Chapter 15: Fifty Years Later
All through the vagaries of living and an eventful professional career, one desire burned steadily in Opana's heart: to revisit Lahore again, and if possible Daska. The wish was fulfilled by providence in November 1997 fifty years after he had last gazed upon the face of the land which alone was 'home' to him.
Mohammed Farooq, along with some fellow Muslim students of the batch of'47 who lived in Pakistan, proposed a reunion and grand celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of their graduation from the PCET. Those who had left at the time of Partition would be invited to Pakistan to join the celebrations at Lahore. As the idea unfolded, contact across the border grew apace. Many of the alumni living in India had been in the armed forces and they worried whether they would be able to get visas. The Indians did not know that many of their batch-mates across the border were also army veterans and it was mainly due to their efforts that visas and permission were obtained. Finally seven 'old boys' with their wives took off from Delhi for Lahore on the tenth of November 1997. All the men, besides being the alumni of Punjab College of Engineering & Technology, had their roots in some part or another of the new nation of Pakistan. Many of the wives, like Opana's own Santosh, hailed from these parts too. For them also, it was a journey to the past, the world of girlhood in the little communities that had flourished on the same soil. It was therefore a very sentimental journey.
The lavish welcome began as the plane landed at Lahore just after sunset. At the airport, they were received at the impressive VIP lounge by ten classmates - some of them had travelled from Islamabad and some from London. Sleek limousines and estate wagons then carried them on their first journey back into Lahore and straight to the home of Brigadier Akhtar Hafeez, the chief organiser of the reunion. On the drive from airport one missed one prominent landmark - there, opposite, used to stand the statue of Queen Victoria. Only the empty pedestal stood there now. The roads were better lit not at all the same lights of the Lahore of old.
Akhtar, along with his German wife, Lisa, had indeed been present at die airport and now ushered the guests into their spacious bungalow. The other participants and some of their begums were already there. There was much embracing and back-thumping even as memory began to recall some special occasion, some mannerism or a prank played fifty years ago. The evening slipped away and Opana and Santosh drove to the Canal View Hotel where they were to stay.
In the small hotel where he went to sleep that night Opana remembered Labh Chand Grover, once Deputy Collector in the canal department of the undivided Punjab. In the dark of night the windows revealed little of the landscape or the situation of the hotel. But
Opana had a strong sense that the old ramshackle Grover kothi must have been here, at just about the same spot, where this new hotel now stood close to the Dharampura locality on the canal's bank. On closer scrutiny and enquiries the next morning, it turned out that the hotel had indeed been built on the same plot.
Santosh had lived in Lahore all through her girlhood. Her family had lived in a sprawling kothi, 24 Jail Road. Her father, Kirpa Ram Bajaj, was a flourishing and famous lawyer. However, in place of this grand home and its gardens there now stood an automobile showroom. Santosh had moved on and a busy life as wife and mother had dulled the pain of Partition.
At about ten in the morning all the local PCET alumni came to the hotel and together, all of them set forth for the arranged visit to the University of Engineering at Moghulpura. This University was built on the very grounds of the Mcllagan College the alma mater of the group celebrating the golden jubilee of their passing out. They were the last batch to graduate before the Partition of the country. Sixty two students had joined the college in 1944. Thirty two had stayed on in Pakistan and thirty had emigrated to India. Among them they shared the vivid memories of their undergraduate years - spent in the grand building with its sprawling play fields and the nice hostel located conveniently close to the classrooms. Sadly, the building now bore no resemblance to that which the visitors remembered. It has been run down, not maintained and was probably used for some peripheral activities. The Sikh National College, which was about a kilometre from the engineering college, had also been incorporated into the new campus. The Grand Trunk Road, however, still ran through the campus and the Shalimar Garden remained as beautiful as before.
The University visit was followed by an excellent lunch at the Institution of Engineers Club, which the ladies also joined in, after having spent their morning happily shopping. In the evening the Pakistan Association of Contractors hosted an excellent dinner at the five-star hotel Avari located on the Mall. The wives of the alumni came in splendid attire, shimmering fabrics and flowing lines blending all the colours of the subcontinent. One or two of them wore saris. A couple of senior Pakistani ladies wore the traditional chadar and burqua. The old boys reunion took on an added grace and glitter.
12th November. The day started with a visit to the factory run by Mr. I/.har Quershi, an ex-student, locally referred to as I/.har Chhatwala. Izhar lives in great style in Lahore. He has a big bungalow with independent residences for his five sons in the same compound. A devout Muslim and a keen businessman, he showed interest in setting up business in India. After a round of his factory, the group was treated to a sumptuous lunch there. The food was traditional Punjabi fare which was familiar and loved by all. The hosts never served beef, keeping in mind the food taboo of their Hindu guests.
Opana had already expressed his great desire to visit Daska. Similarly, another classmate, Gurlal, yearned to visit Emanabad. So Khawaja Tariq, one of their hosts, arranged for a trip into the countryside. The limousine they rode in sped on almost silken roads never dreamed of by old Lahorians.
A hundred kilometres of this road links Daska to Lahore, passing through the wayside villages like Kamoke, Muridke and through Gujranwala city. Opana remembered the many bumpy journeys on the Nanda bus service or LSKT.(Lahore Sialkot Kashmir Transport Company) buses which used to take about five hours. During the war, the petrol shortage was met by introducing coal gas produced in small coke ovens mounted at the rear of the bus, which-made the journey very hazardous, but there was no alternative except horse drawn tongas or riding horse back in two or three stages.
Immediately to the north of Lahore runs the river Ravi. From the bridge, they gazed out at the familiar shape of the Baradari, clearly visible, standing in its majesty on an island mid-stream. The Baradari were the aristocratic summer retreats of local rulers of the past, built in as open a style as possible and usually in the middle of a stream. This one on the Ravi had always been used extensively by visitors when rowing on the river and for picnics. The river has very little flow as had been described by a satirist in his book Pitras Ke Mu/amin where he said "In the North of Lahore between two sand banks sleeps the river Ravi. It has forgotten the art of flowing a long time ago."
Just off Muridke, the road branched off to Emanabad - the long lost hometown of his classmate, Gurlal. At Emanabad, Gurlal was able to locate the house in which he was born and where he had lived before Partition. He talked about the town, his school and the famous Baisakhi mela that used to be held there. A famous Sikh shrine, Rori Sahib, still stands there, no more in use but under renovation. A jatha of pilgrims from UK happened to be there at the shrine for pilgrimage that day.
As time was running short, Gujranwala was bypassed. Opana's mind was full of the memories of the Kothi, in the suburbs of Gujranwala where his uncle Sardar Darshan Singh used to live, and the wonderful times that he had spent there in the company of his cousins, enjoying a typical rural holiday. Very soon on the now excellent road the fast car was crossing the bridge across the canal the Raya branch which took off from the upper Chenab canal at Bombavala. This was the canal and the bridge of their childhood they had jumped from the bridge to swim in its water. This was the road travelled to visit his mother's relatives and their family home. Opana realised that they were now on the very land where he was born and as the knowledge silently seeped into his total being he bowed his head in prayer.
But the Daska that had haunted Opana's dreams for fifty years was not there at all. It was an overcrowded, overgrown conglomerate of huts, houses and shanties. A sea of humanity had spread in all directions and overrun all that he had remembered and loved. Sheikh Ghulam Nabi's kothi, the Bhatron ka Moha/Ia, the Qabar Bazaar where Rama Mota had ruled in his majesty, the Bawian ki Haveli, the Bhagel Singh ki Kothi, Haru Shah's Tabela (stable), the Kashmiri Musalman's street with Shaukat, Anait Ali, Yakuba, Munshi Ram's firewood stall, wheat grinding mill, all were gone. In their place there were squalid streets, crowded markets and in place of community, just an inchoate mass of humanity, mostly migrated from the land now in India. The only old building which helped Opana to reorient his bearings was Dr. Sodhis's residence, still carrying the name in raised concrete letters over the balcony. The school, Church of Scotland Mission High School, had shrunk to a mere shadow of its past glory: the beautiful quadrangle where the boys used to form up for the morning assembly and prayers, the Roll of Honours board, the vast playgrounds where the British regiments from Sialkot used to camp for a month around December, the two hostels, the staff quarters and Mr. Nicholson's bungalow, all seemed to have vanished or been engulfed. The police station and the courts seen from a distance appeared to be still intact.
Opana found it too much to take in all at once and asked his escort to start back to return to Lahore. They halted on the canal bank and ate their packed lunch under the trees as they used to do fifty years ago. The canal, thank God, had not changed. Its placid cool waters flowed under the bridge unmindful of the changes that had taken place. The drive back to Lahore was fast. As the car sped on the metalled road it seemed to shed the past - without bitterness or remorse willing to return to the present as if to a fresh page again.