No spin zone: From herdsman to ambassador - Anjum Niaz - Sunday, March 13, 2011

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The little shepherd saw his friends go to school. His heart filled with a longing to join them. One day, he left his flock and followed his friends. The schoolmaster was a kind man. He welcomed the little fellow’s love of learning. But the boy belonged to a very poor family, who could not even afford to light a lantern at night. Their survival depended on this little shepherd tending to other people’s livestock.
Enrolling as a full time student was a pipe dream, a mere fantasy. The master understood. Each morning he handed the boy homework. After the day’s work, the kid sat by the flickering light of the lantern, ready to go out for lack of oil, and complete the assignment before darkness blinded his little corner. The teacher continued giving him homework. Impressed by the diligence of the fellow, he allowed him to sit for the elementary school examination.
The boy excelled. His prize? A monthly scholarship of two rupees. This ‘princely’ sum changed the fortunes of the family. The shepherd went on to enroll in high school. It was miles away from his village. But he was determined to excel once again. He did. With a high school certificate in hand, the herdsman-turned-student went looking for doors of higher education in Lahore. He soon found one. In old times, the mosques provided a roof over homeless students seeking to better their lives. The God-fearing community donated food to the mosque (Yes, those were good times and people had hearts of gold). With shelter and food arranged, our hero got admission in a college. By now a strapping youth, tall in stature, good in physique, handsome in looks and convivial in disposition, he began a journey of charmed life that was to lead him to the top salons of London and beyond to Buckingham Palace.
But first we must travel through the time capsule between Lahore to London. Sultan Mohammad, the herdsman from Kala Kader, a small village in Sialkot district, studied by day and worked as a coolie by night at the Lahore railway station. The money he earned was sent to his family back home. Sultan nurtured his keen intellect by perfecting his English and Farsi. It’s no exaggeration to say that the two languages he mastered made a critical difference in his life to come.
One day, the ambassador of Afghanistan, Amir Mohammad Khan, came for Friday prayers at the mosque where Sultan lived and worked. Prayers over, the management of the mosque introduced Sultan to the ambassador. Sultan welcomed the VIP guest in his mother tongue, Farsi. Highly impressed, the ambassador lingered long to chat with this young man. When he discovered that Sultan was equally proficient in English, in a blink he asked him to become his English tutor. When returning to Kabul, Sultan was asked to accompany the ambassador.
The story is a fairytale and had we someone like Hans Christian Andersen, the man who perfected the art of fairytales that many of us grew up reading and enjoying, Sultan Mohammad’s tale with all its ingredients would have paled Anderson’s fiction into insignificance. Truth is stranger than fiction, as the cliché goes.
Sultan Mohammad bid farewell to his family promising to share his newfound bounties. Soon he was presented before the King, Amir Abdul Rehman, and elevated to the post of royal translator. He translated the court correspondence between Kabul and London from English to Farsi and Farsi to English. So delighted were his benefactors that they loaded the man with gifts and more gifts when he became a vizier and personal tutor to the heir apparent.
But nemeses waited — in the dark corners in the shape of the palace intrigues — to strike. The Afghan courtiers hated the ‘foreigner’ who had usurped the king’s attention. On whom the gods smile and fortune refuses to leave, no evil can come. Sultan Mohammad was the favoured one and fortune was his best ally. It came in the form of Lillias Hamilton, an English noblewoman, residing in Kabul at that time. A lady of power and influence at the Afghan royal court, Hamilton, many thought, was the niece of Queen Victoria, Britain’s reigning sovereign.
She liked Sultan and advised him to leave before luck left him. She offered to transfer all his money in her account in London for safekeeping. In the darkness of night, Sultan fled Kabul only to get arrested as a suspect spy by the British in Lahore. Languishing in Lahore Fort while undergoing trial, he managed to send a message to Lady Hamilton, seeking her help. Help soon arrived; Sultan was freed. He set sail for London.
With his massive wealth that Lillias Hamilton had watched over, he set up a pleasure dome in London. It became the watering hole of aristocracy and leading politicians of the day. Given to a redundancy of flamboyance and prodigality, for Sultan, the sky was the limit. But love of learning never left him. He entered Cambridge University and left with a law degree. He met and befriended Allama Iqbal who too was a student at Cambridge. Meanwhile, the king of Afghanistan, who wondered where his favoured one had disappeared, found out that Sultan was in England.
Promptly the king appointed Sultan the ambassador of Afghanistan to England! The herdsman-turned-ambassador painted London red. Magic casements opened mysteriously before him. He received audience from Queen Victoria; played polo with the Duke of Windsor, was made member of the Royal Geographical Society and wined, dined and danced with England’s crème de la crème.
Soon, bankruptcy arrived and luck left. The prodigal son lost friends and fortune. He returned to his roots and set up law practice in Sialkot. Money made its way once more to the home of Sultan Mohammad and so did reckless expenditure. He married many times, including women from Afghan royalty. Lillius Hamilton wrote a novel based on Sultan’s life. It was called A Vizier’s Daughter, published in London in 1900. Sultan’s youngest wife was Sultana Fatima, the daughter of a big landlord in Sialkot.
And here comes the climax. A star was born to Sultan and Sultana in 1911. While studying in Lahore, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, 20, got the news of his father’s sudden death. He returned home only to get another shock. The money lenders began turning up at their door and demanding the family to return the money Sultan Mohammad had borrowed from them over the years.
Faiz’s elder brother Tufail sold the family property to settle his father’s debts. But the diamond that Sultan and Sultana left behind shines bright till today is their son Faiz Ahmad Faiz!
(This narration is from Ludmila Vasilieva’s book Parvarish-e-lauho qalam (Faiz, his life and works) published in Russian in 2002; translated into Urdu by Usama Faruqi, an Urdu scholar and Vasilieva; published by Oxford University Press in 2007)

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