There is a scene in one of those old black and white Madhubala films when the eternal hero, Ashok Kumar lands up in a three star hotel in Calcutta. The manager escorts him to his room on the first floor, opens a double louvred window and says with a note of triumph: ‘And this is …Howrah Bridge’. In that one phrase, he conjured up a city with an embarrassment of cultural riches. Who knows, I may still be able to get a glimpse of this remarkable feat of British engineering, though I deeply regret never having met the great Jyoti Basu or Satyajit Ray.
Apparently, India wants to make it easier for certain categories of Pakistanis to obtain visas. This is a welcome bloom in the brickwork of relations between the two countries. Somebody in the interior ministry has predictably messed it up at our end, but then, as my friend in Yonkers, New York would have said, ‘So wot else is new?’. Nevertheless, I hope this gesture also entails the revision and simplification of the visa form. At present, the document is a masterpiece of British and Indian bureaucratic engineering, designed to give the applicant a king-size headache. I haven’t heard what the Indians have to say about our form. But knowing the lads in our ministry, I am sure they have done their utmost to make it equally exasperating and frustrating to complete.
We live in a country where the senior PPP politicians believe that we don’t really need a supreme court and that the only way to strengthen democracy is to regularly make incisions in the judicial wax tablet, establishing our uniqueness as a nation and hastening our march towards complete anarchy. Therefore, all that people of my generation are left with are memories of better times. Fortunately, the government can’t take that away from us, locked as they are in some remote part of the brain.
Can any painting by Claude be more elaborate than the Ajanta Caves or more beautiful than the Taj Mahal bathed in silver when a full moon is given speed by flying scarves of white cloud? Or more exciting than watching William Blake’s Royal Bengal tiger ‘burning bright in the forests of the night’? How well I remember those regattas on Bhopal’s Burra Talab when Brit was pitted against Indian, watched by the sagging rump of the Nawab’s squirearchy. And there was always the sea at Apollo Bunder, swallowing a big red sun every evening. Once during the winter vacation, one of the horses from the Paiga stables in Bhopal, thundered to victory from start to finish in a furious mile-gallop at the Mahalaxmi race course. And heck, have the Italians or the Swiss ever been able to produce an ice cream that comes even close to the mango kulfi served on banana leaves in Chowpatti on the Queen’s necklace?
I have a claim to Safdarjung’s Tomb, the Taj Mahal and the Stupa at Sanchi, just as the Indians have a claim to Mohatta Palace, the Shalimar Gardens and Jehangir’s tomb. The she-wolf’s litter has stood savagely at bay thrice during the last 65 years. It’s high time the military and the politicians on both sides of the Great Divide stopped behaving like children and started to grow up. We have 5,000 years of civilisation behind us. We don’t need the Americans or anybody else to tell us what we should and shouldn’t do. I am sure, the late Mr Jinnah and the late Pandit Nehru wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 31st, 2012.