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Sunday, 4 June 2017

519) Leisure Time Short Stories (6): Remembering Uncle Paul Haegar: A German Army Officer in World War II who became an exemplary Horticulturist and transformed/landscaped the gardens of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) into examples of beauty & excellence :

519) Leisure Time Short Stories (6): Remembering Uncle Paul Haegar: A German Army Officer in World War II who became an exemplary Horticulturist and transformed/landscaped the gardens of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) into examples of beauty & excellence :

 (This short story first appeared in our blog It is being placed here for wider coverage)

(The following account is from my memory of Uncle Haegar from when I was studying in Class VI in Aligarh):

My father, Dr. J.N. Prasad was one of the founder members/pioneer Professors of Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College (JNMC) at Aligarh, which was affiliated to the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).

Uncle Paul Haegar was a regular visitor to our house and was almost like a family member.

His past life in Germany:

Uncle Haegar belonged to a very prosperous and reputed German Industrial family which owned several industries.

He was serving as a young Officer in the German infantry at the time that Hitler’s Nazi Party was gaining control of the country. Some members of the Nazi Party, who were jealous of his Family’s prosperity conspired against them and one day, an Army convoy of Nazi sympathisers surrounded their ancestral house, lined up each and every member of the house including his brothers, parents and young children and shot everyone dead after accusing them of being inimical to the Nazi cause.

Only one young boy, who had managed to scale the boundary wall into the neighbour’s house without being detected, escaped alive.  The neighbour’s family not only brought up this child as their own but kept his identity a secret from the Gestapo and the Nazis.

The Haegar family’s industries were confiscated by the “Fatherland” (“Deutschland”).

Uncle Haegar: An Allied Army Prisoner of War:

Devastated by this tragedy, and having lost his family and fortunes, he continued to serve in the German Army and rose to the rank of a Colonel. When World War II broke out and the Allied Armies were advancing upon the German heartland, he was taken prisoner and shipped to a Prisoner of War Camp for German/Axis soldiers at the British colony at Malaya. Here he was treated well by the British Army and given his passion for horticulture, he was allowed to go and help out a Malayan rubber plantation owner on  how to improve the yield of his plantation.

When World War II ended and the German Prisoner of War Camp was dismantled, he was given an option to be shipped back to Germany, but he declined on grounds that he had nothing to look forward to in war-torn and devastated Germany. He continued to stay on in Malaya, married a local Malayan lady and started his own rubber plantation there.

As time went by he became a prosperous plantation owner, but once again tragedy struck him. He lost his wife to a terminal illness and was completely heart-broken. He lost interest in his Rubber plantation and began to neglect it.

Around this time, he was offered a job at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) as the Chief Horticulturist. Among his various jobs was setting up of the landscaped gardens of the AMU, cultivation of flowers, fruits, vegetables and ornamental plants, both within the AMU Campus as well as in an old Fort area called the “Qila” (meaning “Fort” in Urdu), where several horticultural experiments were under way, financed by the AMU and Foreign grants.

Uncle Haegar took up this job around 1960, which is when my Father joined JNMC as a pioneer doctor at the Medical College.

Uncle Haegar, the Chief Horticulturist at the Aligarh Muslim University – a great success:

Uncle Haegar took upon himself the onerous task of landscaping the AMU’s gardens and making them the finest gardens among all the Universities of India.

His horticulture and cropping experiments got him India-wide recognition and Horticulturists from several Universities and other establishments around India visited him and were constantly in touch with him to consult him regarding his landscaping techniques, his innovative experiments et al.

Uncle Haegar used to walk away with all the prizes at every flower show whether it was Inter or Intra University or any other flower show.

A Black and White photograph of Uncle Haegar proudly sitting next to one of the Trophies won by him, taken by my AGFA Click III camera.
Uncle Haegar talking to one of the visitors/participants to the Flower show.
 A photo of Uncle Haegar from the back, waiting for the Flower show results to be announced.

Riding on a bicycle and later a cycle rickshaw:

I remember that, at first he and his Assistant Wali Khan used to ride on bicycles, both of them wearing Khaki hats or Panama straw hats and khaki shorts & shirts in the manner of dressing up for going on a Jungle Safari, and they were an easily recognizable duo all over the University. They were a kind of Laurel and Hardy team – Uncle Haegar was rather portly, while Wali Khan was quite wiry.

Later, when Uncle Haegar  suffered his first heart attack around 1967, he got a rickshaw made for himself and would be driven around by a rickshaw puller who was employed on a monthly pay of Rs.100/-.

The Berha kids and the “Laal Muh ka Bandar”:

As the rickshaw would pass by a small village of poor people ( called the “Berha”) on the way to our home which fell on his way to the “Qila” where he would go often to supervise the horticulture experiments being conducted there, the children of the Berha would run along with his rickshaw teasing him by shouting “Laal Muh ka Bandar” (meaning “the monkey with the red face”) – Uncle Haegar being a German was rather white in complexion, and with the Indian summer sun beating down on him, his face would become flushed with the heat, hence the children addressed him thus). Uncle Haegar asked my father “Doc sahib what does a “Laal Muh ka Bandar” mean?” At first my father was evasive, but upon Uncle Haegar’s persistence, explained to him the meaning of this phrase.

 Uncle Haegar immediately took “remedial measures”. He got a large sized walking stick, and began wielding it when the naughty boys would come running towards his rickshaw. He never hit anyone, but the boys stopped calling him “Laal Muh ka Bandar”. Instead they started respectfully addressing him as “Good morning uncle” or “Good evening uncle”. I learnt from Uncle Haegar, that to get your own way, you only have to show that you are the person in the “driver’s seat”, without using that power and everyone will fall in line.

Uncle Haegar responded by giving each one some toffees and chocolates, and he became very popular with the “Berha” kids.


Interestingly, Uncle Haegar and my father shared a common interest in Horticulture. So in the vast compound of our house, Uncle Haegar got the topsoil changed all over the gardening area and planted the most amazing varieties of flowering plants, including carpet grass, and roses which changed colour several times in a day and each one was a beauty in itself. My father would spend a couple of hours every day weeding out the lawn. Sometimes, Wali would be deputed to inspect that the garden was simply looking great and take remedial measures wherever necessary.
A view of our house in Aligarh. My mother, my sister, Raka and I also figure in this photograph. Possibly this is around 1962. 
I remember that one rose called the “Black Prince” got me a prize in a Flower Show, even though it was Uncle Haegar’s creation and I had nothing to do with it.

 Under Uncle Haegar’s supervision, we had a paddy field, a “singhara” pond, papaya trees, all growing upto the third floor of the house, a vegetable garden growing all kinds of salads, onions, beet root, potatoes and just about everything one could think of was growing in our residential compound. Whatever successful experiments were being undertaken on plants and crops at the Qila, found samples being brought and planted in our house.

A strict vegetarian with a love for food:

He was a strict vegetarian and was very fond of my mother’s dishes of  fried peas, “Aloo ki Tikiyas” (potato cutlets), “Samosas” and Onion “Pakoras” for snacks, apart from fried rice “Pulao” for lunch whenever he visited our house. He loved eating the “Kachauris”, “Pooris” and “Dosas” or “Idlis” which my mother would cook, among other items.

He also helped out with the hand-driven ice-cream maker and loved the ice-cream my mother made in various flavours. When he was leaving for his residence, he would invariably leave a request as to what he would like to eat the next time he came over visiting us.

Meeting his surviving nephew by a lucky stroke of chance:

Uncle Haegar made every effort to find out about his surviving nephew. Several German students who came to study at the AMU also helped him out in his search for locating the missing nephew.

Ultimately, Uncle Haegar got a series of Advertisements published in leading German newspapers. Finally, he received a call from the boy who came to India to visit him.

They spent a week together catching up with each other before he left for Berlin again. Uncle Haegar learnt that his nephew was serving in the German infantry, in his own footsteps and was now a Captain in the German Army. The wheel had turned a full circle. Another generation of the Haegar family was serving in the German Armed Forces now, though free from the Nazi yoke.

The last time I saw him:

I remember that I was being sent to the La Martiniere College, Lucknow hostel in 1970 after having got admission in Class VII. This was the first time that I was going to stay away from the family. As Uncle Haegar was like a family member, it was but natural that I would go along to say goodbye to him. I remember that he shook hands with me and wished me all the best in life.

I was admitted to the hostel on 12.01.1970 and my parents came to get me admitted to the College. This was also the day when Uncle Haegar suffered another heart attack and passed away.

Wali told us later that he kept asking for my father as he breathed his last. I was personally very distraught, and I know that my parents were too on hearing this news.

Somehow, even though 45 years have passed by, it has always stayed in my sub-conscious mind that had I not been admitted to the hostel in Lucknow on 12th January, Uncle Haegar may have got better medical facilities, if my father was there at Aligarh, instead of being with me at Lucknow,  but, I suppose,  nature/providence had willed it that way.

Since that year, on the 12th of January every year, I remember Uncle Haegar and offer a prayer to his memory.

His legacy:

Although he was unlucky in his personal family life and faced several tragedies throughout his life, he became very much a part of our family and gave to the AMU the most elegant landscaped gardens of beauty & excellence, which the University boasted of, as his legacy.

(The above account has been written by Rajeev Prasad).

Links to some other short stories on this Blog by Rajeev Prasad:

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