From Persia to Pakistan, via Mysore
Zafar Hilaly recounts the history of his distinguished family, amongst whom were Sir Mirza Ismail, Agha Hilaly and Agha Shahi
Family legend has it that my great grandfather, Ali Asker, fled the court of the last Shah of the Qajjar dynasty of Iran sometime in the late 1800s. No one quite knows why he did so but he must have had good reason because he did not stop running till he reached Mysore in Southern India. And only when several thousand miles separated him from his nemesis did he pause for breath.
Alerted to the arrival of a disheveled Iranian, along with some horsemen, the Maharaja of Mysore enquired about the purpose of their visit. When told that they sought asylum, the Maharaja enquired what could they offer in return. “We will train your cavalry and supply it with horses,” Ali Asker responded. A deal was struck; and he never returned to Iran.
The Ali Askers flourished in Mysore.A grandson, Sir Mirza Ismail, my father’s first cousin who married my grandmother’s sister, rose to become Dewan of Mysore, then Prime Minister of Jaipur and later Prime Minister of Hyderabad. Just prior to his retirement, Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir offered him the prime ministership of his state which he declined. Sir Mirza retired to his abode with honours; his home was perhaps the most beautiful house in Bangalore, with a garden and orchard, which all of us, brothers and cousins alike, along with exotic parakeets, monkeys, et al, raided regularly for the choicest fruits. Pandit Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, Rajagopalachari and Radhakrishan were among those who visited Sir Mirza Ismail and sought his counsel. However, he steadfastly refused to join them or Mr Jinnah. He thought the Partition of the subcontinent was a mistake and, once when my father remonstrated, he replied, “Wait and see.”
My grandfather, Agha Abdullah, was the marrying kind. He married often and well and sired a bevy of children, four of whom, including my father Agha Hilaly, and my uncle Agha Shahi, were from the second wife. However, the most colourful of his children was one from an earlier marriage, a Captain Jaffar. His goal, it seems, was to go through the family fortune as quickly as possible, all by himself and mostly at the Bangalore Race Course at which he proved very adept. His greatest misfortune, he claimed, was not losing comrades on the bloody battlefields of the First World War but seeing several prize racehorses that he had acquired in England jumping into the Red Sea, having panicked when their India-bound vessel docked at Aden. Captain Jaffar, alas, never fully recovered from the traumatic sight of those plunging horses.
Agha Abdullah did well for himself in business, acquiring a whole street of houses and then persuading the local Council to have the street named after him. “Agha Abdullah Street” exists to this day in Bangalore. There is also now an “Agha Shahi Avenue” (9th Avenue) in Islamabad named after his son. Father and son, each with a street to their name on opposite poles of the subcontinent, must be a unique phenomenon. The two however had little else in common. Agha Shahi was definitely not the marrying kind. He remained a crusty bachelor all his life which was just as well because it would have meant one more unhappy woman in this world.
Agha Hilaly and Agha Shahi too, though they came from the same pod, were very different in nature. My father’s was a balanced, stable personality;Agha Shahi was a somewhat eccentric workaholic. He literally slept with his files. His eyes lit up whenever he was confronted with a tricky or confusing issue, he could not wait to unravel it and invariably would be the first to do so and form an opinion which, as often as not, became government policy. This complete mastery over his work brief, with no one of equal ability to challenge him, stood Pakistan in good stead most, but not all, of the time. One outcome was that our foreign policy became and remained fixated with India with the UN providing a battlefield for Agha Shahi to show off his prowess as an Indian baiter and a master debater with an awesome memory for facts and arguments that laid waste to Indian claims and pretensions. Alas, these victories at the UN were mostly phyrric as they changed nothing on the ground; indeed, if anything, they spurred on successive Indian governments to further tighten their stranglehold on the hapless Kashmiris, dashing any hopes of a peaceful settlement.
Curiously, in view of their ancestry, neither of the Agha Abdullah children took to horses nor had any athletic pursuits. Instead both thrived on books and excelled academically. Agha Shahi’s claim to fame lay in out-performing every Brahmin to top his class at Presidency College, Madras. (He was more chuffed by this achievement than becoming Foreign Minister). My father was only a little less successful. Both subsequently joined the Indian Civil Service; Agha Shahi placed, I think, in the first five on the All India merit list while my father’s position (he had joined the ICS eight years earlier) was somewhat lower down the list of successful candidates.
Following the Partition, both brothers opted for Pakistan, a strange decision in view of the family’s total disconnect with the society and territory that comprised Pakistan. I recall asking my father why he had not opted to remain in India considering that he had 28 houses to lose. His one word answer was “Jinnah.” Agha Shahi’s motive was identical. However, what I can aver categorically is that neither ever regretted the decision.
Pakistan gave them much, and infinitely more than the small fortune they possessed by way of land and houses in India, it gave them that which is priceless, namely honour, respect and recognition. I recall an incident which took place at Karachi, Cantonment railway station following my father’s retirement in the early 70s. He was traveling to Ghotki and was attempting to find his berth with the help of the station master when there was a lot of scurrying about and it transpired that the Railway Minister had arrived unexpectedly. My father asked the station master to please go and attend to his minister. “No Sir,” he replied, “railway ministers come and go but meeting the likes of you is a rare honour.” Such sentiments made all their sacrifices seem worthwhile. Earlier both brothers had refused the Shah of Iran’s offer of citizenship; and President Nixon’s offer to have my father stay on in Washington after retirement as an American citizen in recognition of the key role he played in bringing the US and China together was also politely declined. He told my mother afterwards that he was not, and could never be, a “namak haram.”
My father died very much the patriot that he was, in Karachi and in a local Karachi hospital though perhaps a little prematurely due to the hospital authorities who told my brother to remove him from the intensive care unit forthwith as it was needed for a VIP. When his condition worsened as a result of poor nursing in the ordinary ward he was transported in a hurriedly summoned Edhi Ambulance with my brother to another hospital but by then it was too late. “Had you kept him in intensive care,” the doctor on duty said, “He would have lived.” Be that as it may, my father had a good innings. He died in the city he chose to live in and in the country which he served to the best of his considerable abilities.
Both the brothers opted for the Foreign Service after independence. My father was inducted almost immediately and Agha Shahi a few years later, after serving as Collector Thatta where he made a name for himself by patrolling the streets alone and in disguise armed with a pistol. This put the fear of God into the local police who, because they had no idea where or who Collector Sahib may be, were constantly on the alert, which helped bring the crime rate down significantly. Some decades later, when ZAB was holding a kutchery in Thatta and hari after hari rose to complain about the increase in crime, ZAB lost his temper asking, “What do you want me to do?” A poor elderly woman responded, “Bring back Agha Shahi.” “But he is now the Foreign Secretary,” ZAB retorted somewhat helplessly.
Although my father was not given to donning a burka and trolling the streets (another Agha Shahi ploy) as an anti-crime tactic, he did something equally unheard of while he was the Subdivisional Magistrate (SDM) of Mymensingh, he fined himself for shooting a peacock in his district when it was forbidden to do so under the local game laws. He then reported the matter to the deputy commissioner, remarking that he did so not because he mistook it for a pheasant but because he had not read up on the game laws before the hunt.
At the Foreign Office in Karachi, where he had a room with a magnificent view in Mohatta Palace, my father worked briefly as Pakistan’s first Chief of Protocol. Mr Jinnah was effectively his direct superior. No job, he said later, caused him more tension. By the time he left on his first assignment abroad in 1955, he was the acting Foreign Secretary.
Here began Agha Hilaly’s distinguished diplomatic career, and we, his children, travelled the world with him.
Zafar Hilaly is a retired ambassador. He lives in Karachi.