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02/06/2022
ON REACHING EIGHTY


 

This morning, I intend to be 80 years old. I was born on 2 June, when Lahore was still in British Punjab.

Over the decades, I have witnessed cavalcades and cortèges, met crowns and clowns, patricians and plebeians, read too many books and written not nearly enough.

Some say that 80 is the new 60; others it is the age when 'the candles cost more than the cake.'  The truth is one is old when mind surmounts matter, when memories outnumber dreams.

Mine has been a full life, as full as time allowed. I was already five years old when our country was born. I shed juvenile tears at the raw graveside of Quaid-e-Azam in 1948.

In the U.K. at the time, I celebrated the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953. In 1997, I had tea close to her in Buckingham Palace, and later the same year escorted her at a reception she gave in Lahore. I have met her family – her late mother (then a spritely 97 year old), her heir apparent Prince Charles, both his wives Diana and Camilla, and last year the next generation, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Now, I celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.

In Pakistan, I have shaken fists with Generals (from Field Marshal Ayub Khan downwards), exchanged handshakes with the soft-pawed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and shared a podium with his daughter Benazir. Like the operatic heroine Turandot, she could be icy, forbidding and yet irresistibly gracious. Her son Bilawal, I noticed when we met, has inherited her disarming smile and guarded aloofness.

I stood for hours in 1992 on Lahore’s Mall for a glimpse of Imran Khan holding the cricket World Cup aloft on a truck (containers were yet to become fashionable).  In 2011, I swapped books of memoirs with him – mine that I had written, and his that he should have read.  

Among India leaders, I recall a glimpse of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1960s in London, and being enthralled by the philosopher president Dr. Radhakrishnan when I smuggled myself into India House, Aldwych (the guards could not tell the difference – ‘same to same, yaar’).  I had an audience with Mrs. Indira Gandhi in her Lok Sabha office in 1981, and on the way out encountered a fresh faced Rajiv Gandhi entering the office he would one day occupy.

 

Of their successors, Mr. I. K. Gujral became a friend before and after his premiership. I heard Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee’s elegantly crafted speeches at the Lahore Fort and the following day at Government House in 1999, when he conceded what none of his predecessors had the courage to admit – that Pakistan had the right to exist, and that India had no intention of recreating Akhand Bharat. He and I spoke on the same platform at the Vigyan Bhavan in New Delhi and met again in Islamabad on his final visit in 2004.

 

Indian authors and scholars have shared their wisdom with me – doyens in their field like Dr. M. S. Randhawa, Karl Khandalavala, Mulk Raj Anand, Dr. Romila Thapar, and Khushwant Singh whose ashes I brought by train to Pakistan. Dom Moraes and Ved Mehta – once Oxonian travelling companions - became my friends separately.

 

Bollywood’s glitter into my life during encounters with Amitabh Bachchan in Dubai, Rekha while shopping in London, Lata Mangeshkar in Abu Dhabi, and Dilip Kumar in Lahore. Ravi Shankar, Ustad Vilayat Ali Khan, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia introduced me to classical modes, as did the Bharatanatyam expert Balasaraswati.   

 

I have travelled extensively across a pre-Covid globe, especially in India (including the contentious Jammu & Kashmir) before PM Modi’s saffron curtain descended, resurrecting Radcliffe.

 

In Lahore, to have heard Faiz sahib recite poetry in Prof Shakir Ali’s house (he was then Principal NCA and decorated it with his paintings, which I now own) was a gift from an over-generous muse. Listening to Reshma before she became famous and unreliable, Abida Parveen in her pristine prime, Asad Amanat Ali before he succumbed to temptation, and to Madam Nur Jehan silence Mr. Bhutto with a ghazal were occasions which have remain veined in my memory.

 

One could go on, but compressing an 80 year long life into 800 words is an unfair challenge. I have been writing for DAWN since the mid-1990s. One was allowed 1,000 words then. Space on its pages has shrunk, as has the attention span of readers. They have time only for the sound bite, for the pithy précis. 

 

Recently, my cardiologist told me that my heart is sound and that I am good for another 80 years. So, loyal readers, I promise to keep writing if you promise to keep reading. We can then look forward to celebrating 2102 together.

 

 

©  F. S. AIJAZUDDIN   

[DAWN, 2 June 2022]

 
02 June 2022
 
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