I was at a Conference in Ottawa this past weekend when a dear friend R called from Abu Dhabi to tell me that our good friend J was no more. It was only later, alone in a hotel room that I could reflect in solitude on this loss.
We had gone back to Bahrain in November, 1988 and it was soon after, that I first met Colonel J K, a very senior officer of the security forces in Bahrain at one of those endless cocktail and dinner parties that one attends to stay relevant in a transient, expatriate environment.
We clicked immediately. Impeccably dressed in a crisply starched white shalwar and muslin kurta, he cut an imposing figure. As I had only known Kahlons to be a Jat Sikh community, he clarified that he was a “Punjabi jatt from Lahore,” adding, “O yaar, aseen saare jatt ikko jahe khar-dimaagh haige. Mere waalid kissi zamaane vichh mussalman ho gaye honge. Partition baad Pakistan vass gaye, lekin ajj vee farq kujhh nahin hai saadhe logaan vichh.” (O my friend, us Jats are all the same “bad-ass madmen”. My ancestors converted to Islam at some stage and stayed on in what became Pakistan after the partition; however even today our peoples are not different.”
I discovered later that he was a repository of the Punjab’s culture and history. Generous in more ways than one, he gifted several tomes on the history of the sub-continent – some no longer in print – to me, considering it an affront that I would even offer to pay for the books. He and his gracious wife M were both magnanimous hosts, and J was ever-ready to help everyone. Members of our family from India and the US who visited us in Bahrain still talk about the manner in which his staff turned up inside the aircraft cabin to escort them like royalty through immigration and customs clearances. Visit visas posed a problem in those days, but J would go above and beyond to assist.
It was on the golf course in Bahrain that our friendship matured. We started lessons together at the Korean driving range, motivated by a good friend and champion golfer V. J was soon obsessed by this sport and had his service men convert a portion of his lawn into a chipping and putting area. Every day he would drive over 40 kms each way from his residence to one of the two golf courses then available in Bahrain. The “fairways” were hard as concrete, created by clearing the rocks in the desert and tamping down rock-solid clay and sand. The “greens” were in fact elevated “browns” – compacted mounds of sand mixed with oil, held in place by a thick hemp hawser usually employed to moor ships in port. J’s golf entourage was led by a very tall, strapping military orderly Murtaza from his own village near Lahore. Loyal to a fault and fiercely protective of his boss, Murtaza would walk ahead after J had teed off and was not beyond surreptitiously “improving the lie” of his boss’ golf ball as he could not tolerate “Colonel sahib” losing a round of golf, even with stakes no higher that 1 Dinar per hole. Murtaza also ensured that hot parathas, kababs and ice-cold sweet or salty lassi (yogurt drink) were produced on demand between holes!
In early-1996, the deadline for our family to emigrate from Bahrain to Canada was looming. I was concerned about taking my family to a distant land that we had only heard about, where we would land with no friends, sans a job or any means of support. Playing a round of golf one afternoon, J noticed that I was distracted and asked me if everything was alright. My angst came tumbling out, as I unburdened myself. J stopped in his tracks and signalled to Murtaza to bring out the Scotch. We sat there in the middle of the deserted fairway with the afternoon fast fading, golf clubs forgotten as we sipped the amber liquid. I clearly recall his words, “Close your eyes and picture a cold winter evening in Canada and a house surrounded by pure white snow, several feet thick. Through the window, you can see the glow of a bright log-fire cozily lighting up the living room where a family is gathered, drinks in hand. They are celebrating and then a young man raises a glass in a toast “To our ancestor, who was prescient and brought us so many years ago to this great country, creating the opportunity for a wonderful future for us.” They will place a garland around your picture hanging above the fireplace and thank you every day.” It was an epiphanous moment!
Lately, we had not been in regular contact. I would occasionally receive an email out of the blue with no contents other than a link to a clip of Sufi music or a ghazal. I would respond immediately, hoping to get his attention while he was online but rarely got a response. Still, I felt comforted that my friend had thought of me while enjoying music that we both liked.
J always wanted me to visit his farm outside Lahore, and often talked excitedly about all that we would do there. I regret that our oft-planned visit to his farm will not materialize now. I understand that he was at his beloved farm right to the very end; then, perhaps growing weary of waiting for company, he moved on alone…
“..Kaun rota hai kissi aur ki khaatir ae dost
Sabhko apni hi kissi baat pe ronaa aayaa..”
[Who cries for anyone else, O friend
All of us weep for our own (affairs/matters) sake] – Sahir Ludhianvi