When the Partition riots broke out in Lahore, my father, Khushwant Singh, then a struggling lawyer based in the city, decided to send us—my mother, my two-year-old sister and me—to Delhi, where my grandfather resided. My father imagined, as did so many Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs in the subcontinent, that the trouble would soon blow over, and we could return to our home on upmarket Lawrence Road. Of course, it didn’t and we, along with about ten million others, became ‘refugees’. I only came back to Lahore half a century later, as part of a tennis team. But the most poignant memory of that trip was watching the one-day cricket tie between India and Pakistan at the Gaddafi Stadium (which India won). To my surprise, the Pakistani crowd cheered the Indian team and when Balaji bowled, chanted, ‘Balaji, zara dheere chalo!’ There were quite a few Indian fans in the stadium (visas had been liberally issued) and the Pakistani youngsters flocked to them, chatting and joking animatedly. This was a new generation, without the baggage and bitterness of the past. If there was more such people-to-people contact, Indo-Pak ties would surely improve. No such luck: 26/11 and mounting terrorism, on both sides, ensured that the stupid, rigorous visa regime returned. Fewer Pakistanis and Indians visited each other. When I was at the Wagah border this time, in the huge immigration hall, there were three immigration officers at the counters, and just four of us wanting to cross over to Pakistan, of which three were invitees to the Lahore literary festival!
Watch out Jaipur. Your reputation as the litfest capital of the world is being seriously threatened by Lahore. It attracted a phenomenal 70,000 people over three days. Spread over the five halls in the Al Hamra complex, almost every session was packed. The stars from the Indian side were historian Romila Thapar, Naseeruddin Shah, Shekhar Gupta and Shobhaa De. The Pakistani speakers included two former foreign ministers, Khurshid Kasuri and Hina Rabbani Khar, Senator Aitzaz Ahsan of the Pakistan People’s Party, widely considered a future prime minister, activist-lawyer Asma Jahangir, editor Najam Sethi and writer Ayesha Jalal. Asma was the standout performer. She was repeatedly clapped, especially when she spoke out against the establishment, and even when she boldly declared she was an ‘atheist’. Activists like her put their lives on the line. We in India don’t fully appreciate that. They keep Pakistan’s tenuous democracy and the rule of law going. I salute them.
An entire session was devoted to my father. It was chaired by Fakir Aijazuddin, a chartered accountant but an expert on all things artistic. A long-time admirer of my father, he came to Delhi to collect some of his ashes, following his death a year ago. He then took them across the border to Hadali, where my father was born. There, they were mixed with cement, and a marble plaque grouted on a wall of the school my father had studied in. The plaque reads: ‘In memory of Sardar Khushwant Singh. A Sikh, a scholar and a son of Hadali (Punjab)’. And then, his own words: ‘This is where my roots are. I have nourished them with tears of nostalgia.’ I had kept a day free and Aijazuddin had offered to drive me the 200-odd km from Lahore to Hadali. But my visa was valid only for Lahore. Despite pleas to high levels, permission to go there never came through. Why can’t New Delhi and Islamabad ease their ludicrous visa rules? An Indian visiting Pakistan has to specify exactly where he’ll be going. He also has to report to a police station every day, unless ‘exemption’ is granted. Foolish. Do terrorists use visas?
City of Rama’s Son?
More than any other city in the subcontinent, Lahore’s buildings and their architectural style reflect its turbulent and fascinating history. Hinduism, Buddhism, the Greeks, Islam, the Sikhs and the British all left their imprint here. The name of the city is taken from Rama, Lava, which is also pronounced ‘Loh’. Hence, Loh-awar, the fort of Loh. Sir Ganga Ram, considered the father of modern Lahore, designed and built several outstanding buildings like the General Post Office, the Lahore Museum, and Aitchison College. But the less-frequented tomb of Anarkali (located in the Punjab Secretariat complex, for which one needs a pass) is an intriguing structure. Legend has it that Anarkali was Akbar’s favourite in his harem. When he discovered she was having an affair with his son, Jehangir, he ordered her to be bricked alive. Jehangir built the tomb in 1615 for her. But the British converted the tomb into a church and put Anarkali’s marble tombstone out of sight, under the edifice. With Pakistani independence, the tombstone was brought up again but placed in a corner. The building now houses archives.
My father, writing his own epitaph...
”When I am dead, I hope it may be said, his sins were scarlet but his books were read!”
Mumbai-based Rahul Singh is a former editor of Reader’s Digest; E-mail your diarist: singh.84 [AT] hotmail [DOT] com