The last time we met, he told me that it was the last meeting.
No words were spoken. No gestures were made. It was just a silent communication …….. initiated by him and received and acknowledged by me.
‘But why leave?’ I silently inquired.
‘I am tired. My frail heart cannot keep up with my spirit. The spirit needs to be free. I need to be free’. The smile was still kind but sad.
‘But what about your friends? What about those who love you? What about me?’ I pleaded.
‘Oh but I will always be there in your heart. Each time you need the advice of an old man. Each time you need a blessing. And each time you need a friend’. His eyes were two misty grey pools glimmering with moisture. ‘Remember Tipu, memory is what keeps us alive.’
‘I am going to miss you Uncle. I am going to miss the warm aroma of your pipe tobacco. I am going to miss your throaty chuckles. And I am going to miss your kindness.’ My heart was heavy with the sorrow of farewell.
‘Yes I know that!’ He bowed his head silently. ‘But you have to let me go.’
‘Farewell old friend!’ I whispered sadly within myself.
‘Farewell Tipu!’ his eyes smiled kindly.
It was the last time I saw Raza Uncle. He was already buried the next time I landed at Lahore. The city was sad as if it knew a part of its fond memories had left. His house was full of people, yet empty. The halls were alive with muted conversations, yet silent. His room still smelt of him, yet bland. It has been difficult to let him go. And believe me I have tried. But as the time passes, the realization of loss grows stronger.
Raza Uncle was a human magnet who attracted everybody. First I thought it was his charisma and style. But later I realized, it was his warmth and his utter refusal to judge anybody, which made him a favourite of all. He always had a warm smile and kind words for everybody. Nobody felt small or neglected in his presence. Raza Uncle always reminded me of an old shady Banyan tree. There was ample space under its shade for everybody.
There was a gap of three odd decades between us. He constructed a bridge of kindness, affection and warmth and I willingly crossed over. He was a tower of strength and charisma and I was just a boy, still trying to come to terms with the harshness of life. He opened the doors of understanding and I willingly entered.
We were familiar with each other since long. I was playing in the street when he used to pass by in his military jeep dressed in uniform. I always waved at him and he always waved back. The smiling but silent exchange of greetings continued for some more time. Time passed and I joined the services. Then my brother married his daughter and fate and my good fortune brought us close.
He was a busy man. Daewoo kept him busy. But he always had time for me. I always called in advance seeking permission to go over and he always said ‘You don’t need permission. Just come over.’ With the passage of time, an hour or two long discussions over a few cups of tea and biscuits became a ritual. I have never been fond of rituals but I got addicted to this one. He shifted from one topic to another and I just listened – charmed, intrigued and fascinated. History, politics, religion, economics and sociology….nothing was left out. He had an anecdote for everything we discussed and always a funny one.
Looking back to those wonderful evening discussions, I find them more like therapy sessions. He cleansed my soul and broadened my horizon. He taught me how to enjoy life and how to love unconditionally. He also taught me how not to despise and judge others. I always left his company not only more knowledgeable but also as a better person.
Sometimes Aunty joined us too for a few moments, mainly to ensure that I was doing justice to the tea trolley. She used to sit there smiling silently at the exchange between two generations and most probably trying to understand that strange bond of friendship. She was not alone. My wife and mother were also confused, at least initially. But time passed, the friendship grew stronger and deeper and everybody understood.
When I explore the history of our countless meetings, I always find smiles and love. There never was one single bitter moment despite my many stupidities and naivetés. And like all old men, he had his share of idiosyncrasies. Refusing to put on a hearing aid was one of these. A time came when I literally had to shout in order to make him understand what I was saying. But Raza Uncle never chose to put on the aid. It irritated me a little in the beginning but then I adjusted. I was always hoarse after a meeting with him but who cared as long as I was happy.
There were other oddities too. He had a bad knee due to an old injury but refused to get the knee replaced. He had a bad heart condition but he refused to admit there was anything wrong. This surprised me at first as he always loved life. But then I understood. He was in love with life but just wanted to live life on his own terms. I learnt to respect that. This was typical Raza Uncle. He never gave any logical reason for his actions. It was up to those who loved him to make an effort and understand if they wanted and then keep the understanding to themselves.
Raza Uncle was the best of my friends and he is no more. He is buried in the Muslim Town graveyard along with his father and son. But I neither visited his grave nor do I ever plan to. I cannot imagine him being dead. I would always like to imagine him sitting in his room smoking his pipe and waiting for a lively evening session. This way he remains alive. He wanted me to let him go but I cannot. This is one farewell I am not ready to accept.