The way it was: Of looswallahs and sheedis

Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

One doesn’t need Khaled Ahmed to conjecture where Sheedi has been derived from. It is from Sheeda, which is an endearing way of referring to Shahid

Julie, former wife of my friend Hamid, observed once that whenever she ventured out in Lahore’s old city, she never ever had a problem with what the English called a loosewala, a person wearing shalwar or dhoti. Whenever she needed help, the loosewala extended it politely with deference. But a sheedi in trousers was always trouble. One doesn’t need Khaled Ahmed to conjecture where Sheedi has been derived from. It is from Sheeda, which is an endearing way of referring to Shahid.

The term Sheedi is often applied to legitimate human products found inside Lahore’s walled city, the chap who demonstrates a natural flare for exaggeration, which the unfriendly sorts call bragging. They speak in a hurry and love to flavour their words with the sound of letter R. Things have changed now, but I am talking of the seventies, when Lahoris were cordial to all strangers and particularly courteous to women. People would go out of their way to help, guide, settle their fares with the tongawala or a rickshaw driver. Sheedis were, and remain, a smart lot. They can befool one in a jiffy and are certainly not as innocent or naïve as they look. But usually most Sheedis don’t consider it right that a stranger should be fooled. Even in those days there were some people around, who argued that why should money not be made off a tourist, because being a gora he could afford it. Most Lahoris in those days argued against it pleading that it would not be fair. They took no offence at being called a chamcha, a lackey of the gora loge but insisted that taxi or rickshaw drivers should charge the right fare. Whenever Julie needed help, she would thus always accost a person in dhoti or shalwar because it was her experience, as mentioned earlier, that the one in trousers would almost, without exception, try to impose upon her with his inventive facility in spoken English.

Actually when a Sheedi is seemingly making a pass at a mem, he is actually trying to demonstrate his command of English. The ability to speak English sets an individual apart from other indigenous varieties. Socially, it is regarded as an instrument of power. An idiot who can fumble in English has a higher social profile than a Punjabi, Saraiki or a Potohari intellectual who can speak, howsoever fluently, only his own tongue. That is why many men and women insist on conversing in English. Even our ulema, who in the past punctuated their sermons with quotes in Arabic, like to throw around English phrases and words to establish that they are no common mullahs.

There was this chap from Mirpur who went to have a meal at Barkatey dee Kafee. Barkat’s Café was a very special place, famous for the best curries in Bradford. After he had made himself comfortable, he asked the waiter who also came from Mirpur, ‘what what is?’ Meaning what do you have. The waiter courteously informed him, ‘All is’. Everything was available. At which the customer enquired, ‘Head and foot is.’ The waiter instantly replied, ‘Is’. The customer was pleased and said, ‘Bring.’ The Mirpur gentleman polished off a large plateful of sheep’s head and trotters. He was pleased but heart was not full and urged for more. Licking his fingers, to make the taste linger longer in his mouth, he waived at the waiter and after informing him, ‘Taste has come!’ ordered, ‘Bring and’.

The episode can be found amusing, but there is also a serious aspect to it. They say in Rome one should do as the Romans do. I find the two Mirpuris setting an excellent example of doing precisely that, speaking English even if it was at slight variance from what the locals customarily spoke. If these two gentlemen had not made the pioneering effort, we would not be doing business with the western world with the confidence our compatriots keep up. Frankly, English doesn’t have to be the one spoken at Buckingham Palace. The Rednecks and the Black Americans, in fact the Americans in general, the Australians, the Irish, the South Asians all speak English with their own particular idiom and accent. I remember, back in the sixties, a BBC television serial, Steptoe and Son, in which the actors spoke the London cockney, which frankly I adore because in spite of political decadence I find an affinity with the British working class. The serial, wisely enough, was shown with subtitles in the US. The English were terribly riled at what they regarded was a cheeky affront by a former colony.

During summer vacations the Pakistani students were usually stranded in Cambridge, once in a while crossing the channel, mostly making hectic weekend trips to London. In those days we wrote weekly letters back home. If there was something urgent, telegrams were despatched. There was little else to do. But what made Cambridge more interesting than Oxford, particularly in the summer vacations, was the invasion of continental girls who would descend there with the intention of learning English. Apparently there were scores of language school around. With Cambridge practically empty the Pakistanis had to single-handedly amuse the invaders. Most of them strode in from France, Holland, Germany, Spain and Italy, though I also remember a Greek girl because she was cast in a form visualised by the famous French-born modern sculptor Aristide Maillol. Most of these ladies spoke little English; naturally, because learning English was why they were there. The students who came from Pakistan all loved to hear their own voice and felt proud of their facility in English. They would often forget that the girls couldn’t speak English and waste lot of their breath on weaving yarn in the language which was foreign to the continental ladies. I remember asking Shahid, a friend, why he looked so terribly peeved. He replied, sulking sheepishly, ‘ Look at this silly woman. I tell her a long funny joke and all she has to say in solemn German accent was, ‘I dhan’t undherstaand’. He never wasted time on pleasantries ever again.

A mem is a mem even if she can’t speak or understand English. I distinctly recall there was a song, which began with the words, ‘Mem balli-ay’. Desi loves everything vilayati. The only good things known to be desi are desi ghee, desi goat and desi chicken. There is nothing else desi, which has a virtue. Desi wheat admittedly was once greatly prized but it is no more. A farmer cannot find enough of it to seed even quarter of an acre. Talking of seeds, unless we take heed we will lose all the wonderful traditional desi varieties of vegetable and grain seeds, assuming that we haven’t lost most of them already. The shabdegh the Kashmiris cook these days is not the real thing. The traditional turnip required at least twelve hours to simmer with the meat before it was considered cooked. That turnip, what a tragedy, is no more.

But back to vilayati things, the English just mismanaged the whole thing. There was at least a smooth continuity in the colonial rule without these martial laws intermittently thrust upon us. A sustainable autocratic system, as Bush has pontificated, is much better than a ‘dysfunctional democracy’. The Quaid, unaware of this wisdom, won freedom for Pakistan so that people could rule themselves. It was established for no other reason. It is also baffling why there was a need to create Pakistan if it was just a matter of religion. The English didn’t care how the Muslims liked to practice their faith. All sects had freedom to be beholden to their beliefs and individual interpretations of the Holy Quran and Sunnah. The English were not bothered how each Muslim liked to grow his beard, have a moustache or not to have one, have an ankle staring at you or hidden to an enquiring eye. They were not concerned, who their subjects worshipped. Religion was a matter of individual belief. I am told that in the army messes, no one was allowed to discuss politics and religion. I wonder when and why did the army stop this practice after independence.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and a political activist