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Rakha, rekha and 62 years


Dilip D'Souza


In his youth, Major Habib Ahmed lived in Kapurthala. His father and grandfather were well-known doctors there, so well-known that the chowk near their home was named for the grandfather. Habib attended Randhir College, playing tennis and basketball regularly with his friend Rattan Chand Ahluwalia and other young men in town. When he

graduated, he found work in Delhi. But Kapurthala, then and for years that were to come, exerted a magnetic pull. Every weekend, he would jump on his motorbike and tear north through the Punjab plains to see family and keep up with tennis. It was so hard to return to Delhi that Habib would often put off the trip till early Monday morning. 500 southward km now, and by 10am he'd be at his desk in Delhi.

 

Came Partition. Habib migrated to Pakistan. In Lahore here his family settled, India was only a couple of dozen km away, Kapurthala a few dozen more. But in the mind, in the consciousness of two hostile countries, it was an infinitely greater gap. Habib's friends, his tennis-playing days in Kapurthala, were lost to him -- seemingly, and sadly, forever. He joined the Pakistan Army, rose to Major, fought three wars against India. What must it have been for men like him, I wonder as he tells me all this. What must it have been to fight the country that nurtured you to manhood?

 

Yet Habib's soldierly duty to Pakistan did not translate, as so many might assume it would, into an automatic hatred of India. It just heightened his yearning for my country, a desire to see Kapurthala once more. The city in Indian Punjab retained its magnetism.

 

But the years went by and visa applications were made and rejected and Habib retired from the Army and more visa applications were rejected and he grew to old age and started to fear he might never see Kapurthala again. In the late 1990s, he had re-established contact

with Rattan Chand through a nephew he ran into while visiting his own children in the US. They wrote letters to each other and spoke on the phone, but it wasn't enough. Acutely conscious of the passage of time, both men were desperate to meet. How to cross the line, how to bridge

that divide of the mind?

 

Meanwhile, I met Major Habib's daughter Arifa, ironically at a camp in the US for children from across lines of hostility. She and I had travelled there with teams of kids from Pakistan and India. "Seeds of Peace", they were called, seeds who must travel halfway around the globe to meet and learn about each other. Arifa and I became good

friends.

 

When she mentioned her father and Rattan Chand to me, I thought I'd try to help, and fired off letters about their desire to meet in every direction I could think of. Coincidentally, Habib was readying then to apply once more for an Indian visa. A few of my letters resulted in notes to officials at the Indian High Commission in Islamabad to

consider Major Habib's case favourably. Encouraged, I made plans to travel north to meet the two old friends.

 

In early October, the Commission told Habib he would get his visa.

Elated, he called to let me know, reaching me in a poky hotel room near the Golden Temple in Amritsar. "My son has driven to Islamabad to pick up the visa," said Major Habib. It struck me, and I told him,

that as we spoke I was physically closer to him than his son was -- Amritsar being less than 50km from Lahore -- and yet what a chasm lay between us. What a formidable obstacle is this baggage of 62 years.

 

The next morning, 85 year-old Major Habib and his son Abid crossed the border at Wagah. Waiting for them in a beige Tata Indigo was Rattan Chand's grandson Vikrant. Also waiting was me; no way was I going to miss this step across Partition. "I have been longing for this for 62

years!" he told us when we greeted him on this side of the line.

 

We drove two hours to Kapurthala, Major Habib full of stories and memories. Vikrant dropped us off on the main road and we walked through a warren of narrow lanes to the heart of the jewellery market

-- Sarafaan bazaar -- to a house that says on the door: "RC Ahluwalia 1926".

 

In this 73 year-old house sits Rattan Chand, and today is his 94th birthday. His present, knocking on his door, is his friend from a lifetime ago.

 

Rattan Chand is a small man, and he nearly disappears in the bear hug he gets from the much taller and heftier Major Habib. Only his hands are visible, on Habib's back. When we sit, both men's eyes are glistening with tears. There are long silences, for how do you immediately pick up the threads after six decades? How do you start catching up? Looking around as they struggle for words, I see a few stuffed animals -- there must be a child in this house -- and on the wall, a portrait of Rattan Chand from 1934, dressed in a blazer and jodhpurs, holding the reins of a handsome horse. Abid, capturing the reunion on video, urges the two men to speak: "After all these years, you must have plenty of memories to share!"

 

Rattan Chand has one. It's about someone called Rakha Ram who always claimed he was a very good tennis player. One day, the Maharajah's tennis marker came to play with the gang. Rakha told everyone he was going to easily beat the marker. When Rattan and Habib looked in on their game a half-hour later, to see how Rakha was doing, they found

the marker playing "holle-holle" -- slowly and gently -- with Rakha, patting the ball over the net so Rakha could keep up. Seeing them, a gasping Rakha pleaded for water.

 

So much for the "very good" player.

 

Habib and Rattan chuckle at the memory. It triggers more stories. Of

two brothers whom everyone called Manni and Fanni -- the names set off more chuckles -- "Fanni went to America", says Rattan Chand. Of going to Amritsar for supplies with a ten rupee note and returning with change. Of Habib coming to this very house for the "mundan" of a boy

-- Rattan Chand's son, grandfather of the little girl who plays with stuffed animals.

 

In this house there are memories. As we walk the warren there are memories. At the chowk once named for Habib's grandfather there are memories. Habib identifies the little junction by an old "pyau", a water-tap on a pedestal. "It was there in my time," he says, "but it

had a different shape then." From where, I wonder silently, does a memory of a "pyau" spring?

 

The local senior citizens' club has an evening function planned to celebrate Rattan Chand's birthday. With Major Habib's presence, it's a doubly special occasion. Member after member comes up to garland both men, gift them shawls ("tokens of our love"), greet them with respect

and affection. I'm watching with an odd fascination: when will the hatred for the enemy country surface, directed at this soldier from there? The answer only shows up my cynicism. There is no hatred. There is instead an outpouring -- for once, the cliched word fits -- of

curiosity and emotion and warmth. Someone recites several couplets he has composed for this moment, rhyming "Habib" with "karib". Someone sings. Someone speaks of his feelings, his memories. Someone else sings more, into the dusk.

 

It's nearly dark when Major Habib rises to speak. He tells his story, and talks of the "laxman rekha" between India and Pakistan. Then he says: "I could travel all over the world. But I could not come to my home. I've tried to cross this laxman rekha for years, without success. I'm so happy that I've finally crossed it today, on my friend's 94th birthday."

 

We spend half an hour in the Major's old family house, a few metres down the road from the pyau. It's now owned by a man in a spotless white kurta. He insists we come in, sits us down and someone produces Limcas. A clutch of young men from the area crowd the door, listening intently to Habib. At one point, Abid speaks of when he was their age.

Growing up in Pakistan, especially as the son of a oldier, he had one desire and one desire only: join the Army, fight and defeat India.

"Then," he says, "I met some Indians who had come for a visit and I realized how foolish that was."

 

When we rise to leave, the young men flock to touch the Major's feet.

Some laxman rekhas must be crossed. Holle-holle maybe, but crossed

nevertheless.


 

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