Partition stories blog

Syed Babar Ali

Story:

One and one don’t make two, but 11. Hence if we are together, we can be much greater than two. We, the people of South Asia, especially India and Pakistan, can be 11 if we have the right attitude towards each other.

I was born in Lahore in 1926 to Syed Maratib Ali and Mubarak Begum. Both my parents are direct descendants of Prophet Muhammed. My father and his brother ran a military contracting business together that catered to the British Army. I was the eight out of the nine children. My ancestry includes the three Fakir brothers, Azizuddin, Imamuddin and Nuruddin who were key members and close confidants in the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh who ruled Punjab from 1799 to 1839. My family history includes folk stories, anecdotes and memories from the life of the three Fakirs and their relations with King Ranjit Singh. The folk tales recount how Fakir Nuruddin negotiated and helped acquire the infamous Koh-i-noor diamond from Shah Shuja of Afghanistan. Fakir Nuruddin also met with Sir Metcalfe, then Governor-General of British India and negotiated a key treaty that mitigated British invasions of Punjab.

I started my education when I was eight years old, at the Sacred Heart Convent in Lahore and attended Aitchison College in 1934. Ink pens were used in those days with special g-nib for English and z-nib for Urdu. While English was the primary language used in school, Punjabi was the language spoken at home and amongst my friends. I received my High School Certificate from Aitchison and went on to earn a Bachelor of Science from the Government College of Lahore in 1945. I’m still in touch with my friends from Aitchison. Harcharan Brar, my childhood best friend, became the Governor of Haryana and Odisha states in India and eventually became the Chief Minister of Punjab, India. Growing up, I spent holidays in Murree Hills and Srinagar in Kashmir with my family, and local outings at the Lawrence Gardens in Lahore and movies at the Majestic Cinema as well. We drove to our holiday locations in the family car, a Fiat Minerva. In those days, hawkers sometimes came from as far away as China to sell tablecloths and beautifully hand embroidered cotton and silk fabrics. We had several Chinese restaurants in Lahore. Putliwalas (puppeteers) from Rajasthan were also a part of my childhood entertainment.  My favourite street foods in those days were pooris (deep-fried bread made from unleavened whole-wheat flour) and sweets. Khatai biscuit, kabobs and kulfas (similar to kulfi) were unique delicacies from Lahore.

My brothers and I supported the Unionist Party initially and later followed the Muslim League led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah. My best friend Harcharan Brar favoured the Congress party, but this difference in political views never affected our friendship. We shared a strong bond and had spent considerable time at each others’ homes. When I was on a trip to Bombay (now Mumbai) with my brother Wajid in 1944, I happened to have lunch with Mr. Jinnah. This happened again in 1945 when I was in Delhi under a completely different circumstance. During the second dinner, I overheard a discussion about their efforts to start a car factory. My third meeting with Mr. Jinnah happened in 1946 when my mother hosted a lady’s garden party at our home to welcome Ms. Jinnah. Our home was near Mamdot Villa, where Mr. and Ms. Jinnah stayed as guests of the Nawab of Mamdot who was the President of the Muslim League in Punjab. 

In December 1946, I took off for the United States to join a Master’s program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I boarded the Sterling Castle, a 200-passenger ship, to London. On my voyage, I befriended K. M. Cariappa (later to become the first commander-in-chief of the Indian Army) and Kailas Nath Wanchoo (later to become the Chief Justice of India). My first impression of post-World War II London was underwhelming. London was rather depressing since it had been bombed and destroyed, and was quite different from what I expected. I still cherish my first sight of Buckingham Palace which was left unharmed during the War. From London, I headed to Canada where I boarded a night train to Michigan. 

My mother sent me letters and newspapers from Lahore via mail. I learned about the Partition and the political and civil unrest by reading the materials sent to me from home and from American newspapers available then. During my stay in the US, I took a transcontinental road trip in a Packard car with a few other South Asian students. We drove the car first to Columbus, Ohio and Los Angeles via Route 66. The vastness and the small quaint towns and villages, the Grand Canyon, Salt Lake City, Mt. Rushmore and the Black Hills were mind blowing experiences. Then, I visited my brother in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I paid no more than $2 per night for a hotel stay along the way.

On 14 and 15 August 1947, the Pakistani and Indian students at the University of Michigan gathered together to celebrate independence. One of my Indian friends sewed both a Pakistani and an Indian flag, both of which were raised side-by-side at the celebration at the Rackham Auditorium. There was great jubilation and excitement about independence. My family back home was in Lahore and did not have to migrate. However, my best friend Harcharan’s family and other Hindu and Sikh friends had to leave the place.

Later that year, I got the chance to volunteer as a bag carrier for a delegate at the first Delegation to the United Nations in New York. There I got to witness the decision to create Israel and these experiences reinforced my interest in international affairs. My eldest brother, Syed Amjad Ali, was appointed as Pakistani Ambassador to the United States in 1954. During this time, I was married to Perwin Ali in a ceremony at the Ambassador’s home in Washington D.C. in July 1955. She was visiting as a tourist from Pakistan. Time Life magazine photographed Vice President Richard Nixon attending our wedding. 

In December 1947, I returned to Lahore to carry on with the family business. After 11 years in the family business, I proposed a business idea for which I received great support from my family. I travelled to Sweden and began a joint venture with Akerlund & Rausing, a leading family-run packaging company that later began Tetra Pak. Together, we began Packages Limited in Pakistan and the partnership is alive and thrives even 60 years later. The success of the partnership inspired several other partnerships with key multinational companies such as Coca-Cola, Nestle and so on. In addition to business developments, I was able to make social impacts in Pakistan via education and philanthropy. The rose garden in Lahore was inspired by my visit to the field of roses in Sweden.

I had the opportunity later to attend Harvard Business School, where education facilities were commendable. I wished to bring such quality education to students of Pakistan as well. This inspiration influenced the creation of the premier Lahore University of Management Sciences in 1984, where I served as the first Pro-Chancellor. Later, the Ali Institute of Education was built to enhance the education of teachers. The Naqsh School of Art, located in the ancient walled city, was set to focus on preserving the ancient and lost practice of miniature paintings. I could bring the World Wildlife Fund (now World Wide Fund for Nature) to Pakistan and co-found the South Asia Institute at Harvard University.

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