On the trail of tales my old man narrated

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, July 22, 2015

In our school days my father often used to tell us amazing stories at the dining table about how he spent seven years in Europe from 1939 onwards as a war correspondent. Along the way he spent time listening to Pablo Casals, the great Spanish Catalan cellist exiled by the fascist military dictator Gen. Franco, in the village church of Prada de Conflent in the Catalonian portion of France.

The amazing stories that he weaved in our youth have been primarily responsible for me pursuing the craft of journalism and writing. He told us about how he had discussions on music with Yehudi Menuhin, shared a flat with John Arlott the cricket commentator, met Pablo Picasso on a misty Paris morning by the weeping willows, listened to Pablo Neruda when he visited London, and of all things often shared coffee with Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie then in exile during the war. As we grew up I had reached the conclusion that it was all yarn to entertain us. The old man was a classic fibber, or so we thought.

My first realisation that there was more to his stories came after he died in 1971. A month or so later a letter arrived from England. On a thick piece of paper were scribbled the words: “Dear Pip, They do not make them like him any more. With affection, John Arlott”. My mother cried. We were upset. But then after he had gone his stories had started to unravel. As I travelled the world, his stories followed.

On Casals he had said that after a recital in this now famous chapel he called over my late father and said: “You are not a Spaniard or a European, you seem like from India”. “Yes, I am from Lahore”. “Ah, then you come from a great musical city. Come to my house and let us have good food and talk about music”. So a unique friendship was set in place and now that he is no more I vowed to visit the village of the man who respected Lahore for its musical excellence.

So to Spain it was where I went to fulfil a wish of visiting the village church of Prada de Conflent where Pablo Casals weaved his world of musical magic on his cello. On the way I had stopped to see the exquisite Alhambra. They have done an amazing job. Heritage is beyond religion, and the Spaniards of all people realise this. We have miles to travel on this road in old Lahore.

The Catalonian movement for greater freedom has always had a special place in my heart because of a dear friend during my university days in England. She was as fiery as the land from which she came. For this reason also I had wanted to visit the village church of Prada de Conflent in France. An old man at the village talked about Casals great knowledge and respect for the music of every corner of the world. I was happy that he had a kind word for Lahore, and I imagined my old man discussing intricate classical music with Casals. He must have had a great time.

Let me string this story with another one that shocked me when it happened. The magic of Lahore works wonders still. Quite a few years ago I happened to be in the exquisite central German town of Wiesbaden on a business trip. I was to meet the aristocratic cement plant owner Baron Von Dyckerhoff to urge him to return and do business with Pakistan. He flatly refused saying “Pakistan is full of corruption so my company does not work there”. I used the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin to urge him to change his mind, which was managed with great finesse. Let me explain.

As I was coming down on the hotel lift, I found myself sharing the lift with the great violinist. Journalists never let go of such opportunities. I told him that he knew my father during the WW2 days in London where he was a BBC war correspondent. Mr. Menuhin gave me a sharp look and said: “Are you the son of Hamid and Pip?” “Yes Sir”. He pulled out two tickets for his concert in Wiesbaden and said: “You have to come tonight, and afterwards we will discuss the concert”. One of those tickets I gave to the aristocratic baron and introduced him to the great violinist.

In short the mention of Lahore and music was instrumental in me making the baron change his mind. Sadly, back in Pakistan I was confronted with a politician who wanted a massive commission. I left the meeting quietly and faxed the baron: “You were right. Business is not possible. We can only discuss music and Lahore”. I got a beautiful reply from the German baron. Since then I have been to Wiesbaden twice, each time to enjoy a delicious lunch. To me his trust means much more than money not earned. Now his company, hopefully, might be making a reasonable donation to Lahore’s heritage for a small project inside the walled city.

About Pablo Picasso and the emperor of Ethiopia I cannot write, for I never did come across any such connection. But in Paris many years ago I happened to be sitting by the River Seine on a late summer evening. It was chilly and drops of water kept falling, slowly, very slowly, from the beautiful weeping willows by the river. My father had described them in detail. I thought of someone in Lahore. I have a suspicion he must have been in good company, and in high spirits, to have remembered such detail at the dining table. It is best to go to Paris when young, he had said, and he was right.

As I write this piece I am listening to a Mozart piece on the ‘Banned in Pakistan’ YouTube in which Yehudi Menuhin and Pablo Casals are playing together. It is in black and white and in his chapel, even though Casals was not into serious religion. Imagine how one idiot and his hateful video posting has forced an equally idiotic establishment to ban the network. Such is the power of hate. Rational decisions are then avoided by the highest in the land. But as I round off my piece I often wonder how my father would have fared in these trying times in Lahore where music, painting, poetry and all the finer arts are looked down upon. The Inquisition is in full flow, where even the way the Almighty is loved is questioned.



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