My father is 83 and still goes on his morning walks. He is fond of solving Sudoku puzzles and calls up long distance to remind me to get newspaper clippings with these puzzles. ‘We don’t get this newspaper here in Jhansi,’ he explained during one such call, as if he could see me smile when he asked for newspaper clippings. I said, ‘I know. I’ll save those pages before we sell off old newspapers to the raddiwala. Don’t worry, the Sudoku pages will reach you. Whatsapp me if there is anything else you need brought from Delhi.’
‘That is not easy for me,’ he said, ‘you have given your mother a nice large phone and so she deals with messaging better. My phone has a small screen.’
I really did not have to make any mental notes because this is the gist of the conversation we have been having for months now. Strangely, these conversations are so similar to the ones we had through letters more than thirty-five years ago. I was twenty-one and a cadet in the Indian Military Academy then. I got a letter from him once a week, every week without any miss. Each letter was neatly typed by Tip-Tip Uncle, the typist hired by my father for official work, and always had the same start: ‘We are all in the pink of health here and hope you are the same there. Enjoy your training in Dehradun. Everyone remembers you and waits for you to come during your vacation.’ The rest of the letter went about with the same or almost the same sentences… and with the small ‘a’ in a slightly upward slant. Our World War II Remington typewriter had this rather quixotic inadequacy with the small ‘a’. I loved sliding my eyes from one tilted ‘a’ to another and tried to imagine what shape they made… and even this shape hardly ever varied. I remember I once told a friend to open my father’s letter and I pretended to know how to see through the paper and read it. I went on with a feigned focus and got all the sentences correct. My friend was surprised at this skill and predicted, ‘You’ll be joining RAW sooner or later.’
‘Conversations can be so predictable,’ I had said to myself, ‘and they come in groups or batches or lots.’ I wondered why this idea of conversations in batches appeared so like everything else in the universe. For days around that time the news on television had been only about rapes. Rape of young girls… even four year olds getting molested by young and old males in almost every big Indian city I was able to think of: Mumbai. Bangalore. Kolkata. Delhi. Chennai. We seemed to be in the midst of a rape batch. Just a few weeks before we had been travelling at breakneck speed through a scam batch where every politician from every national and regional party seemed involved. ‘Yes, I’m sure the universe functions in batches,’ I’d mused aloud, ‘and the words and the tone of these conversations are all alike.’ And then just as suddenly another conversation appeared.
Even my father and I have been hopping from one conversation lot to another all these years. We’ve been doing this ‘get me sudoku clippings’ and ‘the screen of my phone is smaller than the phone you’ve given your mother’ conversation for more than one year now. Not every conversation has been some kind of complaint. Not always. Four years back when my father came to Delhi to stay with us for the summer, he said, ‘You have so many books. Choose one that will interest me.’ I chose Dev Anand’s Romancing with Life because I knew he would connect with that book.
Yes, my father loved reading that book and it wasn’t just because he had owned and operated a cinema all his life, but also because he was proud of having been in Lahore at the time the actor was there. ‘Did you actually meet Dev Anand?’ I asked out of curiosity. He wasn’t very forthright in his explanation but then I presumed it was because it all happened decades ago. He explained, ‘But I knew his brother-in-law very well. We met many times when he was posted in Babina and I was managing Sarvatra Cinema there.’ From Dev we went on to his charming description of the wide roads of Lahore and to Kothi No. 5 where he and the rest of the family lived. ‘Those were great times. We raided the lukat orchard next to the cemetery near the Sikh National College and never got caught.’ And his stories began to interest me a lot. He told me about his long rambling walks on Mcleod Road ‘where all the cinemas were then.’ He’d said excitedly, ‘I was at the opening of Ratan Talkies that was owned by Balaki Shah. I still remember having watched Shahjehan there more than half a dozen times.’ So yes, I went with him on his memory jog across Sahu ki Gadi ka pul away from Buddhu ka Aawa and towards the main city. Much sooner than expected, all his roads became roads in my memory and Nicholson Road, Mall Road, Beadon Road, Nisbat Road, and Railway Road transformed Lahore into quite an unexpectedly intimate place.
It was during one such conversation about Lahore that I’d said, ‘Will you like to visit Lahore again?’ He was silent and said nothing. He just explained, ‘Our kothi was one of the thirteen bungalows on GT Road. My father bought the place from Ch Chiragdin who had bought them all from some Fateh Mohammed. I think they all must now be back to the kin of Fateh Mohammed.’ He later told me how they had all had a narrow escape during partition. ‘We escaped the bloodshed by just a few hours,’ he’d said, ‘Our family servant was hiding atop a large bargad tree and saw the arsonists enter the kothi with butcher’s knives.’
‘How do you know this?’ I’d asked.
‘Sewaram spent a few more days there in Lahore as Suleiman before boarding one of the refugee trains. He remained with us to the end of his days in Batala where we had again got back into cinema business.’ Well, these silent interludes did not mean we’d stopped discussing Lahore. Lahore is a part of his existence and so he told me all about the glamour of new Anarkali and Choti Anarkali, his loafing moments around the eight or nine cinemas on Mcleod Road, the dream-like ambience of the bigger shops on Beadon Road, the fancy cars and his occasional entry in Flatys, Lorongs, and Stiffles hotels. I could be going terribly wrong with the spellings here but then I am just letting them as my father had written them down on a piece of paper. ‘Yes, I used to stand around Nicholson Road and look at the Plymouths, Baby Austins, Fords, and Studebakers. But then I didn’t have even a Triumph… and we walked in knickers and shirts all the time. Yes, there were tongas, but I remember my father’s old bicycle that he had bought for fifty rupees in 1922.’
‘Which bicycle was that?’ I’d asked.
‘I don’t remember the name now. It was made in England. But I do remember that the other bicycles in the house included one that was made by Philips and the other by Hercules.’
‘I’m sure most of the roads that you recollect are still there in Lahore,’ I said, and we even opened Google maps one day and did locate the railway line, the various gates in Lahore, and even the Sikh National College. He pointed out to one spot, ‘This is probably the place where we lived.’ And then he followed this up with, ‘I think I’ll have my passport made.’
After this, for the next two years, our conversation stuck to that predictable stance. It invariably began with my asking him if he had applied for his passport. His inevitable reply, ‘Not yet. I have asked this man who works in the post office to do it. He has already taken two thousand rupees for his services and he says it will be done.’
‘When?’ And this ‘when’ became shriller as the months went by. Then one day I said, ‘That man is fooling you.’ This one sentence changed our conversation thread and a few more sentences were added.
‘I know that man is dishonest. But there is no other way,’ he’d insisted.
‘Of course there is,’ I said, ‘you simply need to fill the form and deposit it in the post office and leave the rest to the passport officials.’
‘Passports are not made so easily,’ he went on, ‘I have come to know that there will be a police verification, too. One of my friends tells me that money will again have to be paid to some policeman.’
And so our conversation went on and on for more than two years on that dishonest post office tout and the unknown policeman who would come home expecting an enticement, or as many of us Indians are familiar with, bakshish, for security clearance of his passport file.
Conversations have this strange habit of making subtle changes that we humans undergo as time passes. During one of the conversations I’d noticed that my father took more time to think out his replies and there were definite signs of exhaustion in his tone. That year, during winters when we drove down from Delhi to Jhansi, the first thing he said was, ‘You look older now. And you’ve put on weight. You need to reduce.’ I knew that my increased girth wasn’t really the right size for a short 5 feet 4 inch man and that what he had noticed was that the ‘couple of white strands’ had increased considerably. But then he had reduced—though he attributed this to his morning walks and ‘the strict way in which your mother allows me only moong ki dal and lauki ki sabzi.’
A few months later my father called me up and said, ‘That money given to that tout is wasted. The passport forms that he had sent to Kanpur have been returned with some query.’
I said, ‘That’s fine. Answer the query or give them whichever document they want and the job will be done.’ But despite this two-line conversation getting repeated at least twenty times over the next few months, the forms were never sent. One day he simply told me that the forms had been misplaced and were not traceable now.
Like conversations, rules too change. Rules are so much like ‘conversations’… they go on and on in the same cyclic way until the follower of rules simply drops out of the conversation. I mean, look at our conversations, too… if they were not to change from one complexion to another, one of us would have simply dropped off exhausted. But then as conversations discover new topics, even rules search for newer ways to interact. The latest rule said that anyone who wanted his passport made needed to seek an appointment at the Regional Passport Office in Kanpur and reach there with all documents.
‘This is exciting,’ I told my father.
‘It is difficult now. I have to ask your younger brother to drive me there,’ he said. So I talked to my younger brother in Jhansi and then one day they all went to Kanpur where the application was finally submitted.
‘So your passport will finally be with you in a few months,’ I’d said, creating a new spool of brand new conversation with him.
‘Ha! You know there was a lady at the passport office who we had to meet,’ he said, ‘and I told her that I was in Lahore when the partition happened.’ And then flowed in the stories of how he insisted on telling his Lahore tales to that poor lady in the Kanpur Passport Office. I laughed and said, ‘I’m sure she would now know all about the history of Lahori gate, Shalmi darwaza, Mochi gate, and Bhati gate.’
‘Yes, of course,’ my father said, ‘I even told her about Mrs Singha’s and Macdonald’s primary and junior school near Lower Mall that I attended in Lahore.’ He told me that he even talked about the time he went to listen to a gathering in Lahore where Master Tara Singh was to address. ‘He talked about Muslim-Sikh being bhai-bhai and even added – what are Hindus doing here?’ said my father, ‘So there were voices that warned us and told us to leave and we left. I heard later that there was some agitation that day and that there was also some police firing.’
I asked, ‘So do you think Lahore will be a safe place to go to now once your passport is done?’
‘It was safe even then. These fights and skirmishes have always happened,’ he said and then went on, ‘they happen everywhere all over the world. But do they put up barbed wires all over and call a place a different nation?’
As our conversation graduated from ‘when will you apply for your passport’ to ‘we’re now waiting for my passport to be delivered’ life had taken a few more turns. My son went to London to study for his Masters in Sustainable Environmental Design and my conversation with my father obviously revolved around this new development.
‘I’ll go to visit my grandson in London,’ he told me one day. I knew then that our conversation was again about to change tracks. I said carefully, ‘What about your passport? When will it be delivered?’
‘It will be delivered,’ he’d said, and there were a few moments of silence. Our conversations had now started having large silent chunks. No, this wasn’t because we didn’t feel excited about whatever we were talking about but my father was now older and so could not stand all the while and talk on the telephone. So after a couple of sentences he needed to slowly walk to the nearest chair… and then shift his posture… or ask for a glass of water… and all this meant that the conversation would now never be complete without these pauses. Yes, pauses have now become a norm in our discussions. But between the pauses, the words that have now made their appearance talk of his wish to go to London as well as Lahore.
I remember having asked him during one of our conversations, ‘Would you like to go for a Pakistan visa before you go for the UK visa?’ He thought for a while and replied, ‘My grandson comes before my own past.’ And then he’d added, ‘One of my old friends here tells me that getting a visa for Pakistan isn’t easy.’
‘I’m sure it isn’t difficult,’ I’d said, ‘though there are periods of diplomatic uneasiness that can mean no visas for people on either side of the border.’
During these conversations I sometimes hear him murmur statements that have been different each time. Once he said: ‘I’ll walk down from Shalmi darwaza to my home. This used to be the shorter route.’ Then another time he’d said, ‘I hope Lahore station isn’t a mess now. They had enough space for parking a thousand cars there.’ He wished to go to the river Ravi’s bank via Naulakha cinema because ‘this is what we did many times.’ And then this: ‘Regent, Palace, Parbhat, Odeon, Nishad, Ritz, and Ratan were all on Mcleod Road… we called it the glamour road of Lahore.’ So yes, our conversations kept getting peppered with this extra garnish and I loved every bit of it.
The truth is that it is fun being the son of someone who is full of memories of a city that is no longer a part of your country. I told my father during one conversation that the distance from Amritsar to Lahore was less than the distance of the ring road in Delhi, and he said, ‘I know. I had once threatened to walk from Lahore to Amritsar when my grandfather had refused to buy me a new bicycle.’ He then told me that he was the pampered one in the family and so was never accustomed to listening to no for an answer. But it is quite some time now that we have had any of these animated discussions on Lahore. For these past few months we have talked about Sudoku, his walks, his smartphone with a small screen size, and both London and Lahore are somehow skipped.
But today when I called him up he began, ‘One of these days I am going to come to Delhi. And then you will help me get my visa for London.’
‘London? What about Lahore?’
‘I want to visit my grandson first. Moreover, he is there and will take care of me. But if I choose Lahore, then someone will have to come with me.’
This is true. But before I could say anything else, he went on, ‘I want to really see if Triumphs still roar up and down the streets of Lahore. I want a picture with the Sikh National College in the background. I want to see if they still sell books on Mohni Road. I want to know if Shahad Mitha market still exists.’
I don’t have the heart to tell him that he can find a lot of answers if he logs on to the internet. But is an aerial view of the city in your dreams enough to connect your past and your present? It isn’t as if he cannot handle a computer… he has come a long way from yearning for a Philips bicycle to wanting a large-screen smartphone. Yes, this 83 year old man, my father, is fairly comfortable with the easier portions of new-age technology… what he cannot do are things that he was never able to do. He never wrote letters to me because his writing hand, the right hand, is weaker than his left and so his handwriting is always just a little better than indecipherable squiggles on a page. Handling a typewriter is, obviously, out of reckoning. He doesn’t have the support of Tip-Tip Uncle as he is long dead… and so my father tells me sometimes, ‘I want to write my story. I want to write about all the wonderful stories that have their origin in Lahore. I wish I could see how and where all those stories were destined to go or end.’ He has his own share of stories of his crushes and of all the crushes of all his friends, the stories that have movies seen on the sly, the story of the tall man who sat on a dharna in front of the Governor’s house, the story of Daily Herald that had its office on the ground floor of his maternal grandfather’s house in Sant Nagar. ‘There are as many stories as there are seconds in an hour,’ he said once, ‘and they take me around the cemetery, the Neela Gumbad, Gole bagh, Senate hall, and even the Ranjit Singh Quila. I want to write all those stories.’
‘Then why don’t you?’ I said, ‘Just start writing slowly. You don’t have to hurry at all. There are no deadlines forced on you.’
Sometimes even grown up sons learn little known secrets of their fathers only accidentally. This was the moment when he admitted one such secret. He said, ‘I don’t have the words. The only language that I loved was Urdu but all these years here in Jhansi have made even my Urdu get into a confused relationship with Hindi.’ I realised then that my father was from a generation and a city that had made him love Urdu… and that Hindi was not understood by him at all. He still cannot write even his name in Hindi and his written English too is quite a distance from helping him write his stories in the language and expression that as they exist in his mind.
I had then told him that visiting Lahore with him would be quite an advantage. ‘You can read Urdu and so we won’t need to stop and ask for directions.’
‘That’s true,’ he had said, and laughed. But then that was a time when he was still struggling with trying to get his passport form filled. Now all those obstacles are in the past, but so are his stories.
The newest conversation I’ve had with my father was today when he said he wanted to visit London. Then he had said: ‘I want to visit my grandson first. Moreover, he is there and will take care of me. But if I choose Lahore, then someone will have to come with me.’ Something tells me that one of these days we are going to apply for a visa to Pakistan… who knows—he may actually sit down in the lobby of a hotel on Nicholson Road or somewhere near where his Kothi No 5 was on the GT Road near Buddhu ka Aawa on the other side of Sahu ki Gadi ka Pul and let moments of inspired emotion dictate his stories in the language of his choice. Words, I think, are quite choosy about everything and so the place and the time of their birth is a matter of great importance.
I have a feeling, therefore, that these stories are waiting for him to reach Lahore. I do not know how long the stories will have to wait. All I know is that we don’t die so long as the stories within us wish to live.