The year was 1966. On a cold, gloomy and wet December afternoon, I landed at the Prague airport, capital of the erstwhile Czechoslovakia, now broken into the countries of Czech Republic and Slovakia.
I was just out of Punjab University, Chandigarh and not only was it my first trip abroad, I had also never been on an aircraft before.
So (very) cold and (extremely) apprehensive, I warily made my way across a completely broken down airport, the communist regime had plans to build a shiny new one elsewhere instead to impress the world.
I was in Prague on a 5-month scholarship for training with CETEKA, their news agency. Our institute was in a villa which is called Zameck in their native language, in a small town named Roztez (these details I hope will matter) which was some miles outside Prague.
It was a cold double-storeyed structure and the nearest railway station was two miles away. Reaching the station wasn’t easy especially since we had to cross a village with a very hostile gaggle of geese!
We were literally cut off from the world; I guess that is what the comrades there wanted. A visa problem had delayed my arrival by 15 days but on reaching Roztez, I was in for a pleasant surprise.
Our Doris Day lookalike Director Mrs Tshtolsova told me, "Your friend is waiting for you."
A friend in Czechoslovakia?
There, in the Directors room, waiting for me was a lean and bespectacled Abdul Subhan in a black sherwani, from Karachi, Pakistan. I think he said he was from the Pakistan News Agency, although I am not certain if that organisation even exists now.
I was born in Lahore in 1946 but despite that I had had very little interaction with Pakistanis. In 1956, from our home in Jalandhar, Punjab we did cross over once to watch a hockey match as the border wasn’t so tight then, but other than that, nothing else.
Abdul Subhan – An introduction to Pakistan
And here, in Roztez, a Pakistani was waiting for me, just a year after the 1965 Indo-Pak war.
He escorted me to our dormitory and insisted on carrying my suitcase (those days they were not so light) up the stairs to my dorm, despite my protests.
Soon, we became the best of friends, completely inseparable. Along with us there were two Afghans who were always quarrelling, two men from Burma also doing the same, a Japanese who was a loner and about a dozen Africans.
In this motley crew, the friendship of an Indian and a Pakistani stood out.
Abdul Subhan and I belonged to different social and religious backgrounds, our countries had gone to war a year earlier and yet, in an unexplainable affection, we would look after and help each other. Perhaps it had something to do with where we where coming from, or perhaps, it had something to do with where we were.
Like a living thing, our bond grew; soon it became clear to the rest of the group that the seat next to me on the bus was always reserved for Abdul Subhan on our long rides.
And whenever we travelled, we always shared the hotel room. Both of us exchanging stories long into the quiet nights.
It was as if the unfamiliarity of the place had something to do with turning two strangers into the best of friends.
I remember one of our assignments at CETEKA was to write on the war; he wrote his version, I wrote mine. And that was that.
This year, it has been 50 years since we parted and a lot has changed. And yet, nothing at all.
Since then, I have been to Lahore with the press party to cover the visit of Atal Bihari Vajpayee who travelled to Pakistan when he was India’s prime minister. I remember when the plane carrying the Indian entourage landed at the airport there was a thunderous applause – I was in Lahore or as we say in guttural Punjabi ‘Lohr aa gaya’.
But the trip was not entirely a pleasant experience; there were Jamat-i-Islami protests. Soon after landing, our aircraft was taken to one corner of the Haj terminal and our shuttle buses were then escorted by machine gun mounted jeeps through a mud road; we never even saw the main Lahore airport building.
In the time that I did manage to spare, I tried to retrace the steps of my family’s history. I soon discovered that our house on Nisbat Road no longer existed and had been turned into a market but our office in Gwal Mandi was still there.
Anarkali and Shalimar Gardens were a disappointment. There were so many restrictions during the trip that I could not see the Lahore that I had heard in the stories told by my parents.
Then, 10 odd years ago, I tried to visit Lahore again for a function related to Bhagat Singh but was denied the visa. I still don’t know why, but that’s okay, no grudges. I’m sure many Pakistanis wanting to visit India have a similar story to tell.
In my time in Pakistan, one name repeatedly came to mind: Where are you, Abdul Subhan, I silently asked.
I often think back to our last meeting: In May of 1967 in Moscow where our group had been taken. We were both emotional as we knew it was highly likely that we will never meet again.
The gentle Pakistani then carried my suitcase from my room down to the taxi.
Later that year, a few letters were exchanged. In one of these, he informed me that he was to be married. He must be a 70-year-old grandfather now, like me, with scanty or no hair – I would love to hear from him one more time.
Five decades later, I often wonder at our camaraderie.
Despite the ravages of time and war, Abdul Subhan has remained the warm memory I choose to recall on cold December days, when an Indian and a Pakistani met in Prague.
This article first appeared on Dawn.