Shaheed and Shahdara
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 a 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.
Far and away in the north, is the valley of Doon. The long arching Chenars join heads to deny any sunlight reaching their foot. Resilience, however, is a way of life in the mountains, and so the plants at the bottom sneak their share and slowly grow on their own.
The valley has had many estates and one of them was called Chand Bagh (the Moon Garden) by locals. Located in the vicinity of Dehra Doon, this estate was once owned by the famous Colonel Skinner of the British Army. India, at this time, was imbued with the idea of public schools and Chief`s College was the most famous of them all. A lawyer from Calcutta, Satish Ranjan Das, decided to open another school with a more Indian flavor. He requested all the princely states to donate funds towards setting up this school. Before these funds could fully materielise, he passed away.
It was in 1935, the dream of Satish Ranjan Das saw the light of the day, when the Doon School received its first student in the breath-taking scenery of Chand Bagh. The school went on to produce some of the finest men in all walks of life. The list includes statesmen such as Rajiv Gandhi, military commanders like Lieutenant General Kuldeep Singh Brar, Air Chief Marshalls as Asghar Khan, rulers like Mian Gul Aurangzeb and educationists like Bunker Roy. Yet another name in the alumni is Ghulam Jillani Khan, a General who later on served as Governor of Punjab.
Every passing day brings human beings closer to their past and they cannot resist transplanting this past into the future. Ghulam Jillani also envisioned opening a Doon`s school in Punjab. The grain market of Muridke would have lost into population but then Jillani`s dream changed it all. Chand Bagh School and its insignia of the cup of knowledge (originally Doon School insignia) now symbolise Muridke.
Before the food outlets and rent-a-car showrooms of Muridke disappear, the ambience of Shahdara starts picking up. The phenomenon of highway and industry was once preceded by migratory birds which stopped in this area some decades ago. Now the area is overpowered with the stench of tanneries and their waste, even human beings rush through this patch. Left over space is claimed by housing schemes; ‘Own-your-house’ is ever-fascinating bait for a swelling middle class. When trains reach Shahdara, the railway station has a story to tell, a story I grew up listening to.
Boota Singh was a farmer in the village of Jullundher. He had seen action during the Second World War in Burma. On his return, in 1945, he learned about the death of his mother.
During the months of Poh that followed, the fading shadows in his veranda added to his loneliness. Like a good farmer and a seasoned veteran, he had planned his marriage in the summer of 1947. Boota had summed up around 1500 rupees and was now looking for a suitable match when the country was partitioned.
The ensuing madness surpassed the barbaric tales he had heard from Sikh soldiers serving in France. On one such day, Zenab a teenage girl, ran into Boota Singh while being chased by assailants. Boota Singh tried to ward them off but the monetary prospects of selling Zenab were more beneficial than the morality he preached. It did not take long for Boota Singh to decide, and he handed them the price they demanded, 1500 rupees and brought Zenab home.
As life returned to normalcy, tradition took over. The moral lot of Panchayat summoned Boota and informed him that Zenab’s stay in his house was a violation of social and religious norms. They offered him two options, either to marry her or send her back to Pakistan. He tried to convince them otherwise but no sense prevailed. Poh was two weeks away and the veranda had started wearing the old deserted look again. He silently arranged her return to Lahore and found a suitable person to marry her and take her across the border. Zenab, upon learning this was reminded of Boota’s sacrifice to save her life and honor. After all, the greatest sufferers of partition were women. Beside rapes, abductions and involuntary conversions, they had to take decisions that defied religion, society and at times morality.
When the hour of departure arrived, Zenab asked him a strange question. “If you can afford two rotis for me every day, I will not go to Pakistan… I want to spend my life with you”. The next day they married and Boota Singh was the happiest man in the village. In a year’s time, their daughter was born. Boota named her Tanveer, from the Granth Saheb.
Once the blood dried and wounds started to heal, the two governments woke up to the apathy of displacement. Both the countries passed a law, which required women to return to their newly formed countries. Boota Singh had gone to Jullundher when one of his nephews, eyeing his property, informed the police about Zenab. When he reached home, Zenab was missing and Tanveer was crying. It was the last week of Maghar and Poh was only a week away.
After gathering some basic information, Boota left for Dehli. He got his hair cut from Shahdara, across the river, embraced Islam at Jamia Masjid of Dehli and was renamed Jamil Ahmed. Zenab was in a refugee camp when he found her, but she was not allowed to leave. They spent the next six months sitting across a fence and talking endlessly.
Meanwhile, he met with the Pakistani High Commissioner but nothing worked out. The government had decided to stick with the law this time and Boota Singh was too important for an exception. One day, Zenab was called and told that her family had been located and she was to leave for Pakistan the next day. That day Boota Singh and Zenab sat across the fence, neither said a word. Whenever Boota tried to initiate conversation, he found her almond eyes looking away into space. A flock of birds flew towards the setting sun and a chain of tears rolled down her face. The time spent in their home now seemed like a dream. Zenab trusted Boota Singh with a reunion promise before she left. Boota Singh applied for Pakistani nationality being a Muslim, but was rejected. He applied for the visa being an Indian but that too was denied.
The immigration clerk tried to explain to him that the new states were busy in the settling down process and had done away with anything that reminded them of their collective past. He recommended that Boota Sing too, should move on and graduate to a new life. But Boota could not explain to him that there is something in Punjab which knots people down. It does not let you move on. He had carried Punjab in his heart on deployments to Burma. Pakistan, relatively, was just a line away. Few could know that this was not a small line. Despite all the blood, mutilated bodies and trampled youth it had taken, this crevice still appeared unfilled, insatiable and gasping for more…
To be continued.
Muhammad Hassan Miraj is a federal government employee.
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