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17 August 2023

Rebelling against the colonisers

a story for South Asian Heritage Month...

The dastarkhan

Years ago when we travelled to Pakistan, and we sat around the dastarkhan (the cloth for eating food on the floor) eating mangoes with the rest of the family, we vividly remember our grandfather, or as we called him ‘Nana’, making a passing comment about being put in solitary confinement by the British Army. At the time in our younger years, we didn’t pay it much mind because who would listen and think that wasn’t normal. Now, as Pakistani diaspora women, we wish we’d listened harder because these defining moments have left his mark on us.

Nana’s defiance

My grandfather passed quite suddenly over 20 years ago, at the age of 75. His death devastated us as a family because we just always thought he would be there, forever just sitting praying for us, reading fortunes and pouring into us his love and defiance. In the preceding years since his passing, whenever we would gather as a family and Nana was mentioned, we would talk about his life and the stories we know of – and the story of his defiance and incarceration by the British is one that always comes up. We’d heard the headline from Nana that at the age of 19 he went off in a stubborn and defiant rage against his family’s wishes, and joined the British army. 

How we remember Nana

We remember our Nana as a tall, strong pathan with a white beard who spent most of his time in prayers, telling us off for staying up too late and stating that we were ‘letting the devil in’, or spending time making things like a troll’s house (when there was that whole obsession). Though in his youth, Nana was the type of fiery individual who never backed down from his point of view, he was the type of man that would go off hunting on his own in the mountains for days, or if he had pain in his tooth, ask the local “dentist/cobbler” to yank his tooth out just because he couldn’t be bothered to deal with the pain. If ever there was someone who lived their life on their own terms – he embodied it. His enigmatic presence and personality was deeply ingrained in us and his fortitude has passed through to his descendants. 

Our grandfather always challenged the gender norms for his era: we saw him cooking, cleaning, mending his own clothes – he was so confident in who he was that he didn’t care what others thought of him, as long as he could serve and be true in front of his Lord. Even when he’d been wronged – quite horrendously by people who were family – he never held a grudge against them, and he still met them with love and acceptance. 


As discussions around migration and colonialism are brought up, our mother and uncle retell the story of Nana’s jail time when Britain still ruled over what is now Pakistan. So the story goes: as a young man, and way before he was married and had six children, and most likely in his main ‘rebel without a cause’ era, he was being berated for being a ‘nobody’ and ‘good for nothing’ unlike his older brother who was a successful contractor. So off he went to show everyone who he really was and joined the British Army. As soon as he joined he was told that he was going to serve the British Army in Myanmar (then known as Burma). He refused, saying ‘how could he justify killing his own people for foreigners?’ We can imagine the look of abject horror on the face of his superior at Nana’s sheer wilful defiance as his steely, brown eyes stared them down – especially being a fair-skinned Pakistani man who was staring back at another white man – how very dare he? But my grandfather didn’t care. His service and fear was only in God – no British army, no colonel, no one could scare him to do anything that was against his moral code. So for that insolence he was carted off to solitary confinement, only being given one meal of bread and water a day. Every day, the officers came and asked if had changed his mind and would fight. Every day, he said ‘no, not today’. A part of me hopes he added ‘not today satan’. This continued for 3 months. He was immovable and nothing would change his mind. 

Dishonour as a badge of honour

What the British army hadn’t contended with was that Nana’s older brother was a successful contractor and had built many roads, bridges and such like through army contracts. It was through these contacts that he was given reprieve from his confinement, and he was ‘dishonourably discharged’ from the army. A proud moment in our family’s history in defying his occupiers; that “dishonour” is a badge of honour and pride to us. 

After that stint, Nana would mock people who went off to ‘serve the King’. Our Nana’s rebellious streak has passed through to all of us – in particular the Pakistani diaspora women in the family – we have all gone against the grain. We are vocal about political and social injustices, and in challenging the existing patriarchal hegemony, which is funnily all thanks to our Nana’s resilience. 

by Fizza + Sadaf Qureshi