Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Khans of Malihabad

Ajit Parmar, Probe India, Vol. 7, No. 5, July 1985, pp. 56-61

The distance from Lucknow is barely 25 dusty kilometers. But it transports you back in time by almost half-a-century. To an island of prosperity and fierce pride. Where a sense of history is as palpable as the sweet-sour tang of ripening mangoes - the fruit that has put Malihabad on the national map. Yet, the real flavour of Malihabad lies not its delectable safedas, but in the tradition-steeped lifestyle of its "masters". Men who are - and always have been - a law unto themselves. The inimitable Khans of Malihabad.

The incident is still recounted with characteristic laconism by locals. As to how the hotheaded Nabi Sher Khan, pestered beyond endurance by a fly that favoured his left eye as a resting spot, smashed the eye out of existence.
"Na rahegi aankh, na uspe makkhi baithegi," was the unassailable logic that prompted him to such drastic action. And then, when this worthy of true-blue Pathan stock was hospitalised, he proceeded to chew up the thermometer which the nurse kept popping into his mouth with irritating frequency. That he survived despite all this speaks volumes for his hardiness. But then, the Khans of Malihabad are a hardy lot. Hardy and hospitable. Their mehman-nawazi has few parallels. Yet, scratch them, and you uncover a savage streak of violence. A wildness that has brought as much notoriety to Malihabad as it mangoes have brought fame.

Stories abound of a time when no person travelling through the area was safe after dusk. When baraats returning from weddings were waylaid and the brides detained for the night for the pleasure of the local Khan chieftain or
talukadar. Murder, loot and pillage were commonplace. The domination of the Khans was absolute. Nothing could take place without their approval. Nor could anything which was an affront to their shaan. In the time of Emperor Faruqsiyar, it is said, it became difficult to circulate Mughal currency in the area and realise tax from the locals because the Khans were opposed to it. Lieutenant-Governor Havelock, at one time considered an honoured guest by Muhammad Isak Khan, talukadar of Thari, had to flee for his life from Malihabad when he made the near-fatal error of telling his Pathan host that the area was a "stronghold of badmashes." For the proud Khans, for whom violence was a way of life, and bravery, strength and courage highly valued qualities, there could have been no graver insult.

"Yahaan taaqat ki puja hoti thi," says Khalid Yusuf, an influential - and controversial - figure in the community of 5,000 odd Khans that inhabit Malhabad today. His words carry a wistful ring. Almost as if he wishes it were so even now. A suspicion that is further enhanced by his subsequent statement: "I should have been born 200 years ago." But then, Yusuf like so many other members of his community, is an intriguing picture of contrasts - of a present dominated by a nearly four-century-old past.

Feudal heritage: No doubt, time has been a great mellowing factor in the case of the Khans. Especially the past 25 years or so. Today they are a considerably subdued version of their brash Afridi Pathan ancestors. Literacy has made inroads into the area. Commerce with outsiders through the flourishing mango trade has softened their uncompromising demeanour. But a heritage as turbulent and intense as theirs cannot be expected to fade away as easily. The attitude of men like Khalid Yusuf bears testimony to this .

A nephew of tennis ace Ghaus Mohammad and himself a former Ranjhi Trophy player, Yusuf preferred to return to the backwoods of Malihabad even after several years of exposure to life in cities like Lucknow and Calcutta. Now, he lives enconced in the dilapitated 52-room Kothi Amaniganj - waited upon by a few domestics, leading a life that echoes his feudal heritage. With his income of a couple of lakhs every year from his mango orchards, he could easily have set himself up in style elsewhere. Yet he has opted to stay among his own. And he is not the only one to have done so.

It is a peculiarity of the Khans that it is only the rare exception among them that ventures forth into the "outside world" for long. Even those of the younger generation who go in for higher education - mostly at Lucknow or Aligarh - tend to return to Malihabad. Not that they lack a spirit of adventure. Its just that Malihabad alone offers an ambience wherein they can exist without having to give up the lifetsyle they are accustomed to. A lifestyle structured on values and customs that have endured for almost seven generations now.

The Malihabad Khans claim to be direct descendants of one Baland Khan, an Afridi Pathan who came to the erstwhile Tonk state (in Rajasthan)from Afghanistan nearly 400 years ago. The association with Avadh - and Malihabad - began with his son, Faqir Mohammad Khan, who was given a commission in the Nawab's army at Rs. 350 by the then Wazir, Agha Mir. He soon rose to become its commander-in-chief and simultaneously, the Nawab's revenue minister. It was under him that the development of Malihabad as a mango belt began. He appointed men to taste and pick out superior varieties of the fruit - that till then, had been growing wild - and plant orchards of these throughout the area. Among the varieties thus evolved was the delectable safeda.

Legend has it that the pick of the first batch of safedas was presented to Nawab Raisuddin Haider by Faqir Mohammad. The fruit so pleased the royal palate that the Nawab rewarded his commander-in-chief with a generous gift of gems. This led to the new variety being christened jauhari safeda. What followed is local history.

Since the custom of the day, would have deemed it an "insult" had someone taken a sapling of the tree whose fruit had been honoured by the royal personage, the risaldar despatched his troops to burn down the grove of safedas. The charred soil was then irrigated with milk - till one sapling of the prized variety sprouted. This was the progenitor of Malihabad's prosperity. The seed which continues to sustain the descendants of Faqir Mohammad to this day.

Mango trade: In peak season, more than 200 trucks with a minimum of 700
petis - move out of Malihabad every day, carrying an assorted variety (nearly 80 different kinds) of mangoes to the far corners of the country. Nearly 90 per cent of the fruit goes to Delhi - from where is despatched to various centres. The annual turnover of the trade is of the order of Rs. 1 crore - with the individual income of the bigger orchard-owners touching around Rs. 12 lakh. This apart, some of the Khans are not averse to making a packet on the side through the drug-running.. The aroma of ripe mangoes is an effective camouflage for the smell of opium. And not too infrequently, truckloads of mangoes leaving the township are also said to contain a few petis of "black gold".

Assured of a comfortable income from their backyards, the Khans do not feel the need to look beyond the borders of Malihabad for additional resources. Which quite suits their insular outlook. And while they may have squandered away much of their substantial material inheritance indulging their expansive habits, their orchards and nerseries provided them with enough to keep up appearances. Despite personal disputes and differences - mainly over property - they remain a close-knit community, brooking no outside interference in their affairs. The gun still remains the final arbitrator in resolving most disputes - and in upholding their dominance over the area. Their women to continue to live in
purdah. And marriages are solemnised strictly within the community - "to preserve the purity of our lineage," says Qavi Kamal Khan, 69, owner of the sprawling "mahal" made famous by Shashi Kapoor in his film Junoon.

Qavi Kamal, however, does admit that there has been an erosion of the Khan' "Pathan culture",
"Ab woh baat nahin rahi," he says. And the reason is not far to seek. With more and more of the younger generation going to cities for higher education, the urban influence was bound to manifest itself in their way of life.

"Our youth are becoming Europeanised," laments Wali Kamal Khan, 67, younger brother of Qavi Kamal and a research felow of Lucknow University. "Values have begun to change, though as yet, subtly," he says. "Even the concepts of bravery and courage (highly prized qualities amongst the Khans) have suffered with the coming of
kattas (countrymade pistols), " says Tahir Yusuf Khan, a young advocate and owner of a flourishing nursery.

The young, of course, are largely oblivious of the concern their ways are causing amongst their elders. But then, prosperity without occupation seems to have made them indolent. Even the educated among them who return to Malihabad find time hanging heavy on their hands. So most of them tend to while away the hours in their idle pursuits - mostly card games and drinking. While the latter maybe somewhat unexpected considering that they are Muslims. Khalid Yusuf clarifies that in the Khan tradition,
"nasha haram hai, sharab haram nahin."

So very little seems to have changed after all. And there are certain things which have not changed at all - like the Khans'
mehman-nawazi (hospitality) and their tradition of guarding with their lives anyone who seeks their protection.

Secular Outlook: Wali kamal Khan relates that following the annexation of Avadh by the British, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah's wife, Hazrat Mahal, took refuge with the Khans at Mawai Basantpur for three days. When about 300 British soldiers reached Malihabad in her pursuit, they were massacred by the men of Mohammad Ahmed Khan, taluqdar of Kasmandi Khurd (and great grandfather of Khalid Yusuf). The site of the incident came to be locally known as Gumsena.

Mohammad Ahmed Khan's prowess, it would seem, was not restricted just to the battlefield, but extended to his boudoir as well. It is said that at the time he died (in 1901), at the age of 79, he left behind some 30 wives - three of them pregnant - most of them half his age. According to Qavi Kamal Khan, the formidable Khan was in the habit of divorcing wives once they lost their youth and acquiring younger ones. He would, however, continue to give shelter to the divorced women in his "mahal" (palace) and would take care of their maternal needs. With so many women in his life, it was but natural for the man to be plagued by headaches. And when this happened, reveals Qavi Kamal, a pair of tongs had to be used to massage the
talukadar's head.

Mohammad Ahmad Khan also seems to have been of a secular disposition. Following the Gumsena massacre, he expressed appreciation of his soldiers' (mostly Pasis) bravery by marrying a Pasi woman. What is more, he gave the son born of her two villages - Siraiwan and Faridipur.

Secularism however, has always been a quality of the Khans. According to Wali Kamal Khan, the Hindus (present population around 6,000) and Muslims of the area "have always lived in complete harmony. Their relations are worthy of being studied." In fact, locals proudly proclaim "there has never been a communal conflict in Malihabad. "In this context, Khalid Yusuf relates the incident of a Pathan from Shahjahanpur being "banished" from Malihabad by Khan Bahadur Mohammad Yusuf - who succeeded Mohammad Isak Khan as talukdar of THari - when the "outsider" prevented a priest from ringing the temple bells.

Such tolerance is attributed by Qavi Kamal Khan to assimilation of the "Avadh culture" by the "Pathan culture" of Malihabad. "Ours is aunit of the Avadh culture, and always has been," he asserts, "even though we had links with Afghanistan till 1940." What makes Malihabad Khans unique, however, is the fact that none of them left the country at the time of Partition. Besides, says Wali Kamal Khan, "no Pathan from Malihabad ever served under the British - unlike Muslims elsewhere in the country." And if the Khans can be said to have served anything, it is the land that has sustained their successive generations for centuries "Malihabad hamara khet hai," declares Qavi Kamal with pride. And a fondness that is reflected in the care and attention that the lovcal orchardists lavish on the trees that provide them with their livelihood.

"The Pathan is constantly thinking of how to evolve new mango varieties and how to improve the existing ones," says Khalid Yusuf. "We ensure timely spraying of the of the crop to prevent disease from setting in. We use fertlisers. We have also developed a formulation to snsure flowering, and have been using it since 1976." Obviously, the Khans are conscious of their almost total dependence on their natural bounty. And they are doing their best to keep pace with the times by adopting modern techniques. What makes them bitter, howver, is the goverment's apathy towards the mango belt.

Points out Tahir Yusuf: The government promulgated an ordinance for development of the mango belt before the 1984 byelection in Malihabad (in which the ruling party was trounced by the Rashtriya Sanjay Manch). But the ordinance lapsed without being converted into an Act." Local orchardists also complain about lack of irrigation and other facilities essential for promoting mango cultivation. No doubt, A Central Mango Research Institute has been set up in the area. But says Khalid Yusuf: "What benefits can we hope to get from an institute which canot even ensure the survival of its mango trees?' Another factor that is causing concern to the locals is the entry of "outsiders" in the mango trade.

Come the mango season, and the orchards are sold off to these "outsiders" - usually buyers from Delhi - often for amounts as high as Rs. 20-30 lakh. Earlier, the buyers comprised almost entirely of local people. But now the "outsiders" have pushed up prices beyond the reach of most of them. "even the orchardists have suffered," complains Qavi Kamal Khan. "They get the least benefit, while the transporters and the buyers get the most."

So the inevitable is happening. Since Malihabad was reluctant to go to the outside world, the outside world is coming to it. Not for the flavour of its mahals or it machismo. But for the money to be made from its mangoes. Commerce has breached the walls which had so far protected a proud heritage. For the first time in centuries, the fearless Khans are apprehensive.


Faheem said...

IN THIS WHOLE ARTICLE YOU NEVER MENTIONED THE WIFE OR SONS OF PADMASHRI GHOUSE MOHAMMED KHAN..his elder son was also a state level tennis player from andhra pradesh..his younger son is still in lucknow and takes care of the orchards there..please do mention

ALIZAI said...


""Yahaan taaqat ki puja hoti thi," says Khalid Yusuf, an influential - and controversial - figure in the community of 5,000 odd Khans that inhabit Malhabad today."




ALIZAI said...

"So most of them tend to while away the hours in their idle pursuits - mostly card games and drinking. While the latter maybe somewhat unexpected considering that they are Muslims. Khalid Yusuf clarifies that in the Khan tradition, "nasha haram hai, sharab haram nahin."


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