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Midnight encounter with Chacha Jaan at a small Scottish airport
In 1992, on a British Airways flight, I was on my way to London to attend the Sword of Honour ceremony and tea, at the House of Lords.

The captain announced that the descent to Heathrow airport had started. We buckled and awaited the landing. Suddenly the plane started ascending again. The captain announced that due to poor visibility, we were proceeding to Manchester.

Due to bad weather, eventually the plane crossed the Channel and hovered over Amsterdam, then to Birmingham. Finally, running short on fuel, we landed at a small airport near Glasgow. Except for the traffic control tower, the entire airport was closed.

The plane's own ladder was rolled down and we alighted in the dark and with gusty cold winds. We passengers formed a human chain, and conveyed the entire luggage in the hold, to the small airport. All were shivering. The hall lights were switched on, but there was no heating and all the counters were closed. In the meanwhile, another plane landed, and we were one too in the small hall.

I was lost in thought, as to how to get to London in time for the ceremony, possibly by train. Suddenly, an old gentleman in white kurta pajama and a flowing beard accosted me. 'Aap Urdu bolte hain kya?' 'Ji, thodi gustakhi kar leta hun', I responded. 'Chaliye, accha hua. Kambakht yeh angrezi zuban mere palle hi nahin paldti'!

Yehan, koi farikh hone ki jagah nahin hai? I escorted him to the toilet.

'Chacha Jaan, aap kahan jaa rahe hain?' He unfolded an amazing story:

Years ago, he had been a cargo loader at Karachi airport, working for Pakistan International Airlines. I could make that out from the old shoulder bag he carried. As an employee he had a free pass from PIA, for Karachi/London and back. Years later, he woke up and managed to get the free pass revalidated

I continued my questioning in Urdu/Hindustani. On enquiry, as to whom he was visiting, he took out a very old soiled visiting card of Altaf Hussain, with his London address. Altaf was the son of tailor in Karachi, who had his shop in Chacha's lane.

Does Altaf know that you are coming? No, but he will receive me very warmly. 'Hamari gali ka hi hai na!' Here was an 80 plus Chacha, who without knowing a stitch of English, had set out in the wide world, without knowing a soul! He reminded me of my philosopher father, who used to set out alone to unknown cities and countries, purely on impulse in search of the unknown.

Father's Avadhi Urdu was also what Chacha spoke. In the meanwhile, a food stall of sorts was opened. Both of us were famished. He asked me, what he should eat as he took no pork. 'Don't worry, I am a vegetarian. I'll find out.' Soon we settled for just plain Maggie noodles and tea.

In the meanwhile, two relief planes arrived. 'Don't leave me. Can we sit together?', Chacha asked. Finally we reached London, but very late. I was in a hurry to leave, so that I could rest a bit and be in time for the ceremony. But he needed my help, at his first international airport.

After a number of tries, I managed to get Altaf on the line, who only vaguely remembered Chacha, but that very day he and family were leaving for a week's holiday to Europe. He told Chacha to hold on in London, till they were back. We went to the counter of the tourist bureau and showed them the yellowing card. 'Can you recommend some affordable digs for this gentleman, where Pakistanis and Indians stay, in the vicinity of this address?'

'How much money do you have?' I asked. He took out a few rolled up Pounds, and we booked a place accordingly. Next problem was to get him on the correct train. The travel bureau's gentleman wrote out the details, so that he could get on and off correctly. I requested a passing Englishman to help him get on the right train.

While parting, he grasped my hands and profusely thanked me. 'Tumhare liye, hamesha dua karun ga. Apna kahyal rakhna'.

Life has its moments. Early in the morning, I was struggling to help an old stooping cargo handler from Karachi, to get his moorings in London.  And now in the evening, with the Sword of Honour by my side, I was chatting with the Queen's cousin, Baroness of Fulham, over English muffins and tea, in the warmth of the fireplace of bakery of the House of Lords!


For full description of the colourful Sword of Honour ceremony, please click:

Chacha Jaan

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