When I was small I loved to hear
Unending tales on every night
Spell-bound by words I had no fear
And thought I was another knight!
Gardens where chocolates grew on trees
Friendship with aliens from the stars
Sailors who went across the seas
These stories made a mark not scars.
And one of them was when a plane
Blinded by fog just came and struck
Our terrace wall but landed safe…
A tale, I thought, that spelt just luck!
This is the tale that I am going to tell you… the tale of the tallest building in Lahore. The tale that filled me with a great sense of pride because this building belonged to us and it was the one which belonged to my father’s grandfather and connected me to a city that, all said, was full of stories of fun and mirth of a seemingly huge family.
I must not have been more than five and I remember this incident very clearly. My uncle and his family were visiting us and we were all sitting in the living room where an album with old photographs was being discussed.
‘And this is the place where Saroj was almost caught when we had all gone for that night raid in the orchard,’ began my uncle excitedly.
‘Yes, Lahore is so full of wonderful memories,’ said my father.
‘The bicycle rides to Anarkali Bazaar…’
‘Why forget Mrs Singha’s school…’
‘…and what about Jamie and Lucy, our neighbours.’
‘I still remember carrying my new box camera every day to school until it was confiscated.’
‘On my complaint,’ slyly smiled my uncle.
It was as if nobody was talking to nobody and yet everyone was listening to everyone. I was, of course, intently watching the pictures in the album and had already been warned to handle the fragile album carefully.
Just then I came across this picture.
‘Aeroplane,’ shouted, pointing to the picture.
‘Hmm,’ said my father disinterestedly and was about to turn the page when uncle stopped him, looked at me, and began his story. The story that went deep into me. The story that made me go into hours of dreaming all about the adventure of getting inside an aeroplane and trying to find lost treasures. The story that tended to mingle with all the other stories until newer versions popped into my head and I was excited.
‘Our house in Lahore was taller than any of the buildings there and it was near the airport,’ began my uncle dramatically. I was spell bound and so must the others have been as there was complete silence and I was anyway hung to every word that was coming out of my uncle’s mouth.
‘There were parks all around it. Beautiful tree-lined pathways in the parks. Roads that were broader than any of the roads in this city,’ he said pointing to the road that was there and visible beyond the large open door on the first floor.
‘Many planes used to pass our house while landing and some of the pilots even waved to us…’
‘Waved to you,’ I said in a low voice. This was too exciting and I wanted to know what was there inside a plane and why they waved, but held myself back lest the story of the crashed plane went in some other direction.
‘You just listen and don’t ask too many questions,’ warned uncle, ‘or the story ends.’ I nodded in silence.
‘We called those moments the terrace game as the first to reach the terrace on hearing the drone of a coming plane would be the leader that evening.’
‘Yes, and the leader of the day got a larger share from the Orchard raid that night,’ even my father, it seemed, was getting warmed up to the story,’ just one or two planes passed by the house every day.’
Oh! How I wish the past were true
As true as what the mind conceives
For when the tales come back to you
They seem so fresh, so true, so new!
‘And the planes were of different colours,’ continued uncle, ‘we could soon recognize the country they were from and then the faces peeping out could be linked and made sense.’
‘We loved it more when the plane from Switzerland came because the pilot would always gave a slight shake to the plane and lots of snow rolled down on our terrace.’
‘Snow,’ I sighed. Jhansi was a hot place where it never snowed, and I had never even seen snow as yet. What would it feel like to make little balls and throw at one another… I was suddenly in a world of my own dreams and must have appeared drowsy because my uncle said, ‘You want to sleep now? Shall we continue the story some other time?’
‘No,’ I perked up immediately, ‘No. I’m fully awake. The story, I want to hear the story now.’
My aunt who had been silent all this while, asked, ‘You still have the pencils that were made in France. You did say once that they were dropped by a French woman who opened the window of the plane and even shouted something.’
‘Dream well is what she had shouted,’ said uncle tersely, and continued, ‘but the story takes a new turn here. It was a dark winter day and the clouds made it seem as if it was night. There was a thick fog that simply rolled in and everything appeared tucked-in. Even the birds were silent. Only the wind howled a bit and then appeared surprised at the noise it was creating.’
‘And cutting through the wind’s howl came a distinct drone,’ added my father, ‘and all the children came out of their quilts and ran up to the terrace.’
‘But before we could reach,’ continued uncle from where my father left the thread, ‘there was a load scraping noise and the stairs shook.’
‘Earthquake?’ I meekly asked.
I was told that it was not a mere quake… it was much more than that. Earthquakes come and go and leave the newspapers singing about the Richter scale and all the technical jargon, but this was the airplane closer than it usually flew and it had actually scraped off a part of the terrace wall…
I was now listening with my eyes opened wider than they had ever been and seeing them, my uncle laughed and said, ‘Relax. We were all safe. The house was safe.’
‘Or we wouldn’t be here telling you this wonderful tale,’ smiled my father.
‘That night was full of excitement and all the adults had gone out to see what had happened to the ‘firangi’ flying bird, as some of them called it. We thought the night would never end and that we would not be able to sleep. But we did and even woke up next morning earlier than normal to be taken out to see the partially wrecked airplane.’
I was told that this made our house in Lahore very famous and people from far and wide came to see the ‘tallest house that stopped the aeroplane’. I never asked them how many storeys we were talking about or investigated any of the other facts in their story. I was content to live with what I was told and every time I looked at this photograph, the story came out in vivid details… probably much more than I was actually narrated.
Years passed. A part of me became sceptical about the story but a part still wanted to desperately hang on to it. The story kept warming my imagination long after even Santa had ceased to remain the mystery he was supposed to be. Kids do become real very fast.
What is real and what all is not
Is not for any of us to say
Past tales hang on to all our dreams
And all the facts wouldn’t make them sway!
This is actually true. The story has evolved to become my first step to the wonderful world of imagination and that is one place from where I have still not returned.
‘That story was cooked up,’ said my father long back when I once insisted to be retold. I was shocked for a few moments but slowly walked out of the room, and decided to make a pact with my own self. The pact was that I would continue to believe the story and would make sure that the photograph of that plane survived. I’ve not only kept my side of the promise, but have also decided to add a few of my own tales to this treasured tale… tales that are going to keep another five year old fall in love with imagination!
I’ll talk about my new stories in some later posts but let it suffice here that they are stories and in one of them the Queen of England comes to visit my father to hear the story of the tallest building in Lahore from him. Then there is another where I managed to dig a tunnel right up to that spot in Lahore where the plane is still parked and to prove, there is this picture where I am staring up before I made this long tunnel trip… but no more of those stories. Just these pictures to tell you that all of it really happened!
What happens when you mash up reality and mix it with a little imaginativeness… you get the jam that converts lifeless moments into living ones! You get real!!
Believe me, it is the real fiction that gives most joy!
14 March 2012