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Kith & Kin- Generations apart

Kith & Kin- Generations apart

Issue 5 May / Jun 2004

First featured in issue 5 - May/June 2004

Click here to go to the Issue 5 archives


Words Rajnaara Akhtar

Photograph Taus Makhacheva 


Mohammad Hassan and Shaheen Baber are grandfather and grandson. 97 and 31 years old respectively; their life stories are worlds apart. The latter is British born and bred, while the former lived through two world wars, was a subject of British India, travelled across continents before the arrival of air travel, survived a plague and was a front line soldier. The tales of 97 years reflect that 31 year old Shaheen’s journey has only just begun.


Shaheen Baber – I was born in Glasgow and I have spent my whole life here. I grew up in a mixed environment and my friends were of many different backgrounds and religions. There are quite a few asian people in Glasgow, especially in the south side. That meant I didn’t have many cultural problems growing up.

 I have a sister and two brothers and as children it was always my grandfather who was the one to take us out to different places. My mum spent most of her time tending to the house, while my dad was always at work. My grandfather had the time to take us on day trips and he was very fit and adventurous himself!

I have sat and listened to many of his stories, and most of them I have heard hundreds of times by now but I still wouldn’t deny him the pleasure of telling them again. For some parts of his life, he kept journals which he wrote in Urdu. I intend to begin translating it into English with a view to having it published. He has done so much in his life, and I don’t want that to go untold.

My granddad is fiercely independent and very stubborn with it. At the age of 97 he still refuses to move in with my family. I have offered to get a flat for the two of us on many occasions, but he won’t hear of it. I ensure I visit him every day and my aunt makes sure he has cooked food and a clean flat.

I have enormous respect for my grandfather and his great age. I have learned a lot from him through his wisdom. He has been the main guiding influence in my life. Listening to my grandfather I realise the values of being a non judgemental, honest and caring person. I believe I am extremely privileged to have had the benefit of his life experience and I try to be a better person in my own life based on his wisdom and values.

I recognise that our lives have been vastly different. He is from the generation that had to struggle for everything throughout life. He had to work from an early age, and no job was ever too small or insignificant for him. The one thing he has taught me well is that pride doesn’t come into it when you have to feed your family. Any job that is halal is acceptable. He has had wealth and he has lost wealth, but it doesn’t matter. It is something that is fleeting and transitory. You cannot take it with you when you finally leave the world. I myself went through the Scottish education system and studied for my degree in Economics and Business Law at Strathclyde University. Growing up had its difficulties, especially when my parents separated in the mid-1980s. I was the eldest son and so became the head of the household. I was only 12 at the time so it was a difficult burden to carry. Even though we have all grown up now, I still feel a degree of responsibility for my siblings.

I graduated in 1995 and while I was applying for jobs I came across an application form to join the police force. I filled in the form and waited for a response. I looked upon it as a good and respectable job and in a way I saw it as an opportunity to give back to the community the help and guidance I had received from it while I was growing up. Eight years on, I have never once regretted joining - my grandfather taught me long ago that everything happens for a reason. I am accused of being a workaholic by many of my friends, but it is simply that this is not a 9-5 job. Sometimes I am still at work 4 hours after my shift has ended; when someone has been mugged, you can’t walk away because your shift is over.

The most difficult aspect of the job is that our service is not always appreciated. The police force is about a great deal more than just arresting criminals. Many more of our activities are not recorded, such as the role we play in resolving disputes in the community, in keeping the peace, in making people feel safe. All of these things have a great positive impact on society. No matter what a person’s personal view of the police force may be, in times of need we are the first people that are called.

The best part of my job is being able to contribute something positive to the community. Even if it is simply on a micro level, it is worth it. It is not the easiest job in the world and there are dangerous and potentially life threatening situations that do arise. However, I find that the key is to speak to people as you would want to be spoken to.

On the whole, I feel many from our generation have lost touch with their roots. We have things a great deal easier than my granddad’s generation did and their attitude was that they owed a lot to society. We are more demanding than they were, where-as the next generation are one step further away because many of them think that society owes them something.

The greatest lesson I have learnt from my grandfather is that you have to live and let live and not make judgements about people. If we are honest and sincere and treat people as we would like to be treated, it makes the world a much better place. My future ambition is to advance my career and make a difference to the community at large. Whoever they are and whatever colour they may be; everyone deserves equality.


Mohammad Hassan:

I was born in 1907 in the Barnala city district of India, part of the British empire. The year after, a plague swept across India and every member of my family succumbed to it except my father, sister and me. I was left without a mother at the age of one. The loss was especially great for my father, and in the following years he resigned from his job as a Police Inspector and decided to leave the country and travel to Makkah on Hajj with me. I was aged four at the time and my sister who was older than I stayed behind.

While we travelled across India to get to the port of Bombay, we stayed at an Inn on one stop. The Innkeeper noticed me playing in the yard and asked my father if I was his. He confirmed that I was, and the Innkeeper, noticing there were no women with us, asked my father who looked after me. I can still recall his answer: “Me on Earth, and Allah from the heavens.”

The Innkeeper then suggested that my father re-marry and that there was a widow who worked for him who wanted to go on Hajj too, so it would take care of two issues at the same time. My father agreed and after Maghrib prayer that very same day, they performed the marriage ceremony. That one incident was a great gift from Allah, as I would only learn later.

We then made our way to the port to the steam ship that was to take us all the way to Jeddah, in Arabia which was part of the Ottoman Empire. We were on that boat for approximately one month. Upon arrival at Jeddah, we travelled on camel back across the Arabian deserts all the way to Makkah. There were no roads at that time whatsoever. I recall passing by the grave of Hawwa (Eve) and my father offering prayers there. Each time I watch ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ it reminds me of that time.

We reached Makkah at the time of the afternoon prayer. It was such a simple place then, and the well of Zam-Zam was just that, a well. My father took me to it and drank some water and passed some to me. I drank it and being a boy of four, not understanding its significance, I spat it out because I didn’t like the taste. That earned me a smack from my father!

At that time, pilgrims were able to enter the sacred Ka’ba so we went inside. Before doing so, my father instructed me to keep my eyes lowered while we were in there (as a sign of respect). If you tell a child not to do something, they inevitably do just that, and I got a second smack for looking up as soon as we entered the Ka’ba!

We had arrived in Makkah two or three months before the hajj. My father never had the chance to perform it though, as he passed away days before it commenced. We missed it that year as we were burying him at the time. I now realise that if Allah had not sent my step-mother to us, I would have been a destitute orphan child on my own and most probably sold as a slave. My step-mother was offered money to sell me, and her response was, ‘his father told me his sister is in India. If you want the boy, take him from his sister in India’. Clearly, she felt that I belonged to my sister and she had a duty to return me to her. She did exactly that a year later after we had performed the Hajj. In those days, if you went to Makkah, you stayed there until you completed the Hajj, even if it meant waiting for an entire year.

Back in India, I lived with my sister and began my education in the Islamia School and completed all my studies in 1923. I then began learning about the hosiery  industry which was just taking off. I attended the Government Hosiery Institute in Ludhiana and passed in 1928. I was awarded 20 rupees by the governor of India during his visit to the Institute because I had produced a scarf that stated ‘welcome’ on it, quiet innovative at the time!

I spent the next few years touring India supplying machines and materials that had been developed in Nottingham in England, to the Indian Hosiery Industry. My business was called Diamond Hosiery and was a lot of hard work. I had my own factory, but unfortunately I had to give it up as at that time all businesses were family ventures, and I had no family to support me in it. It was too much for one person. It was during this time that I met Ghandi at the Taj Mahal. It was a fleeting meeting, if it can even be called that, but a tale worth telling nontheless!

The next stage of my life began when I began studying about medicine dispensing and I managed to gain recognition from the civil hospital and thus start my own chemist. That was a lot easier to manage than the factory. During that time I also got married, and Zainab and I had our first child in 1934. We had five daughters and two sons.

The World Wars changed a lot of peoples’ lives, and those in India were not spared. In 1941 I joined the British Indian Army. I was 34 years old and could not be sent to the front line because I was above the maximum age. The British army personnel insisted that I looked 10 years younger and so listed me as a 24 year old who could fight in the front line. That is why my passport lists my date of birth as being in 1917. I joined the Indian Army Ordinance Care unit which was later renamed the Indian Electrical & Mechanical Engineers unit by Winston Churchill. The Prime Minister had visited our unit and was impressed with the work we did which he thought wasn’t reflected by our title, this renamed us.

I was sent to the front line when the British Indian Army was fighting the tribes on the border which now exists between India and Pakistan. My task was primarily to train the soldiers who were then sent out to fight. Many of these boys died. The only way to deal with it was to view it as a job and do what we were there to do. In times of war, human life is cheapened. There was no room for emotion. It was war. We only found out who had died in the fighting by reading it in the newspaper.

I recall being based quite far away from my family and I requested a transfer on numerous occasions, but all requests were turned down. I then once, while on guard duty, caught my Colonel sneaking back to our camp in the middle of the night, most probably after a secret rendezvous with a woman. I told him I had to report him for leaving the camp without a Captain, however, he agreed to arrange my transfer if I kept silent! Following the end of the war and the Treaty of Armistice, I left India with my family for Pakistan where we started our new lives. We walked most of the way; my wife was pregnant at the time with Shaheen’s father and found it difficult to walk. I tried to carry her as far as I could but only managed a mile and couldn’t carry her any further! Our lives continued in Pakistan until 1965 when I visited the United Kingdom to see a friend. I was really taken with the place and decided to stay here with my family. It was that simple.

My first job in Britain was as a lamp lighter, in Glasgow. In those days, after dark, the close lights did not come on automatically. We walked around and switched them on individually at dusk, and then switched them back off again at dawn. I finally retired in 1982 and decided then to go on my second Hajj.

71 years had passed since my first visit to the Holy Land of Makkah. The first time, we had travelled by sea and trekked across the desert on camel back being guided by the stars. The hills of Saffa and Marwa were simply desert plains and the Ka’ba was not crowded which meant that I could touch the black stone on every Ta’waf. There were no loudspeakers and there were 3 mu’azzins at each minaret shouting the Adhan. On my second visit, we flew in to Jeddah and travelled by car on roads. We could not do the Ta’waf directly around the Ka’ba and had to make do with the upper level of the building. I didn’t touch the black stone even once.

The first time I went on Hajj, it took over a month for us to get to Makkah. I now live in a world where one can perform Isha prayers in Karachi, Fajr prayersin Jeddah and Dhuhr prayers in Makkah, all in the same day.

My generation was very different to my grandson Shaheen’s generation. Our priorities were different, for example, in the event of disputes we would always take the counsel of our elders as our respect for them was unparalleled. If there was a wedding and an elder did not attend we would take our turbans and lay them at their feet to persuade them because their presence was an honour. A lot of things have changed since then.


Shaheen and I spend a lot of time together and a day rarely goes by without my seeing him. I’m proud of the profession he has chosen for himself as my father was a Policeman and I feel that we have roots in the uniform services. We served India under the British Raj, and I honestly believe that things were better organised under them than after independence as free nations. The world has moved very fast, during my lifetime and a lot of things have been invented during this time. I remember the times when I saw the first car and aeroplane, and the first time I saw a telephone and television. I have seen and done a great deal, and been lucky enough to be able to tell the tales.

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