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Book Excerpt: Iqbal Chacha

By Sameer Khan

Mr. Chaddha lived in my neighborhood. He was a tall, lanky, elderly gentleman, who looked young for his age. I would often see him come for a morning walk in our local park. But I stayed aloof because I had no interest in the elderly gentlemen, 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 him 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 him in the park, I was surprised to hear him call my name. I went towards him. Looking at me from his towering height, he asked, “Can you read and write Urdu?”

Startled by the question, I answered, “Uncle, I can read Urdu but I am not too confident about my writing abilities.”

He said, “Well, actually I want someone to write a letter for me in Urdu.”

I said, “Uncle, I myself cannot write in Urdu 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.  Noticing the quizzical look on my face, Mr. Chaddha responded, “I have a family in Pakistan.”

Naturally I was amazed to hear this.  Before I could ask any further questions, he asked me to sit with him on a park bench. We settled down on the wooden bench as the morning rays of the sun emerged 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 in 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 predominantly Hindu locality. There were a few Muslims, too, like our immediate neighbor 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. 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, managing 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. He 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 hordes 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 anyone harmed the Chaddha family, they would not hesitate to shoot to kill, even if  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 house with his wife and requested us to stay with them for some days till the 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.

“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 Maqbool’s namaz cap, when we played outside.

“It was almost a month and still there was no sign of the 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.

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 relent, and finally my father had to agree.

“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 things limped back to normalcy. I hugged my friend, Maqbool, who was heartbroken and wailing. He 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 my father’s acquaintances. Iqbal Chacha stayed with us for a few days. The day before he was to return to Pakistan, he wished to visit the revered Sufi Shrine of Nizamuddin Dargah, setting off in the evening for the dargah.

“He didn’t return and it was getting 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 his way to Nizamuddin. My father was inconsolable as was our entire family. We mourned his death. My father himself buried Iqbal Chacha at the Paharganj Cemetery in Old Delhi.”

Mr. Chadda could not speak any longer and remained silent for a long time. I looked at his face. That usually stoic visage turned into a sea of tears that flowed down his cheeks. We did not speak for some time. Wiping his face with his handkerchief, he looked to me and said, “The letter that I want to be written in Urdu is for my brother, Maqbool, in Pakistan.”

Note: This story is excerpted from Sameer Khan’s short story collection, Spinning Top and Other Stories. It’s available on Amazon US and Amazon India.

Sameer Khan is an Independent writer and blogger. He tweets at:@samkhan999


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