External Affairs

Rediscovering Abdus Salam Through a Visit to His Childhood Home

The home of Nobel laureate Abdus Salam may have been designated a monument by Pakistan, yet he remains alien to the land.

Abdus Salam’s childhood home. Credit: Aown Ali

Jhang (Pakistan): Tucked away in a quiet narrow street of Mohalla Chain Pura inside the Bab-e-Muhammad neighborhood of Jhang, a small 400 square foot house is designated as a national monument of Pakistan. This is the family house of Muhammad Abdus Salam, the Nobel Laureate theoretical physicist, and where he was born in January 1926.

Reviled as a ‘kafir’ because he was an Ahmadi, the real Abdus Salam is virtually forgotten in his native Pakistan.

The gated locality of Bab-e-Muhammad is known as Jhang city. In fact it is the old city of Jhang, which, like old neighborhoods in many other cities of Punjab, is gated and has its particular architecture and lifestyle.

Bab-e-Muhammad leads into a straight lane called Bazaar Noor Shah. Walking a few steps in this cluster of shops, looking over the true picture of life in old Jhang you could ask some passersby or a shopkeeper about Salam’s house. Turning a left at a Y-junction and walking a few more steps in this direction one arrives at a small house with a tiny inscription on the brown colour main door. The house looks no different than any of the other houses in the area, but it is from this house that a series of knowledge starts, a new page of science begins and the whereabouts of Salam are found.

I was afraid Salam’s house may be a crumbling structure, abandoned to its fate with a permanently closed entrance. But instead I found a well conserved building. A middle-aged man promptly answered the knock on the door with a welcoming smile on his face. This was another surprise. Muhammad Ismail has been deputed at the house for the past 10 years by the Punjab archaeology department.

The house is no architectural marvel; in fact, it is a building of very basic style with two rooms side by side and a staircase in front of a room besides the courtyard. According to Ismail, although the main structure of the house was intact, the wooden roof was wrecked some time ago, with the archaeology department restoring it in late 2016. No major alterations have been made to the house, he told me.

According to Ismail, every day about 10-20 people visit Salam’s family home. Most visitors are from Jhang and the surrounding towns. Local school teachers often take their students to the house for visit. But the one thing missing is a detailed information on the family; although there was an iron board inside the house, there was no printed or written material available on Salam and his family.

The elementary school Salam attended is also located close to this neighborhood. The Government High School Jhang City has preserved Salam’s classroom and an old register of admission and withdrawal showing the record of the four years he spent at the school.

School principal Sheikh Abdusl Ghaffar was happy to show me the old building where Salam studied during 1934-1938. Salam left the school to join a college for matriculation. Recognising its role in his exceptional career, the governor of Punjab bestowed a replica of Salam’s Nobel Prize, which now sits atop the principal’s table.

“People of the city were immensely delighted [when Salam won the Nobel]. It was the second time when the people of Jhang were observing his great achievement so passionately; first time it was in 1940 when he passed the matriculation exam with distinction and the news of his achievement was picked by local newspapers with his pictures” Ghaffar told me.

Visiting Salam’s childhood home and school, and seeing it all so well maintained, I was overcome with a feeling of deep sadness. His home may have been designated a monument, yet he remains alien to the land.

Aown Ali is a Lahore-based photojournalist.