That call, yesterday from their office. Since then, I had been reflecting – approve or disapprove. A part of their team, for more than two years, it would seem inane, for me to back out now. ‘What would I tell them?’
My father seemed to have noticed my composure over dinner. He assumed it to be one of my cases and said – “Rab pe bharosa rakh!” This was not the first time he ever said this, but it suddenly seemed to be the succor of my puzzled mind.
Next morning, I fretted again when Melinda, my secretary walked in with a fax sheet. She stood there, waiting for me to sign the paper. I nodded, but didn’t sign.
“Is it because it is Pakistan,” she blurted.
I stared, not ready to accept her words.
“You are a physician, your job is to serve,” she sermonized.
‘Am I so predictable?’
“The big question of doubt on your face, quite evident,” she popped and walked away leaving the paper on my desk.
I was associated with ‘Health Line’ – a voluntary organization. Once every six months, a team of doctors traveled across the globe to conduct health camps. This time it was a hospital in Lahore, Pakistan. Melinda, the elderly, grey haired woman had been with me for several years and she was the only member of staff who dared to speak like that to me.
I respected her. She was right. My profession is beyond man-made barriers, yet a sinking feeling. I signed the paper. **
The night flight from Heathrow to Lahore was tedious, nearly eleven hours. I and my colleague Dr. James were booked at a good hotel. Refreshed, we had a simple breakfast of cereal and fruit. A car picked us up and we headed to the hospital. For three days, we had hectic schedules of operations and patient counseling.
On the third night, I willfully refused to have dinner at the hospital. It was past 10pm and I dragged James to a dhaba. As hungry as a bear, I ordered butter naan, dal makhani and tandoori chicken. James gawked as I wolfed down my meal. Unashamedly, I licked my masala glued fingers, a right which I couldn’t exercise in the chic London suburbs, where I lived. I gulped down an extra large glass of chilled Lassi. It dribbled from the sides of my mouth; I apologized to James for my brazen conduct. Back at the hotel, I swallowed an antacid; it had been years… decades since I had a meal seeped in rustic flavors. **
I was just a ten year old. In the first week of August 1947, on a fateful night, torrential rain lashed at us. I and my little sister were literally dragged out of our beds to a waiting car that took us from Lahore to Delhi. Next morning, our heads cleared of sleep, we quizzed our Dadaji. He said that Delhi was our home, we’d stay there. He evaded our prying questions, so did our parents. We howled, our friends Reshma, Aziz, Parveen… were in Lahore. No one listened, we wept silently in our room. For a few weeks, we stayed with relatives and then moved to another house. At our new school we made new friends. A great gift of God to children – Blissful forgetting! Soon we steered ourselves into normal routines, but our elders ever seemed to remember, sulk and feel depressive, yet acted bold before us.
Though Lahore changed with time, the people were the same. The patients were much the same as any other patients elsewhere, be it India or London. I was at ease conversing with them in Punjabi and a spatter of Urdu. I dodged James queries about my fluency. They had much the same ailments like any other Indian. Then why the divide? I could never fathom.
Once in a month, Dadaji and his jigiri yaar (close friend) Abdul Rehman took us to the only dhaba on the highway. I swam my hand into the spicy gravy and sucked my fingers. The others giggled while my grandfather joked that I might eat my little finger. As memories inundated, I twisted in bed, an unseen pain. **
It was our last day in Lahore and we had an evening flight to catch. The hospital had arranged for sightseeing. The Lahore I had known was different, my childhood Lahore. The driver’s itinerary had mausoleums, shrines, galleries, museums and bazaars. I asked him to take us to Alam road, Gulberg. When we reached
there, I was blank, nearly four decades back, I couldn’t recall. I said, ‘Abdul-Raj’ and people had no idea. James was growing impatient, but I convinced him that I must visit this place before we left. I might not return. The picture of a green domed mosque with an adjacent park was all I could recount. With difficulty, we located the mosque on an inner lane.
I got down near the mosque and looked around. Everything changed – new shops, offices and residences, an alien place. The foremost on my mind – should I go back? My heart was no loser, it prompted, ‘you had come this far, try… recollect…’
The mosque was on the chaurastha, an intersection where four roads met. Which way to go? I stood facing the mosque and recited the poem Dadaji had taught (as a child I was often confused at this very point) – ‘Daayan ghar, baayan paatshaala; naak me Abdul-Raj aur peeche park!’ ‘Home on the right side while school on the left; Abdul-Raj in the nose and park at the back!’ Abdul-Raj was not in our nose, but in front. As children we recited aloud and rolled with laughter that drew curious glances from passers-by. Those were the days of no-GPS and we relied solely on our memory. I asked the driver to wait there and took the road behind the mosque. James grudgingly followed.
There! I spotted Abdul-Raj. Nothing seemed to change except for a fresh coat of paint on the nameplate – Abdul-Raj amongst other new buildings. It was Dadaji (Raj Singh) and his jigiri yaar’s (Abdul Rehman) clinic. All suggested adding Dawa Khana (dispensary) to the nameplate, they adamantly refused. They wanted it to be different.
With butterflies in my stomach and moistened eyes, I went up the rickety wooden stairs that led to the clinic. A nurse thought we were patients and asked us to come in the evening, as they were closing for lunch. They didn’t agree when I told them that I wanted to meet the doctor for a few minutes. I scribbled, Dr. Rajendra Singh, on a piece of paper and requested to get permission from the doctor. They reluctantly went in.
Reshma, Abdul dadaji’s granddaughter and my childhood friend came out. She was the doctor there. She looked beautiful as ever. The only difference - maturity cropped on her face with age. We stood dumbfounded, tears in our eyes. She took us in and said I looked the same, only chubby, with grey, receding hair-line. The tiny cubicle was much the same as it was when our grandfathers worked there.
She invited us for lunch and we couldn’t deny. She lived in the same house. She introduced us to her husband and children. James felt out of place, but he complied. Forlorn at the loss of our loved ones – her parents and grandparents, my mother and grandparents, we comforted each other. We spoke of our mischievous and cheery childhood, the summer afternoons we spent biting juicy ripe mangoes that our dadajis brought from mango orchards. Our dadajis were childhood friends, school mates, neighbors, colleagues – to sum up they were garrulous soul-mates. They were known for their friendship and miraculous cures. Everything synced well until partition happened. My grandfather was pressured from extended family, and we moved to Delhi. For many months, they were in touch, but with work they lost contact, a deserted camaraderie.
My wife Kuldeep knew about my trip to Lahore. She was anxious, but I assured her. I told her not tell others especially my seventy year old father. Why did I hide? I didn’t know. I had virtually no answers to the impending questions on my mind. Now, I rang up and my father asked – if I was in Gulberg. I handed over the phone to Reshma, her voice choked as she spoke, memories flooded. The meal was a feast – biryani, gosht and kebabs, etched in my mind for ever.
I inquired about the clinic’s name; she said it was our grandfathers’ fond memory. My father and Reshma’s father were never keen on pursuing a medical course. Both chose business while Reshma and I took to our grandfathers’ profession. Probably the only difference, she got to run the erstwhile clinic while I settled faraway. I promised my grandfather in my heart, to visit often to conduct health camps at Abdul-Raj, our dadajis clinic.
I invited her to London to visit us and left Lahore with memories brightened and cherished, Gulberg, the blossomed flower. ***