It was October 1965. The war with India had been and gone. I was in class eight at St Anthony’s School in Lahore when one day, a whisper screamed through the school halls: ‘Cecil Chaudhry!’ Classes were let out and we all lined up to shake hands with our hero from the Pakistan Air Force. He was ours because he, too, had passed through the same corridors where we ran screaming then.
That was the first time I ever saw this truly wonderful man. To me, with stars in my eyes, he seemed to be the tallest man on earth with a luxurious moustache, thick brushed back hair and what I was later to know as an ‘aquiline face’. I shook the hand of the man who had helped defend Pakistan.
In 1974, as a lieutenant in what was Anti-Aircraft Artillery (now Air Defence), I was the liaison officer from my regiment at the Shorkot air base. Seeing the long and empty runway, it got into my silly head that I ought to try how fast my Dodge three-quarter-ton truck, Korean War vintage, could go.
And so, I went tearing down the runway, accelerator flat out. Not satisfied, I turned around at the far end and came bowling down again. I was on the third lap when the sirens came: behind me were two Air Provost jeeps. I was pulled over and the sergeant came up to say the base commander would like to see me.
Even as a mindless lieutenant I knew I was in trouble when they drove me away with one jeep leading and one behind my Dodge. As if I was going to escape leaving my radio crew behind! As we walked into the veranda, I noticed the name outside the door: Group Captain Cecil Chaudhry. My worries dissipated.
The door was opened for me and I marched in, halted smartly and snapped a nifty salute. The base commander sat erect with his peak cap on, grim set to the jaw, hands folded neatly on the desk in front and eagle eyes boring into me like a pair of gimlets. He was all set to blast me to the far side of hell. But before he could begin, in proper military academy fashion I said: “I am also from St Anthony’s, sir!”
The base commander let out a long, slow breath and his eyes softened. He looked at me a moment and then said, in Urdu: “Oye! Tum pagal ho gai ho?” He wanted to know what I thought I was doing. I told him and I suspect he suppressed a chuckle –– for those were still days when a subaltern was expected to indulge in absurdities.
He sat me down and asked about my graduating year and my teachers. I reminded him of his visit to the school. He then told me that I had held up three fighters from landing. After wagging an admonishing finger at me, Cecil said: “you try it again, and I’ll have you arrested.” That was that.
Two decades went by before we met again. He vaguely remembered the Shorkot incident as ‘some lieutenant’s stupidity’. I said I was the culprit and he thumped me on the back and laughed. Thereafter, we met repeatedly for he was then the principal of St Anthony’s School and a committed human rights activist.
As things got progressively worse for the minorities of Pakistan, I heard Cecil speak on dozens of different occasions. His passion never failed to move me. What amazed me was that though there was so much ardour, there was never anger, but always equanimity.
When the patriotism of non-Muslim Pakistanis came openly under question, Cecil once said: “I flew for Pakistan in two wars; at times with peril to my own life. And now, my patriotism is being doubted.” His grief overwhelmed me for it was unfeigned.
A year ago, Cecil was diagnosed with lung cancer. I never saw him again. Not even after the funeral service. I simply lacked the courage to do it. In my mind’s eye, Cecil Chaudhry will always be as he was in the full glory of life. Rest in eternal peace, my friend. Those who you left behind are the poorer without you.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 21st, 2012.
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