That old pull from Peshawar

Whenever Peshawar is in the news I feel a faint pull at my heartstrings — and my head bows like a puppet’s. An ageing, bearded, beaming face struggles to come into focus but barely makes it. My memory is not good with faces but it is not so with words and deeds.

While watching news clips of a terrorist attack on the Peshawar Air Force base recently, I felt that old pull and my head bowed. My only visit to Peshawar was in mid-1959, by road from Kabul. I was working with a development agency in Kabul. R, an American colleague, asked if I would care to join him on a weekend road trip to Peshawar. The drive would be through the Khyber Pass, perhaps the first pass of which I learnt at school! All I needed was a visa, and my office would arrange that for me.

It was a very pleasant six-hour drive in R’s Buick, with a stop on the way for beer and sandwiches in the shade of a tree on the roadside. We crossed into Pakistan at Torkham. Khyber Pass was not as narrow and daunting as I had once thought! It was late in the evening by the time we checked into our hotel in Peshawar, and we were too tired to go out and explore the city. The next morning R and I went our different ways. I went shopping. I hailed a tonga at the hotel gate and told the tongawallah, an old bearded man in a white cap, to take me to the nearest shopping centre.

On our way he asked me where I was from, and when he learned I was from India he warmed up and carried on a conversation, half with himself and half with me. He asked me about Mehr Chand Khanna who was Minister for Rehabilitation in the Nehru Cabinet. I did not know anything about him. I told the tongawallah that. He seemed surprised. He said Mehr Chand and he grew up in the same mohallah in Peshawar. He told me how they had played guli-danda in their gully with other boys.

He took me to a huge shopping centre — a vast sprawl of shops of all kinds where you could buy nearly everything. I got off and asked him what I should pay him. He said he would come with me and show me around. Whatever I bought he took from me and carried himself.

At the end of an hour or so he took me back to the hotel, which was some 3 km away, talking non-stop, remembering the good old days before Partition. He carried all the stuff I had bought to the hotel door. And when I paid him what I thought was a generous fare, he refused to take it. “You made my day today,” he said. “You are my mehmaan. You brought back to me memories of my old mohallah and all my friends there — including your Mehr Chand Khanna. It was never the same after Partition. I’m grateful to you for the opportunity to recall those great days. Shukriyadah, saheb! Khuda Hafiz!”

I placed a hand on his shoulder and slipped the money into his shirt pocket. He was nearly in tears. So was I.

Copied as such from Hindu’s Open Page.

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