Chapter 13: Lahore the Magnificent


Opana's older brothers went to college in Gujranwala, watched over by their uncle, S. Darshan Singh, but Opana's father was not entirely happy with the arrangement. So, when Opana finished school at Daska topping the school list with an average score of eighty percent marks, the family decided that he should join the Punjab University at Lahore. DAY (Dayanand Anglo Vedic) College at Lahore was an institution of high repute and a bit orthodox, which also determined the family's preference, besides the fact that it was not very expensive.

Opana joined the college as a boarder. Ram Saroop, another boy from Daska, was also in the same college and in the same dormitory. The college was known for its activism in the national freedom movement, which was gathering momentum even as imperial Britain was facing a war in Europe. The college was run by the Arya Samaj. The Arya Samaj was spearheading a reformist movement directed towards cleansing Hindu society and institutions of the unethical practices of Brahmin priests and of the rigid customs and rituals that had acquired a stranglehold on Hinduism.

The DAV College was staffed by men of scholarship and excellence besides reformist zeal. They were, in fact, men of distinction in their own subjects, and some of them had dedicated their lives to the Arya Samaj. They wore only homespun clothes and received Rs. 7 5 (about 1S US Dollars in those days) as salary. A boarder's total expenses including his fees, hostel dues, food, etc., was around Rs. 40 (8 US Dollars) per month. Admission was easy for Opana as he had scored very high marks and the family decided that he should join the pre-medical stream in inter-science. This was a two-year course preparatory to admission to the medical college of the Punjab University, also located in Lahore, where a five-year course led to a MBBS degree. In the inter-science programme the students had to take English, Mathematics, Physics, Biology (Botany and Zoology) and an elective language, like Hindi or Urdu. Opana took up Urdu. The year opened with a preliminary two-month session just before the three-month summer vacation. The first term was therefore spent in introductory lessons, purchase of books and in getting oriented to the urban lifestyle which was quite new for the boys from villages and small towns.

Lahore was bewildering after Daska - from the shelter of the home and the protective presence of parents and elders one, was thrown into a world without any restrictions or supports and one had to fend for oneself. Lots of things happened all at once. One started becoming conscious of oneself of one's dress, one's hairstyle, speech, diction and image. One entered into a wholly male environment and encountered things like love, desire, friendship and homosexuality. It was a different landscape too. Cinema halls, restaurants, coffee houses, beautiful gardens, Lahore's glamorous and famous Anarkali shopping center, pretty girls who were bold enough to accost one, university grounds bursting with student rallies for the nationalist movement, inflammatory speeches and lathi charges.

Among the teachers who left a lasting mark on young minds were Professors Sarin, Bhoomitra, Kanaihya Lai, Zia Sahib, Malhotra and later Divvan Chand Sharma, Shanti Swaroop, Bhagwan Dass. Zia's composed typical Urdu couplets: "you have come to Lahore to study enjoy the famous aerated waters prepared by Kesri". Professor Diwan Chand was noted for his reveries. He would recite, say, first line of the Solitary Reaper, like "Behold her single in the field" and then go into a trance for fifteen minutes. His favourite tags were "I want to sit under the shade of this grass" and "What can the spirit do when the flesh is weak?". Kanaihya Lai Kapur's satires were his forte, like his Sang-o-Khishtznd Sheesha-o-Tesha. It was great to be young, in college and in Lahore.

The two initial months were over too soon and the boys packed for home. Daska welcomed back its own with open arms: they were the heroes who had made it to the University and were back in their new stylish clothes. It took hours of talking, spread over days, to recount their experiences to an avid audience of chachas and chachis of the town.

Early in the holidays, something happened to change the course of Opana's future. Eager to display his newly acquired knowledge of the anatomy of the frog, Raina Tigrina, he caught hold of a big specimen from one of the rain swollen ponds in Daska and boiled it in order to pick its bones out to build a skeleton. By evening when his father returned from the court, the house was reeking of boiled flesh. The gentle and pious man that he was, he felt revolted by the experiment and felt that if his son had to go through this type of training to become a doctor, it was not worth it. It was thus unilaterally decided, that on his return to college after the vacation Opana should change his course from the medical to non-medical science stream and work to qualify for entrance to engineering studies. So, Opana had to drop biology and take up mathematics instead. No more frogs suffered at his hands and he had to make up for the portion of the mathematics syllabus which had already been covered in the first two months. This change was made without fuss and almost casually - a complete change in direction. Of course, at that stage no one knew for sure whether Opana would ever make the grade to enter either engineering or medicine.

Back to college. The first days of being a freshman and the ragging and teasing were over. Undergraduates settled down to serious study and their hostel routine. The day started with a sandhya prayer meeting, followed by visit to the tuck shop and a short walk to the class. The hostel community was dominated by various khalifas or veterans who had been long standing residents for many years, each leading one faction or another. Jagan, Om Jaggi, Girdhar and Puruthi were some of these gangleaders. There were the usual feuds, gang fights and jostle for power, as in any campus.

Om Mohan, a senior student at that time, was in the first year of M.A. English. He was the proctor, a good writer and a very impressive person. Opana was impressed and the two boys developed a good friendship that lasted for years. It was Om who led Opana to appreciate the beauty of the English language. Opana did fairly well in his Intermediate examination but was not able to get admission to the Engineering College and continued his undergraduate studies at the DAY College for a degree in science. He had not fared too well in the elective subjects and in English, the subject in which he had not scored well at all, needed special attention. Om Mohan persuaded him to enroll for an honours course in English a strange combination indeed, for generally only humanities student went in for honours in English. Science students, known to be poor in English, were so deeply involved in the intricacies of physics and calculus that they never even thought of doing an extra course involving three additional papers in English. However, with Om Mohan as 'tutor', Opana really got some insight into English literature. The course required critical study of selected authors and that year it was George Eliot and Lord Tennyson. Besides, there was the history of English literature. All this might have detracted from Opana's concentration on the sciences, but he enjoyed the course and it stood him in good stead later. By the time the batch finished college, the Partition of India was already on the way. In the years that followed Independence, standards of written English started deteriorating and those with better fluency had an advantage. Later when Opana went beyond the shores of his country, first to Britain and later to various other countries, he remembered Om Mohan, his guru, who had not only taught Opana to enjoy good English but also to write reasonably good articles for the college magazine.

Opana's older married sister had meanwhile moved to Janakpuri, a suburb of Lahore. After the first two years at the hostel it was decided that Opana should shift out of hostel and stay with her. She had always cared for him like a mother and the change was very welcome. The suburb was populated mostly by salaried middle class employees and Opana who came from the higher class of landed rural gentry enjoyed much prestige among the neighbours. His brother-in-law's impeccable reputation also helped to add to his standing. A few blocks away, lived Sheila, the pretty daughter of a widowed lady who earned her living as a nurse. Sheila was an attractive girl studying in college. Soon, a relationship started blossoming, progressing from roof-gazing, ogling, an occasional nod, to a rare touch of hands, much smiling and a little bit of conversation. Another girl then joined the game. She was much bolder and walked up to the house one day, with an invitation for Opana to meet her at a particular spot. Some pleasantries were exchanged, hands held, some pecking and the interlude ended. As often happened in such cases Opana met years later as the wife of one of his good friends from the engineering college. Puppy love did not leave its trace on social interaction in those times.

Towards the end of the academic year in 1944, it became doubtful whether it would be possible for Opana to get into the only engineering

College in the undivided Punjab for it had just forty seats in all. Out of these only three were available for non-agriculturist Hindus which meant that Opana had to rank among the first three in the University degree examination. Career consciousness was now beginning to rise and with it came competition for seats in professional courses. An application was submitted for Opana's admission to the engineering degree course of the Punjab College of Engineering and Technology (PCET). He also took a competitive examination for admission to Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad. The B.A. results came out and Opana came through with flying colours. But there was still no call from the Engineering College. In the meantime, the Dhanbad School of Mines offered him admission and a scholarship and it was unanimously decided that Opana should join that institution. Opana's brief but eventful sojourn in Dhanbad, his first descent into the coal mines and the world of the collieries and miners is another story. However, after about two months in Dhanbad, Opana was back in Lahore, having received the much awaited letter granting him admission to the PCET. The next three years went into the rigorous training to be a civil engineer the most envied profession in those days. They were years of very hard work but also brought some lifelong friendships: Prakash Bhasin, Madan Kohli, Gobinder, Sehgal, Raghubans Kanwar, Jagdev, Raj Kalra among them. The course was over in July 1947. The Partition took place in August 1947. All diese good friends were driven out of their homes, their land of birth and out of Lahore and scattered across the divided subcontinent.