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.
This area was known as Rachnab. After Rahwali, the train traversed through open spaces and tilled fields till it reached Gujranwala. Between the wasteland of the Sugar Mill and wonderland of the city, there was a railway station. The building is a stark reminder of the punitive mentality that the British often employed. The high point of the year 1919 was the Jallianwala incident and Gujranwala lost 22 men to Dyer’s brutality. When the dead bodies arrived, they were hanged at Brandreth gate. It sparked violence. Local administration resorted to the old tactics of sectarian violence and threw in a slaughtered pig and calf in a mosque and temple respectively, but it did not gain the desired results. The memories of this incident were deeply etched in the residents’ minds. Finally they set the railway station on fire from where the Prince of Wales was to pass during his royal tour in 1921. The visit went well but the administration decided to shift the railway station three miles out of the city as retribution. Later on, the station was reverted to its current location.
There was a time when Rahwali was detached from Gujranwala. The stations of Rahwali, Gujranwala, Theri Sansi and Aimenabad were on a widely spaced layout on the railway line. The city was guarded by the gates, named as Sheranwala Gate, Khiyali Gate, Sialkoti Gate, Brandreth Gate and Thakur Singh Gate. These gates are long lost in the memories. It is impossible to map the city limits now. From Rahwali to Aimenabad, everyone is a proud citizen of Gujranwala. Showrooms, bungalows converted into hospitals and schools, workshops, gas stations, mosques and fried chicken outlets connect Rahwali to Gujranwala. The city officially starts from an intersection which has many names and people choose from amongst them to suit their convenience. Large hoardings provide solutions from hair-loss to faith-loss and dominate the skyline. One road leads to Daska via Nandipur, another connects Chan Da Qila to Rahwali and the third road leads to Gujranwala City.
Climaxabad, named after the Climax Engineering Company, is the first township. A century ago, these Khokhars migrated to this city and their sole possession was perseverance. They started casting horse shoes in the backyard and now produce large scale transformers. The first of the factories came up in 1940 and there was no looking back. They developed alongside the city and appeared as the first industry of the city. As of today, everything short of an aircraft, and of course a nuclear plant, is manufactured in Gujranwala.
Gujranwala is not a story but a candy store of stories. Now that the cities have come to define people, and people in turn characterise cities, Gujranwala has a rich history. It dates back to first century and according to few, Kalidas also had a connection with the place. Amongst the pioneers were Pratihaars Gujars, who named the city, Gujranwala. Other traditions link Sansi tribes for having developed the city and their chief renaming this place “Khanpur Sansi”. Documented history finds the mention of the city in Moghul diaries where Aurangzeb Alamgir passed enroute to Kashmir. It was during this era of Ranjit Singh that the city shot to fame. Hari Singh Nalwa, a Khalsa general, planned the city to be as it is today.
Before the city is further explored, a story remains untold. In the surroundings of the Sabzi Mandi, there is a police station. A side room of the station, which housed criminals and was being used as a lockup a few years back, was originally the place where Ranjit Singh was born. Sher-e-Punjab, as he was known, Ranjit Singh was a ruler who was unique in his own way. He hired competent generals of European armies. These veterans brought along valuable military training and tradition. The military might, coupled with first rate diplomacy, courtesy Faqeers (Faqeer Syed Waheed uddin and Faqeer Syed Aziz uddin), helped the Maharaja put a stop to British expansionism. A few die-hard Punjabis title him as the first Punjabi ruler of Punjab and others call him the only Punjabi ruler of Punjab, to-date. Starting from a small estate, Maharaja consolidated his victories and gained prominence to an extent that history feels obliged to explain the 12 Missals and the Sakerchakiya dynasty, because of their Maharaja connection.
Khalsa Darbar was bounded by the mountains of Himalaya and river basins. While this all was happening, Maharaja heard about a beauty called Jind Kaur. He sent his arrows and swords as a proposal and eventually married her, making her the youngest Maharani. Upon the death of the Maharaja, all his wives except Rani Jindan burnt themselves to death in accordance with the Rajput tradition of Satti. Jindan had to look after her young son, now Maharaja Duleep Singh. After a series of intrigues, three successions, loot and plunder, Maharaja Duleep Singh ascended the throne, with Rani Jindan as his regent. The British were wary of the Sikh uprising so on one pretext or the other; they kept the Maharaja away from Punjab and finally sent him to England. John Lawrence, the administrator of Lahore and of Lawrence Road fame, humiliated the Rani by exiling her to various forts across India. In England, the young Maharaja was placed under the guardianship of Mr Logins, instructed to raise him as a Christian. Every morning the Maharani woke up with a boxed heart to see her son starting his day, reciting “Our father who art in heaven”.
After some 13 years, the Maharaja was allowed to see his mother in Calcutta and he did not recognise her. The eyes that once mesmerised the most powerful man of Punjab had lost their shine. On his insistence, Duleep Singh was allowed to bring his mother to England. She was nowhere close to Messalina, as some of the English historians refer. In the August of 1860, Rani Jindan passed away in Kensington, but this is not the end of this story.
Another bout of dialogues pursued before the Maharaja was given the permission to take his mother’s remains to India but not to Punjab. The dead body, meanwhile, was placed in an adjacent cemetery. On arrival in India, she was cremated at Nasik, six months after her death. The ashes were yet to reach their final destination.
On his way back, Maharaja Duleep Singh married a Christian lady and had six children. Bamba Sofia Duleep Singh was one of them. In the first decade of the 20th century, she moved to Lahore, getting weary of their superficial life at the Hampton Court. The self styled Maharani married Col Dr David Sutherland, the principal of King Edward Medical College. In 1924, she was given permission to bring the remains of her grandmother Rani Jindan. She finally interred these remains at Samadhi Ranjit Singh, but the story is yet to end.
Bamba took up residence in Model town and named her house “Gulzar”. After Sutherland died, she hired a secretary Pir Kareem Bakhsh Soopra who looked after her affairs. Like all other grandchildren of Ranjit Singh, she too had no children and spent her time in various estates at Simla and Farid Kot. Maintaining a life of royal exclusion, she saw the partition with pain and eventually settled in Lahore. The last Maharani would often retort that I cannot get a seat in a Lorry while once we ruled the entire Punjab. Queen Victoria was her godmother and she had inherited what the mother Queen liked about her father the most … the dreamy eyes. On a February morning in 1957, those dreamy eyes finally closed. Bamba, the last of the blue blood, passed away silently and that is how the story ended.
There is a grave in a Christian cemetery in Lahore. Every Christmas, Shab-barat, Good Friday and Eid, this grave is visited and wreaths are laid by the family of Karim Bakhsh Soopra, the faithful secretary.
The inscription on the grave has a couplet in the official language of the Moghul court, Persian, and says it all:
“Farq e Shahi wa bandage Bar Khwast
Choon Qaza-i-Nawishta Ayed Paish
Gar Kisay Khaak Murdah baaz Kunad
Na Shanasad Tawangar Az Dervaish”
There remains no difference between royalty and servility
When the moment of (fore-written) death arrives
If someone opens any grave
He cannot tell the difference between the rich and the poor
To be continued…
Muhammad Hassan Miraj 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.