The splendid Pran Sabharwal
The first time I “saw” Pran Sabharwal was at the Baltimore Sun ’s headquarters back in 1970. On a wall hung the portraits of the newspaper’s foreign correspondents. I was struck by the presence among them of this dashing, handsome, smiling man with a jaunty moustache and wavy black hair. The man was Pran Sabharwal, the only non-American correspondent at the time of a major American newspaper. He filed for the paper on the region from New Delhi. I was greatly impressed.
It could not have occurred to me as I stood looking at Pran’s picture that I would not only get to meet him two years later, but form a friendship with him that would survive the ups and downs of life and the relentless march of time. It was in Simla that I met him in the summer of 1972. By then, fate and circumstance had placed me on the staff of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as his press secretary. When I saw Pran at the press centre the Indian government had set up, he was waving a copy of his dispatch like a man saying goodbye with a handkerchief on a railway platform. There were hundreds of journalists around, since the Simla Conference had become the centre of world attention, come as it had six months after the break-up of Pakistan, the surrender of 80,000 of our soldiers in what had been East Pakistan, and the emergence of Bangladesh, midwifed by India, the Soviet Union, but more than any single factor, the arrogance and lack of honesty of the blundering Yahya regime.
I recognised Pran from his picture, which I had somehow remembered. He was waving a couple of sheets that contained his dispatch and offering it to anyone who would want it because what is once filed is no longer the reporter’s problem or property, Pran said. Several people leapt up to snatch Pran’s crisply written copy. He was that kind of man, generous and cavalier. We met and I told him where I had first “seen” him. He told me two things. First, that he was from Serai Alamgir and, two, that he wanted to come to Pakistan and interview Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. That evening, there was a reception in honour of the journalists reporting the Simla Conference, arranged by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. It was there that I met two people with whom I have had a life-long friendship. One was SK Singh, then the head of external publicity at the Indian external affairs ministry. The other was a young reporter just starting out. His name was Saeed Naqvi.
Pran was at the reception and he was what he always would remain: the life and soul of the party. There was a crowd around him and he was regaling them with his predictions of how a conference that had hardly begun would end. Pran was great at spinning out theories, sometimes a bit fanciful but invariably intriguing. Like many of us, he was a conspiracy theorist, and why not. After all, we have all seen things happening in our region which can only be explained on that basis. On our short flight from Lahore to Chandigarh – from where we had been driven by car to Simla, ZAB and Benazir having been taken by helicopter – ZAB had told members of the press accompanying him to be polite and dignified. He had also said that if drink they must, they should not drink Indian booze. I noticed at the reception arranged by SK Singh that while a number of our pen-pushers were knocking them back, the hooch they were drinking was Indian-made. So I said to SK Singh, “If you must serve whisky, then serve Scotch, not this stuff.” To his credit, SK produced the right poison and everybody lived happily ever after.
Some time after our return to Pakistan, I managed to find time in ZAB’s 18 to 20-hour working day for an interview with Pran Sabharwal and sent him word to come. He arrived in Karachi and was thrilled to be in Pakistan. A day after he arrived, ZAB decided to fly to Larkana. “Why don’t you bring your Indian friend along and I will chat with him in Larkana,” he told me. Inside the country, ZAB often travelled in a PAF Fokker – the sky rickshaw – which we all hopped into. “Sir,” Pran said to ZAB soon after we were airborne and getting tossed around, “I should warn you that I am a Punjabi chauvinist.” “Pran,” ZAB replied, “you didn’t have to do that. All you had to say was that you are a Punjabi and I would have assumed that you are a chauvinist.” Pran said to me later: “Your man is sharp. I concede game, set and match on this one.”
I left ZAB, went abroad, working here, there and everywhere, which prompted my good friend, the one and only Qurratualain Hyder “Annie” to say once that every time I wrote to her, it was from a different continent. But wherever I was, working or out of work, happy or otherwise, my link and friendship with Pran remained strong and lasting. In 1983 I went to Delhi from Vienna to report a world energy conference for the Opec News Agency. I met Pran’s wonderful wife Ruby and his three children, Gautam, Gopa and Gauri. I wanted to go to Srinagar and Jammu, a nearly impossible thing on a Pakistani passport, but Pran, who knew everyone from the President of India down to the panwala in Khan Market, got me permission. It was like a dream come true. Srinagar was the place where I had been born and it was great to breathe its clean, crystal air and stand under its limpid skies. It pained me to see that even then, six years before the outbreak of the uprising, Srinagar was teeming with armed soldiers and pockmarked with ugly, fortified check-posts.
Pran threw a big party for me at his Pandara Park home, which was where I first met Riaz Khokhar, who was the No. 2 man at the Pakistan embassy at the time. There was nothing Pran could not fix and nobody he did not know. And for his friends, of which Delhi was full, he was always willing to walk a mile, which is what he did seven days a week. It was Pran who introduced me to such close friends of his as Chandershekhar, Shahabuddin and IK Gujral. I have a picture somewhere of the four of us – Gujral, Inder Malhotra, Pran and I – chatting in Pran’s living room, whose doors were always open, like his and Ruby’s heart, for their friends. What took me to Delhi always was the thought that I would spend time with Pran. Another great friend, with whom I associated Delhi, was the journalist Rajendra Sareen who passed away several years ago, but his sons carry on his work at the opinion and analysis service he set up. Before the days of the Internet, Sareen would have all Pakistani newspapers flown to Delhi and prepare a daily brief in English of important stories and articles that would be distributed to all the embassies in Delhi and various government departments and ministries. He was a great bridge builder and like Pran, a passionate believer in India and Pakistan learning to live like friends and settling their disputes any which way so that they could move on.
Pran Sabharwal passed away on the 6th of February in New Delhi, as Ruby put it, “after a long illness patiently borne.”