When Cycle was a Mercedes : 1947 Delhi
Back then a bicycle used to be a Mercedes. It was all about the attitude of the one who rode.
And boy, did he ride! Through the roads of the newly constructed capital. Past the glamour of a new nation. Watching the refugees pouring from across the newly constructed border. He … rode. Zipping past this new world, each time the breeze reminding him of the ancient Himalayas, his home.
This was 1947. He was a student in Delhi. Like many Kumaoni men he had migrated to the new capital to study. Back then, there were no modern English schools in Kumaon. And, quite simply, to keep up with a modern nation, one needed modern education.
He lived in purani Dilli. His friend near Kotla. But distance is a funny thing. Truth be told, it is only of the heart.
They’d meet each other everyday. Even on Sunday, that day when they first saw the “refugees”. The young friends heard that word for the first time. Refugee. There was no other word offered for the mass of humanity pouring in from across this new nations bloody divide.
All kinds of people. Men, women, kids. Clothes torn, hair dishevelled. Clinging to their little possessions. A dupatta with a small. lota, a few pieces of jewellery, and yes, a pencil that praji had once given.
The refugees. Speaking different dialects. Wearing different clothes. Carrying different memories. United by that one thing: the glazed look in their eyes. Where would they stay, what would they eat? No one in New Delhi had an answer for this. No one had expected that the birth of a new nation would be destined with such a gory dance of death. No one.
He and his friend. They watched it all. And they went. From home to home. Begging for food to feed, to welcome the new friends for whom this land would now be their home.
2010 He recalls this and grins. He is now 82 years old. Coming back to India’s capital after 50 years. Nearly half a century. His eyes are lit up with a delight his son has not seen, ever.
“You have to find me Hari.”
Yes, Hari is his friend from Delhi in the 40s.
“I will tell you where he lived. Go to Kotla, yes, from the main road turn left, go further, a banarasi paan shop and then …. a ghee shop, on top of that is Hari’s home!”
He is gleaming with the excitement of a five year old. “But Babu, there is a flyover there now. The city has changed!” “Nothing can change so much that old friends can’t meet!”
His son, a colonel in the army, has a friend in a fairly top position in the ASI, Archelogical Survey of India. He giggles and tells him, “You’ll have to get your boys to dig out a page from a friendships history now!” The men are sent everywhere in Kotla. Day one. Day two. Day three. Each day the son is asked, “Kuch pata chala? Any news?” The son is amazed. Babu has never been so insistent. He realises, he’ll have to do something himself.
Walking through the narrow lanes of Kotla, he begins conversations with older folks. One of them recalls a banarasi paan shop that would pride itself in selling the best paans in Delhi. He reaches the location. There is now a huge showroom for tiles there. But next to the showroom is a dhaba. He finds another old man there … like this like this … finally someone recalls a house with a ghee shop in the ground floor. There …! – The son rushes in the direction, only to find a multi storied housing complex instead! Not one to give up, he asks a few folks there about his father’s old friend. An old man recalls, “He left a long time ago. Went to America.” The son’s heart breaks, “But i have a number somewhere. Maybe this works. Try kar lena…” – Back home, in Chattarpur, the son makes an ISD call for his father. Sure enough. It is Hari ji’s number.The two friends, long lost, found again, talk. For minutes, hours, how does that matter. They, talk. – The son watches his old father giggling like a young man. Life bubbling in his eyes. The joy of being alive, being loved suffusing each cell.He passively absorbs the nourishment of his father’s friendship. Deep. I can still feel it glowing in him as he recounts the story to me.
Hari ji promised to meet.
But as life would have it, he could not get back to India on time.
He died. Babu ji too died. But this story of friendship lives on. In his son, my uncle. In me. And hopefully, now, in some of you too.
You see, in any age, at any time, a story is like a private plane. Taking you where you want, when you want, how you want. It’s all about the attitude of the one who listens. Right?!