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.


The two ends of the spectrum, and a question

On a low-floor Delhi Transport Corporation bus, returning from an exhausting day in the office, I found two families sitting on either side of my seat. The difference between these two families was the difference that divides India into two parts — the rich and the poor.

The woman on the right side wore a gilded sari with all matching accessories. She looked attractive and adjusted her watch ostentatiously. Her husband, sitting beside her, was wrapped in swanky apparel, reflecting an opulent lifestyle. They had a five-year old son sitting by the window seat eating a pack of wafers. He was rotund, his spectacles covering most of his face.

The family sitting on the other side was evidently impecunious, with both man and wife in grimy clothes. The man was talking over the phone so loudly that his voice was audible to everyone on the bus. Their five-year-old, skinny daughter in her frock sat on her father’s lap trying to re-attach the broken hand of an old doll. She looked dull and pale, her hair scattered all over. Their attire reflected their deprived lifestyle.

My eyes rolled over the boy who was shrieking and shouting at his father, demanding his smartphone to play games. His father immediately handed it over to him. The boy turned his attention to the phone and threw his packet of wafers to his mother.

The little girl, who had not succeeded in assembling her doll’s hand, started staring at the boy silently. The boy was squealing, demanding everything he fancied — from the toy car in his mother’s spiffy handbag to the chocolate in his father’s pocket. His desires kept increasing and his parents were giving in with no reluctance.

The indigent girl was trying to brush aside the boy but her eyes didn’t permit that. She hugged her father, immersing her head on his chest as if to kill her desires. Her father empathised with her. He tried to cheer her up by giving her his old phone to play that archaic snake game. The girl toyed with the snake but kept looking at the subway surfers playing on the boy’s smart phone. She was not demanding anything.

The difference between the sumptuousness of the boy and the destitution of the girl was simply striking. But I kept wondering how a girl of her age would understand that her parents can’t afford luxury. Why she does not long for and insist on the same things the boy has. How does she understand that they cannot match their neighbour’s status? How children understand automatically that they are impoverished or wealthy. How the girl knows she has to bury all her desires. These questions keep revolving in my mind, and I am still hunting for the answers.

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