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.
Chawinda awaits the train after the eventful journey of Sialkot. The two rather anonymous stations of Gunnah Kalan and Alhar mark the route to this famous battle field. The mosaic of the Gunnah Kalan railway station is featured by a white unimpressive building, scantily dressed kids playing astride the railway line and pylons. A cursory impression endorses the insignificance of the place. The train rarely passes from this place and seldom stops here.
Waiting for the next train, someone handed me over the letter. It was written immediately after the independence by some Talib Hussain Bajwa to his friend Gurdial Singh Bajwa. The letter opens with a prayer that India and Pakistan should both prosper with their people. Bismillah is written… in the next line. The writer is happy to listen about how Gurdial has settled in the new land and has found a place to live. The text of this letter is ordinary but the emotions are moving. Talib Hussain informs his friend that his haveli has been well kept by the Syed family, who has immigrated from Gurudas pur and Patiala. A detailed account of the well and the Khatri shops is also given with a shade of sorrow. He adds that Gunnah Kalan is no more the village it used to be and prays that both countries resolve their issues so that life can return to normalcy. Talib Hussain encourages Gurdial by telling him that he needs to be brave, Allah and Waheguru willing, there will be another day. The letter ends with a long list of village seniors who have sent warm wishes from this side of the border to the other side. Written horizontally, on one side of the paper, is the advice to continue his studies.
Few more pages flew around in the depressing October evening wind. Balkar Singh is a Bajwa who was born in Gunnah Kalan, had lived in India, and is now settled in Canada. He has deciphered the 17th day of August 1947 and mailed it to Gunnah Kalan. This is the story of his last few days in the village. While I read it, Gunnah Kalan transformed into its own older version. The fading shadows of Captain Sawan Singh Bajwa, retired at the end of World War II could be seen packing up and preparing for his departure from the village with his three sons, Gurdial, Balkar and Paramjeet. Devastated Sikh Jutts were busy cutting the ropes and setting free the cattle they had loved more than their own children. The animals, though hungry for days, were reluctant to leave the house. That summer of 1947 was different and unique, for many incidents that took place were probably the first of their kind but definitely not the last. The oldest banyan tree where people sat during the long summer noon, stood lonely this year. A child asked his father about the Punjabi idiom … “Which time of the year, is the Jutt is as miserable as a faqeer?” My father replied, “Monsoon”. The monsoons that year fell in August.’
The flames from the Sialkot Cantonment could be spotted from the house of Sawan Singh, as it was the only household with an upper foyer. He had built this house, brick by brick, so that he could see the settling sun after years of wandering with the Royal Army. The Indian and Pakistani flags fluttered at the Lal Qila and Minto Park respectively, but away from the bustling cities of Dehli and Lahore, small villages like Gunnah Kalan had yet to absorb this divide. The extra ordinary rain had ravished the basmati but even if it hadn’t, no one wanted to harvest it.
Everyone seemed busy in feeding the monster that lied deep down. The blacksmith that summer had large orders. His home made foundry, which until last year, rolled out harvesting instruments, served killers with axes and swords this summer. The place was now filled with those who felt hollow without violence. Everyone, from the young adults to men in their 40s, had armed themselves – every hook, from the shoulder of a sepoy to the saddle of a Zaildar, carried the rifle.
When things got worse, Gunnah Kalan started a regimen of sentry duties by able bodied men, both Sikhs and Muslims. Initially, the Sikhs decided to move to the neighboring village of Bharoke, a predominantly Sikh village, but that could not materialise. Next, the elders of both the communities formed a committee for the safety of Gunnah Kalan but that also failed. One day, the Muslims of the village gathered their Bajwa brethren and explained apologetically. “The miscreants are now attacking in large groups”, said the village Imam, “it is becoming difficult to save you, our brothers in Gunnah Kalan. I think you should work on some other options”… The last few words were almost inaudible. Ghani, a village elder, who had hunted, played, smoked and sinned as part of the Bajwa mob, left the panchayat with a loud cry.
Sawan Singh gathered all the Sikh men in the Gurudwara and sought other opinions. As a consensus, next day, he along with Havildar Pooran Singh left for the Sialkot Cantonment. They returned with a truck next day. The track that connected Gunnah Kalan with the main road had to be traversed on foot since the rains had left it unsuitable for a truck. Everyone reached the road head in the dark of the night. Next morning, the clouds refused to pave way for light. Men missed their fields and women, their belongings. A little after sunset, the truck grunted to life. Those six miles were years well spent and memories well cherished. Their hearts drowned like the Ferris wheel let loose, in the ebb of loneliness, because everyone knew that this was the last of Gunnah Kalan. For them it was over, almost forever.
Bad news awaited them at the camp. The old faded tarpaulin had a few novel things … new people with new horrifying details, the stories that augmented apprehensions. Rumors of the camp being attacked or an ambush on the rail after leaving the city, were strong and frequent. The radio in the corner broadcasted Gandhi consoling the refugees that had poured in from Pakistan and when someone switched the band, Jinnah`s appeal to his people for helping refugees coming to Pakistan was heard.
Sawan Sigh had seen two wars on two continents. He had mastered the art of controlling emotions. He reacted well when he picked the blood stained body of his section commander Subedar Suba Singh from the soaked trenches and kept his calm while General Sahib pinned the Burma Star on his ceremonials. This war, however, by Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah and Tara Singh had cost him his nerves. Waheguru had them run out of options. They could either await death at the camp or confront it enroute. The Bajwa Sardar took no time to decide and everyone started preparing for the journey. I often wonder if this decision making was spontaneous or if he had learnt it by default …
(To be continued…)
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.