By Rafiq Ebrahim
Glen Ellyn, IL
Just as I was
peeling potatoes, after cutting onions – and
shedding tears - to prepare a family lunch with
my wife, the telephone rang. It was Ustad Bilgrami
announcing his arrival in the US. He had checked
in at Marriott near O’Hare Airport the night
before to enjoy a blissful night’s sleep after
a strenuous eighteen-hour journey from Karachi.
He would be in Chicago for a day before taking a
night flight to Rockford to visit his son and family.
He wanted me to pick him from the hotel and spend
the day with him.
“Ustad Bilgrami has arrived and I have to
see him immediately,” I said to my wife. “It
is possible that he may come here for lunch.”
“But what about the potatoes?”
“Potatoes? Oh, lady of the house, you must
realize that there are far more important things
in life to attend to than peeling potatoes,”
I said as I rushed out.
I always had a deep admiration for Ustad Bilgrami
for he was a remarkable man. More than three decades
ago when I was in college he was our sports coach.
He is remembered by his students not only as a coach
but as a mentor, a guide and a genuine friend. Though
he would coach all students, he was very selective
in admitting them into his inner circle. When introduced,
he would look at you with a piercing gaze for a
few moments, size you up there and then and either
accept you or do away with you; the only thing the
rejected ones would get was coaching. I was lucky
to have been one of his inner circle mates. After
classes every day one or two nascent youths would
approach him, pour out their hearts and seek solution
to their problems. Ustad Bilgrami would carefully
listen, analyze and ponder deeply; and within twenty-four
hours come up with a solution. His price? A glass
of sweetened lassi. He made his name as an extraordinary
trouble-shooter with the ability to turn any situation
into a win-win situation.
I accidentally met him at Karachi’s Lal Qila
last year and at once recognized him. Age had neither
withered him nor robbed him of his charisma, though
it had taken away all his hairs, making him completely
bald. He looked at me with his characteristic piercing
gaze for a minute or so, then burst out laughing
as he recognized me. “Ah, you are the same
boy who had fallen head over heels over that gorgeous
Turkish girl, and had come to me to seek solace
when she had put you back on the shelf.” I
simply marveled at his recollection of one of the
many heart-breaking episodes in my life. The meeting
in Karachi was very short, as he had to go home
to rest his eighty-year old aching frame, and I
had to take a morning flight back to Chicago. He
however promised me that whenever he would come
to the US to visit his son, he would stop over in
Chicago to spend a day with me.
Now he was here and I was simply delighted. Perchance,
I may get more enlightened and learn some new ‘Bilgrami
ways’ to deal with people and situations.
At Marriott I found him in the lobby. He was in
earnest conversation with a pretty receptionist,
his hand over her head – later he told me
that the girl was heart-broken and he was pondering
over the situation, thinking a way to help her out.
On seeing me, he waved his hands energetically and
locked me in a tight, affectionate embrace.
He willingly accepted my invitation for lunch, which
he really relished. Admiring my house and the picturesque
surrounding and showeting my wife, son and daughter-in-law
with precious words of advice, he expressed his
desire to go to Devon Avenue. Every visitor from
India or Pakistan almost invariably wants to go
to Devon first, leaving aside all the other attractions
of the city to be seen later. Maybe because they
want to feel at home.
Devon Ave, a ten-block stretch in the north of the
city, forty-five minutes drive from our house, is
one of the biggest Indo-Pak shopping centers in
the US, abounding in clothing stores selling saris
of the latest fashion, well-cut shalwar qameez,
gold-embroidered garments, jewellery stores, video
shops, offices and an endless chain of eating places.
I took a long route to Devon, enabling the Ustad
to see the Sears Tower, and other attractive buildings
in downtown and enjoy the exhilarating Lake Shore
Tantalizing aroma of tandoori meat filled the air
as we came to Devon and parked our car.
“Let’s have some lassi,” said
“Oh, I almost forgot. You and lassi are inseparable.”
We entered a famous fast food restaurant, and as
soon as he saw the owner at the counter, his eyes
opened wide. He rushed to him and yelled amid a
cluster of customers, “ Hey! Aren’t
you Dhiraj Patel, who used to sell sherbet in Ahmedabad
The owner was stunned. Nobody likes to be reminded
publicly about his humble past, particularly if
presently he is rolling in wealth. He waved his
hand and asked us to be seated on a table. In a
jiffy, a waiter came to us, took our order, and
in no time the eatables and two glasses of lassi
were on our table.
Finishing the snacks, we got up and I took out my
wallet to pay. Dhiraj Patel waved me aside saying
it was on the house. Ustad Bilgrami was not yet
finished. “Did my recipe for Pomegranate syrup
work to boost up the sale?” he asked. Totally
embarrassed and shuffling his feet nervously, Dhiraj
Patel nodded and was obviously thinking of a way
to disappear. I grabbed Ustad’s arm and drove
“Did you make up things about his past? Why
should you embarrass someone like that?”
“I never lie,” said the Ustad. “
I just use facts at the appropriate time and place,
and there is no need to feel embarrassed over one’s
We entered a clothing emporium. Ustad selected two
shalwar-qameez suits, each priced $30. He took them
to the counter and started bargaining, in spite
of the fact that there was a big sign at the top
of the counter that read: “Fixed Price. No
Bargaining.” A few minutes later, he triumphantly
bought the merchandise, the price being slashed
to $15 each.
“Time to go now,” he said. “Let’s
pick the luggage, check out and solve the problem
of the girl, before we go to the airport.”
His eyes fell on a cop standing by our car, writing
a ticket. God! I had forgotten to put two quarters
in the parking meter. Ustad Bilgrami ran towards
the car. “Officer!” he shouted. “Look
at me, an old man, breathless, running all the way
to appeal to you not to issue a ticket. We are only
a minute late.”
One look at Ustad Bilgrami, and he was taken in
by the charisma. He stopped writing, and seemed
to be wondering whether to write or not.
“A million thanks,” said the Ustad,
motioning me to get into the car. “ Have you
ever tried a lassi?
“What is lassi?” asked the officer.
“A delicious drink made from yogurt. I am
sure you will like it.” Saying so, he hastily
entered Dhiraj Patel’s restaurant. I could
see from the glass window of the place that Dhiraj
looked panic-struck, looking for an escape, not
wishing to be further embarrassed.
The cop looked like he was in a trance. Just to
break the silence, I said, “ A little bit
windy today, isn’t it?”
“Not my fault,” he muttered, and then
went back into his trance.
Ustad came out with a big disposable glass of lassi,
handed it to the cop, got into the car and ordered
me to get away immediately.
I sped off. After a few minutes of silence, I said,
“Ustad, you know what you did? You bribed
a Chicago cop! He could have arrested us for the
“But he didn’t. Did he? All is well
that ends well.”