My first visit to India

March 20, 2022

Dr Ajaz Anwar recalls his time spent in Chandigarh and New Delhi, sightseeing and relishing local delicacies, in the company of friends and hosts

Khirki Masjid, Ferozshah Tughlak, Delhi.— Images: Supplied
Khirki Masjid, Ferozshah Tughlak, Delhi.— Images: Supplied

It was in early March 1997 that I got an invitation to attend a seminar in Chandigarh, India. Though it was fully paid with hospitality and a recommendation for non-reporting visa, it opened a Pandora’s Box for me.

Being a government servant, I had to obtain a number of NOCs from various public offices and my own education ministry. My application had to be marked up the ladder and endorsed by each officer down the ladder.

Captain Isani, the then chairman of the University Grants Commission was the most cooperative officer. As I nearly gatecrashed into his office where he was presiding over a high-level meeting, he had my application for permission to leave the country counter-signed by all the officers present there.

I sent a letter to Pran Nevile asking him to receive a stranger like me at the New Delhi Airport, on my scheduled landing time. As I disembarked at the terminal, passengers were duly received and escorted to the exit. Holding a cardboard with my name inscribed on it in English alphabets was Bhim Sen, Nevile’s driver. He led me to a Fiat 1100 with his employer who came out of the vehicle to greet me.

I asked politely if he was conversant with the Punjabi. Pat came the reply that he was. (Of course, he was a confirmed native Punjabi/Lahori.) He led me to India International Centre, Lodhi Gardens, where Madiha Gauhar of Pakistan’s Ajoka Theatre was already staying. I was treated to a sumptuous hi-tea and cookies with stuffed vegetables.

Later in the evening, Nevile took me to a hotel where the Sikh manager refused to let me check in because my visa was for Chandigarh only. Even though my port of entry was New Delhi, I could not stay there overnight. He advised him to help me board a bus albeit without the elixir, because the dry state of Haryana was on the way.

Nevile took me to his home where I was introduced to his young son, Rahul. After the dinner, prepared by his shreemati (missus), the driver took me to the bus terminal. Riding an auto (rikshaw), I arrived at the CRRID hostel early in the morning. The hostel was still closed. Its director, late Rashpal Malhotra from Kasur, was away for some days. But deputy director Preeti saw to it that I had a comfortable stay. Som was another pleasant lady to meet. Moreover, a Russian guest, well versed in Hindi/Urdu, turned out to be great company. He had been working on some project in India for many years. Together we explored the city — the spectacular Rose Gardens with its big lake, Naik Chand’s Rock Garden with the millions of broken ceramic pieces collage, and so on.

When Malhotra reached the place, another session of the seminar was held for me because I had arrived late due to the delay caused by lengthy bureaucratic red tape in procuring various NOCs. Lahore and its dwindling built heritage was the topic illustrated with diapositives.

Chandigarh, as designed by Le Corbusier, is an experiment in town planning. The topography is flat, thus there’s room for straight primary and secondary lanes in grid-iron planning of the Mohenjodaro. The architect and town-planner wanted an airy city because the summers there are very hot. All buildings are grouped together: double-storied, followed by multistoried structures — one low and the next tall, so that the air could pass freely between the low-height blocks while taller ones provided deep shadows.

No violations are allowed in residential and commercial zones. Natural colour and texture of concrete is used in exposed form. Ladies could be seen riding small scooters gracefully. Bicycle rikshaw is a pitiable mode of transport.

The Art Museum had a very impressive collection. The University of the Punjab is a sprawling campus with a Fine Arts section and an art gallery attached to it. Mr Thind, a Punjabi writer, took me around on his scooter but could not take me to his home because it was in the Punjab.

As I wanted to visit New Delhi on my way back, I was facilitated by a friendly bureaucrat to get my visa endorsed. Thus I arrived in the capital via Shatabdi Express. The vegetarian meal served there was better than the one with chicken.

At the railway station there was a large crowd that had apparently gathered there to greet some political leader. I checked in at the India International Centre, this time armed with a valid visa which nobody cared to see. Back in 1985 when an art biennale was held in Lahore, I, in the capacity of the secretary of Artists’ Association of the Punjab, had noted down the telephone numbers of the visiting Indian artists, in a diary. Some of these numbers were still valid when I tried them. Many of the artists remembered me and came to visit me. Nevile, too, joined me the following day, and took me to an association of migrants from Lahore. At the sumptuous dinner, verses from Iqbal were sung with great reverence.

My host’s locality resembled Manohar Gali on Nicholson Road, Lahore. I saw many peacocks in the trees and also walking along the footpaths. In certain green areas some deer were seen roaming around. Monkeys in Tughlaqabad were really naughty as they tried to snatch the bananas I had purchased for them.


There was a book launch at the IIC where I had the privilege to meet a Frenchman who was married to a green-eyed Pakistani Christian girl, named Rehana.

There was another lady looking for me. Dr Geeti Sen’s ex-husband Muzaffar Ali Khan had filmed Umrao Jan (starring Rekha and Farooq Sheikh in the lead). Sen was the editor of the quarterly magazine of the centre. She asked me to write a column for her magazine. She wanted to visit Lahore to gather some material to be published on the country’s 50th Independence Day. The column was to be titled Crossing Borders. I promised to collaborate if she only managed to get someone to finance her trip.

She did come over. (More about her visit later.)

A friend of mine had informed his cousin in old Delhi, Mr Asif, about my visit. He came over and took me around. A visit to Chandani Chowk revealed that it was a Muslim majority area. It was here that I saw signboards in Urdu. A signboard said, “Pakistani currency and visa forms available.”

I had read a lot about the Jamia Masjid, built by Shahjahan, but seeing it in person and walking inside the place and around it gave me a greater understanding of the monument.

The nihari served at Asif’s home was a real treat to the taste buds. The one offered at the various outlets in Lahore is just a fake.

I had the privilege of meeting my father’s teacher, BC Sanyal, who had visited Lahore a few years prior to that. He lived with his daughter, Amba, near Nizamuddin.

Soon, it was time to leave. Rashpal Malhotra had arranged for my stay and hospitality payments. (I was really sorry to hear that he died recently from Covid-19 complications.)

As Asif drove me to the airport I saw some of the most beautiful cows enjoying the weather. The sweetmeat packet that I was carrying from the famous, two-century-old Bengali Sweets House, was disallowed by the hostesses of the PIA because of a suspected plague epidemic that was surging in India.

It was time to bid not just adios but also arrivederci, meaning ‘Till we meet again.’ Yes, we all did meet soon after.

(This dispatch is dedicated to the late Rashpal Malhotra)

Note: Free art classes, all ages and genders, are held every Sunday at the House of NANNAs.

The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists’ Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at

My first visit to India