When Uncle Prem Naat Mehra finally made it across the border
There sat a man, terminally ill, writing a letter. It was a combination of intuition and denial which compelled him to write a letter to a man who was declared dead. Yet he sat there, holding onto his last wish which gave him hope that may not have any fruit to bear.
Using a yellow directory, he wondered to himself if it would reach Afzal Cheema, his Muslim friend in Pakistan with whom he had enjoyed his childhood in the green fields of Lahore. Like a story of novels or thematic compilations, the journey of this friendship took a turn we secretly hope and half know of. Yet the actual wonder is how it is not just a story, but an oral history account of a friendship that survived distance beyond borders - of religions and countries.
This letter that Prem Naat Mehra wrote in his new abode in India bore his deepest hopes and wishes to connect with Afzal Cheema, but he had written to almost every Afzal in the yellow directory that lay by his side. The last name in the directory was his final effort, in spite of hearing from one recipient that the Afzal Cheema he was looking for had passed away.
As fate would have it, when the last letter reached the actual recipient after countless attempts, two individuals, separated by invisible borders, relived a life that had been lost in the annals of history.
Mr Mehra was an ex-Indian Air Force officer who found it difficult to come to Pakistan, but luckily there came a period of improved terms between Pakistan and India, and Prem Naat Mehra was allowed to come to Lahore. A cancer patient who carried the scars of old age could not be dissuaded from travelling to his birthplace. Such occurrences make us realise how relations today cannot compare to those developed in close knit communities where neighbours and friends were nothing short of family; and sometimes even closer than blood relations. Two friends were reunited when Mr Mehra finally reached his city of birth with his wife.
Afzal Cheema’s daughter-in-law went to receive them at the border. She had never seen the couple and they did not recognise her either. As she waited for her guests at Wahga, she noticed a couple crossing the border. They stood distinguished from the rest of the passengers due to the speed with which they strode towards the Pakistani side. Their zeal and curiosity was unmatched. Although the Mehras had never met Mr Cheema’s family, the hosts were showered with love and blessings as if they had lived together all along.
When Mr Mehra went to look for his house in old Lahore, it became clear to him that the structure of the city had changed tremendously. He almost gave up until he came across a street which resembled the image his memory was forcing him to locate. The same way a painting is deconstructed in the eyes of its creator, allowing him to reminisce over his sketch and smile at his craft, this man who had grown up in that neighbourhood immediately recognised his abode which hosted scents of his childhood. Luckily, the existing owner was cooperative. He not only welcomed the visiting party but also told Mr Mehra and his wife that it was still their house as they were the actual owners. Prem Naat Mehra was, however, simply happy at being able to recall all memories associated with each corner of the house and could not have asked for more.
He relived his childhood memories by running across the entire house. His medical condition of being a cancer patient did not dampen his excitement as he jumped over bunnis, leaving his wife and hosts astonished.
It is interesting how men demarcate boundaries on lands but it is also men who can break them with the strength of love and friendship, with relations that they cherish and memories they cannot forget. The last letter that made its way through enabled two families to connect, creating valuable memories that are now repeated through generations – not as a partition story but one that triumphed due to the purity of love and friendship that wove that last letter into two destinies.
Recent tensions between Pakistan and India bring forth discussions of relationships which the citizens of both countries, even if state interests are different. As the second or third generation to the partition of 1947, we fail to understand the association our grandparents or even parents had with their friends or relatives in India. We were never allowed to view India as a neighbouring country with a shared history. This story was one account among thousands of other voices that echoed tirelessly or were bound down by tedious paper work.
It is perhaps time we realise that state actors may have different policies and agendas, but it is not apt to conclude that the sentiments of citizens of both countries will fall under that umbrella. No proper forum was created by the governments of either country to allow interaction between people, breeding misunderstanding, particularly for the generations that cannot relate with those who lived in British India. No matter what the situation might be at state level, stories like these breathe hope each day, testifying to relations extending beyond borders and restrictions.
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