Shocks In My Life

I was born in a village and schooled in the district town of Sheikhupura. This district was adjacent to Lahore, its boundaries touching the walls of this famous city about whose modernity even the French authors of “Freedom At Midnight” got much excited. They wrote several paragraphs describing it. But a new outlook in social behavior does not travel by land. It travels in the minds and pockets of men and we of Sheikhupura could not equal Lahore in either.
The Boys’ High School and the Girl’s High School were close to each other but we never saw much of the girls. Their school opened and closed 45 minutes before ours so that they did not have to be on the roads when the boys were coming or going. We did not miss much because even when, by a special effort, we did run into girls we found them in a large group chaperoned by a “Mai” who knew her job. With their heads covered and eyes downcast, they looked a meek lot. Staring at them was no fun at all. Their school had high walls on all sides. A curtain hung before the small door that allowed entry into this nunnery.
One day while I was passing by, this curtain was swung aside by a girl to go in. Lo and behold! Among the large number of girls playing around in the school compound that came into my view none had her head covered. This was a shock for me. I had never seen a girl with a bare bead. 
After finishing school I moved to Lahore itself for more education. I cycled around this wonderland to take in the bewildering sights. What I ran into one afternoon shook me to the bones. Lovely girls in white salwar-kameez, their plaits flying in the air as they ran and jumped, were playing badminton in the open. Fearing that I had trespassed into a private guarded place, I turned about and raced back to the hostel. There I was told that I had only gone to the Lawrence Garden and that girls playing badminton was a routine sight there.
Another time I was walking along a road. A young woman in a sari passed me by. I did not pay any attention. But after she had gone a few steps I looked back to see how she carried herself. Were my eyes deceiving me? From the distance it looked that a part of her trunk above the waistline had nothing on it. Could this be possible? I ran back to confirm it with a closer look. Yes, it was true. Her blouse sufficed to cover only a part of her torso and the rest was bare for everyone to see. What was the use of clothes if such a secluded part of the body had to go bare? 
Even after my living and moving around in Lahore for some years, surprises did not unhand me. After leaving the College I joined the army and was posted at a make-shift Cantonment near Hoshiarpur called the Nasrala Camp. Those were the days of the Second World War. The Radio set in the mess worked on battery because there was no electricity in that place. It was as stuffy and morose there as in an East U.P. village. The only bright spot around, I was told, was the Club at Jalandhar Cantt. So one evening I went to Jalandhar. But when I entered that establishment, the sight before me whirled this way and that and refused to settle quietly in my consciousness. The hall was full of young men and beautiful women sitting at their tables. (What would the old do in the army to which the club belonged?) But even the women, both British and Indian, had glasses of shiny gold liquid before them from which some were sipping. I did not have to turn back this time because I was wearing the uniform of a King’s Commissioned Officer but it took me quite some time to return to my normal self. This in spite of the fact that the British Brigadier- the only one between Lahore and Ambala -came to sit by me and told me that he was very happy to see an Indian Officer in the Club and wanted more of us visit it. I was told that most of the Indian ladies belonged to the royalty and aristocracy of Kapurthala. There are worlds beyond the stars!
Later I drifted into writing stories in Punjabi. I came to know a woman writer whose face I liked. I began to hope that some day I would touch this face with my hand under some feint or the other. When TV came to India, we were both invited by Delhi Doordarshan for some discussion. Before the programme we were taken to the make- up room. The make-up man put her in a chair and without so much as a “by your leave”, started pawing her face with both his hands professionally to make it look better to the TV viewers. Although I was no longer young and raw, the crude impersonality of this exploit left me aghast. 
Last year I was taken to Bangkok as a delegate to the World Punjabi Conference. During the few days I was there I met surprises in rapid succession. Those were the shocks to end all shocks. I am not astonished at anything any more.

Kulwant Singh Virk
HJ-172 Housing Board Colony
Ferozepur Road
Ludhiana

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