August 07, 2020
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In Long-Lost Lahore

Actor Dev Anand recounts nuggets of his journey past Wagah

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In Long-Lost Lahore

IT was a great moment. A moment of monumental importance. When two estranged countries embraced each other. And rewrote a chapter in history.

As a motion-filmmaker, I love unusual moments. So, when I received a call from the PM's office inviting me to accompany him to Pakistan, I didn't hesitate. I said 'fantastic , cancelled the shooting of my film Censor, and asked for a confirming fax.

Soon I was on the flight to Delhi. Other invitees too had started trooping in. We were briefed, taken by bus to the airport, and put on a flight to Amritsar, where chief minister Badal hosted a reception for us.

Then we were on our way to Pakistan. Two buses took us to Wagah. I was in the PM's bus. We spoke to him for a few minutes. Outside, people were lined up on both sides, hailing us, waving. Punjab flitted past in all its colours-orange and rust, green fields, blue skies. Things moved fast, but I clung on to the moment, mentally and physically alert to the greatness of the event. Fatigue hit me only after I returned.

At Wagah, we all jumped off the bus. The two prime ministers hugged each other as the elite of the two countries met. The people, their voices-all were the same. 'The PMs are shaking hands, I told the crowd. 'Make them shake their hands. At that instant, I caught Nawaz Sharif's eye. He had a look of recognition. We're from the same college, he told me. It struck a bond.

I believe people were protesting. But we didn't know, didn't see. We were well-guarded; Pakistan had laid out the red carpet for us. From Wagah, the PM took a helicopter to Lahore, we went by bus. At the hotel, we were given a tremendous reception; in the evening we attended the open-air banquet at Lahore fort. Both the premiers made good speeches, to break the ice.

I got to meet almost everybody. I met Sharif again, independently. He told me he had seen my films. He also told me how when he was at Lahore college in 1965, the whole institute was agog with the news that Dev Anand was coming. 'But you never came, he said. I had come, but after 55 years, even though I'd been invited twice-once when the college was celebrating its 125th anniversary, then during Sharif's first term. I had left Lahore when I was 19, without a certificate in hand, Rs 30 in pocket, on the Frontier Mail to Bombay.

I returned to Lahore College with the Star TV crew. The college was shut, but the chowkidar recognised me and opened the gates. The same Gothic structures, the same hostel, corridors...the place that made me what I am. Lahore college had great figures like Prof Dickenson from Oxford, who later went on to become its principal.

Other flashbacks flew in from the past. In Gurdaspur, my closest friend was my neighbour, Khalil. I came to Bombay, he went to Pakistan. While shooting for Des Pardes in London, I got a call at midnight. It was Khalil. I went to his house, met his sons. This time again, it was a call at night. From Mrs Khalil, now a widow. 'My husband kept talking about Devsaab all the time, she told me. 'You must come home. I couldn't, but we've promised to meet up. How do you describe such special moments?

At my hotel, young, handsome Pakistani boys, studying law, came up to visit me. They told me how much they appreciated this gesture by the two PMs, saying it was a reflection of popular sentiment. My women fans had seen all my films. As in India, I got calls from mothers and daughters, pleading with me to meet them. Even the flirtations are the same, in India and in Pakistan.

At a village restaurant in Lahore a flautist sat by my side, asked me for my favourites, and flawlessly played tunes from Taxi Driver, Prem Pujari... At the civic reception at Governor's House, portraits of British governors renewed pre-Partition flavours-we can't erase that part of history. Atalji gave a beautiful speech that invited an ovation.

After the document was signed, and the world press fired off its questions to both the premiers, it was time to pack up. The farewells at the delegation dinner were reminiscent of those at college-promises to meet up, exchange of phone numbers. I remember thinking, joy's tinged with pain, since pain gives birth to joy. It's from the pain of Partition that this moment of togetherness has emerged. It remains to be seen how the political establishment in both countries carries it forward. Pakistan had happened. We can't wish it away. But we can open up, solve our problems. We could have done it 35 years ago, let's do it now.

(As told to Shameem Akthar)

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