Guest post by SAMEER KHAN: Mr. Chaddha lived in my neighbourhood, a tall lanky elderly gentleman who looked young for his age. I would often see Mr. Chaddha come for a morning walk in our local park, but I stayed aloof, not having an interest in the elderly gentlemen in the park who were either part of laughter clubs or the local residents union. Whenever I managed to struggle out of my bed for my morning exercise I would notice Mr. Chaddha walking ramrod straight like a soldier. He was never generous with his smiles and would simply nod his head whenever I greeted him.
One pleasant winter morning as I passed Mr. Chaddha in the park I was surprised to hear him call my name. I went towards him, and looking at me from his towering height he asked me, “Can you read and write Urdu?” Startled by the question I answered, “Uncle I can read Urdu but I am not too confident of my writing abilities.“
He said, “Well actually I want someone to write a letter for me in Urdu” I said, “Uncle I cannot write in Urdu myself, but I can easily find someone who can.” I could immediately see a twinkle in his eyes under his bushy eyebrows. I was curious about his request though, and Mr. Chaddha, noticing the quizzical look on my face, responded by saying “I have a family in Pakistan.”
Naturally I was amazed to hear this and before I could ask any further questions Mr. Chaddha asked me to sit with him on a park bench. We settled down on the bench as the morning rays of the sun emerged from between the leaves of the trees.
Mr. Chaddha began to speak “Beta, I was a small boy living with my family in Chakwal Punjab, now Pakistan. Our town was a Hindu enclave but the neighboring villages were dominated by Muslim peasants. My father was a rich businessman and we lived in a huge haveli, in a predominately Hindu locality but there were a few Muslims too, like our immediate neighbour and my father’s childhood friend Iqbal Chowdary, Iqbal Chacha was the eldest of four brothers, all of whom were tall, strong, well-built farmers and my family shared a very cordial relationship with them.
Partition was announced and riots started in Chakwal. In the beginning Hindus held on and did not allow any riots to disturb our town, and managed to stave off any aggression by some Muslims, but soon Muslim refugees from Indian Punjab started to trickle into Pakistan and brought with them stories of massacres of Muslims. Some Hindus in our town started to leave for India but my father was against going to India and refused to leave.
Then one night there was a huge commotion, we could hear cries of Allah o Akbar, Muslims from nearby villages had attacked our town. Our women began to cry and we hid inside our house. When the hoards of attackers came near the house, our neighbors, Iqbal Chacha and his brothers came to our rescue. They stood on their terrace with guns and warned the mob that if any one harmed the Chaddha family they would not hesitate to shoot to kill, even if eventually they themselves died. The leader of the mob argued with them menacingly, threatening to burn down both the houses if they tried to save us. But Iqbal chacha and his brothers stood their ground and did not relent till the mob beat a retreat.
Iqbal chacha came to our home with his wife and requested us to stay with them for some days till the time violence subsided. We lived in their house like a family. Some of the elder members of my family were reluctant to eat in their house, but I enjoyed living there and eating their food, and Iqbal Chacha’s son Maqbool was anyway my best friend. We would often sneak out of the house and play in the fields. I would wear Maqbools namaz cap when we played outside.
It was almost a month and still there was no sign of violence subsiding in fact more and more Muslim refugees started arriving from Amritsar and bringing with them tales of horror. One evening my father went to Iqbal Chacha and told him of his desire to migrate to India. Iqbal Chacha was devastated and pleaded with my father to stay on, but he had already made up his mind and convinced Chacha about his decision. Finally Iqbal Chacha agreed but on the condition that he would escort us with our valuables to India. My father tried to persuade him against this, but he did not agree and finally my father had to relent.
We left Chakwal early one morning in his horse carriage. The women in the Chowdhary household provided my mother and aunt with their burqas for cover. Everyone wept and hugged each other. My father promised them that he would surely return, once normalcy returned. I hugged my friend Maqbool who was heartbroken and wailing and had to be dragged inside the house. He kept waving at me from his terrace as long as my eyes could see him.
We reached Delhi after a tension-filled journey under the escort of Iqbal Chacha. We found temporary refuge at the home of one of father’s acquaintances. Iqbal Chacha stayed with us for a few days. The day before he was to return to Pakistan, he wanted to visit Nizamuddin Dargah and set off in the evening for the dargah.
He had not returned till late at night. Frantic with worry, my father looked for him all over the place but could not find him. Two days later, his body was traced. We found out that he was attacked and killed by a mob of Hindus and Sikhs on the way to Nizamuddin. My father was inconsolable as was my entire family. We mourned for many days and did not eat food. My father himself buried Iqbal Chacha at the Paharganj Cemetery in Old Delhi.
Mr. Chadda could not speak any longer and was silent for a long time. I looked at his face. That usually stoic visage was a sea of tears that flowed down his cheeks. We did not speak for some time. Wiping his face with his handkerchief, he looked towards me and said “The letter that I want to be written in Urdu is for my brother Maqbool in Pakistan.