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.
The train rolled from Sialkot station and so did the tears from swollen eyes. Containing the pain was hard for these “internally displaced persons”. They had buried their women and seen off their men to war, but this was rather painful. En route the freed land, there was another station, which had over-night become no man’s land … Gunnah Kalan, adorned in the post-rain freshness, standing solemnly to see off its children, leaving the quest for a better life, either because of their own decision or because of the decision of the others who thought they were better off without them.
Men and women started sobbing when the train neared Gunnah Kalan. Women hid their faces in their chaddars and Sardars started looking the other way, their usual reaction when they could no longer hold the tears. Hardened men, with steel courage, had developed the ability to stand through the thick and thin of life but this was probably too much. To the kids, the scene reminded them of the death of a family member who is seen for one last time before being missed forever. For them, Gunnah Kalan was minutes away from the funeral, the Antam Sanskaar. The kids were traumatised by all this and they were shocked, years after that journey, they missed home and cried for the village.
Every stroke of engine was like a saw-mill piercing through their hearts. By the side of the line stood Baroo, the local Christian, and waved the green signal flag to clear the train. All his play mates were inside the cabin but none got down to hug him for one last time. Talib Hussain, a class fellow since God knows when, was standing on the edge of a paddy field. They used to gather here before leaving for school. He always waited for them at the same place and entertained till everyone joined the clan. He had come to see them off today and stood there but did not gather the courage to wave the hand.
Through the window pane, Guruduwara Babay Dee Beri, Khalsa School, Murray College and Kangra Park, passed one after another. There will neither be any festivities in Babay Dee Beri on the 14th day of Chait, a month in Bikrami Calendar, nor will Sikh Jutts practice the traditional wrestling in the park. There was a time when people left their houses at dawn to witness these spectacles but not now. The independence had either come so far or was long gone.
After the stations of Alhar and Qila Sobha Singh, the train halted at Narowal. The driver refused to move ahead. Someone poked the pistol at his temple and soon the train started moving. Next to Jassar, was the double storey bridge and across the bridge, Hindustan awaited them. They got down at Dera Baba Nanak. A voice announced food and lodging at the Gurudwara. Walking through the mud and drinking from the ponds, filled with corpses, they reached Gurudwara. He roared, “You are free now, absolutely free, you are in the free India and have no place to live, lodge or prosper, Good riddance. Nothing belongs to you; so celebrate your freedom”. With this, Honorary Captain Sardar Sawan Singh Bajwa, Sardar Bahadur, Order of British Empire, choked. The voice, which once halted the complete battalion, was miserably feeble. His hands hid his face, for the second time in the day and that was when everyone realised that he could weep too.
For those who had possessed everything, this dispossession came as a quick shock. They, somehow, are still unable to get over that 17th day of August 1947. Even today, when the day divides into two; the stoves in their Calgary and Alberta kitchens remind them of the rasoi from which they had departed. Many amongst them have left this world with the desire to see Gunnah again.
Is there any such thing as true love of the land or it is just greed, well concealed? Is it because of the grains it yields, binding human beings in love or the time spent together amidst rains or shine, fog and floods that cement these invisible yet strong bonds? I could not find an answer to this question and did not know whom to ask. It could be the clergy, who takes turns in playing the love of land up and down for the motives of faith. It could be the league of tiller, trader or landholders, who think that the land is only an agricultural commodity. Or lastly, it could be the bullocks that plough the field, kids that play in the crops and the old men who selflessly adore the land.
Another letter, from the neighboring village of Nidhoke, is written by Barkat Hussain, the mason. The fragmented script carries the pain despite the 65 years that intervened. The figure 786 sits atop the writing and after the greetings; whereabouts of the entire family are asked. Condolences for Numberdar Fauja Singh`s demise and the fading out of the village from the lives of those who migrated premise, the inquiry regarding Sardar Buddha Singh, Ratan Singh, Makha Singh, Pandit ji Maya Ram and Mela Ram. At the bottom, he has given his own address. The letter ends with emotionally endorsed remarks, “We have written to you with great love, (this is our second letter), please respond in the same manner “.
On both sides of Alhar, the battlefields of Chawinda and Bara Pind signify might, victory and power of the two neighbors. What matters most is not might, power and victory, but the bullet that pierces through the young flesh, the fire that burns the unscarred body and the destruction that engulfs lively settlements. Times have changed, Talib Hussain’s son might have enrolled in military, Barkat’s son in a madrassa and Gurudial’s son in the Khalsa Panth, but this is not what the old men had dreamt about their children under that lone tree in past summers. The disappointment is great.
Migrating from Punjab is different. Anyone who abandons this land is bound to do it one more time. That is why every Punjabi has two 1947s in his life. Those who crossed Ravi, were up for another migration in 1984, when the place of Guru was the scene of violence and those who chose to stay behind, think about migration daily.
Note: While digging about Gunnah Kalan, I came across a few letters and a memoir of Sardar Balkar Singh Bajwa (an Indian school principal). Some aspects of this travelogue are attributed towards those memoirs. In line with the tradition of individual history keeping, a Bajwa in Gunnah Kalan has well guarded this forgotten treatise. Every Bajwa owes a lot to Imtiaz, who took Gunnah Kalan out of obscurity and put it on Google. Lastly, I don’t write for Aman Ki Asha, because governments, howsoever sincere, cannot evoke Asha, it has to come from within.
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.