My father was born and went through his entire formative years in Lahore in what was back then ‘undivided India’.
Undivided till 1947, which is when Cyril Radcliffe, a man who had never till that year been east of Paris, was given the chairmanship of the boundary committee set up with the purpose of dividing a country he had never visited. History has it that the gentleman welding a thick lead pencil to draw out the ‘Radcliffe Line’, actually two separate lines which ran through the map of East and West of India. The upshot, two countries created on the lines of religion which resulted in millions of folk on both sides of the newly created artificial borders being rudely plucked out from their respective comfort zones and having to transplant themselves in what was till then to them, an alien environment. Which is how my father, Isher Dass Khanna, found himself in Simla, a lovely hill station nestled in the Himalayan foothills which till 1947 had been the summer capital of the British.
From the time I gathered my wits about me as a young kid I always heard my father speak ever so fondly about his childhood and his many friends whom he had to leave behind in Lahore simply because he was of a different religion to theirs. Not one to allow the grass to grown underfoot, soon after he had established his roots in Simla, Daddy had started reaching out to his childhood friends mainly by post and when telecommunication links were finally re-established between the two countries, on the phone. Every once in a couple of months he’d book a trunk-call and wait hours for the call to be connected so that he could have a hurried three minute (this being the duration allowed on a trunk-call) conversation with one friend or the other. His favourite being Dilawar.
By the mid ’50s Daddy had started making regular visits to Pakistan with only one agenda point, to meet his friends. While on a couple of later visits he managed to take a flight on a Dakota from Delhi’s Safdarjung airport to the other side, all his initial travel was by the one train which linked the two countries which ran from Amritsar in India to Lahore in Pakistan, a grand total of all of 50 Kms!! On his journey out Daddy would always carry along a huge basket of bananas which basket, on the return trip would be overflowing with blood oranges which he would proudly distribute amongst family and friends.
After I joined school in 1959, for the next three years two months of my three month long school winter vacation were spent in Lahore. By late December my Dad, Mum, Shelly (my younger sister) and I would head to Amritsar and from there to Lahore to return to Simla by end February. All I remember of our holidays in Pakistan, besides the fact that we were able to buy ‘imported’ toys which were way better than what we got in India, were us living with Dads friend in Lahore from where we would travel to various cities to meet other folk, including a visit to Multan where we got to see the house my Mum grew up in. By 1964 with tension brewing between the two countries, which culminated with a war in 1965, Daddy’s travel to Pakistan came to an end.
Life moved on! Dad having passed away in 1966, Mummy took on the mantle to see Shelly and me through school and college. Completing our education we headed our own ways. While my sister ended up in London with my Mum following suit a couple of years later I, after my planting stints in south India and Assam wound my way to Dubai. During my ten year tenure in Dubai, in pursuit of my fledgling business I was constantly on the move hopping from one country to the other. Over a period of time, with that country consuming tonnes of tea, Pakistan became part of my regular beat. On one of my visits to London, in conversation with my Mum sharing with her tales of my travels, Mummy suggested that the next time I was in Pakistan I should include Lahore in my itinerary to try and locate and meet Daddy’s friend. Tall order that because my memory of the childhood visits to Pakistan had totally faded and all I really remembered was that Daddy’s close buddy was a Mr Dilawar Khan (for us Indian kids back then every Pakistani was naturally a ‘Khan’) who was in the motor spare parts business and that the house we had spent those lovely three winter vacations in was located in Gulburg, a suburb of Lahore.
The seed having been planted in my mind, on my next visit to Pakistan I kept one day free from work to try to find and reach out to Mr Dilawar Khan.
Having checked into the Pearl Continental hotel in Lahore I walked out in the morning, refusing the darban’s offer of the hotel cab which would obviously be far more expensive than the regular yellow cabs plying the roads of Lahore. Walking up to one of those parked on the road outside the hotel and speaking in Hindi, I asked the cabbie whether he knew where the motor spare parts wholesale market was located. Being told it was in the vicinity of Anarkali Bazaar, was told by the follow that he’d take me there for 300 Rupees. Negotiating the fare with the cabbie was a no-go as the fellow refused to budge from 300. Hopping in to the cab as we wended our way towards Anarkali Bazaar, making conversation with the cabbie and remarking as to how every nook and corner was so similar to Amritsar, without thinking about it, I had just naturally switched from Hindi to Punjabi. The moment he heard me speak in Punjabi, the guy turns around to reconfirm that “you’re Punjabi” followed by words which made me realize, despite politicians on both sides of the divide constantly drumming it into the heads of their respective populations that India and Pakistan are sworn enemies, just how similar we are. Almost like two peas in a pod. With a wide ear to ear grin that lovable crook tells me “if you had spoken to me in Punjabi before getting into the cab, I would have never quoted you double”. Such a lovely feeling of home!
Alighting from the cab at the entrance of Anarkali Bazaar I handed over 200 Rupees to my new found friend letting him know that the extra 50 was for him being an ‘honest’ crook and having admitted to the fact.
Once inside that teeming market I saw an almost endless row of shops all apparently dealing in motor spare parts. Walking into the first one I asked whether there was any shop in the market owned by ‘Dilawar Khan’. Negative! Followed by a repeat performance in the next five or six. Walking into the seventh and having asked the same question, the gentleman asks me “would you be referring to Mr Dilawar Qureshi”? Hazarding a guess that maybe I had got the name wrong, on my informing the gentleman that the person I was seeking had a house in Gulburg, I was given directions to a shop which he said belonged to Mr Qureshi of Gulburg Colony.
Following his directions I found myself in a typical wholesale store having a long counter manned by three or four salesmen standing in front of rows of shelving loaded with goods. Tucked away in the rear of the shop was a gentleman about my age sitting across from an office table having a view of the shop entrance. Walking up to one of the salesmen I enquired whether this shop belonged to Mr Dilawar Qureshi. And that’s when I got those lovely goose bumps which pop up even now whenever I think about it, almost twenty five years after the event.
“Indi”? This from the gentleman at the office table. That I was stunned and absolutely gobsmacked would be an understatement like none other.
Having uttered that one word, the gentleman walks across and says again “You are Indi, aren’t you”?
“I don’t recognize you nor have any clue of who you are, so how”? This from me.
“I’m Dilawar Sahib’s son. I was in college when you and your sister as little kids used to come to stay with us”
“Don’t ask me how, but the moment you walked into the shop, I just knew it was you”
This after a gap of more than 40 long years! And then, the downer.
“I wish you had come in six months earlier because my Dad passed away then. For years and years before his death he would always talk about your Dad and keep reminding us of how the partition had robbed him of his childhood friend”
Surreal is the only word I have to describe that meeting.
Which resulted in Yusuf (Mr Qureshi’s son) the next time he was in London, going across to meet my Mum. I was not there but was told by Shelly that when Mummy met him, there were waterworks aplenty!