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Sunday Sentiments

  • The Ladies of Lahore

    Posted On February 22, 1999

    By Karan Thapar

    Atal Vajpayee’s journey to Lahore reminded me of my own first visit to that city. It was in 1980 and I was still short of 25. The Russians had just invaded Afghanistan and I managed to convince The Spectator that I could cover the sad events in Kabul for them. The magazine agreed to pay and I chose to make my journey to Kabul across the breadth of Pakistan.

    I had never crossed the border before although my parents and theirs before them were born, educated, married and lived in Lahore. Instead, I was a post-partition product. For me Lahore was enemy territory. The fact that the rest of the family thought of it as home made it only more mystifying.

    My mother armed me with the addresses of all the houses I wanted to visit. Properties on the Mall, Golf Road, Nispet Road, some still standing others long since knocked down and sold off in smaller plots. Romanticised stories redolent with nostalgia and set in these homes had become the core of the collective memory I inherited.

    I approached Lahore both as a stranger as well as an insider. I did not know the place at all yet at the same time I knew of a Lahore that perhaps no longer existed but which in my family’s annals was vibrant and undying. I had no idea where I was going and yet I was coming ‘home’.

    It was thus that I found myself outside a large rambling house on Golf Road. I was staring through the open gate down the drive at the building itself. Unintentionally I must have stepped into the compound.

    An elderly lady in a shalwar-kameez with a gentle benign face appeared and broke my reverie. I was a trespasser and no doubt she had come to enquire what I wanted.

    “I’m sorry” I hastily said in imperfect Punjabi. “My father’s parents used to live here before partition and I was only looking at the house. I didn’t mean to intrude.”

    Her face creased into a warm smile. Her old eyes lit up. “Tussi Prem de putar ho ya Pran de?”

    I was stunned. It was thirty-three years since partition, over three decades without contact or association. She had never met me before and yet she seemed to know who I was.

    “How do you know?” I spluttered.

    The lady laughed. She seemed amused by my incredulity. The sound of her laughter seemed to suggest there were things my post-partition generation could never understand. I had often heard the same note in my parents’ conversations.

    “I knew your family well and I remember you father and uncle. You have Pran’s thick eyebrows. Do you have his bad temper as well?”

    The lady showed me around the house. A lot had changed and perhaps it was unrecognisable but with care and detail she pointed out how it had once been. At every turn she sought to recreate the old grand-parental home.

    Last year, after a gap of over fifty years, my mother returned to Lahore. She was born there, married there and had two of her four children there. I did not fully appreciate what the city meant to her until she came back with a handful of Lahori mitti in a carrier bag.

    “What on earth are you going to do with that?” I asked.

    “Mix it with the roses at home” she replied. “It’s my way of keeping Lahore close to me.”

    Two elderly women, a half century of old memories and an affection that neither time nor politics has diluted. Of such stuff is our friendship with Pakistan made. Politicians, if they choose, can build on it but thank God they have failed to destroy it !

    City of shame

    We have a knack for spoiling our own best moments. It’s almost as if when things are going well we feel the need for a spoiler in case nazar lag jaaye. As a result our moments of joy are rarely, if ever, unalloyed. Dal mein hamesha kankar rehte hein.

    If Mr. Vajpayee’s statesman-like visit to Lahore gave us a foothold on the moral high ground of Indo-Pak relations the behaviour of the spectators at Eden Gardens on the same morning made it a little unsteady. What should have been a day of pride was tinged with the shame of bad sportsmanship.

    Just how deeply Eden Gardens has dented our amour propre became apparent when I found myself gagging in the middle of a joke. Abidah Qazi, the wife of the Pakistani High Commissioner, returned to Delhi after a week in Pakistan last saturday. Both of us were watching cricket when I phoned to say hello.

    “Welcome back to civilization”, I teased.

    She laughed good naturedly but just then, as if God was determined to show me up, the spectators at Eden Gardens erupted. Abidah was too polite to say a word but I couldn’t help reflecting on what a strange form of civilization this was.

    Of course, it’s always nice to win but it’s even nicer to be able to accept defeat with good grace. Everyone exults in their own victory but only the special can share the other side’s happiness particularly when it’s gained at your own cost. If cricket is really to provide a healing touch to our relations with Pakistan then the spirit of the game has to be more important than its outcome. Otherwise the result will only add to our animosity.

    No doubt these are platitudes but they bear repeating because of the demeaning excuses that have been trotted out to rationalise our bad behaviour. ‘Sachin was only technically out’ is the first. It’s wrong. He was out full stop. To say that it was only ‘technically’ so is to suggest that in some higher, more meaningful, sense he was not out. But that simply isn’t true. In fact it’s nonsense. Worse, it’s an attempt to excuse the deplorable behaviour of the crowd by implying that an injustice had been done.

    Next is the argument that Wasim Akram should have called Sachin back. No doubt Vishwanath called back Bob Taylor in 1982 and, more recently, Hansie Cronje called back Ajay Jadeja but so what? In this case Akram had a choice and he chose not to exercise it. He was under no compulsion to do so nor under any moral obligation. He came to win, Sachin was fairly and squarely out so why should Akram have been expected to intervene and reverse that outcome?

    The truth of the matter is Sachin was unlucky, horribly, horribly unlucky – but that’s life. Only children plead to have their luck reversed. Adults accept it with equanimity.

    Yet what really saddens me is that we’re not big enough to admit that at Eden Gardens we behaved appallingly. There’s always the little excuse, the small aside, the miserable rationalisation to take the sting out of it. ‘Don’t make such a big deal out of it’ or, even, ‘more matches have been called-off in Pakistan than in India, so their record is worse’.

    The last argument is the strangest of the lot. Do we really measure our national greatness in comparison to Pakistan? I thought we were the bigger, better country? I still believe we are but, sadly, it seems many of our countrymen disagree. That’s why for me Calcutta has become our city of shame.

    Three men but one TV programme

    I always thought politicians look for good opportunities to attract attention and the better the chance the more eagerly they would take it. I was wrong.

    I’ve spent the last week trying to get our three finance ministers (two of the past and one of the present) together on the same television platform. I would have thought that the uniqueness of the opportunity to appear a trois was such that they would grab it. But not Messrs Sinha, Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram.

    Their conditions mean that at no point will all three be on screen in one single shot. However with a little wheeling and dealing they will be on the same programme, with occasionally two of them sitting side by side, but the third is always separated from the others by the space of a commercial break.

    Mr. Sinha told me he won’t appear with his political opponents except for the benefit of Doordarshan’s own in-house programme. But he’ll happily be interviewed on his own. Mr. Chidambaram’s concerns were different. He wanted to know the questions in advance with a promise I would adhere to them. This, he candidly admitted, was his way of taming the rakshas in me. To be fair Dr. Manmohan Singh had no conditions at all but it was the condition of his party that worried him. They, he said, would want him to be critical of the budget but if it was a good effort that would be unfair. His dilemma was what he would say.

    At this stage I’ve no idea how the programme came off. If you want to see for yourself catch the budget special on the BBC today. It’s broadcast at 11.00 a.m. and then again at 10.00 p.m. If you miss it on both occasions you can see a variant (On the Record) on DD-2 at 10.30 tomorrow (Monday) night.

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