It was July 18, 2007, that I met a gentleman by the name Ahmed*, who was roaming back and forth outside my showroom on Mall Road, Shimla. He looked rather lost, so I invited him inside my shop, offered him a cup of tea and asked him if there was anything I could assist him with. As a retired chief commissioner of income tax, I spend my retirement days looking after my father’s business of shawls and embroidered suits on Mall Road. This was his second business in Shimla, opened in 1950, shortly after migrating from Lahore in 1947 as a result of the partition of India and Pakistan.
I, on the other hand, was eager to study. I completed a masters in economics from Punjab University, Chandigarh in 1960 and then joined the Indian Revenue Service in 1962. My job took me to various parts of India, starting from Mussoorie to Maharashtra, Gujarat, Punjab, Bengal, UP and New Delhi from where I retired in 1993, but the longing to see my ancestral home in Lahore remained.
I was ten years old, but I remember vividly the holocaust of 1947. Part of our family shifted to India in April 1947, much like everyone around us who was fleeing. Though it was not clear whether Lahore would be a part of Pakistan, the conditions around were so bad that my family took a decision to shift to Shimla. Since we had a small home in Shimla where we used to spend the summers every year, it became our first choice where we ultimately settled. Nobody from my family ever went back to Lahore again.
Hence I was left astounded when Ahmed explained that he had come down from Lahore to locate his ancestral home where he was born and the business which his family had abandoned during partition while fleeing from Shimla to Lahore. Though he could locate his house, nobody was able to help him locate his shop, the details of which he was unable to remember. Looking at my age he thought I might be able to help him out. He himself was an aged businessman and I tried my best to help him with the limited information that he could provide.
However, we developed a rapport and I invited him to dine with me, which he readily accepted. For the next two days he was in Shimla and we were meeting regularly. The coincidence of our situations was such that I could not help but share my story with him. He immediately invited me to visit Lahore. I said I would love to go but it is difficult to get a visa to Pakistan. Ahmed had good connections and declared that I need not worry about the visa, which he will have arranged immediately. Within three days of our meeting, he called me up to tell me to collect my visa from the Pakistani embassy in Delhi. A few days later I was on my way to Lahore in the bus that connects Amritsar to Lahore!
During the inspection at Wagah border, the customs people somehow came to know that I was a senior IRS officer and treated me with great respect and also intimated their counterparts on the other side of the border. They too were very courteous and even offered me a refreshment. Ahmed, my host, was there to receive me at Lahore and took me sightseeing around the city centre including the famous Anarkali business centre of Lahore. It was brightly lit up at night like it was Diwali.
The next day we went looking for my ancestral home, which I remembered was located within the walled city of Lahore. Surprisingly, nobody could tell me the location of Suttermandi (where my house was located). I was only relying on my faint memory and I asked my host to take the car to the gate of the walled city opposite Anarkali bazaar. From there we had to walk on foot to the city as the roads were too narrow and overcrowded. It took us about half an hour to reach Suttarmandi and locate the lane known as Kuchagangusha where I used to live. It took me some time to identify it because the area had transformed quite a bit. But the main door of my house stood out because of the special engraving carved on it.
Though I was delighted to find the house, it wasn’t a very pleasant experience because of its dilapidated condition and the fact that it was occupied by around 45-50 people. Some were tailors doing embroidery, while others were raising pigeons. But all of them were very courteous and frankly admitted that they had never got the house painted since we had abandoned the house during the partition. My four-storeyed house still stood tall, it had been newly constructed just a few years before we moved from Lahore and hence had stood the test of time.
In the centre of the house was a spiral staircase which wound around a single pillar up four floors. I went up to the fourth-floor where my immediate family used to stay. It was now occupied by two families and I found to my surprise that the cupboards we had built were still there in usable condition. I also visited the mezzenine floor which used to be my study room. All the electrical wires were loose and hanging overhead. Though happy to be standing within those walls once again, I left slightly disappointed to see the unkept condition of my childhood home.
That night we stayed with another host, the Maliks, who were our host’s friends. They were extremely hospitable and caring. A family of 15 people, each member of the family sat with me at dinner and made me feel like one of them.
My visa also allowed me to visit Nankana Saheb and Rawalpindi, where I spent the next two days. Everywhere I met warm and friendly people and though I felt happy to be in Pakistan, there was a constant fear lurking in my mind lest any local law is unintentionally broken by me. I had heard of cases where people had been detained for long durations by Pakistani authorities for petty violations. I decided to return to India after a four-day visit, although my visa was for seven days. Within these four days I was also able to deduce that the influence of rich people was tremendous in political and economic spheres, much more than that of bureaucrats.
What is striking is that though our countries are in conflict over various issues including Kashmir, the people of Pakistan were very courteous and hospitable and they made me as comfortable as possible in their country. It was truly a pleasure to meet them and after eight years of my visit the memories are still fresh in my mind. I am extremely grateful to Ahmed, without whom this journey would not have been possible.
Most of the people I know, including myself, who were personally affected by the partition have feelings of acceptance, of wanting to move on with our lives rather than anything else and the same is true if I may say so, for the other side of the border. I condemn any attempts to politicise the issue and play on the sensitivities of people who suffered severe loss and destruction of their families and homes.
*Name changed to protect privacy
Rajinder Kumar Malhotra is a former chief commissioner of income tax.
As told to Mehak Malhotra, his granddaughter.
Featured image: Lahore’s Anarkali bazaar. Credit: Inam Photography/Flickr CC BY 2.0