Abdul Rahman Siddiqi was 23 when he took a flight to Lahore on the afternoon of October 9, 1947, from the Safdarjang Airport in Delhi. He was too overwrought to have any feelings as he watched Delhi from the aircraft, a DC-3.
"I did not quite know if I was relieved to leave the troubled city or grieved over leaving the place where I was born and brought up. I still remember that the ticket for the Dalmia Airways chartered flight had cost me Rs 95," said Karachi-based Siddiqi, now 87, who retired from the Pakistani Army in 1973 as the head of Inter-Services Publication Relations.
Siddiqi is in Delhi to launch his book Smoke Without Fire: Portraits of Pre-Partition Delhi. Dedicated to Delhi and Karachi, it vividly captures, warts and all, the vignettes of life in the Walled City from the mid-1930s to October 1947.
The retired brigadier's deeply personal book has the charm of a racy novel peppered as it is with quaint characters, interesting anecdotes, accounts of adult dalliances and delinquencies, the follies and foibles of his own family, friends and others.
Sample this bit from the book, which was released recently at a colourful event organised by the Policy and Planning Group at Azad Maidan in Chandni Chowk: "There was not a lane or a by-lane where one would not find chess players and their backers absorbed in the game, blissfully oblivious of the world around", and "Beyond the Charkha Walan lay Delhi's historical red-light area - the Chawri Bazaar - a watershed between Ballimaran and the rest of the city… I remember the grotesquely powdered and rouged faces of the prostitutes, seated in their first-floor kothas (balconies) on my way to and fro from the school."
"The book is not nostalgic; it is a remembrance of things past. I no longer miss Delhi, but I still remember it fondly," said Siddiqi, in a matter-of-fact manner.
Siddiqi, who visited his ancestral home in Ballimaran, says the place has not changed much since he left. "It has become just dirtier and more crowded. Our home is still there. I met the grandchildren of some of our neighbours; they still remember our family," said Siddiqi, who studied at St Stephen's College.
Siddiqi , who calls himself the last of "the Indo-Pakistani generation", and a "vintage Dilliwala", sets aside sentimentality when he discusses various vexed issues concerning the two countries. "One needs to be realistic and understand that there can be a sub-continental union, but absolutely no reunion. And India needs to be more generous towards Pakistan," he said.