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He left Pakistan, Pakistan never left him


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He left Pakistan. Pakistan never left him. It stayed with him right here in Northern Virginia. Pakistan went out on walks with him, holding his hand as he held his sister’s who died while he was in America.

Ghani Baba was in his 80s when I met him. When the doctors asked him not to swing, he would simply go and sit on one, often for hours. And he always needed two swings, one he sat on and the other he talked to.

The other swing, he said, was for his sister. Because he insisted she was alive, people stopped trying to convince him that she was dead.

He would talk to her, tell her to hold the chains properly, not to pitch high and be very careful.

“Remember Zaitoon Bibi, the last time you fell you had six stitches. We had to take you to the city as there was no doctor in our village,” he would say. “So don’t do it again.”

Listening to him, I often wondered why people die. And if they have to die, the love others have for them should die with them.

But Ghani Baba believed he was living in Pakistan not only because his sister was there. He was so used to living in Pakistan that he could not imagine living anywhere else.

He was already in his 70s when he came to America. He was born in Pakistan, was educated there, worked there and retired there. He came to America only because both his sons had settled here.

His sons say he was like everybody else in other matters. I believe them because I had discussed politics, cricket and poetry with him and found him very knowledgeable. But he would get upset whenever someone tried to convince him he no longer lived in Pakistan.

If it was dementia, it was a strange dementia.

In the beginning, Ghani Baba used to argue. When he noticed he made others uncomfortable, he stopped arguing. He would simply go out in the backyard, occupy one of the swings and start talking to the other.

Zaitoon Bibi was born five years after him and unlike other families in rural Pakistan; their parents had only two children. He was strong, tall and dark. She was petite, fair-skinned and very delicate.

So from a very early age, he took it upon himself to look after her; bringing her food, books, and flowers. While walking to school, he would make sure that she was on the side shadowed by trees.

Yes, their parents sent both to schools although it was uncommon in those days to educate girls. Actually, many small farmers, like their father, did not even send their sons to school. Instead, they put them to work. But their parents were different.

When their father died, Zaitoon was 10. Ghani, who was not a Baba yet, had just completed his matriculation. The death shattered their lives. Zaitoon, who was very close to her father, was devastated. She cried for months; talking quietly to her father, recalling the tales he used to tell her.

That’s when Ghani decided he would be like a father to her.

There was very little money at home. So he had to discontinue his studies and go to the city, Rawalpindi, where he became a typist.

New responsibilities also bring new courage. So Ghani decided that he will fulfill his father’s dream of making him a government official. For this, he would have to complete his education.

So he worked during the day and went to a tuition centre at night. He spent the next eight years working like a machine. Completed his education and became a government official as his father desired.

And he also fulfilled his other pledge, to be like a father to her sister. He shared a room with five other people, bought his clothes and shoes from the market that sold used goods, ate little but always sent money home.

He hardly bought anything for himself on festivals like Eid but always bought gifts for his mother and sister. It was his mother who bought him new clothes whenever she could. She made some money sewing clothes.

After he got a government job, Ghani faced tremendous pressure to marry off his sister but he let her complete her studies, up to the 12th grade. He also found an educated man for her and the only time he borrowed money in his life was for his sister’s marriage. Everybody in the village acknowledged that even if his father had been alive, he could not have arranged a better wedding.

Then he rented a house in the city and brought the couple to live with him for as long as it took Zaitoon’s husband to find a suitable job.

He got married only after his sister was well settled.

The two families lived in the same neighbourhood, so they met daily and often had dinners together.

The idea was to live like this forever. Their definition of forever was simple, one dying in the other’s arms, as his mother did with her children and grandchildren around her bed.

But even Ghani Baba could not plan everything. He wanted his children, and those of his sisters, to live together too.

His children had other plans. After completing their education, both his sons came to America for further studies, found jobs and settled here.

Ghani Baba refused to go. His wife Aisha stayed with him too.

But when the doctors discovered that his main arteries were almost completely clogged, his sister persuaded him to go to America for treatment.

When he was returning home after a year, Aisha, who was with him, became seriously ill so he prolonged his stay for two more years.

Meanwhile, the unthinkable happened: his sister died in her sleep. Ghani Baba and Aisha took the first available flight to Pakistan.

He cried like a baby. Did not eat for days and when he overcame his grief, he decided he had only one desire left, to be buried next to his sister.

And one day his wife died too, as suddenly as his sister had. This further increased his determination to be buried in the village graveyard where Aisha and Zaitoon were.

This was when, the doctors say, he started seeking refuge in the past, often pretending that his sister and wife were both alive. He would talk to them for hours.

So his sons brought him back to America, leaving behind his desire to be buried next to his wife and sister. Since he could no longer decide where to live, Ghani Baba convinced himself that he was where he wanted to be, in Pakistan.

I first saw Ghani Baba sitting on a roadside bench in Springfield, Virginia. A police officer was trying to talk to him. He was speaking Punjabi with the officer, although he knew English.

The officer asked me to talk to him.

I asked where he lived. “In Pindi,” he replied. I tried but could not get any other answer from him.

The officer found a piece of paper in his wallet, describing his medical condition with instructions to call a particular number if he was found somewhere.

The officer did and his sons came and took him away.

A month after this incident, I met him again in a social gathering and he was as normal as the most normal person in the room. He did not remember anything about our first encounter but we discussed everything else, from politics to cricket.

After a few meetings, I became friendly with his sons and we started seeing each other.

One day, I saw him on a swing in his backyard.

He called me and said: “Take me to Karachi.”

“Why Karachi,” I asked.

“To buy gifts for my wife, sister and our children,” he said.

“But you are in America,” I said.

He looked at me and said: “I thought you were a sensible person.” Then he turned his face away, trying to hide his tears.

“See, Zaitoon, they think I am crazy,” he said to the other swing.


The author is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC

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Anwar Iqbal is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC.

Comments (78) Closed

Pavan Oct 20, 2012 01:37pm
Spoiled my lazy Sat morning. baaaaaah Silly comments aside, I think this happens with most of the elderly folks. Pestering grand children, other elderly folks, never ending TV soaps along with spiritual gatherings could be a remedy. You get none of them abroad (even grand kids have minimum time). Though this idea sounds bad for the sons, I think good old age homes are better places for folks at this age. They will have continuous attention and you will have plenty of other elderly people who can understand each other.
shezi Oct 21, 2012 10:51am
Excellent story hates off sir
Syed Z A Shah Oct 21, 2012 11:12am
Beautifully written. Yes it is upto the individual to cross that barrier on either side at the appropriate times. Both sides have their pros & cons. The ponds and lakes may be dry or poisoned, there might be hunters in waiting, yet the annual migration of birds from north to south never stops.
Asad Oct 20, 2012 01:33pm
Feroz Oct 20, 2012 01:04pm
Very touching and emotional too. You can lose your wealth and your health too but some memories specially of those you love, are imprinted forever.
Ali Oct 20, 2012 11:56am
Any comment would spoil the beauty of this story
Mohammed Jan Oct 20, 2012 12:01pm
The gentleman could never forget the death of her sister. He had a role in her upbringing and her death has devastated Ghani Baba. This article shows the true love of a brother for his sister.
Fida Sayani Oct 20, 2012 12:08pm
Taking some one from his roots and bringing him to an alien country, where he has no desire to live is crime against that individual. I am sure that the sons have brought their father to USA for good reason. However it will be appropriate for Ghani baba to live his remaining life in Pakistan with smile on his face rather then a tearful life in America.
Faraz Oct 20, 2012 12:12pm
It's always pleasure to read your treasures.. keep writing and stay blessed!
G.A. Oct 20, 2012 12:19pm
It's a major dilemma for the current generation settled in the U.S. with aging parents. How many times has one seen Pakistani, Indian or Chinese elderly couples strolling by the roadside with the wife a few steps behind while their children are at work.
NASAH (USA) Oct 20, 2012 12:32pm
Anwar Iqbal you are a great storyteller -- tell us some happy stories.
M.Asif Gondal Oct 20, 2012 01:06pm
The ultimate love for the soil cannot be scratched from the mind of a person...The soil of sons always remember the sweet smell of the soil and the runs in their bodies like blood whether they are in anywhere in the world and this may be one of the characteristics of South Asian people.
A Khan Oct 22, 2012 05:37am
Very true. I am in UK for years but Pakistan is with me. It is very hard to live away from Pakistan but now responsibility of the family, who are all from UK, make it extremely difficult to come back. Always, love you as ever and hopefully buried in your soil after completing my life.
raika45 Oct 20, 2012 01:26pm
So what is your point. People with dementia usually live in the past.It happens to all who suffer from it.Why should this man be different? To the extend you can write an article on this.
Khurram Gardezi Oct 22, 2012 10:58am
Awesome master piece depicting the true patriotism and love....Worth reading...
Niranjan Oct 21, 2012 01:08pm
Dear Author, I love reading excellent articles from this site. This is heart touching article, I cried whiling reading this. Keep up your excellent work..
Khawar Haiderk Oct 22, 2012 10:56am
It is a wonderful story and relates to me as I live in England but am more interested in what goes on in Pakistan. I even watch Pakistani drama now and have found some of them out of this world and have English and Indian to compare with. I do feel like going back all the time ...........
Sabahat Tanvir Oct 21, 2012 04:13pm
Beaurifulful !!! Simply beautiful....
Zeta Oct 21, 2012 10:35pm
I don't know but all your articles have deep impact on me. Your story telling skills are amazing
Abdul Malik Oct 21, 2012 07:27am
What a befitting title to this story ! several of us, away from Pakistan, at times feel the same; "we left Pakistan, Pakistan never left us".
observer Oct 21, 2012 06:26am
I would never read a newspaper article to quench my thrist for fiction. Disappointing journalism (to say the least).
Fraz Khalid Oct 21, 2012 07:46pm
Naguib Mahfouz won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature. Many of his novels were serialized in Al-Ahram newspaper and his short stories appeared in his weekly column, "Point of View". Other writers included Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Boles?aw Prus, and Tom Wolfe. Those whose works were posted on the Web: Stephen King, Michel Faber, whose novel -- The Crimson Petal and the White -- was serialised by The Guardian on its site. Orson Scott Card also serialized his novel, Hot Sleep, online.
khanm Oct 21, 2012 06:11am
let us not become sensationalist like American. We have to live with the choices we make... there is no one else to be blamed but you.....
Ideawala Oct 21, 2012 04:52am
Cant stop crying
Peace Oct 21, 2012 04:49am
Very touching indeed. I came to the US for education and one thing led into another. Now 16 years later I am still in US. This was never the plan. However I still feel part of me is in Pakistan. When I talk about the Country I grew up in my face lits up.
naeem Khan Manhattan,KS Oct 21, 2012 11:09pm
It is a heart wrenching story , make me realize that dementia does overtake some people's lives, I am retired and wonder some time if it will happen to me too.
nazish Oct 22, 2012 05:45am
Thanks for sharing the inside of elder people who left Pakistan for their children but they left their heart and soul at their homes.
Zaharah Bukhsh Oct 22, 2012 05:51am
This is first article that i read on dis site & em truly amazed. wonderful ..!!
Rao Oct 22, 2012 05:57am
Heart wrenching story....couldn't stop my tears...appreciate his determination to reach his goals
Nobody Oct 21, 2012 11:53pm
You missed the whole point. You lack the depth necessary to comprehend this piece, or so it seems.
AB Cheema Oct 22, 2012 06:19am
vinith nair Oct 22, 2012 06:20am
nice article!
Baber Mirza Oct 21, 2012 01:27am
The whole point of this was to let you know you can take a man out of the city, but you can't take the city out of the man.
Baber Mirza Oct 21, 2012 01:25am
I am speechless.
Amaal Oct 21, 2012 01:22am
Sir, you did the right thing by leaving... your decision is an example worth following for everyone who is unable to accept and adjust to the new home socially, the solution is simple, please return to the place you came from
Ali Oct 22, 2012 07:11am
Every living person has a story. Ghani baba is lucky to have found you to share his and in turn you share this story with your readers.
Mehriene Qureshi Oct 21, 2012 12:14am
What a beautiful,touching story ! May every sister have such a loving brother , and vice versa . Brought tears to my eyes.
Yawar Oct 22, 2012 01:17am
Very well written. You have once again very subtly articulated a strong message in your story that expatriot Pakistanis love the soil and people of our motherland and want Pakistan to prosper, just as much as most native Pakistanis do.
Vikram Oct 20, 2012 11:20pm
Ghani Baba suffered from Dementia. He even did not know where he was. His loved ones took care of him, that is the most important thing.
ww Oct 22, 2012 01:27am
another sad and depressing story by the author he has nothing but sadness to share most of his writings are nothing but fiction
Alina Oct 20, 2012 11:12pm
Mr. Iqbal, your story brought me to tears. It made me think of my own grandfather and father. Pakistan becomes us. I've only been away for four months and my soul longs for it. I am 23 but I feel like Ghani Baba. I feel like I've been talking to empty swings for four months.
Muhammad Ahmed Oct 22, 2012 01:33am
A very well written piece indeed. I think sons of Ghani baba are doing a great job of ensuring that the proper care of this gentleman is being taken at home. It is also becoming common practice that some similar elders are shipped off to Assisted Living places and their amnesia can detoriate at an alarming rate. I just hope that ALLAH gives all of us courage to try to take care of our parents with even tenth of the sicerity and patience that they showed while raising us: Ameen.
Muhammad Oct 22, 2012 03:54am
A touching story! Kudos to you for your brilliant writing!
Eqbal Khan Oct 22, 2012 02:03am
Good non political article where subject matter is close to heart.
sattar rind Oct 20, 2012 09:04pm
have you read the book 'the myth of return'? no one returns from America or London ... but yes the original country where have spent many days and nights of your childhood never leaves you - your heart and mind to forget those days. but human being is very adoptive species. what Darwin believes.
Razzaq Oct 20, 2012 08:45pm
Ghani Baba is not the only one.There are thousands like him living abroad but their soul is back home specially the one with village background.
Irfan Baber Oct 22, 2012 10:48am
Brought tears to my eyes, loved n enjoyed every bit of it. May Allah rest his soul in piece. I loved his poetry special the ones song by Takkar. Thanks for sharing Mr Iqbal
Faraz Paracha Oct 22, 2012 07:45am
One of the best stories I have read in ages:)
EA Oct 20, 2012 07:20pm
a fantastic piece with a wrong title....
reality not selected truth Oct 20, 2012 06:13pm
I do hope you these thoughts persist after some years as well. I too had same thoughts but with time one starts to get other insights.
reality not selected truth Oct 20, 2012 06:11pm
At times i wonder if it was atall worth moving out atall. There is not one member of my generation from my family in our village now. They are not scattered in different cities but different countries of the world and everyone of my cousin has integrated a different language in their life. One family speaks arabic, another dutch another swedish. And like the most after marriage little or not contact. At times i do wonder wouldnt it have been better if we never got this freedom to move out and a stubborn grandfather had ordered everyone to live in the village.
Shoaib Oct 22, 2012 09:15am
Goosebumps and tears as I read these lines. Death has happened around me and sadly will happen again.
Salim Khan Oct 22, 2012 03:47am
Great article, so true and lovely. The article has defined love in its true perspective. It touched my heart and I cried quite loudly afterwards.
abc Oct 20, 2012 05:31pm
true. not many people seem to accept the fact, what a common indian/pakistani loses when he migrates to US/UK. he simply has to shut off his desire to be part of a country that he once lived in, and has to adjust the life according to the host nation. trying fruitlessly to live a desi life in west, has it's own problems. and, to live a life , which you do desire, but not exactly want to leave the life of past country, gets all mixed up. yes, i am sounding confused, but the emotion itself is so mixed up, that you can't tell which shred in indian and which one american.
Nadeem Oct 22, 2012 09:44am
A very touching story. The great Ghani Baba . . . . may Almighty make ur dreams true and may u be blessed with Jannah and enjoy company of your loved ones there (aamin).
ahtesham1 Oct 21, 2012 08:30pm
It touched my heart. Reminds us of our values that are so deep rooted.
reyan Oct 20, 2012 03:08pm
great writing,,, so touching my parents also miss pakistan a lot
Faris Oct 20, 2012 03:59pm
We can't leave our parents in pakistan by themselves and when they are brought to US than we face a new set of problems. The main thing is when we siblings fulfill our duty of tending to our parents in old age is what matters.
SYED Oct 20, 2012 03:48pm
"While walking to school, he would make sure that she was on the side shadowed by trees" . . . brought tears to my eyes. I too loved my elder sister like crazy and cried like a baby (I was 19) when I was told of her impending wedding. . .
akhtar Oct 20, 2012 03:35pm
The way our young generation is going crazy about coming to America or europe etc, without having any idea of what its like to live here. i think we are gonna have a lot of Ghani babas in days to come. And living here legally is one thing but illegal immigrants should think a 100 times before leaving their soil.
Faraz Husain Oct 21, 2012 08:19pm
Beautiful Anwar Sahab
Ali Muhammad Oct 21, 2012 05:02pm
This article made me cry.
Vedant Oct 20, 2012 03:15pm
I disagree!!! I have worked with old age homes at Helpage India and can say very safely , for people of this vulnerable age family is the best place to be. No old age home can come even close to one's home.
Samir Gupta Oct 20, 2012 03:02pm
Anwar Iqbal, there is depth in your stories that is difficult to fathom for people who read them superficially. I lived the american dream in 1995 - 1996 until the glitz washed off for me after the first 6 months. I figured out that one day I would become a Ghani Baba. That is when I decided to leave it all behind and travel back to India. Not many people in my extended family could understand my decision then except my my mother. My cousin thought that it was just loneliness. He suggested that I get married. Sixteen years later I know I did the right thing.
uzinoor Oct 21, 2012 04:23pm
Really Soul touching......
afiasalam Oct 20, 2012 02:32pm
heartbreaking... but I have seen many people of that age group existing like lost souls in an alien land, despite being surrounded by their loved ones, who do not realize that they are just a part of their elders' environment... not the sum total of it!
Zafar Malik Oct 20, 2012 02:31pm
What a touching story. Thanks
Chankia Abitkar, India Oct 20, 2012 02:28pm
I think every expat has a Ghani Baba in them. Some overcome that pain some don't. While it's important for human development that human resources move about freely, I have observed that the feeling of betrayal towards one's family becomes prominent where generations develop quickly in succession. It ultimately comes down to the meaning of closure in one's life. To die in the arms of a loved one is a very strong incentive, lucky ones will have it. It again shows that human memories are one of the most enigmatic piece evolution has produced in this universe.
Azhar Hussain Oct 20, 2012 02:23pm
We are all Ghani Baba's here in America, we have left Pakistan and Pakistan has not left us.
noreenshahid Oct 20, 2012 02:18pm
i pray and hope that one day pakistan becomes a place from where no son can take ghani baba away from his country,
Vedant Oct 20, 2012 02:03pm
Very touching!!!! I am simply lost for the words. Thanks for sharing.....
uzinoor Oct 21, 2012 04:20pm
Soul touching
Kashif Oct 22, 2012 09:06am
Heart touching...the pain most of the families of Pakistan bear everyday because their loved ones are living abroad for better future
ali Oct 21, 2012 02:26pm
heart touching ...
Bakul Oct 21, 2012 03:27pm
Well said
amir Oct 21, 2012 03:08pm
A poignant reminder of home, and times past, loved ones gone... beautifully written
Salman Khan Oct 21, 2012 06:51pm
brought tears in my eyes... I can see myself in same situation if I live long enough....:(
Fatima Mohsin Oct 21, 2012 08:49am
Incredible writing .have tears in my eyes ....hates off .........