Our Journey and Memoir: From India to London and America, 1953–1955

۱۹۵۵-۱۹۵۳ ہمارا سفر و سرگذشت: ہندوستان سے لندن و امریکہ Translated by: David Boyk. Original language: Urdu
Canton, Ohio

Mehr al-Nisa

Hyderabad, India

A tourist ticket from Bombay to London on the Chusan cost Rs. 1055. The weight of this ship on the P&O line was 24,000 tonnes. Its color was white and it seemed new and extremely grand and up to date. Our cabin was on the last deck, Deck E, and was very comfortable.

Through the porthole, we could see the ocean waves. In relative terms, the ocean was very calm. Sometimes, there would be huge waves, and it felt as if we were dipping inside them.

The passengers who were about to depart and the people who were seeing them off were all waving handkerchiefs with their arms outstretched, and saying, “Godspeed! Godspeed!”

Around the time of maghrib prayers, the ship weighed anchor. We both stayed on the deck for a very long time and looked back wistfully at our homeland. Our ship, the Chusan, was carrying us with great tranquility, so that we didn’t have any sea-sickness at all. When it grew dark, we left the deck for our cabin. Everything was there in this little room: two beds, a closet, a dressing table, a basin, a chair, and a little ladder for climbing up to the top bunk. All in all, it was a very comfortable cabin. At night we went to sleep, and at five in the morning someone knocked on the door. When the door was opened, a liveried employee entered with a tray. This white-clad man said good morning, set down the tray, and left. He is called a cabin steward. The shipboard routine is that, along with tea, grapefruit or some other fruit is offered in the morning to each passenger in their cabin before breakfast. This is called bed tea, and we relished it. After enjoying our bed tea, we went outside to ask about breakfast. We were given a spot in the second sitting, including a table number. There are two sittings for each of the three meals each day, and a separate sitting has also been arranged for young children.

We were roaming around the ship when we heard the sound of an instrument. When we looked, a boy was making the rounds hitting a wooden instrument. It turned out that this gentleman was alerting everyone that it was time to eat. Then what happened was he played the instrument and we all arrived in the dining hall. A dining steward had been appointed for each table; when we went, Steward John greeted us and pulled back the chairs to seat us. There is a new menu each day; we order whatever we like, and he goes away immediately to bring it and very courteously place it on the table. If we place the knife and fork straight after eating, he understands that we have finished eating and removes the dishes. If we cross the knife and fork, then he’ll never take away the dish. This is the arrangement for eating; everything is available in abundance, the tables and such are very clean and neatly decorated, and the waiters all wear the same type of white uniform. Whenever we go to eat, it feels like a party. The food is very good—breakfast in the morning, then lunch, then tea at four o’clock, and then dinner. This was the daily program.

On the topmost deck there was music, dancing, and all different types of games, as well as a swimming pool. Every day a new program of entertainments was written on a blackboard. Sometimes they showed movies; sometimes there was music and dance. Often people passed the time up there on the deck and only went to their cabins to sleep. Apart from the particulars I’ve given above, one day there was also a fancy dress party. Everyone could take part wearing whatever new outfits they wanted, and whoever had the most splendid clothing won a prize.

At any rate, thanks to the constantly changing programs, time passed so quickly that we didn’t even feel like we were traveling, but rather that we were in another world. In every direction, you saw water, and this little town was flowing along between the water and the sky. On the ship there was a beauty shop where men and women had their hair done, a laundry where clothes were washed, and even a printing press; nearly every necessity was provided for.


Dr. Stires accompanied him to his room and imparted some important information. Doctor sahib was satisfied with everything, so he left. This Resident Doctor had a very serious temperament. Sister Henrietta had called him over to introduce us when we were first meeting with her.

Everything had met with our approval, so we went to the station to get our luggage. We loaded everything in a taxi and got in. We came back to the hospital, but we had forgotten our room. We started wandering here and there, saying, “It’s not this one, it must be that one.” “No, it’s not that one, it must be this one.” The taxi driver was an irritable woman and made a fuss about it. She dumped our belongings on the side of the road, near the nurses’ home, and then started the taxi up and vanished. We were a little embarrassed to imagine what passers-by must think of us, with all this stuff scattered around us. In this world of trouble, we were waiting for another taxi. By chance, the hospital librarian came out. We went up to her, and she was sympathetic. She said, “My car is at your service, but it’s illegal for cars to stop here. Quickly load up your luggage, and I’ll take you there right away.” I put a few necessities in my suitcase, and left it in my temporary accommodation. Doctor sahib quickly put the rest of our things in the car and then we all got in and went off. No part of the hospital could remain secret from the hospital librarian; the car went straight to the outpatient clinic and stopped nearby. We got out, took out our luggage, and strewed our ever-blooming blossoms of thanks on her so extravagantly that she couldn’t keep from laughing. Her name was Julie Billman, and she was a very caring, charming, and talkative lady. We were in America in the capacity of travelers; a longing for higher education had drawn us from such a faraway country as India; we were going to work in the same hospital where she worked. Doctor sahib explained all these things to her, and her human compassion was aroused. I’ve gone off on a tangent, but the point of this lengthy description is that if my compatriots are prudent and clever, and if they remember how to be practical, then they’ll find people who will help them.

After seeing off Mrs. Julie, we set our things down in the room. Then we went to eat in a little place near the hospital, where the food was very pleasant. The clinic was in a small three-story building, and Doctor sahib’s room was on the third floor. One wing and the lower floor were reserved for the clinic, and the rest of the upper portion had little rooms where several doctors were put up, because there wasn’t room for all of them in the doctors’ quarters. The doctors’ quarters were separate; most of the doctors who lived in them were married.

In any case, we were both happy. By God’s grace, everything suited our preferences.


The next day, I put on a skirt and got ready, and waited for Doctor sahib downstairs. As soon as he appeared, I got up and we went over together. He was already accustomed to a suit, but I was feeling awkward in my skirt. He already understood the philosophy of “different countries, different customs,” and now I started to grasp the saying, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” When I abandoned Indian clothes, the Americans stopped staring at me in surprise. It was as though I’d mixed in with them in terms of clothing. The first day that I changed my attire is unforgettable—I’ll always remember not just my grey skirt, but my white blouse too. So that issue had been taken care of, but there was still the question of where I’d live. The head nurse kindly gave me a temporary spot at the nurses’ home, and we both went first to the local Y.W.C.A., but when we inquired, we learned that there was no room at the moment. If I put my name on the waiting list, then perhaps I could get a room there. We explained the situation, and upon hearing our story, the manager gave us the address of another Association. We kept asking till we found it, probably ten or twelve blocks away. I give its address here:

Phillis Wheatley Association

612 Market Avenue

South Canton, Ohio

This was a little house. We rang the bell, a woman came, and we went inside. We chatted with Miss Willson, and when she found out we’d come from India to work at Mercy Hospital, she immediately called the president of the Association, whose name was Dr. John Walker. He also worked at the hospital, and his wife was in charge of the Association. Miss Willson, whom I’ve mentioned above, lived here and looked after the girls. She collects the money and deposits it in the office, as if she were the house mother. It turned out to be helpful that Doctor sahib met Dr. John Walker, because the estimable president said that a room would be given to me. Miss Willson took us upstairs right away and showed us the room. We approved of it and paid the rent. She also had us inspect the third-floor dormitory, and after our inspection we returned to our place. After staying at the nurses’ home for four days, I took all my belongings and went straight to the Association. After arriving there, it turned out that this was a residence specifically for colored girls, and only Negro girls lived here. Should I stay? We were seeking a room, and we’d found one, and very cheap too. On top of this, we’d given our word, so I had to stay there. Whenever Doctor sahib came to visit, he’d sit a little while and then leave, because it wasn’t permitted for men to stay here. But I was staying for the moment in the guest room, so according to the rules, he could come. The administrators were very obliging to us. We could talk as long as we wanted, and they never even said a word. We had plenty of time, because Doctor sahib hadn’t started work yet, but we’d both gotten settled, so what did we have to worry about! We still hadn’t toured Canton, but why hurry? We would be here for a while, and we could see every part of the city at our leisure.


At the Martinique Hotel in New York, we took two rooms; one for Doctor sahib and one for Siraj bhai. They were on the nineteenth floor. A boy took us up and showed us the room, handed over the suitcase and key, and saluted. Doctor sahib replied, “Thank you,” and then he led Siraj bhai to his room in the same way and saluted him. He also thanked him and fell silent. Now the boy started gesturing with his fingers to ask for money. Dr. Siraj thought maybe his fingers were in pain! He began examining the boy’s fingers very attentively, upon which he started saying, “Tip, sir.” Now Siraj bhai got mixed up and switched “tip” around—he was saying “tip, tip,” but Siraj bhai got confused and started saying “pit, pit.” In the end, the poor thing got mad and left. Siraj came over to tell us this story, but he left the key in his room. He went back and saw the room was locked, so he asked the boy for another key and opened the room. After the boy left and he remembered he had something important to tell us, he came over to our room. Then he remembered—oh no, the key is still inside. He telephoned from our room and asked them to send the key for such and such room, and again the room was opened up. Anyhow, we all laughed a lot. It had gotten very late, so we went to sleep. We’d rented the room for twenty-four hours. Everything was very nice; in the morning we took hot showers and baths and felt refreshed. Then we went out and had breakfast, wandered around here and there, and in the afternoon we took our suitcase and left the hotel.

Doctor sahib had previously sent a card to the New York International House, and we arrived there straightaway. It’s a big, beautiful building on Riverside Drive. There were many Indian boys and girls there, and we met a few friends and chatted. The boys live on the one side and the girls on the other, and as a rule even husbands and wives can’t stay together. I received a room on the ninth floor, and Doctor sahib and Siraj bhai also got separate rooms. The rate was relatively low, and we rented the rooms for four days. Here we met my brother Dr. Yusuf Husain’s friend Navanithan, who studied with him in college and who was going to get married here to a very nice Indian girl, Rathasata. This girl had spent most of her life here, but her father was Indian. Thus she was fond of wearing saris, but totally ignorant of the Hindustani language. We became quite good friends and often spent time together; she lived on the fourth floor. We figured that we should see as much of New York as possible. There, across from the International House, was a dome called Grant’s Tomb, which we went and saw. There are two graves, and the flags of all nations are flying there. Then we realized that it would take too long if we just went to one place at a time, any which way, and we only had three or four days of leisure, so we decided to take a bus tour. A tour is about four hours long, and you can see all the sights from the bus. At certain places, they stop the bus and show you around. There are two of these tours a day; in the first they show you historical places, and in the second they show you all the everyday and noteworthy things. We took the second bus.


Papadums and Mango Pickle

One day we went to see Siraj bhai’s Aultman Hospital. There were a lot of Indian doctors there, and we met all of them. I’ll briefly mention Dr. Sahi here. His wife is also a doctor, and they are both alike in courtesy; neither is any less than the other. God gave them a daughter. They had us over, and their other friends came bringing gifts, and so did we. Gradually, we developed a very good relationship with them, and they invited us over one or two more times. Thanks to their informality, we even helped in the kitchen. Everyone liked the papadums we had brought, and the Indian doctors smacked their lips when I fed them my tasty mango pickle. As if we could eat home cooking from our native land and not be left licking our fingers! It was worth seeing the state those gentlemen were in at that moment. We kept on eating chicken curry and suchlike. Here in America, Indians had found a taste that warmed their souls, and memories of home had started filling their hearts till they were beside themselves. Otherwise, what was so special about papadums and mango pickle? In any case, Dr. Sahi and the others kept inviting us over from time to time, and we did the same.


My heart was gladdened when I saw the Northwestern University campus. It is a suitable and agreeable site, and the university buildings also look magnificent. Modern buildings have also been built. We went to ask whether there were any Indian students there, and were given one or two names. We went searching for them and found one gentleman named Mr. Muktu, and another student whose name I forget. The two of them showed us the departments where they worked, and then took us on a tour around the whole university. After strolling here and there with them, we ate in the cafeteria and took some photos. We found both of these Indians to be well mannered, and their conversation brimmed with friendly cheer. Anyway, we were contented with our tour of the campus, and we thanked Mr. Muktu and the other gentleman. During the tour, we had also met a woman who knew Akhtar bhai. We also met a serious-minded girl who wanted to take us on a tour but was unable to do so because of her duty at the library, so our tour guides were the two Indians whom I have mentioned in the above lines.

When we were about to return, we thought we’d go first to the International House to drink some tea, and if we ran into some acquaintances then we could talk to them too. At that time, the cafeteria had closed, but then a girl appeared whose sari was a green colour. We stopped right there so that we could talk if she came over. She’d seen us, too, and after a moment’s delay she came over and asked, “How long has it been since you arrived from India?”

I didn’t recognize her at all, but when she named my grammar school, I searched my memory and asked, “Sister Anisa Qureshi?” She was a senior prefect at our grammar school when I was in second or third standard, and her sister Ariza was with my big sister Tayyiba. She smiled and so did I, and we talked about school and other things besides. I said, “You showed me your house too, Anisa bahen! I don’t know if you’ll remember all that old stuff, but I remember every little thing.”

Anisa Qureshi laughed heartily. We kept talking about these things, until three or four hours had passed. Then we went outside and took some photos, and because the time had come, we had dinner too, and drank tea. Hearing our goodbyes, she said goodbye too, but she came with us to the subway to see us off. There was also a boy with her whom she caled Salam. I’d never seen him at school, but every day I used to see his sister Arifa Qureshi, who was my older sister Tayyiba’s classmate. Anisa Qureshi herself was older than me; when I was in third standard, she was senior prefect. Whether I’m older or younger in age, she also reminded me of a lesson I’d forgotten. Deep in my heart, I said to myself, “Alas, grammar school—where has that school gone? Where are the girls from my class? Oh youth, just lend me two days of childhood!”


It was the month of October. One day Dr. Stires invited all the doctors to his father’s farm, which was very peaceful. Dr. Stires also invited me himself. Anyway, we all went out there. The farm was pretty far from the hospital. It was a wide open place on a sweeping piece of land. When we saw the house, it was adorned with everything you might want. Seeing it made my soul glad—benches were nicely set out here and there, and up ahead on a table there were heaps of roasted chicken legs. There were also other things to eat, and Coca-Cola and the like to drink. Everything was there in abundance, and the guests were helping themselves to their heart’s content and sitting down to eat wherever they felt like. There was also equipment for games, and after eating and drinking we enjoyed playing some modern games. We’d also brought our little camera, and we took pictures that turned out well because of the excellent weather. After enjoying the picnic like this, we all went back in our cars.