The evening brings the hour when shadows of recollections dive deep into the soul and this evening I was in the city of my youth. I was with a dear friend from the time, walking down familiar streets, hand in hand. After a long time, the old days had come alive again. Hamid said, “I just can’t believe that you and I are together in Lahore, walking down the same street that we used to take to college.”
“I can come only to Lahore to visit the gurdwaras. And this is a good enough excuse to visit my friend,” I said, looking into Hamid’s eyes. Our eyes were saying much more than our words. We used to go down this street every day to the badminton court. On this very street we had together received lathi blows during a students’ demonstration against the British rule.
Our thoughts turned to that evening in Bombay in 1946. Hamid and I were living there, sharing a room. The day the Hindu–Muslim riots broke out we were walking down the embankment by the sea on our way to our room. That evening by the sea was enchanting but fear lurked all around. Even the knives of the hawkers selling fresh coconuts were scary. Neither of us knew the faith of the coconut sellers but at least one of us could have been killed by such a knife. “Hamid, what did we know that the evening by the sea was the beginning of a storm that would end in such a way that two people who shared a room would no longer be able to share even a country.” Hamid clutched my hand tightly. Hamid belonged to Ludhiana and I to Lahore.
Later, I made friends with a poet from Ludhiana. The first time I heard him recite a poem at a symposium, I was immediately drawn to him for his language and diction were like Hamid’s. I was going to tell Hamid about that poet when he said, “That’s my house.” We walked through the small garden that was blooming even in the hot summer to a very well decorated drawing room. I recalled in contrast the mess in our room in Bombay. “And this is my bhabhi?” Hamid’s wife and I greeted each other with a salaam. My bhabhi was far prettier than the picture I had seen of hers. Hamid had sent me a picture of his wedding and at the back he had written, “A pity indeed that because of the politics of our times you could not be present on this day.” Hamid called his pretty little daughters in and said, “Bhaiji, you have four sons and we have four daughters.” The girls were very sweet and had poetic names. The older three came to me and I kissed them but the youngest stayed away. “Shiri, go and wish your uncle,” her mother said many times but the girl would not budge. “Never mind, don’t press her too hard. She has probably never seen a turbaned and bearded character so she is hesitant. Anyway small children take time to warm up to a stranger.” The older girls brought tea. “I told your bhabhi that you like potato chips with ketchup and rasgullas.” And we started talking.
A few of Hamid’s friends came over, for he had invited them to meet me. Among them were an Olympian hockey player who had defeated the Indian team, a poet and a journalist. When we got talking, I said, “We Hindustanis and Pakistanis should give a good fight in the hockey field, we should compete with our poems, but I wish that the people of the two countries should never be in combat again on the battlefield.” Everyone nodded in agreement as though I had voiced not only my feelings but theirs too.
When Hamid’s friends left, he said: “It is time for you to go to the gurdwara. We will all drop you there and thus we will get some more time together.” Hamid brought out his tiny Japanese car from the garage and the older girls plucked flowers from the garden and gifted them to me. Bhabhi and the three older girls sat at the back, the youngest and I sat in front with Hamid. Shiri held a bright red flower in her little hands. We started out and I found that Hamid was a good driver. Shiri quietly gave me the red flower. I kissed her hands and prayed that those tiny hands that had gifted me a bloom never saw pain. We passed the big garden of Lahore. It was here that Hamid and I had heard Subhash Chandra Bose speak for the first time. Across was the crossing where Bhagat Singh had fired a bullet at Saunders and here was the road that led straight to the river Ravi. I said to Hamid, “There is still time for me to report at the gurdwara. Can you take me to the Ravi?”
The car started moving toward the Ravi river, the river of which a poet had said the women of Lahore with reddened lips were going to the Ravi to set it aflame. It was by the Ravi that Bhagwati Verma, a comrade of Bhagat Singh, died in an accidental blast while making a bomb to destroy British imperialism. And it was by the Ravi that Nehru had taken the vow of complete Independence from British rule. And there was the bridge on the Ravi, the very mention of which would send my wife into a swoon. After Independence a caravan of refugees was crossing this bridge and my wife’s parents were part of it. Both of them were stabbed in the back. There were many such bridges in my part of the Punjab where caravans of people moving this side had been stabbed in the back. Dusk was falling and we turned back. Shiri moved on to my lap. Seeing the moon in the Lahore sky in the rearview mirror, Shiri cried out in joy, “Uncle, uncle, see the moon!” We had reached the gurdwara. This was my last evening in Lahore for my visa to the beloved city was to expire the next day. As we got off the car, Shiri’s finger got caught in the door. She burst out crying but instead of saying “Oh Mama” she said “Oh! Uncle” and hugged me tight. I kissed Shiri’s finger and her forehead. Everyone’s eyes were moist.
“Farewell . . .”
“Farewell . . .” The moon flashed a friendly smile down at us.
Translated from the Punjabi by Nirupama Dutt.
Navtej Singh (1924-1983) was a well-known fiction writer and succeeded his father Gurbaksh Singh as the editor of the pioneering Punjabi journal Preetlari.