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Tag Archives: Islamabad

Its elemental my dear Singh


By Farahnaz Zahidi / Photo: Myra Iqba


Published: December 30, 2012

Saidpur Village exists in present day Pakistan but chunks of it look like they’re straight out of the Mughal era.

Saidpur Village, Islamabad, exists in present day Pakistan, but chunks and parts of it look like they’re straight out of the Mughal era. Nestled among the picturesque Margalla Hills, this tiny village has bits and pieces that are restored remnants from an age gone by. One can picture a bazaar set up by Sultan Said Khan, the Gakhar chief of the region during the reign of Babur, after whom the village was named. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, going about their daily business — buying, selling, co-existing. Peacefully.

20-year-old Suraj Singh would have fit right in that era. A look at him and the time machine seems less of a myth. Basking comfortably in the sunshine of a sunny winter day in Islamabad, Singh looks unfazed by the fast pace of life, as he sits on a chair perched outside his shop on a slope of Saidpur. His flushed, reddish-fair complexion and striking green eyes stand out under a magenta turban, tied on his head in the typical Sikh fashion. The heavy-set young man is almost shy on approach.

“I’ve never thought about doing anything else,” says Singh, who dropped out of school and is now learning the ropes of herbal medicine from his older brother Sardar Amarjeet Singh. It is, after all, a part of his Sikh-Afghan heritage.

Singh tends to his father’s Yoonani dawa khana, which offers traditional herbal medication in the genre of hikmat. His father, a Sikh hakeem called Sardar Rawail Singh, owns three stores: one in Rawalpindi, one in Saidpur Village and the oldest one in G-11 Markaz. Rawail and his three sons shuttle between their home in Hassan Abdal to their shops in the twin cities. “Ask anyone in G-11 where the hakeem sits and they will guide you to my father,” says Singh with pride.

On an average, the Singh family’s shops earn between Rs6,000 to Rs20,000 a day which allows the family a comfortable living. However, business was better when competition was not so tough. The influx of Sikh migrants over the years, and more Sikh hakeems setting up shops, has reduced their clientele.

Some 22 years ago, Suraj’s family migrated from Kunduz, Afghanistan, to Hassan Abdal, a small town in northern Punjab, and made a modest home near the Gurdwara Panja Sahib, one of Sikhism’s holiest sites. Singh and his family live as part of a tightly knit Sikh community, near the revered temple where every year thousands of Sikh devotees gather for pilgrimage.

Sikh 03


Yoonani, in Arabic, means “Greek.” This very title pays tributes to its origins, as it is said to have been developed by the legendary Greek physician Hippocrates, who expanded on the medical traditions of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia Though it’s been practiced in one form or another for thousands of years, it is now considered a formal branch of what allopaths may term “alternative medicine”. While many still believe staunchly in treatment through hikmatand not allopathy in Pakistan, speculations that steroids are heavily added to it make users skeptical. It makes it therefore imperative that the hakeem they go to is not a quack but a trusted one. Singh’s family seems to have earned that trust over the years.

Hikmat is based on the ancient concept of the four ‘humours’ that exist in the human body, and their corresponding ‘element’. These are Blood (air), Yellow Bile (fire), Black Bile (earth) and Phlegm (water). These elements must be in a state of balance, or else the body can suffer different kinds of ailments.

It occurs to me at this point, that Pakistan’s own elements — the religious majority and minorities — are anything but balanced. Were they to exist in a state of harmony, peace and coexistence, Pakistan would undoubtedly be a happier, healthier and more functional place.

Sikh 01

Luckily, Singh jolts me out of my somewhat depressing reverie by telling me, “I have never suffered any discrimination or persecution in Pakistan. It is my home.”

Above the shop’s door, a signboard hung over baked red clay bricks says, “Dawa hum dete hain. Shifa Allah deta hai (We prescribe medicine. It is Allah who Heals).” Underneath the signboard, Suraj Singh, a follower of Guru Nanak Dev, sees you off with a smile. Here at least, it seems the elements have some together.

(With additional input by Myra Iqbal)

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, December 30th, 2012.

Life of A Fauji Wife

Baji aap ke liye chaai mein kitnee cheeni daaloon?” (ma’m how much sugar do I put in your tea?), he asks me. More than the question, his body language is intriguing to me. He does not make eye contact. His shoulders are slightly bent in respect. He is prompt. He reminds me of stories of jinns in human control… hukm ho mere aaqa type!

The person I am dissecting here is a domestic helper at a friend’s house. I am visiting my old (not as in age!) friend in Islamabad on a work trip. It is is winters and sitting by the gas heater snuggling in my soft woolen wrap, all I had to do was utter the word “chaai” which this man heard and voila! Tea has arrived. This gentlemen is standing in front of me submissively, with a tray in his hand. And I am not used to this for many reasons! For starters, I am not used to full time servants. I make my own tea. Why, even my friends know the drill – that there is a tea station and they can either help themselves to an open kitchen or sit in my kitchen while I make tea for them. No complains. This is how I like it. And it’s not like I am not blessed with domestic help and this is a blog about deprivations. No. But in Karachi, the helpers are in any case more street smart, defiant and aware of their rights – something I actually like. They make sure we don’t become bullies!

I have seen obedient helpers but the “batman” variety is another ball game, as is being the wife of a fauji. Over the days that we are together after what seems like centuries, me and my friend talk about the dynamics. Its a different culture altogether. For starters, all of your husband’s colleagues call you either “behen” or “bhabi”. “But what if I prefer to be addressed by my name?”, I ask my friend. “Naheen yaar, this comes with the package,” she quips back.

What also comes with the package is a highly, highly, highly disciplined life! Teen baj kar chaar minute par qayloola. 9.30 pm is snuggle time and 10 pm is the time for the first dream. Everything is done by a routine. Predictable and mundane maybe, but a fresh change from my erratic schedule in which I sleep at ungodly hours at times because I am in the mood to write, or where me & my family can decide to go on a drive at 17 minutes past 11 pm because there is no dabal roti in the house!

The cool stuff is very cool in fauji wife’s life. Perhaps the best part is the “taika“…..the authority one enjoys. It was amazing how my friend just had to take out her forces identification card, flash it at the guards at the airport or anywhere where security checks were being carried out, and not have to waste time.

It is a different culture, altogether. My friend, basically a typical Karachiite at heart like myself, shares the transition. Words and names like Pannu Aqil, chaaoni, cantt and sir jee have found way into her life. The humour is different. The socializing is not so “multi-cultural”. An army, navy or air force wife has to maintain a certain decorum, and live in a certain way.

But the plusses have to make it glass half full. For one, your husband comes home in time to have a cup of tea with you. You live in serene and safe areas. The armed forces community is like a big family which is a nice feeling (even though the hierarchies are too defined for my taste). You ALWAYS have domestic help, and will get a substitute if one falls ill or goes to his village. You get free flights within Pakistan on ugly armed forces’ cargo planes. And in all probability, your husband is physically fit, and has not developed a pot belly.

So to each their own. I am happy for the fauji wives. And with that, I go back to my civilian life and make my own chaai. 🙂