The way it was: Adrift in India with Sohail Iftikhar Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

Gwalior seemed to be an interesting place, but we couldn’t learn much about it. Sohail needed to recuperate from his long journey. I couldn’t even argue because he had indeed made a marathon effort to be with us

It was the first car allowed into India three years after the 1965 war, courtesy Mian Iftikhar-ud-Din family’s pre-Partition relations with the Nehrus. It was an air-conditioned 1968 Toyota Corona with a 1600cc engine, which Sohail Iftikhar had acquired for Rs 18000, the price of a desi bakra today.

I remember it was a pleasant summer morning when we drove across the sad Sutlej Bridge at Kote Ganda Singhwala towards the Indian town of Ferozepur from where we accelerated to Delhi. At Delhi, Sohail moved in at the Intercontinental with his mother who had flown in a few days earlier. Musarrat, my wife, and I checked in at the old Palace Hotel, probably of the same age as Faletti’s of Lahore, which was not far away from the Tinti Tonti, as Sohail liked to call the Intercon.

I do not recall the architectural features of the Intercontinental Hotel except that it was slick and tall. But I do vividly recollect Sateesh Gujral’s terra cota mural, glazed with the most radiant colours. Sateesh, one of India’s leading artists today, was born and raised in Jhelum and migrated to India in the early fifties. The elder Gujral, his brother and former prime minister of India, was the information and culture minister at the time. I did not know Sateesh then, but made his acquaintance two decades later. Krishen Khanna was kind enough to take me to his house. Krishen Khanna is an old Ravian and also one of India’s frontline painters. This is not the occasion, but if the names of artists, actors, musicians and intellectuals who migrated to India after Partition were to be counted, it would make a long list. Om Saran, whose family owned a building on the Mall in Lahore, before they migrated to Delhi, said to me ‘Delhi mein tha hi kya, hum nay isay aa kar abaad kiya’ (There was nothing in Delhi. We made it into a city).

Sohail was never short of reasons for causing delays and postponing things. At Lahore he was the indisputable leader of a group, which tongue-in-cheek, surely — referred to itself as ‘Company Bahadur’. Most of them were Aitchisonians or had been to Cambridge or Oxford. The common denominator was their pursuit of leisure, a gift for idle conversation on learned matters ranging from the latest issue of Tatler to politics. It was a motley crowd that espoused different passions. They were a petulant and argumentative crowd, inseparable, but loved their indolence above all.

We stayed in Delhi more than we should have, doing nothing. Sohail insisted that we should relax, not get ourselves worked up. He also pleaded that we should bear his small failings. In the first place, he got up late and would order breakfast when his friends would be building up an appetite for lunch. At lunch he would, without exaggeration, sit for at least two to three hours, pushing and prodding the food on his plate, carefully investigating each morsel he picked, while pondering over existential issues vital to human race. Among his friends opinion was divided on whether Mian Sahib ate well or ate leisurely.

It was an uneasy pleasure to be with Sohail. Coming back to our journey, constant delays finally wore out my patience. Musarrat and I drove off in a huff to Agra, where we created a little problem for ourselves and the local police for checking into a hotel which was situated within the precincts of the cantonment. From Agra we drove to Gwalior. Sohail finally joined us there by train. We went to receive him at the railway station. Soon the train roared on to the platform. I peered into each moving window, hoping to catch his glimpse. There he was, as the train glided towards us, standing in an open door; firmly holding on to its two long handles, with his wind swept hair tangled with dust. ‘Look what sacrifices I make for you, Mian Sahib’, he said to me cheerfully, while stepping down from the carriage onto the platform.

Gwalior seemed to be an interesting place, but we couldn’t learn much about it. Sohail needed to recuperate from his long journey. I couldn’t even argue because he had indeed made a marathon effort to be with us. The Gwalior fort is built on a flat hill, almost vertically rising above the town. It seemed unassailable. In the fort above the Sas Bahu Temples and the Teli Ka Mandar with its deeply carved panels on either side of the entrance are magnificent examples of the continuation of Gupta craftsmanship. The ancient temples echoing the shrieks of peacocks hanging around the dark battlements lent a wild aspect to the whole setting. On another day we visited Taan Sen’s tomb. It is customary for aspiring musicians to pluck a leaf off the tree leaning on his grave and eat it. This is supposed to help firm up the voice. Since we had no such ambitions, we just prayed for the great man’s soul, who we are confident must have by now found an appreciative audience at his ethereal abode.

From Gwalior we proceeded to Bhopal. We had been warned that the road to Bhopal was fraught with great dangers. Only a week earlier, a small convoy had been ambushed by bandits, depriving the guards of their weapons and the grain they were transporting. Then there were the tigers lurking in the jungle. Rippu, whose mother was the Princess of Bhopal, and who was married to a friend in Lahore, had strictly warned us against traveling after sunset.

Sohail was accordingly informed and sternly told to be up early which he promised to do. He kept his promise and knocked at our door early the next morning and was naturally asked to come in. He had made his point of being up early. Rest of the morning he spent ordering breakfast and having endless pots of tea, making long distance telephone calls, having clothes pressed, packing, then unpacking to locate a trivial toiletry item, which had been inadvertently packed, packing again only to find that it had not been done the right way. Finally, when everything was ready, we still had to decide whether lunch should be taken at Gwalior or en route. Since no one could confirm that there was a catering facility on the way, it was considered wise to eat before leaving. Since precious time was to be saved we had to decide quickly whether we should order food at the hotel or look for some place more interesting in town.

As expected we got a bit lost in finding the straight route to the restaurant in the middle of the town. Fortunately there were no further delays and we were through lunch by four, but no one had realised that the fuel tank was empty, which meant locating the nearest petrol station, having the car filled, the oil, water and the tire pressure checked. Finally, when the luggage had been picked from the hotel and packed in the boot it was past five. Wouldn’t you say it was a good time for a cup of tea? Thanks to Sohail, we finally set off on our journey just when the sky had begun to darken after the sun had set. To the tiger’s good luck, none crossed our path. We arrived at the Royal Sabre Hotel in Bhopal in the early hours of the morning, with sore eyes, which had not winced once on the way watching for prowling predators.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is Pakistan’s leading painter. He is a teacher, art critic and political activist. He was awarded the “President’s Pride of Performance” in 1992. He is currently the president of the PPP Punjab’s Policy Planning Committee and Chairman of the party’s Manifesto Committee