks and their lips were parched. Indeed, the skin seemed to come off the lips because of extreme thirst which had dried their bodies. Our Colonel was a very caring officer who got the last water bottle from somewhere and then told the soldiers to line up. Then he dipped his handkerchief in the water and lovingly dropped drops of water in the mouths of each soldier. The soldiers looked at him with intense devotion but not a word of thanks passed their lips. You know what the British CO said to me.”
“That they were ungrateful,” I suggested.
“No. They looked so grateful that nobody could say that. He just asked me whether any words for thanks were taught to Indian children.”
“Please is another word which does not exist in this form. One says ‘zara’ or gives pleading looks,” I said.
“And sorry is expressed by sorry looks.” He laughed and poured tea elegantly as this was a sacred ritual during our meetings.
I wanted to ask him about his role in Bangladesh but he did not discuss the subject with me. So, in the hope that he would talk about it, I told him that I was against the military action in Bangladesh and that I was not even there but I had chosen to resign my commission in principle. However, I was not taken seriously in 1971 so I stayed on and finally left the army giving higher studies as my reason for leaving in 1978. He listened quietly and asked me how I got into higher studies but he said nothing about his own experiences.
One day I presented him with my book Language and Politics in Pakistan (1966) and told him that I had gone to Dhaka with a woefully inadequate budget to do research on the Bengali language movement. I thought he would talk about Dhaka but, this time too, we ended up talking about the process of research and I found nothing about his experiences.
I also found that my criticism of Ziaul Haque’s policies did not bring the kind of retaliation or defensive reaction which was expected. He listened quietly and I was usually too ashamed to continue. I was surprised by his unfailing courtesy — he always called me Doctor Sahib though I was so much younger and junior to him in the army that calling me by first name was the norm — and he often declared in public that his views about languages had changed because of talking to me. Indeed, he attended my book launch and praised me to the people he knew. On my part, I never asked him for a favour of the kind people want from people with powerful contacts.
One day he and his wife came to my house for lunch. When he saw my library he found so many obscure, specialised badly printed and photocopied books that he remarked.
“Why so many of such unknown books?”
“Because as a scholar one has to read a lot on one subject and this is often obscure and badly printed.”
“But life is too short to read anything except the best of all the ages.”
His was a connoisseur’s view of books and he appreciated the aesthetic enjoyment of a library with beautiful books. My concept of a library of mine was that of a researcher who wants specialised books whether beautiful or enjoyable in themselves or not.
Meals in Sahibzada Sahib’s house — such that I attended — were formal affairs and I was reminded of the officers messes of the old regiments which gave such seven-course dinners to the sound of bagpipes. And now that I think of him I think of him in a formal dinner jacket complete with bow tie telling his wonderful stories, laughing his gentle laughter, listening to others talking of literature and language while in the background the bagpipes play ‘auld lang syne’!