For whom the bell tolls
The 16th day of April 1853 is special in the Indian history. The day was a public holiday. At 3:30 pm, as the 21 guns roared together, the first train carrying Lady Falkland, wife of Governor of Bombay, along with 400 special invitees, steamed off from Bombay to Thane.
Ever since the engine rolled off the tracks, there have been new dimensions to the distances, relations and emotions. Abaseen Express, Khyber Mail and Calcutta Mail were not just the names of the trains but the experiences of hearts and souls. Now that we live in the days of burnt and non functional trains, I still have few pleasant memories associated with train travels. These memoirs are the dialogues I had with myself while sitting by the windows or standing on the doors as the train moved on. In the era of Cloud and Wi-fi communications, I hope you will like them.
Lala Musa Railway station, Daewoo Bus Terminal Lahore and Heathrow Airport have something in common, they share the ambience of departure and gloom. Much like the changing color of maple leaves, a wide array of emotions envelopes these places. A son departing to bring home prosperity in remittance is different from a daughter leaving for her new home. Apart from this maddening crowd and oblivious of their emotions, is the small group of salesmen, ticket checkers, booking clerks, hawkers and road hostesses. Their indifference somehow maintains the sanity at these otherwise charged places in South East Asia. Only the beggars, who pray for the well being in turn for charity, truly value the sentiments of the visitors and passengers.
Lala Musa is an important and busy junction from where two tracks divert. The rich historical context on both the tracks presents the traveler with the decision dilemma. On one side exists Mong, the remnants of the city set up by Alexander, and on the other side thrives the “Greece of Asia“. The exotic Moughul Baths in Gujrat equal the charm of Sikh chivalry at Chillianwala.
The rhythm of Anwar Masood is paralleled by the cadence of Sharif Kunjahi. Zamindara College on this side is rivaled by PAF College on the other. Besides geographical proximity, the land allotments for rehabilitation while developing canal colonies and the unexplained communion of two cities; something, intangible and strange binds Gujrat and Sargodha. Families with their maternal relatives on one side and paternal on the other side are more than common in both the cities. Amusing impressions and expressions dot the lives of girls who were raised in Gujrat and married in Sargodha. Regardless of the cultural richness of the other city, somewhere deep down they yearn for their place of birth. The choice between Gujrat and Sargodha was tough but I followed my heart and left for Gujrat.
Before heading to Gujrat, Chillianwala and Dinga hooked up my attention. The city of Dinga was originally established as Deen Gah, a place for the religion. Tolerant in nature, a Gurudwara, a Mosque, a madrassah and a palace defined the city. The character of the city appeared in the person of Sundar Das. A Sibal by caste, he commissioned buildings, schools and a palace by the name of Sundar Mehal. Dinga at that that time did not perceive that Gurudwaras like Nanak Sir, will one day appear in Calgaree and Wisconsin. No sane mind thought of mosques in Ontario and Washington either. People turned up at the Gurudwara, mosque or visited Sundar mehal, whatever calmed their mind. The city was nothing but these four buildings, a lane called Sibalo wali Gali (The street of Sibal) and stories of Sundar Das. The ambitious Education Minister of India, Kapil Sibal comes from the same family.
The school of Hakim Singh was a famous educational institution. It is famous to-date though nationalised. The family of Hakim Singh migrated to Jullundher and the Sibals wandered through the districts of Barreili and Jallandher before migrating to different parts of western world. Across Bhimbher Nalla, in Gujrat, another palace is famous for Ram Piari, the second wife of Sundar Daas but that will appear subsequently. After Punjab was won over by British, the city of Deen Gah became a victim of British pronunciation and soon was referred as Dinga. Besides the British dialect, Sundar Das and Nanak Sar, the sweetened saunf (aniseed) is also a reason for Dinga`s fame. The amazing fact is, however, that on the other side of the Berlin wall, there is another village in Romania, called Dinga.
Every inch in this part of the world qualifies for a historical treatise, explored and unexplored. It takes only a while for the train to pass by but it might take a thousand years for a wandering heart to move on from this place. The next on the track is Chillianwala. The village is hardly anything but the month of January, year of 1849 and the courage of the Sikh militia.
The death of Ranjit Singh left the fate of Khalsa Rule to his wife, Rani Jindaa`n, and a few generals. The generals and queens are famous for their indifference to the common man. This was one of the times, Punjab suffered due to the decisions taken in the largest interest of state. The 1st Anglo-Sikh War came seven years after the death of Ranjit Singh in 1846 and cut Sikh rule to a considerable size. The 2nd Anglo-Sikh War was fought in January of 1849 at Chillianwala. The war is significant in a way that even after around one and half century, both sides believe that it was their day. The British Army led by General Gough had the best of the arsenals and the Sikh Army led by Sher Singh Atari Wala was as ill-equipped as men, fighting for freedom, normally are. The combined effect of French guns and Sikh chivalry routed the British formations. Then came the rain and the forces withdrew from the battle field. The victory was claimed by both the armies and defeat was unanimously dedicated to the rains. After the British won over Punjab, they fixed the cross and erected the Obelisk to commemorate the soldiers, only British, who lost their lives to this great cause.
Chillianwala today, is a small village, forgiven and forgotten. Despite the British farsightedness of building a monument and railway station, it is a haunted place with an old banyan tree at the entrance and a few benches over the plat-form. The silences reign the platform and the dust rules the battle field. On moonless nights, the souls of fallen Sikh soldiers sit down together and talk about their chivalry and proud heritage. At the same time, on the other side of the world, in Victoria and along Whitsunday beaches in Australia, their great grand children, now immigrants, sing with pride:
“I came from the dreamtime from the dusty red soil plains
I am the ancient heart, the keeper of the flame
I came upon the prison ship, bowed down by iron chains.
I cleared the land, endured the lash and waited for the rains.
I’m a settler. And from all the lands on earth we come
We share a dream and sing with one voice: I am, you are, we are Australian.”
Meanwhile, a limping figure comes from the other side and joins the Punjabi gathering. A Major from the famous regiment of Skinner Horse, he was killed by splinters from Sikh Artillery during the battle. His fluent Punjabi amazes the Sikh soldier and he explains how the Punjabi language now forms part of British curriculum and is at par with Welsh. He adds that Chicken Tikka is now available in the frozen food section of Tesco and Wal-marts. The eyes of a Majithia topchi expand with amazement and the Skinner Horse Major walks back to the cross, reciting the Bani of Guru Amar Das
Disanṯar bẖavai anṯar nahī bẖāle.
(He wanders through foreign lands, but does not look within himself.)
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The author is a federal government employee.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.