This is part 2 of a two-part series. Read part 1 here.
This is not how two friends are supposed to meet after 50 years.
During my vacation in Europe last year, I found myself walking around the magnificent Wenceslas with renewed nostalgia. I was seeking closure, but it was not to be. My mind circled back to 1967-68, when I lived in a small town outside of Prague with 20 other men.
But, one name kept coming back to me: Subhan.
Abdul Subhan, my dear friend from Pakistan, and I had been in this very square, looking at the same statue of King Wenceslas, as we wandered aimlessly and whiled away our time.
In our motley crew, our friendship — the unusual duo of a Pakistani and an Indian — stood out. We had become inseparable. Soon, it became clear to the rest of the group that the seat next to me on the bus was always reserved for Abdul Subhan on our long rides.
Coming out of the lonely Zameck (villa) in those days was always a relief for both of us. We were similar in this — having come from backgrounds where we were constantly surrounded by friends and families, we found it reassuring to see people around us.
Walking in the Square after all these years, Subhan’s absence was not the only lack of closure. I realised Prague itself has changed.
Run-down shops from the communist area have been replaced by modern brands. The rickety old trams no longer run; instead two have been transformed into stationery restaurants.
It was after this trip that I wanted to try and contact Subhan.
I anticipated we might never meet again, given the relations between our countries. Still, I was hoping for at least a great e-mail conversation, Subhan being as intelligent and articulate as he is. But nature can be cruel.
The unforeseen reunion
Seven decades of life mean that one is always prepared for the unpleasant. But when it comes to long-lost friends and relatives, you still always hope for the best.
Letters had been exchanged immediately after we returned from Prague. I remember Subhan telling me about his upcoming marriage. In those days, it was tough to keep in touch, so our correspondence died down.
When I decided to trace him down, I remembered my daughter had written for Dawncom. So, I began there. I wrote about our friendship, in anticipation, expecting a reply.
And a reply I did receive but it wasn't the one I was looking forward to.
Instead, Subhan’s nephew got in touch to inform me that Subhan is ill but thankfully, “not yet out”.
The “not yet” left me dazed. It was only the tip of the iceberg. I was not prepared for the denouement. His nephews, Nouman and Salman, explained that Subhan has been paralysed for the past eight years, and is completely bed-ridden.
I was stunned. I could not visualise Subhan lying on a bed for so many years.
Had my friend suffered so much?
Salman told me he had read my piece on Dawn.com out to Subhan. “Woh bohat roye” [he cried a lot]. I was not surprised — we were that close. My friend could not speak, but 50 years later, he still remembered. What more can a helpless man do but cry?
But the worse was still to come. Salman sent me a picture and a short video. It was difficult to recognise my old friend, who had once been so full of life, always forthcoming and ready to help. Instead, I saw an unshaven disheveled Subhan on a bed, looking utterly lost.
My wife and I then spoke to Subhan’s wife in Karachi over the telephone. The gracious lady invited us to Karachi. I was hoping to plan a visit, and was even prepared to fight for the rejected visa, but now I am uncertain if I am brave enough to make that attempt.
Why didn’t I contact my friend earlier? To say that I was disappointed with myself would be trivialising it. I felt helpless. These things happen to others, not to your friends. I had traced my friend down, only to learn that we could not even have a simple reunion conversation.
All I could say was: Bohat takleef hui. Sometimes, I feel I should not have made this effort at all.
Now, old memories keep tumbling out. Our studies together; our journeys together — whenever we travelled, we always shared the hotel room. Our adventures from Czechoslovakia to East Germany to the Soviet Union; the stories we stayed up exchanging long into the quiet nights...Subhan and I...all of these memories, always together.
An invitation to Jalandhar
Its important for me to mention here that when my family left Lahore during partition, we settled in Jalandhar. Our house, which belonged to a certain Justice Haq, is a huge sprawling bungalow with its mardana and zanana, and a beautiful lawn signatory of historical abodes.
In the courtyard, my grandchildren run around huge mango and jamun trees that still struggle to give us fruit. There was also a well, a murgikhana and a kabristan, but all three of these were sold.
Somewhere in the early 1950s, my father remembered seeing a gentleman standing in front of our house. He revealed himself to be Justice Haq, and made his way inside what was once his home. When he was leaving, my father asked him to come visit again, but Justice Haq replied honestly: “Even though I want to, my sons don’t.”
As I did with Subhan, I don't want to wait too long to say this. If anyone from the Haq family is reading this, I would like to tell them they are welcome to visit their old house. We have kept the essential features as they are— except of course, the graveyard.
My last article on Subhan touched a lot of chords among Indians and Pakistanis alike, but I also learned that my story wasn’t the only one.
Many families have similar experiences to share, where outside the subcontinent, Indians and Pakistanis are the best of friends, but it is only here, in our own homes, that the atmosphere is vitiated.
In my previous article, a commentator Kamal Pasha expressed his wish for a pre-partition subcontinent. I would like to tell my dear Pasha, this is not going to be. The trajectory of both the countries has been so different that they cannot now coalesce.
But, what we can do is learn to live like good neighbours. So that in the future, it does not take 50 years for someone to contact a dear friend just across the border.