It is one of my most vivid childhood memories and it now returns to me with the clarity of a stereopticon as I sit here on cold winter’s dawn on a Delhi railway platform waiting to take the 6:00 am Shatabdi Express to Lucknow.
It is the winter of 1972 and my scout troop, returning from a scouting jamboree in the hills of Islamabad, had to abandon the train it was traveling on because of riots in Lahore. With no place to go, we set our gear and bedding down on one of the station platforms and huddled close against the winter night hoping that we could be on our way again the following day. Through the mists of the night I could see train wagons on fire, and men running and shouting slogans that I couldn’t comprehend.
At around midnight, I see the figure of my father emerging from the fog. He was with a friend and I could see that they were looking for me. From about 20 yards my father spots me sitting among my sleeping gear and slowly walks towards me. Are you alright? he asks. Yes, I answer. Do you need anything? he continues. No, I answer. He then pulls out an apple from his coat pocket, places it in my hand, turns without saying anything further and walks away to catch the morning flight back to Karachi.
I remember watching him disappear into the fog, grateful that he did not insist on taking me home and separating me from my group. As the winter cold determinedly teased itself into my bones, I crouched into the desperately inadequate warmth of my jacket and fell asleep. Since then a part of me has believed that I dreamed the entire thing. The other part knows my father well and believes that it was all real.
I would see my father again some 3 days later as he and my mother stood at the Karachi train station to receive me. Two weeks later I would celebrate my seventh birthday.
And now, the dawn in Delhi with its gentle breezes and subtle light, takes me back to that platform in Lahore so many decades ago and that moment where a small child pretended he was an adult and could to face the world. And was allowed to.
I am heading to Lucknow.