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.
The story of Shahdara runs along the railway line. Initially known as Bagh-e-Dil Kusha, the place was later named as Shahdara Bagh in the British era but locals have always remembered it as Shahdara. The railway signboard, however, bears the complete name and date as of “Shahdara Bagh 1902”.
The humming township dates back to the 16th century but the nanak-chandi bricks tell a rather ancient story which spans over some millennia. The narrow interwoven streets bear a striking resemblance with the old women here, filled with their fair share of love and hatred alike. Life in these old small houses at Shahdara is awfully twisted, where the mother-in law does not get along with her neighbour but the daughter-in-law at the first floor feels compelled to exchange karhi through the window and a simmering love affair goes unchecked on the rooftop, between teenaged cousins. The only family member, privy to it all, is the grandfather, whose ears rest with the radio and lips sit on the hookah.
I overheard someone saying “Lahore Badshahwan daa, Shahdara Shahwan daa” (Lahore is for Kings and Shadara is for the likes of Kings). The Moghuls had a heart for the cities established along the river banks. Lahore was the seat of the government and the peaceful scenery of Shahdara served as the royal necropolis. For the initial few decades, the river side gardens remained calm but the population explosion redefined the reference and these days, it is known for its hustle bustle and life.
The different communities that moved here, from across India, were gelled by the waters of River Ravi, giving birth to a unique cultural experience. The celebrations of Lohri, festivities of Basant, joy of Eid, arrangements of Ramazan and Muharram were deeply engaging. The people of Shahdara, to-date, celebrate every occasion to the fullest. At the arrival of Muharram, Shahdara wears the black of mourning and on Rabi-ul-Awal, a green shade envelopes all forms of life. Basant is another affair of love and expression where the skies are, at best, invisible. But, bound by Begum Kot, River Ravi, and Muridkay, Shahdara today has over-grown itself.
Shahdara was named after the passage of the kings. With the construction of the tomb and mausoleum, came the craftsmen who carved stones, settling down in Mohallah Sang Tarashan (The colony of the stone carvers). Their work demanded keen observation and attention to minute details, which subsequently defined their behaviour towards life. The hardworking Pathan came next and they established Mohallah Kakkay Zaian. The locals today are known for point scoring and pampering their sons-in-law. Strongly tied by the binds of love, the Kakkay Zais are known for intermarriages and do not move out until hard pressed. With the advent of necessities, the money lenders and other service providers also populated the town. Blinded by faith, mosques, temples and Gurudwaras found a place too while a tomb and mausoleum for devotees also claimed few alleys. From the streets of Tarlok Shah to the lanes of Peer Chungi the stories of Shahdara have always been invasively emotional.
Lakhi Shah Chowk, now known as Shadara More, was the crossing where the road joining Shahdara with Sheikhupura intersects the GT Road. The real name of Lakhi Shah is buried under the deep laid bricks or lost in the whispers of those mystic streets but he was the main reason for Shahdara’s absence in the World War. An important feudal lord, and according to many accounts the prominent one, Lakhi Shah was summoned by the British government at the outbreak of World War I. The Raj demanded men for war from Shahdara. When Lakhi Shah hesitated, he was warned of the dire consequences, including a penalty of one lac rupees. Lakhi Shah sought time and returned the next day with the penalty amount. Lieutenant Governor was perplexed about his decision and asked Lakhi Shah how he had decided so soon. Lakhi Shah replied, “I know men of Shahdara and they will never leave their kids and families for foreign land, however great the return is”.
The street of Tarlok Shah, a rich Hindu grain dealer, is amongst the older streets of Shahdara. Tarlok Shah had a thriving business and because of the non-existence of foreign currency accounts, he ended up making a large house called Haveli Tarlok Shah. Beside the house was a milling stone for grinding the flour, owned by Arjun Singh, its chakki fed half of Shahdara. Next was the Pari Mehal, a mansion built-in memory of some love lost … and now stands as faded as the memory itself.
On reaching Haveli Tarlok Shah, an aged crowd greeted us. They sat around the oldest fellow, who had a Hookah pipe in his mouth and on repeated queries, he stepped deep into the blind well of the past. The flash back went as:
“Everything was fine till the partition. Tarlok’s mother was called Bay Jee by all of Shahdara. When things deteriorated, Tarlok sought help from the military and they promised to come the next evening. The day, the military was supposed to come; a tonga arrived from Shah Almi. Three men got off the tonga and started gathering the crowd, to tell the sorry tales of all those who had come from India. Gradually, the mood started to change. After a while, those men climbed the staircase and when they came back down, they were holding sacks, full of coins and jewels. They then sprinkled kerosene and set the house on fire, with all 46 family members inside”.
The old man put the hookah in his mouth again and someone from the crowd signalled us off. Tarlok Shah was one of the countless stories of the partition with the same moral. It was strange that Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs had individually saved their religions, but human beings collectively had destroyed humanity. While walking away, I heard his question, “So why you have come here?”
“I write about partition, this time telling untold stories” I answered.
“Then do write, that it’s been 65 years that the country is free … but I am still caught up with Bay Jee’s voice … Tarlok’s Haveli burnt in flames and I watched it, still. I wanted to save them but my heart also burnt with the haveli, on the pyres of misery of those who came from India. Bay Jee managed to climb up to the roof of the haveli and held Tarlok`s son in her hand. She glanced at the crowd and then called my name … “You, my son, were a friend of Tarlok’s …”
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.