Registering in Lahore

Not even my arch-enemies will accuse me of being lily-livered — least of all, the Foreign Registration officers at the Lahore Police Headquarters. In fact, some of them are reluctantly appreciative of my holding-my-own as an Indian woman before the overbearing, muscled-moustachioed- macho Pakistani law-keepers.

As I strode into the Foreign Registration (FR) office this time, I glanced around, checking for the faces, objects and arrangements of re-association in potentially hostile territory. The clock that used to be on the right wall, I noticed, was now above the door.

"Arre Professor Saheba! Aap kab ayeeN? Itne maheenoN ke baad hume yaad aaye?" ("Oh, hello Professor Saheba! When did you arrive? You remember us after so many months?")

The officer rising to welcome me 'home' looked familiar from my last visit, almost a year earlier, when I had come to report my exit from the country. Then too he had touched me with his genuine warmth. "Professor Saheba, why are you leaving?" he had teased. "Are you upset with us?"

I was touched. I smiled and assured him that his apprehensions were misplaced — I was leaving because of other reasons. Over my year's stay and three-monthly visits to extend my visa, the officers and clerks at the FR office and I had become well-acquainted with one another. So Chief Officer K didn't probe. He ordered tea.

I had to politely refuse. "When I return, inshallah."

God-willed or otherwise, I went back to Lahore less than a year later. Chief Officer K looked quizzically at me as I inspected the office's changes. "I was looking for the clock," I explained. "It was on that wall when I first came here in December 2002."

"You remember?"

"Yes. And besides, I had made a sketch."

I happened to be carrying my sketchbook in my bag, and I showed him the pen-drawing I had made of the FR office the first time that I had come to 'police report'. Officer K showed it around appreciatively to the others in the room, and each guessed as to the identity of the snoozing officer depicted.

I had made the drawing sitting in the same chair in which I was currently seated, but Officer K had not been present. Waiting for the clerks, I had busied myself sketching the office, until I was shooed out by an officer suspicious of my busy pen. Sometime during my subsequent visits to the FR office, however, my presence must have been accepted as benign. Refuting my misgivings, they have proven to be respectfully courteous and proactively helpful.

Chief Officer K has been particularly impressive — dealing every day with aliens, especially the 'enemy' Indians, compassionately and considerately. Knowing that he was in the FR office eased much of the anxiety that I had suffered the first two times I was in Lahore.

The day I was leaving, while sipping a Mirinda in his office, in tottered two old gentlemen. Indians. Octogenarians. Chief Officer K looked at me and commented disparagingly: "Old people above 65 years of age were to have been given 'police-reporting-free' visas. That was the supposed understanding between our countries. Look at these two — one 87-year-old Indian has come to visit his 83-year-old Pakistani blood-brother, and the two have traveled all the way here to report the Indian elder's arrival!"

Looking through the documents, he addressed the younger brother, who was helping the older one into a chair: "Please, next time neither you nor he needs to come here to report. Just send the relevant papers through someone else. We will take care of it."

Officer K is all for peace between India and Pakistan. Visa procedures have become stricter these days, sometimes cutting the number of applicants the Lahore office processes by two-thirds.

To have a peace-loving chief officer at the Lahore Foreign Registration office is an enormous blessing. To express my gratitude, I gave him a framed, enlarged copy of the sketch that he had admired. He wanted to hang it on the wall of the renovated office, but I gave him one to stand on his less obtrusive side-cabinet instead.

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Himal Southasian