One of the most unexpected things that Benji – Benjamin Randle perhaps, to those who didn’t know him well – was to miss his daughter’s wedding in Lahore on the first Sunday in July last year. And that was not really odd because just a few days before, while at work in Quetta, Benji collapsed and was gone. His brave heart that had stood by him like a resolute friend, gave up when Benji least expected it. “Shah,” he would have said – since Benji called many people and things Shah – “this is not on.”
Benji was part of the Warris Road brigade, although he lived right across on Jail Road in a rambling old house, full of great memories and old, classical lines. But on any given day, he was to be found in or around the enclave that housed the Zaidis, his lifelong friends. Hamid Zaidi – HZee, who was also called Shah, among other unmentionable names – was his buddy for life. Many were the escapades that embroiled the two, mostly to the amusement of Benji who would celebrate each HZee disaster with loud guffaws and even louder peals of laughter. “Oh, Shah,” he would mutter, tears of mirth streaming down his face, “how could you be such an idiot?” and roll over in fits. Actually Benji and my wife, Ira, were class fellows at Cathedral where many infamous people were to be found led by the irreverent Aftab Gul, who spent most of his days in detention in cold corridors, pronounced guilty on one count or another. There was never a shortage of charges, but though Gul was not from Ira-Benji’s class, he was found everywhere and almost always in dire straits. For some reason that Ira cannot fathom, she always called Benji, “Benji Bhoot” and he always called her “Ira Jeremy.”
I was, of course, the intruder on Warris Road, where characters of various plumages held sway. The Zaidis were out in full strength most times of the year, with “General” Shahid Zaidi leading the charge on yet another mission of absolute peril, such as hand-gliding, glider flying, mountain climbing, heavy- duty fishing expeditions up north and, of course, always, photography. As for HZee, the most adventurous climb he could indulge in was to get into bed. Benji, who loved all the Zaidis, never forgot to make them the butt of his jokes. When the great floods hit Lahore, it was as usual, that help was sought from Benji to provide food and drink to the submerged populace of Warris Road. As Benji plunged headlong in his VW Microbus to come to the aid of the Zaidis, he was not averse to shouting, “a good Zaidi is a dead Zaidi,” and finding none, take deep offence at the vagaries of life! Having arrived on the scene, so to speak, in the early 70s, I only heard stories of the school pranks that seemed to override any other activity remotely connected with education. Shahid Jalal, Tariq Hussain, Zaeem Jafri, Shahbaz Gul, to name just a few of the characters who made up the Cathedral Class and, of course, Benji was there, right bang smack in the middle of it all. It was a happy go lucky bunch, up to no good on any given day, forever plotting a new caper to impress the girls, among whom were some real sultry sex sirens.
I got to know Benji really well in the early 80s and remember so many hilarious stories from that time. One cold January night, sipping the best of Scotland, HZee, Benji and self, along with Ira’s cousin and HZee’s great buddy, Rashmi Khanna, the conversation turned to the latest intruder in Buckingham Palace, a footman of the Queen, no less, who was found in the wee hours of the morning standing by the bedside of HRH. This incident had excited HZee beyond belief and in his desire to share this news, he blurted out, “No, I am telling you, the security staff caught him. They caught the footnote. I swear.” It was a slip that HZee was to regret for many years. Benji would sight HZee and call out, “Footnote,” and then roll over with laughter. Even HZee began to see the humour of it all, a few years later. It was the same night that Rashmi said “Chink Peeks,” whereas she meant “Pink Cheeks,” and lived to regret the slip, because Benji never forgot! When HZee decided to get married to the lissom and gentle Mahnaz, the Zaidi clan which trooped over for the talks, began to regret taking the Zaidi chronicler along, because whilst praising HZee Benji let through quite a few disturbing details that sort of shook the poor decent folk at Mahnaz’s home. However, the match was not called off, although Benji commiserated with Mahnaz with exaggerated sorrow, and the wedding went ahead. Benji was amazed that HZee could actually get married! When, too early on, Mahnaz fell ill to cancer, Benji was there like a rock and when she went, for an inconsolable HZee it was friends like Benji who stood by. A lunch cloth Mahnaz gave us still remains, quite unchanged like her memory and brought out on occasions but never without a prayer for her.
Somewhere along the line, Benji met and married Zara, and who could have asked for a more caring and calm person than her? Throughout the years that followed once Benji fell ill of a disease that seemed to find no satisfaction, she stood by as did his children and friends, amongst whom there seemed to be hundreds, if not thousands. But it is to another Benji story that I must run. On a sunny afternoon with time to kill, HZee and I tooled off in his ramshackle Mini to the Railway Headquarters in Lahore, only to find that Benji was at the Railway Station. We found him at the platform, chatting to a guard as the Karachi Tezgam was preparing its departure. People were still loitering in casually, dumping their baggage through the windows and shooting the breeze with the zillion relatives who had come to see them off. The waiters were still balancing tea trays and lunches when, all of a sudden and without warning, the Tezgam literally shot forward like a bat out of hell. Passengers fell along with teapots and general mayhem prevailed at Platform 1. Benji shook a quizzical head. “Shah,” he said to us, “this Papoo is a rash driver.” It transpired that driver Papoo of the Tezgam had a penchant for speeding and was known to bolt out of the yard without so much as a “thank you.” In Railway parlance, he was known as “Papoo Rush” and had once parked his train on the main track near Khanewal in protest because the tea he had been served was cold, causing a general hold up till Papoo was pacified.
I have known very few people with the kind of sunny disposition that Benji was blessed with. He suffered for years with a debilitating disease but at least all I heard was side-splitting accounts of his troubles. It did not matter if you had not seen him in months because you were assured of a great welcome, a warm embrace, a kiss on the cheek and a funny line like, “Oye, Shah, what have you been eating?” A fabulous cook, his BBQs something to line up for, and a host who shared all he had with people that he loved, was very much Benji. I was not in Lahore last July when a short sms from my younger son gave me the bad news in Italy. But for many days there, my thoughts kept wandering back to one of Lahore’s special sons, a friend of friends – no English translation can do justice to the original – and a man, dare one say, for all seasons. Missed, yes, but forgotten, never.
The writer is a Lahore-based columnist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: The News, 13/7/2008