“When the saints go marching in…” The jazz of Louis Armstrong floats in Kartarpur on the Ravi river’s west bank outside Lahore. A great Indian Sikh spinner, a respected Pakistani Muslim captain and a legendary African-American musician, who also sang gospel songs, have found a way to mingle at the fabled shrine.
“I could see tears welling up in his eyes when I sang that song,” Intikhab Alam says over the phone about meeting his old friend Bishan Singh Bedi at Kartarpur Sahib gurdwara on Tuesday. “We both go a long way and that song, too, plays a role in it. In fact, we all cried when we met.”
Bishan Bedi’s wife Anju, too, was left in tears. “Intikhab, Shafqat Rana (a Pakistan international from the 1960s), Bishan, all holding hands and crying. It was some sight. Right through Bishan’s illness and recovery, Intikhab would call every third day. So would Zaheer Abbas, who is not well these days. All the Pakistani players who live in England, like Mushtaq Mohammad, are all his buddies and would keep calling. Intikhab has been a great, true friend and Bishan has always been much loved in Pakistan,” she says.
In February 2021, three days after Bedi underwent a heart surgery, he suffered a stroke because of a brain clot. An emergency surgery was done. The progress was slow. Initially, he couldn’t recognise people around him and couldn’t walk. But Bedi recovered. And when they met in Kartarpur, Alam gave Bedi a watch. “He put it on Bishan’s wrist,” says Anju, who received several gifts from Alam and his family.
Before Kartarpur, Intikhab’s wife had pressed Anju with a “simple request”.
“She asked me to bring a mixer — steel-waali, that blender. She said ‘In Pakistan, you get plastic and glass ka mixie and it frequently gets broken. Can you bring a steel mixie from India?’ I bought two of them in Amritsar and wasn’t sure whether it would be allowed. My son Angad said, ‘Take it mummy, who is going to stop my dad?” says Anju, laughing.
“And so, I took it along with other gifts. No one in Customs here or there said anything. In fact, we had forgotten about the Covid test also but it was all done sweetly by the authorities without any problem. We went on a one-day visa,” she says.
The meeting in Kartarpur was Bedi’s great desire. Anju had kept Intikhab and his wife in the loop. “On October 3, we were celebrating our grandson’s birthday and Bishan said we should go to Kartarpur now. I told Intikhab’s wife, and they said ‘Don’t worry, we will be there’. When it happened, I was surprised that border forces from the Pakistan side were also dying to take photos with Bishan,” Anju says.
Intikhab says he didn’t need an invitation. “It was five hours of bliss. Old memories dusted up. Laughter. And as your countrymen will know, Bedi is a magnificent personality. What a heart. Courage. Honest man. And a humorous man. We laughed and laughed. Louis Armstrong was also part of our relationship. And it was Anju-ji who told me to sing,” Intikhab laughs.
Says Anju, “I told him now you have to sing that song. He said ‘Are you mad, we are in a Gurdwara’ but I said you have to sing. It was so lovely.”
The song connection dates back to the 1970s World XI vs Australia in a five-match unofficial Test series. Intikhab and Bedi were in the World team. “We had a Sunday club during that tournament. We had players from so many different countries. Someone would dance, someone would sing or play an instrument and so on. I used to sing this song the way Armstrong sang or tried to, and Bishan loved it. I guess he still does,” says Intikhab, a jazz lover who had picked up the song during his playing days in Scotland.
His family, Intikhab says, was the last in Shimla to flee to Pakistan during Partition. His father had played for the Maharaja of Patiala’s team, and had friends in the Army. He recalls that a brigadier had sent a truck that took the family to Ludhiana. They moved to Kalka, and then took a train to Lahore. “The first was a passenger train… But a wrong signal said the first train was a goods train, and the second was carrying passengers, and that’s how we made it across the border,” Intikhab says. “Very lucky. That was the last train. No other train came from India.”
He first met Bedi in a match. “I hit him for a six or two, and he joked ‘Bhai, why are you hitting me? There are other spinners also in the team.’ I immediately knew that we were going to hit it off. Then, that Australia tournament happened and we have been thick friends since.”
Referring to Bedi, he says, “Allah inko lambi umar dein and give him all the good health. Aise insaan toh kum paide hote hain aajkal (People like him are very rare these days. May God give him a long, healthy life).”
Anju says, “I know Bishan is much loved in Pakistan. But the way Intikhab, Shafqat and all his Pakistani friends have been in touch was amazing. They just hugged and cried.” Intikhab says, “When Bishan left, he told me ‘Come to India’. I have been there before and roamed Purani Dilli (Old Delhi) with him in the past. It’s been years now. I shall come, Inshallah.”
Anju awaits that day. Until then, she will also cherish another lasting memory from Kartarpur. “A Pakistani journalist asked me what I liked most from Pakistan: Dry fruits, shawls, clothes… I replied ‘Apka pyaar sabse behtar lagta hai (I like your love the best)’.”