I assume that they were brothers. They sat beside each other in the church hall, biding their time while their mother waited to give blood.

I was to one side, close enough to see what was going on; but at an angle, so I could take in the whole scene. I can only imagine that their mother, lost in the columns of her magazine, was either oblivious or blind to what was going on.

The boys were, I’d estimate, around 10 and 13 years old. They were intent on their games, eyes fixed to the screens while their thumbs fidgeted on the glassy surface. Their seats were uncomfortably close, it seemed, as one boy nudged the other. The other said nothing, in fact did nothing for a minute. And then he silently turned to his brother and punched him on the arm. Not a light, reproving punch, a warning blow. This was punishingly hard. Saying nothing, he returned to his game. His brother didn’t look up; indeed, he seemed even more focused on his game. Then, without warning, he twisted round and hit his brother’s arm. Hard, at least as hard as the blow he’d received. His hand returned to the smart phone and his attention to the game.  Once again, neither brother said a word. Just looked down at their games and absorbed the pain and pent-up fury.

This bout continued for the ten minutes that they spent together in the waiting room. Neither speaking; neither, except for a furrowing of the brow and a twitch of the jaw, betraying any sign that the other had hurt him.

I’d love to know if the mother’s article was so engrossing as to render her sons’ silent combat invisible; or if she’d seen it too often to say a word.

For the benefit of Mr Pink

There, in the circle of boys, I was alone with him. His eyes stared intently at me, waiting for my reaction to the fist that had just smashed into my nose. A slight grin betrayed his excitement. Some six inches shorter than me, he was enjoying this fight. Taking down the lanky boy. Blooding himself. 

I lunged back at him but missed my target. His smiling face dodged my fist. He was almost dancing now. The other boys cheered, jeered. There were only two ways out of this circle: tearful humiliation or a bloody, sweating fight to exhaustion. 

I’d seen enough of both. Our prep school boarding house routinely hosted fights like these, on hot Sunday afternoons when masters were somewhere else and boys were bored. The best fights were those where both combatants were well matched, their faces red with exertion, splattered with blood from their noses and lips, slowly slugging it out to a grudging stalemate.

I’d been humiliated often enough. Tallest in my year but not yet strong, I was an easy target. Too often I’d had to retire to the solitude of my bed, one in a dormitory of twenty, sobbing into my pillow. But not today.

Knowing my fists alone were of little use, I launched myself at him. We locked arms, knocked heads. My ear was suddenly hot as it rubbed against his scalp. With one arm, I grappled for a good grip, some way to keep him close enough and underneath me. With the other, I tried to jab punches at anything vulnerable: the side of his head, his groin, his stomach. He was doing to the same, though beneath me. His fist made contact, his shoulder pushed up at me, his fingers gripped at soft flesh somewhere. We were hardly standing, our legs locked in an effort to floor each other. Then we were on our bare knees, still in each other’s arms as we fought for an advantage. Somehow we struggled back to our feet.

And then I found myself with a leg free and his body bent in front of me, held there by my free arm. Without a thought, I drove my knee into his face. Once, then again and again. He stopped fighting. I felt his arms loosen. I’d hurt him badly.

He was crying, his face a mess of blood and snot as we disengaged. I helped him to his feet. The smiles around us had gone. I can’t remember what replaced them. All I remember is the relief, the sense of triumph; not over this boy who, on another day would have played games with me, but with my real enemy, the inner voice that told me that I was too weak ever to win.

That was forty years ago, in a different age, when boarding schools overlooked savagery. The lasting feeling I have is, perhaps strangely, one of joy. To have experienced the fear and pain of a fight and found respect, from my peers, for the boy beside me and for myself. There were a lot of things that I’d like to forget; this isn’t one of them.


I have been hugely moved by a programme on BBC Radio 4, addressing the legacy of partition of India and Pakistan seventy years ago. So much so that I have listened to it twice today. You can hear it on iPlayer here, should you wish.

I recommend it.

Why does it matter? Firstly, because it is a momentous part of the history of many British citizens and yet most people in Britain know very little about it. Secondly because many in the generation most directly affected have felt reluctant to discuss it. And thirdly, because of the human stories it contains.

The last affected me most. A woman recounts holding her dying mother, now weighing little more than a child, and asking her what she wanted when she died. She wanted her ashes to return to Lahore, her home for the first seventeen years of her life. And she wanted this song playing at her funeral.

It is a ghazal, a classical Urdu poem that represents the culture of the Mughal Dynasty. The song was written by Maulana Hasrat Mohani, an activist in the Indian Independence Movement, one of the founders of the Communist Party of India, and a noted poet of the Urdu language. He chose to live in India rather than move to Pakistan after independence, to represent Muslims who remained.

The song is performed by Ghulam Ali, one of the best ghazal singers of his era. His unique style in singing ghazals blends Hindustani classical music with Urdu poetry. While he has performed in India on numerous occasions, Ghulam Ali has said that he won’t perform in India in the future. He said that he does not want to be used for political mileage.

So what? Why should this concern me? Apart from the reasons I have listed, this story, this ghazal, this music affects me because I lived as a child in Lahore, home of so many histories. And, while I doubt I will ever be able to return, something of me is still there, on a hot, starlit rooftop, listening to music like this.

Here are the lyrics, in English, Hindi and Urdu. Savour them as I have.

Chupke chupke raat din

I still remember shedding tears quietly and silently, all night and day

I still remember those days of love

I still remember shedding tears quietly and silently, all night and day

The pulling of the corner of my curtain suddenly

And the hiding of your face with the veil, I remember

I still remember those days of love

I still remember shedding tears quietly and silently, all night and dayIn the sunny afternoons for calling me

Coming into the house bare foot, I still remember

I still remember those days of love

I still remember shedding tears quietly and silently, all night and day


चुपके चुपके रात दिन आँसु बहाना याद है

हमको अब तक आशिकी का वो जमाना याद है

चुपके चुपके रात दिन आँसु बहाना याद है

खेंच लेना वो मेरा पर्दे का कोना दफ्फतन

और दुपट्टे से तेरा वो मुँह छुपाना याद है

हमको अब तक आशिकी का वो जमाना याद है

चुपके चुपके रात दिन आँसु बहाना याद है

दोपहर की धूप में मेरे बुलाने के लिये

वो तेरा कोठे पे नंगे पांव आना याद है

हमको अब तक आशिकी का वो जमाना याद है

चुपके चुपके रात दिन आँसु बहाना याद है


‎چپکے چپکے رات دن آنسو بہانا یاد ہے
‎ہم کو اب تک عاشقی کا وہ زمانہ یاد ہے

‎با ہزاراں اضطراب و صد ہزاراں اشتیاق
‎تجھ سے وہ پہلے پہل دل کا لگانا یاد ہے

‎بار بار اُٹھنا اسی جانب نگاہ ِ شوق کا
‎اور ترا غرفے سے وُہ آنکھیں لڑانا یاد ہے

‎تجھ سے کچھ ملتے ہی وہ بے باک ہو جانا مرا
‎اور ترا دانتوں میں وہ انگلی دبانا یاد ہے

‎کھینچ لینا وہ مرا پردے کا کونا دفعتاً
‎اور دوپٹے سے ترا وہ منہ چھپانا یاد ہے

‎جان کرسونا تجھے وہ قصد ِ پا بوسی مرا
‎اور ترا ٹھکرا کے سر، وہ مسکرانا یاد ہے

‎تجھ کو جب تنہا کبھی پانا تو ازراہِ لحاظ
‎حال ِ دل باتوں ہی باتوں میں جتانا یاد ہے

‎جب سوا میرے تمہارا کوئی دیوانہ نہ تھا
‎سچ کہو کچھ تم کو بھی وہ کارخانا یاد ہے

‎غیر کی نظروں سے بچ کر سب کی مرضی کے خلاف
‎وہ ترا چوری چھپے راتوں کو آنا یاد ہے

‎آ گیا گر وصل کی شب بھی کہیں ذکر ِ فراق
‎وہ ترا رو رو کے مجھ کو بھی رُلانا یاد ہے

‎دوپہر کی دھوپ میں میرے بُلانے کے لیے
‎وہ ترا کوٹھے پہ ننگے پاؤں آنا یاد ہے

‎آج تک نظروں میں ہے وہ صحبتِ راز و نیاز
‎اپنا جانا یاد ہے،تیرا بلانا یاد ہے

‎میٹھی میٹھی چھیڑ کر باتیں نرالی پیار کی
‎ذکر دشمن کا وہ باتوں میں اڑانا یاد ہے

‎دیکھنا مجھ کو جو برگشتہ تو سو سو ناز سے
‎جب منا لینا تو پھر خود روٹھ جانا یاد ہے

‎چوری چوری ہم سے تم آ کر ملے تھے جس جگہ
‎مدتیں گزریں،پر اب تک وہ ٹھکانہ یاد ہے

‎شوق میں مہندی کے وہ بے دست و پا ہونا ترا
‎اور مِرا وہ چھیڑنا، گُدگدانا یاد ہے

‎با وجودِ ادعائے اتّقا حسرت مجھے
‎آج تک عہدِ ہوس کا وہ فسانا یاد ہے