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 at the door as the train moved on. In the era of Cloud and Wi-fi communications, I hope you will like them.
Wazirabad is a strange city. After an eventful October day, the evenings appear hollow and fake; even then the city just does not gloom.
Right across the civil courts, a marble plaque directs towards a house, Kothi Shiekh Niaz Ahmed. Like all the buildings of Raj, this first impression is captivating too.
The first few decades of 20th century saw only two tanneries across India, the Cawnpore Tannery (Cawnpore saddles are still famous among polo lovers) and the Wazirabad tannery. The owner of this house, Shiekh Niaz Ahmed ran the Wazirabad tannery. Besides being an entrepreneur par excellence, he practiced alternative medicine too. His piety was so pronounced that people flocked from settlements around the city to get charms and seek prayers/blessings in anything they would do.
Kothi is not merely a house, it transcends well beyond that. It is one of those addresses the postman never forgets and passes on as sacred text. The chimneys, the pantry, the Victorian driveway and long hollow corridors give the house, a historical ambiance. Calmness floods these hallways and nobody seems to be in a rush.
The age old fans, hanging with hooks, still manage to keep away the heat and therefore, inmates have never experienced the artificial and silent chill of air conditioners. Before the house was powered, large fans run by bearers cooled the summers. In the drawing hall, which is too big for a room, the portrait of Lt Arif Shaheed sits on the fireplace. A darling son, he was killed while saving his father’s Pakistan by someone who was saving his forefather’s Bengal.
In the good old days, this magnificent house was constructed outside the city on the road leading to Nizamabad but silently, the city outgrew its boundaries. Kothi is now in the centre of the city. A concrete Jungle has replaced the wild wood that once encircled the house. The same Nizamabad is the last station before rail whistles into Sialkot.
On the other side, there is yet another residence that defines this city. This is Musamman Burj or Saman burj. Musamman is the Persian word for figure of eight. These 57 canals of history, house a sizeable compound of many buildings, however the two main gates have a structure of four watch towers each, thus the name of eight towers “Musamman Burj”. The Musamman Burj at Agra is also famous for its unique architecture.
On the day of Nauroze, Jehangir laid the foundations of a garden and gave its design outline. It was constructed by Ilm ul Din, a confidant of Jehangir and was completed in 1636 AD during Shahjehan’s rule. Ilm ud Din was later given the title of Wazir and the city derived its name from him. Like all other buildings commissioned by the Moghuls, this garden too has pathways, terraced lawns and arches. When Sikhs established their rule, the place served as the Military Headquarters. The inscription of this designation can still be seen on the front wall.
The story of freedom, well guarded by Jarral Rajas of Rajori, remains a matter of pride which, in this age of self love and relative standards, does not find many admirers. The heroic act of Raja Azhar ullah Khan merits a mention. This brave man was the lone hurdle that stood between Ranjit Singh and Kashmir. He was called at the Lahore Fort for some settlement, where he was imprisoned. This royal son of the soil did not succumb to pressure and refused to seek mercy from the Maharaja. He was silently killed at the Lahore Fort, setting the precedence for regimes to dispose off the saner voices. When Punjab fell to the British, they followed the course of Sikhs and dislocated this family from Rajori. A total of four places were offered in turn. Musamman Burj of Pathankot, Musamman Burj of Wazirabad, Fort at Rawat and Hiran Meenar of Shiekhupura. Pathankot was turned down on account of the natives and Rawat on account of the language, Shiekhupura was still the under developed reservation so Wazirabad was selected. Being closest to Rajori, it provided the comfort of a bygone neighbourhood. Six thousand gold coins were paid in the year of 1855 and the Rajas moved to Saman Burj.
The family left Rajori after ruling the place for seven centuries and settled down at Musamman Burj, migration was and is never an easy affair. Once all the belongings are packed and stocked, the fewer insignificant items discarded and left behind as waste, start haunting us.
It’s not the close relatives who are missed but the silent nieghbour next door who never spoke a kind word. For so many years, the potable water used to come from Kashmir. After years, these people adapted to Wazirabad. The room, where Maharaja Ranjit Singh used to stay, has been kept in its original condition, awaiting royal occupants. It appears that at anytime the Maharaja will walk in and retire to his room. Two families now inhabit this palatial residence in different quarters, the Thakur family and the Raja family. About the visitors, Quaid-e-Azam and Imran Khan top the list.
Besides the baked bricks and decorated arches, there are other antique things too, dating back a few centuries. As the Maharaja’s room has kept many glaring moments of history hostage, so has Raja Usman Ullah Khan. A lawyer and a businessman by profession and none of it at heart, Usman has the history of the place running through his veins. His young looks defy the centuries; he is putting on while staying in place. In one single person, he manages to reflect the court historian of Jehangir when laying the foundation stone of the palace and the Ilm ud Din Wazir, while giving instructions to the labourer for the construction of the place. At times he appears to be the famous Faqeer Noor ud din, the minister at large of Ranjit Singh and at others, a companion general with Ventura and Avitabile, discussing the Kashmir Campaign, the Azhar ullah Khan while denying subjugation to Ranjit Singh and finally the Zafarullah Khan who missed Rajori evenings to the extent of crying. He revisits all the important events in Burj with minute details.
While departing, I asked him his reasons for moving to a small place like Wazirabad while people moved on to large cities and subsequently to larger countries in the pursuit of “prosperity”. He halted near a bench and signaled me to settle down … a voice came … probably from Kashmir …
“Anyone who leaves the Burj, is set free from these pathways, terraced lawns and arches and for all those who left this place, Burj, now is a piece of property”.
“When a son settles abroad, the walking stick of his father and the reading glasses of his mother lose their charm. He is liberated from the ritual of picking them up, watching them and then kissing them unnoticing. For him, it becomes a stick and a pair of glasses, at best. Similarly, for all those who have left the Burj, it is merely a prized property with beaming commercial prospects. They see it through the prism of litigations. Mortuary like record-rooms having caskets of files await some tired judge and carefree lawyer with his irritating munshi. Saman Burj, for these people with blank pages and dark words, become a “non-transferable urban residential property” in the crude Persian court language. They have no idea how Jehangir fondly noted it in his Tozak as:
“Dar moqa e no roz, man badast e khud dah ein baagh dil awaiz gul e surkh kashtam.”
(On the occasion of Nau-Roz, I planted this garden with my own hands and planted roses in it)
“Musamman Burj is not an inheritance to be divided but a legacy to be preserved”.
I left while dark shadows loomed over the Burj.
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.