In A Life Across Three Continents Nilima Lambah, wife of Satinder Lambah, a Foreign Service officer who also served as the Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, presents interesting anecdotes and experiences from her life as a diplomat’s wife. Excerpts:
WE arrived in Islamabad in the summer of 1978. For us, the prospect of a Pakistan posting was exciting, as our families had hailed from this part of undivided India. Thus, we were naturally curious to see our place of origin. My family was from Lahore. On our first visit to Lahore, we found that the family’s erstwhile home on Edgerton Road was, now a government office for the Rehabilitation of Enemy Property! An entire wing of the house, we were told, had been demolished to make way for a new road. The rooms had been subdivided into cubicles, and visualizing it now as a home was difficult. The marble staircase was the only visible evidence of a glorious era gone by. The building itself was dirty and poorly maintained, but traces of it once having been a beautiful mansion remained.
Lahore, a beautiful city, justified its acknowledged status as the cultural, architectural and artistic capital of Pakistan. Our tour of the city included, apart from historical monuments, a small street in the old part, which to our amazement, was still named after my great-grandfather, Rai Bahadur Mela Ram.
Diya (my daughter) joined the Frobell’s School. Faced with a dilemma of a Hindu Indian student the principal asked me to meet her. The children, she said, started the day with Islamic prayers and as Diya did not belong to the faith, my views on the subject were sought. Was she to wait in an adjoining room till the prayers were over? India was a secular country. I too had attended a convent, and saw no reason why Diya should not participate in the assembly prayers. Her Pakistani teacher again enquired about my decision and asked if I, as a Hindu, would permit my daughter to learn the Islamic prayers. My response: "Why? Is she learning something wrong?" ended the matter.
Being the wife of an Indian diplomat in Pakistan was an experience in itself. Initially, I found the manners of local ladies at official functions sadly wanting. Scared to be seen talking to an Indian in public, some would hastily move away on being introduced, making me feel like a pariah. Others, more refined and worldly, would spend a little time talking before making themselves scarce. With the passage of time, I came to accept this as a part of life in Islamabad. Their surprised, "You are Indian, but you look just like us", always astonished me. We were part of the same subcontinent, and had been part of the same country till only three decades earlier, so how different could we be?
I was soon to discover how a distorted history, purely to justify the concept of the two-nation theory, was an essential part of the school curriculum. In Pakistan, nationalism was defined as anti-India, with articulation of hatred through omission and exaggeration. History was restricted to leaders of the Muslim League. Gandhi was called a conniving ‘bania’, and Hindus projected as backward and superstitious people who burnt widows and wives. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s influence on textbooks was profound. He blamed India for the creation of Bangladesh, and vowed to fight a thousand-year war over Kashmir.
School of grit
Setting up of an Indian nursery school became necessary in view of the problem the children of our staff were facing in Pakistan; as Urdu was the medium of education in local schools. Wives of the officers of the embassy took the initiative to open an English medium nursery school. The concept proved a great success, and soon the school graduated to the third grade. The teachers were volunteers from within the embassy.
Narasimha Rao’s visit as foreign minister in June 1981 proved to be the turning point for this Indian school. The children of our school had specially prepared a cultural show for his visit. Following the performance, I explained our problem, and requested for a new premises for the school. As the minister gave no indication of having heard me, I wondered whether to repeat the request. Thankfully, I refrained. We were completely surprised when a sanction for renting of new premise arrived the following week. Our enthusiasm knew no bounds. A new building was immediately taken on rent. The Pakistan authorities, however, did not take kindly to this, and informed us that we could only admit children from our own embassy. Harassment of our teachers by the intelligence agencies became a routine. Despite these hurdles, the school resolutely kept functioning.
Tailed & tapped
My reminiscences would be incomplete without a mention of our encounters with the intelligence agencies. Their task was to keep a close watch on our activities, and control over those with whom we came in contact. Life was made difficult for members of the Indian mission. Renting a house for the embassy was always a hurdle, as the choice was restricted and this resulted in five houses being rented by the embassy on a dead-end street that served to simplify the task for the Intelligence. Plain-clothed individuals would sit at the entrance of the street, trying hard to give the impression that they had nothing better to do than playing cards. Their main job was noting the number plates of cars that visited any of the five Indian residences. This was followed by harassment of the visitors.
But humane qualities sometimes surfaced. On one occasion, thinking that the children had ventured out on their own, they ensured they did not go anywhere near the main road. However, on seeing me they pretended to be unconcerned, and returned to their game of cards. On another occasion, the watchers broke their code of being incommunicado, and warned Kala that the kids should not venture near the path leading to the Covered Market, as a snake had just been spotted there.
Throughout our tenure, General Zia remained in power. Born in Jalandhar in undivided India, he was educated at Delhi’s prestigious St Stephen’s College. As president of Pakistan, he visited his alma mater, and identified his hostel room. By the time we arrived in Islamabad, bets were being placed as to how long the Zia government would last. But to his credit, he was still deeply entrenched and completely in command at the end of over four years’ tenure. I was a witness to General Zia’s transformation from a timid and supposedly loyal supporter of Bhutto, to a wily president. Shortly after our arrival, in his earlier speeches on television he was acutely nervous and, his delivery awkward. Yet, the same man, in power, grew rapidly in stature, and soon fitted into his new status comfortably as though it was tailor-made for him.
The second innings
We returned to Islamabad after almost a decade, on 12 January 1992. During our previous term, the head of government resided in Rawalpindi. But now, with the infrastructure in Islamabad having been developed, the prime minister lived in a newly constructed palatial residence. Nawaz and his wife Kulsoom Sharif were gracious hosts, and proudly showed us around the premises. Every room was elegant, and had a contrasting but distinct style. This was indeed a warm and unprecedented welcome to an otherwise tense tenure.
For several decades, Pakistan has tried to exploit the issue of Jinnah House in Mumbai. We witnessed this during both our tenures. With people migrating on both sides, following the Partition, evacuee properties left behind in each case, were taken over by the respective governments. Mohammad Ali Jinnah chose to live in Pakistan, and acquired the evacuee property, Mohatta Palace, in Karachi. As such, Jinnah’s mansion in Bombay’s posh Malabar Hill became evacuee property, belonging to the government of India, despite JInnah’s efforts to retain ownership. He even wrote to Nehru requesting this. When India established its consulate in Karachi in 1978, Pakistan was supposed to do the same in Bombay, simultaneously. It, however, took a decision not to do so. No request was made for Jinnah House, at any time, when letters were exchanged for establishing the consulates in Karachi and Bombay. Much later, Abdul Sattar, ambassador of Pakistan in India, initiated this idea during his first term (1978-82).
India gave this proposal serious consideration. The mansion had been the residence of the British consulate. The government it seems at one time had virtually decided, in principle, to give it for the Pakistan consulate, on the expiry of the lease of the property. But this did not happen. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi rejected the idea, as she feared that the property could be misused. In December 1983, Foreign Minister Narasimha Rao, stated in the Rajya Sabha, "It is not possible to accede to Pakistan’s request for lease of Jinnah House." In November 1987, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi conveyed the same to Prime Minister Junejo in Kathmandu.
For several years, Pakistan delayed opening a consulate in Bombay, linking the decision with getting Jinnah House, which was to serve as the residence of the consul general. When a consulate was finally established in the early nineties, the Pakistan consulate put forward a proposal for the purchase of a property in Bombay, known as ‘Fast-Track’. This was a plot with a covered area of 10,863 sq. feet. The government of India approved the proposal in February 1993. Both, the Pakistan embassy in Delhi, and the foreign office in Islamabad were unhappy that their consulate had made this proposal. There was no desire to open a consulate, or to issue visas. During the two years the consul general was in Bombay not a single visa was issued by the consulate, and on March 20, 1994, Pakistan announced its unilateral decision to close it.
The request for Jinnah House by Pakistan was attributed to the national emotional sentiments towards their Father of the Nation. Ironically, no such sentiments or emotions were exhibited towards properties owned by Jinnah within Pakistan. A photograph published in the Star (May 15, 1993), showed the dilapidated condition of the house in Karachi where Jinnah was born. The house in Ziarat in Balochistan, where he spent his last days, was described in detail in an article, ‘House of Neglect’. On the very day when Pakistan requested for Jinnah House in Bombay, on emotional grounds, the Dawn (May 9, 1994) reported that electricity to Jinnah’s Flagstaff House in Karachi, which now houses a museum named after him, had been cut off by the government.
The constant demand for Jinnah’s house in India, on grounds of sentimental value and the acute neglect of the properties associated with him in Pakistan, made one wonder at the sincerity of the demand. The inconsistency of the expressed emotion belied itself. Had Pakistan’s response to bilateral relations been more positive, perhaps a concession might have been made in respect of Jinnah House.
Excerpted with permission from
A Life Across Three Continents—Recollections of a Diplomat’s Wife