On the twentieth day of March this year, I went home for the first time in my life. On that day I was fifty-six years and a month old. Walking east across the border gates at Wagah I was on my way to the fulfilment of a family pietas of very long standing. I was going home to a home I had never known; a home in a foreign land where my ancestors had lived and died over countless generations. That was a home where the hearth kept the warmth first kindled by a matriarch some hundred years ago.
After a failed attempt in 1997 to get an Indian visa in order to commemorate on its fiftieth anniversary the loss of a part of the family, I had made one more attempt. This time, in 2002 or the year after, when a group of marchers of the Pakistan India Peace Forum were going over. Once again my passport was returned without the visa. I gave up reconciled to the idea that I may never be able to visit home.
In February I received an invitation for dinner at the residence of the Indian High Commissioner in Islamabad. I knew I was not going to turn this down. And so the first thing I told His Excellency Mr Satyabrata Pal was that India was the only country to ever deny me a visa. I also told him what it was I sought in India. Ten days later I had my passport stamped with a visa permitting me to walk across Wagah and visit Amritsar, Jalandhar and the nearby village of Uggi, Delhi and Solan. For the rest of the world it may sound strange, but between India and Pakistan, visas specifically permit crossing places, mode of crossing (whether by bus, train or on foot) and places to visit. And woe betides the traveller who is found in places not mentioned in the visa. Neither country permits citizens of the other to roam free.
I was the only one crossing the border on that day and I sailed through formalities on both sides. Raja (Ranjiv Sharma) was late in collecting me and I sat at the tea stall just inside the gate on the Indian side. The serving boys came around to hound me with CDs of Indian film stars and the rather pointless flag-lowering ceremony that takes place every evening at the border and is remarkable only for being animated with barefaced rancour. I said no to whatever was on offer.
‘Have some beer then,’ said the boy. Beer at ten in the morning? It turns out that most Pakistanis hit the sauce as soon as they step across the border – and damn the hour of the day. This is exactly what they used to do when they travelled to Xinjiang over the Khunjerab pass in vast multitudes back when China first opened that border in the mid-1980s. At Pir Ali in China, local entrepreneurs had set up stalls selling alcohol and they made a pretty penny because of thirsty Pakistani ‘tourists’ steeped in the hypocrisy spawned by that accursed duplicitous general who then ruled this sorry land.
The drunken misdemeanour of Pakistanis in Kashgar (which is no secret) very soon resulted in travel restrictions. The Central Asia Republics followed soon afterwards and now the place to tope is across the Indian border, if one can get a visa, that is. If the Indian government is ever to permit visa-free travel between Lahore and Amritsar, the brewing and distilling industry will all by itself propel Indian economy to the highest growth rate in the world. Such will be the rush of the pious from the Land of the Pure.
I did not contribute to the economy however. Raja arrived presently to drive me to Amritsar. Two cultural shocks awaited me as we neared town: girls in jeans and tee-shirts zooming about on motor scooters and pigs rooting in the garbage dumps. The latter took a double-take because in the initial casual glance they were taken for dogs. As for the girls, they were not really the shock. The surprise was that no man, absolutely no one, ogled. In fact, the twelve days I spent in India I squandered all my own ogling chances by watching the men’s behaviour around passing women.
I had done a similar exercise in Afghanistan two years earlier. After years of warfare and ten years of the madness of Taliban misrule in which women were non-existent except as perambulating shrouds, they had suddenly reappeared. Yet the men in Kabul and Herat (the two cities I visited) did not stare; they simply minded their own business while the recently visible women went by in all their colourful glory. As I was disappointed by the unmanly behaviour of the Afghans, so too with Indian men.
Here in our own good land, we molest passing women with our eyes. There appears a well-wrapped shrouded creature with only eyes showing through a narrow slit and all available men give off whatever they are doing, shove their hands into their crotches and ogle, ogle, ogle. Their heads turn like radar antennas with the passing swaddle of cloth until the poor non-descript thing that could possibly be a woman is out of sight. These staring Marlocks would very likely go berserk seeing the bare legs and arms in Amritsar.
Raja, my friend Tahseen had already warned me, had a paunch that could be used as a table – and that was how I recognised him. But that, I realised, was the case with most other men in India. It was only towards the end of my travels I realised that in Pakistan we hide our bellies under our voluminous shalwar-kurta suits; in India they mostly wear western pants and shirts and thus make their girths apparent. There they also do not suffer from scrotal scabies that Pakistani men are universally afflicted with. This again, I supsect, has much to do with the dresses we respectively wear.
Though I could have taken the fast train to Delhi in the afternoon, I did not wish to get their late in the night. I therefore stayed in Amritsar instead. Dr Parminder Singh who teaches English at the Guru Nanak Dev University had made arrangements for my stay at the university’s guest house. As we entered the campus grounds, I received another shock, a pleasant one this time: dozens of grey partridges running boldly across the roads and browsing in the vegetation along the sides. I was later to learn that these had not been let loose by campus authorities, but were wild birds that had made the thick vegetation their home. I wonder how long an equal number of birds released in the Punjab University grounds would last.
I was on Shtabdi (Century) Express in pre-dawn darkness. It was not yet light when we stopped at Jalandhar railway station. From there Railway Road leads straight into town and there, about a couple of kilometres from the station, stands a two-storeyed house called Habib Manzil. There, in another life, if history had not taken the course it took, I could well have been living today. That house, of which I had only seen a single photograph taken in 1985 by a visiting relative, was the object of this journey. But I was not getting off at Jalandhar. Not yet at least.
India, a vast country with teeming multitudes of humanity, did the right thing upgrading its railway system. The four hundred and some-kilometre journey to Delhi takes six hours and a half and the train arrived on the dot. At home, every time I take the railcar to Rawalpindi two hundred and twenty kilometres from Lahore, I arrive about an hour and a half behind the stipulated five hours. India has doubled-tracked all its single lines and also renewed the track to take high speed trains. Also if a train is to halt two minutes at a station, it actually does that. In Pakistan, on the other hand, a one-minute halt can drag on to twenty or more minutes. As an avid and die-hard train traveller, I know that for a fact.
Vijay Pratab, a hard-core socialist, runs an NGO and he had arranged for me to stay in their office guest room. In Munirka, not far from Jawaharlal Nehru University in south Delhi, the guest room was a first floor flat in a back street. On the ground were one-room warehouses of various brands of aerated drinks. Here too I sat in the balcony watching the men load their pick-up trucks and not give up everything to stare at passing women some of whom were rather comely Darjeeling or Tibetan girls.
It was the evening before Holi and from the rooftops children were flinging coloured water-filled plastic bags on passers-by on the street. There were also groups of teenagers walking about with squirt pumps. And so I made myself scarce. Vijay’s man who had collected me from the train station, said he could take me either that same evening or on the morrow to see Holi and was taken aback when I bluntly told him I had no desire to see Holi or anything else. I did not tell him that my journey was of a different kind and that I would one day return to see Connaught Place and the ruins of Tughlakabad and everything else that Delhi has on offer. But right now I was on a pilgrimage of sorts.
For me it was a Holi of seclusion and colour-free safety of the guest room. On the day after the holiday, my friend Ramneek Mohan who teaches English in a private college in Rohtak drove over to chaperone me to Irwin Hospital. In 1947 my late uncle Dr Habib ur Rahman worked here an intern. One day in early August he received a letter from his youngest sister Tahira who was visiting with her older married sister in Solan. Things were a bit tense in this little sub-alpine town, she wrote, and could he please come up and take her home to Jalandhar?
My uncle took a few days off from his assignment in the surgical ward and got to Solan. He collected his sister and together they took the train back to Jalandhar. Chan (Chacha Jan was thus abbreviated on the tongues of us four siblings), stayed overnight with the family and sometime on the eighth or ninth of August took the train back to Delhi. That was the last he was ever to see of his parents, two sisters, grandfather (nana) and the servant Eidu and his wife and five children. This was the journey I wanted to make: from Irwin Hospital to a house in Solan and thence to the home in Railway Road, Jalandhar.
Irwin Hospital, as Chan knew it, no longer exists. The old buildings have been replaced by new, multi-storeyed ones. The dream of walking the corridors where Chan walked more than sixty years ago could not be realised. All that remains from Chan’s time is the administrative block with its stubby tower and two short wings. It being a Sunday, the Medical Superintendent was not available and we were told by the two clerks in the office that taking pictures of the admin block was prohibited. I said this was just like home: ask a low-ranking official permission for something and the answer will always be No. The other clerk turned on me and snapped, ‘We are the same people. So how can you be any different because of the border?’
The poison lay not in his words; it was unconcealed and blatant in the way he spat out his words. My fourth day in India and this was the first evidence of cross-religious hostility.
Lying in bed that night of a sudden I was seized by a terrible uncertainty about the other monuments this pilgrimage had been undertaken to see. Would any of them, the house in Solan and, most of all, the one in Jalandhar, still be there? I had waited a quarter of a century to begin this journey, was I, after all, too late in coming?
I could not return the next day because I had still to visit the office of the Divisional Engineer (DEN), Northern Railway. Before partition, Delhi lay on the North Western Railway and in late 1946 a young man with a wife and year-old daughter had come on promotion from the Kalka-Simla narrow gauge section to take over as DEN. His name was Abdur Rashid. In July the following year with things careening madly towards the greatest holocaust ever, he was transferred to Karachi.
He was my father and it was his office I wanted to see in the hope that the incumbency board from those pre-partition days would still be intact with his name on it. The office I fetched up at was in the unpretty two-storey building adjacent to the New Delhi railway station. Bhopinder Kumar Sharma who sat in the DEN’s seat greeted me with great warmth when he heard the reason of my visit. When the incumbency board was all used up, he noted with a wry smile, it was painted over and begun anew. History was not preserved as it was in Railway Headquarters, Lahore where I have seen boards with pre-partition names as well. The current one in Sharma’s office went back to 1990 or thereabouts.
Some colleagues of Sharma’s arrived. We were introduced, and I was completely taken by the warmth and fellow-feeling of these good people. This was in sharp contrast to the clerk in the admin office at Irwin Hospital. That specimen obviously was an aberration. These were human beings from the present who viewed the violence of partition as sinful madness. Discussions broke out if my father could possibly have held office in the building at Kashmir Gate. Or could it have been in Paharganj? No one was certain, but one thing they knew: there was no incumbency board in any office that delved sixty years into the past.
Ramneek insisted we visit the ruins of Tughlakabad and the old city. But I did not wish to go anywhere. All that remained to be done was to visit Surindra aunty. Her late husband Prem Nath Sood went to the prestigious Thompson College of Civil Engineers at Roorkee with my father. After graduation, my father followed him to the railways a couple of months behind and both were posted on the North Western Railway. Back in 1944 when my father was posted at Dalbandin in Balochistan, Prem uncle was in Quetta and the old friendship flowered.
Partition drove them to different countries upon the same common land and they kept in touch, first by letters and then by telephone. Prem uncle and Surindra aunty were safely in India when the land was divided, but Gyan Nath, Prem uncle’s brother, was still serving his bank in Quetta where my father was then the DEN. When law and order got out of hand, Gyan Sood came to live with my parents in No. 9 Colvin Road. It was during this time that word, amorphous and uncertain, arrived of the terrible carnage in Jalandhar.
‘So that no vindictive thought for Gyan should cross your mother’s mind, Bhai Rashid did not tell her that his family in Jalandhar was no more,’ Surindra aunty said. Gyan, whose common bond with my father was a great love for Persian and Urdu poetry, remained with my parents until sometime in October when he was finally expatriated to India.
Done in Delhi, I took the night train to Kalka. It was a few minutes before five when we pulled into the last broad gauge station on this section. Hence onward it is the toy narrow gauge train that runs all the way to Simla via Solan. When Chan went to fetch Tahira phuphi he would have taken the train, but I took a taxi instead. Surindra aunty had warned me about Solan being grotesquely bloated and having long since burst at the seams. It was huger than Abbottabad.
Rakhila Kahlon, the charming young Assistant Commissioner, said there was no Survey of India establishment in Solan anymore. But she had the right man to trace old properties. The wizened old man (whose name I never asked) came in with his files held close to his chest and took thirty minutes to come up with the location of the two bungalows that were rented by the Survey of India in the 1940s. They lay to the northeast of the DC’s office, and shortly after partition, one of them was turned into a school. Then about fifteen years ago, being private property, they were both pulled down to raise a multi-storey hotel or something.
Just a few days after her sister Tahira had left for home with their brother Habib, Zubeda phuphi and her surveyor husband Mian Sharif were alerted late one evening by the roar of the approaching mob. They left the main house and hid in the outhouses in the back; my aunt with her infant daughter in one and her husband in the other. Her blood must have all but curdled as she heard several footsteps approaching even as the rest of the mob was ransacking their home.
The door was thrown open and a burning torch held inside to light up the dark interior. A voice said: ‘The muslas have fled.’ And then the footsteps receded. All the while, my aunt remained in the narrow lee behind the door fearing her daughter would yet cry out and give everything away. When the coast was finally clear, my uncle left his wife and daughter to make it with great difficulty to the residence of his British officer to tell him of the dreadful fate that very nearly befell him and his family.
And so it came to pass, that they were retrieved and eventually made it to Pakistan. Phupha Sharif, a man of ruthless honesty and an acid tongue, rose to retire as the last civilian Surveyor General of Pakistan in the early 1980s. In November 1996, Zubeda phuphi, then seventy-three years old, who had escaped from right under attackers’ swords in Solan was murdered in her Satellite Town home by their Kashmiri servant.
As phupha Sharif drove back from a visit to the doctor, he saw the servant walk out of the house, presumably on an errand. Inside, he found his wife of fifty years, lying on the bedroom floor. Her throat cut; she was already dead, having drowned in her own blood. The kitchen knife that the beast had used lay next to her.
After the funeral that evening as we all sat around still too stunned to talk, Chan said, ‘What a strange irony. Two sisters were cut down by Hindus and Sikhs in the riots of partition and the only one who made it to Pakistan lost her life at the hands of a Kashmiri Muslim.’ I do not remember how many of us were there, and I cannot say who else felt the anguish in my uncle’s voice, but I did and I almost broke into tears.
As I blinked away the tears staring at the darkness outside the window, I realised why partition was never mentioned in our family. Neither my father nor Chan, nor indeed phuphi Zubeda had ever talked of that time because the memory was simply to horrifying. Silence was their way of keeping the enormous grief and sense of loss at bay; that was their way of struggling to forget an abiding memory that refused to be forgotten. Now with this tragedy fresh upon us, Chan gave voice to his distress.
But back in Solan, the outhouse behind whose door my aunt had waited with bated breath was no more. I had wanted to stand behind that same door and feel for myself the horror my aunt had felt. ‘Progress and development’ had caused that to be denied me. As I lay awake in my hotel bed that night, I was once again seized by that same terrible uncertainty about what I may not find in Jalandhar.
The half a day’s bus ride from Solan to Jalandhar was the longest I had ever taken.
Postscript: At Solan railway station where I went for no reason but to watch the narrow gauge diesel-powered train, I found the station master and his staff sitting across the lines from the building sunning themselves. I told them my father was the AEN on this line back in 1946 and we were suddenly like friends. The house in Dharampur that was my parents’ residence was now a hostel for railway officers attending a training school at that station, they said. We talked railways for a bit and my mind once again went back to the clerk in Irwin Hospital.
It took half a day by bus from Solan to Jalandhar. The first part to Chandigarh was by rickety local bus whose rattling windows made me deaf until an hour after I alighted. Chandigarh, an ordered, new-fangled city, is the same sort of nightmare as Islamabad. As we drove along its long and straight double-carriageways, I resolved to one day return to discover its raison d’etre.
The bus depot where the journey ended was not the one where the journey to Jalandhar would begin; that terminal lay on the other side of town. The air conditioned bus left at noon and past the order of Chandigarh, we were in countryside that could have been anywhere in Punjab west of Lahore. The only two differences being the jeans and tee-shirt-clad girls driving their motor scooters and no one staring and the ‘English Wine and Beer’ shops on the main street of even the dumpiest little village. Strangely, from Delhi to Amritsar, it is always an ‘English’ store that sells Indian produce.
Alighting from the bus, I was setting foot for the first time in my life on the soil of my hometown. If the past had shaped any differently I would have been a Jalandhari instead of a Lahori. In Delhi and Solan it had been Urdu, now at home it was Punjabi all the way – even with the rickshaw-pullers who were mostly Bihar or UP men. Dr Parminder Singh had meanwhile called from Amritsar to say I should head for Desh Bhagat Hall and ask for Gurmeet Singh who would have accommodation ready for me.
Comprising of a couple of auditoriums and a hostel of a few dozen rooms, the Desh Bhagat complex commemorates martyrs of the 1857 Mutiny for the British and War of Independence for the people of the subcontinent. And unlike us in Pakistan this commemoration is regardless of the martyrs religion. It is a non-governmental set-up run on donations and is home to jogis of the 20th century. Like old-time jogis, these men and a few women have given up everything worldly to keep the memory of the martyrs alive. Gurmeet was one and so was Amolak Singh. The latter had completed his engineering in 1975, but did not care to follow the usual life of a good job, ease and worldly wealth. Instead, he travels around with a drama group doing patriotic Punjabi plays.
I found Gurmeet in the front office with three other older Sikh gentlemen. The welcome was heartfelt and warm. Tea was called for and we talked of partition: only two of the three older men remembered the time; the third, being too young then, knew only what he had heard. Gurmeet and I were the post-partition generation. Someone asked if I knew where my grandparents’ home was and I pulled out the photocopy of the only photograph the family owns of the exterior of the house.
Taken in 1985 by my mother’s cousin, our Mamoon Haque, it shows a two-storey house with shops on the ground floor and stylish windows in a cantilevered overhang on the first. Opposite and across the road from its stands a building with a curving façade and a sign saying ‘Lyallpur Sweets’ – which, I believed, would make a noticeable landmark. Other than that, I knew the house was in Railway Road.
This was Bhagat Singh Chowk, Gurmeet said and Lyallpur Sweets was no more. He was not sure if the house would still be there because of the way people were pulling down old properties to raise new multi-storey buildings. Earlier, in Delhi I had shown the same picture to my friend Ramneek and had mentioned the confectionary shop as a landmark. The hope was that Ramneek having spent fifteen years in Jalandhar would know the place or have friends there who could tell me something about it. Somehow he lost the thread; the house faded out of focus and Ramneek thought my family had something to do with Lyallpur Sweets.
Asking the rickshaw-puller to tell me when we turned into Railway Road, I sat in the topless back with the photo in my hand. Back in Lahore, my mother had no idea how far the house was from the railway station, but she had guessed it would be about a ‘couple of kilometres.’ Once on railway road, every passing house seemed to be my grandfather’s until we got to Bhagat Singh Chowk.
There it stood across from the chowk, still recognisable from the 1985 photo, still unchanged from that dreadful moment in August 1947 when its owner, Dr Badruddin, my grandfather, violently passed away from this life. I got off the rickshaw and stood looking at the façade, taking in the detail of the cantilever of the overhang and the fine woodwork of the windows. The mock pilasters separating the windows were worked with flutes springing from a fountain-shaped device and rose to capitals that I am at a loss to liken with any style. There were floral and rhomboid shapes on bases and capitals.
The windows had multi-cusped arches above whose spandrels were worked with curvilinear vines. My grandfather must have spent a pretty penny for this woodwork. Above the windows were the glass and timber fanlights to permit light into the room when the windows were closed; at the bottom were wrought iron grills. The top floor terrace was hidden behind a cement screen embellished with bracket shapes and stylised esses. In the centre of this was a whitewashed panel that once bore the words ‘Habib Manzil’ after my uncle Habib ur Rahman. The name my grandfather had given his home was obliterated by whitewash.
If history had not taken the course it took in August 1947, if the Muslims had not resorted to Direct Action in Bombay and Bengal in 1946, if Master Tara Singh had not carried out his dreadful promise of a massacre of Muslims in the event of partition, and if the trains carrying Hindu and Sikh refugees from what was to be Pakistan had not been attacked, Habib Manzil could have been the home where I would have spent my childhood. Standing across the road from Habib Manzil, I almost saw myself looking down from the ornate windows watching the world go by in the street below.
I must have stood there for a good few minutes because the day after when I was introduced to Kailash Sehgal who runs a bottled gas agency opposite my grandfather’s home, he said he had noticed me. The house was so tastefully constructed, he said, that he had rarely seen anyone pass by without looking up at it. A casual glance was one thing, but the way I just stood there and gazed, he knew I was no ordinary passer-by. He said he had almost invited me in for a chat.
Habib Manzil fronts Railway Road with a narrow lane running down one side. This alley is now called Krishna Street. Across the street was the house of Lala Bheek Chand who was the same age as my grandfather and good friends with him. That house was also still there and I knew this was my passport to the past because Lala Ji’s family was certain to still be living there. Like my grandfather’s home, this too had stores at street level.
I walked into Krishna Street and paused at the main entrance of Habib Manzil. If the front was ornate, the side of the brick and mortar home looked pretty solid: my grandfather had made this home to be lived in by many generations. But I did not enter. I walked on with my diary in my hand because in it I carried instructions from my mother to get from Habib Manzil to her father’s home in Mohallah Punj Pir.
Krishna Street ended about thirty yards behind the home and turned left. From there a short walk in the direction of Chahar Bagh brought me to a small crossing where, so my mother had said, I was to climb an incline that was known as dhiki. In the intervening sixty years, things had changed somewhat. Now there was a greater maze of alleys and more houses. But once on the dhiki, I turned right per instructions and saw the small crossing beyond which stood a house with lanes on three sides.
That was the distinguishing feature, my mother had said to me in Lahore, because there was no other house with lanes running down three sides. There was also a marble plate above the main entrance saying ‘Munshi Qutubuddin, Naqsha Navees’. That was my mother’s grandfather who had retired as a draughtsman in a government department. Because my parents were cousins, he was also my paternal grandmother’s father.
But the plaque was no longer there. I back-tracked looking for another house with lanes on three sides. There being no other I came back. My knock brought out a man in his late twenties. This was Sanjeev Malhotra. I introduced myself and told him the purpose of my visit. Immediately I was invited in. With some excitement he announced to the family that I had come from Lahore to see my mother’s ancestral home. As he showed me around, I felt a pang of uncertainty: my mother had said the home was seventeen marlas and this one seemed much too small.
Sanjeev said their home was only about ten marlas. This, then, was not where my mother was born and had spent her early life. Normally I would have bolted at this stage, but something kept me there and as I was being escorted around upstairs, Sanjeev called Ram Saroop, his elder brother, and told him about the visitor from Lahore. I was put on the phone and this good man said that the house that his father was allotted after partition was indeed seventeen marlas. Over time they had cut up the house, retained nine marlas and sold of the rest.
The Malhotras were natives of Pakki Thatti in Lahore where they were a rather well to do family with agricultural land across the Ravi in Shiekhupura district. They had lost all that and received my maternal family’s home in compensation. Even on the phone it was easy to make out that Ram Saroop was beside himself with excitement. I was to stay in their home, he said, until he got back at about eight in the evening.
I did not stay that long, but long enough to relive what had happened in this home back in August 1947. This being the home of Mian Qutubuddin, the patriarch of the family, they all gathered here probably on the 13th day of the month, just when the noise began to grow. Here were my grandmother Fatima, my two aunts Jamila and Tahira, my mother’s grandmother – the matriarch, Maan to everyone, and her husband Mian Qutubuddin. Besides, there were also my mother’s brother Abdus Salam and an older sister, Sakina. My maternal grandfather was away at work in Jabalpur.
Grandfather Badruddin was in Habib Manzil because he believed nothing untoward was ever likely to befall him and his family. For more than thirty years he had served ailing humanity and was well-known in the city. How could those who had regained good health by his ministrations ever think of harming him? How could one-time friends and well-wishers turn against each other? Based on what she heard from our Khala Sakina, my elder sister tells me that he even believed there would be no need to leave hearth and home and go to the new country; that those who wished would go, and other would carry on as always. He thought, too, that everyone would be free to travel back and forth across the border as in united India. He simply did not see families and friends being divided by the line Radcliffe had drawn. And then the good Lala Bheek Chand, my grandfather’s friend of more years than they cared to count, had assured him the safety of his own home.
At some point in time, so I hear from my mother whose source was her sister, my grandmother said she could not leave her husband alone at a time when tensions were riding so high and that she had to be with him. Shortly after she left, my aunt Jamila followed and with her the youngest of the family, Tahira. No amount of pleading could persuade them to remain when their dear parents were in the home that overlooked Railway Road.
My grandmother was Mian Qutubuddin’s only and much loved daughter. ‘If Fatima and the girls wish to be with Badruddin, then I too shall be with them,’ are his last words passed down to us by Khala Sakina. As he walked out of the home he had built nearly thirty years earlier, Mian Qutubuddin might have turned around to cast one last long look at the family he was leaving behind. But then again, he might not have because like his son in law, he too, even in the face of madly rising tension, may not have felt unduly threatened. But that was the last the family was ever to see of these people.
From the Mohallah Punj Pir home I walked the same way back to Habib Manzil – the way my grandmother, two aunts and my great-grandfather did on that dreadful day in August 1947. The first time I had ever heard anything about partition was from Khala Sakina back in 1960 or thereabouts when I was not yet ten. Here on the streets between my two grandparents’ homes I became aware that the demons that had tormented me for nearly thirty years, had been nurtured in my soul since that time. As I walked down the dhiki and took the left turn at the small wayside temple that was not there as the family of Dr Badruddin had walked past on their way home for the last time, the thought in my mind was to somehow find out what fate befell the family in Habib Manzil.
I walked the way my grandmother, two aunts and great-grandfather had walked from the Mohallah Punj Pir home to Habib Manzil in Railway Road in August 1947. As the madness of partition grew, my grandfather, Dr Badruddin had remained in his home that he had named after his younger son while the rest of the family had congregated in the Punj Pir home. But then my grandmother decided she wanted to be with ‘Dr Sahib’ and my two phuphis followed her home. For Mian Qutubuddin my grandmother, Fatima, his only daughter, was a much favoured child and he too followed her to Habib Manzil.
The family that remained behind in Punj Pir eventually made it to Pakistan. But those in Habib Manzil were never heard of again. In our family no one ever spoke of that dreadful time that oversaw the birth of Pakistan. The home in Jalandhar was mentioned and from a bunch of sepia photographs we knew of the relatives we had lost in that far off time. Chan (what Chacha Jan became on the tongues of us four siblings) had once talked wistfully of the bicycle trips to swim in the clear, fresh water of the Bein stream only a few miles outside Jalandhar. Other than that, partition was mentioned only obliquely in our family.
It was from Khala Sakina that I first heard of those final days in Jalandhar. Too young to fully comprehend the horror of it all (it must have been 1960); I unknowingly let the demons take root in my soul. It was twenty years later as a young man that I began to be tormented by questions about the fate that befell the House of Dr Badruddin. But we did not speak of partition in our home and I could not ask anyone. More than anything else, I feared I would break out crying if Chan were to tell me what had happened and perhaps make him weep as well.
I walked back to Habib Manzil nearly sixty-one years after those who were lost, and the thought foremost in my mind was if I wasn’t a trifle late in coming. I knew the house across Krishna Street overlooking Railway Road like Habib Manzil was where Lala Bheek Chand lived. Lala Ji was good friends with my grandfather; I was certain his family would still be living in the same house and would be able to tell me something. But before I went asking, I had to go home to try and imagine what life would have been like had history taken another course.
I knocked the door of Habib Manzil and a fat, waddling woman of about fifty answered. I told her I had come from Lahore with the express purpose of visiting my grandfather’s home. ‘No one is home,’ she said as she tried to shut the door in my face. I stuck a foot in and told her she was home. Why, she wanted to know, did I want to see the house after so many years? After much pleading the woman opened up and let me into the vestibule telling me to hurry up and get it over with.
Inside the vestibule a doorway on the left gave access to my grandfather’s baithak where he and Lala Ji spent hours in post-retirement leisure. In front was the sunlit central courtyard with the stairs on the left next to an open door. In front was a veranda with rooms to either side and to the right the courtyard ended in a couple of rooms. Most of the rooms were locked and the woman told me that the real owners, a Sahotra family, now living in Britain had permitted her to live in as a caretaker. To humour her I made small talk and learned she came from Gujranwala. So did my wife, I said. But her ugly mask of distrust did not soften.
I asked if I could check out the upstairs rooms as well. ‘Even if you do that, you’ll never be able to reclaim this property!’ If there was ever a harpy, this evil, ugly piece of work was one. I told her I lived in Lahore in my own home and as much as I might want, I have no claim over the property because I have no documents to show for my grandfather’s possession of it. With great reluctance again old harpy permitted me upstairs and no sooner was I there began to call for me to get over with and get out. I could not have been more than five minutes when she called in the man who ran his tea stall on a barrow just outside the door. I was duly chased out with another reminder that my desire to possess her home was vain.
The DEN at Delhi, the railwaymen at Solan railway station, the good people at Desh Bhagat Hall and earlier in Amrtisar, all strangers until I had met them, had been so full of empathy when they learned of the purpose of my pilgrimage. There had been unconcealed shows of love and fellow-feeling and now I had this horrible demon on my hands. I walked across the threshold into the street with an overpowering sense of loss: three generations before me had crossed it a million times over and if only history had taken another turn, if Master Tara Singh had not promised a massacre of Muslims were India to be partitioned, if only the trains from Pakistan had not come in with their grisly cargoes of dead bodies and if only the politicians who played into the hands of Western powers had greater sense, this woman would have been living in Gujranwala and I in the home that my grandfather had named Habib Manzil.
My grandfather design for the home incorporated two shops facing Railway Road. I went into the one on the corner whose hoarding said, ‘Jaswant Singh Harbhajan Singh Hardware and Tool Merchants.’ I told the young smiling Sikh behind the counter that I had come from Pakistan. Then I added, ‘Bhai Ji, you run your store in my grandfather’s property.’
Overcome with emotion, Iqbal Singh came around the counter and warmly embraced me, holding me close to his chest for a rather long time. He was born in Jalandhar, but his parents had migrated from a Sialkot village. ‘We who live here pine for the land across the border; you come from the other side to find solace in our part. Oh, what was this great madness?’ he said.
Iqbal had never heard of Lala Bheek Chand, but he took me by the hand and led me to the store in that property. These people had rented it from the owners who ran a tyre business in a market across town. My friend Ramneek from Rohtak who had given up everything to first be with me in Delhi and now in Jalandhar drove me across. It was a dead-end: the present owners’ father had purchased the Bheek Chand home about forty years ago and it was not known where the original owners were. As an afterthought the man said he believed they had moved away from Jalandhar.
Not that I expected him to know of them, I asked the man about Dhanno and Shiela, two of Lala Ji’s daughters who were friends with my aunts and my mother. He had never even heard the names. Crest-fallen I left the tyre shop: Lala Bheek Chand’s family was my only hope of learning the truth and they had vanished.
Not knowing what to do, I returned to Iqbal Singh’s store where I just sat about in a sort of a daze, staring out at the street. Occasionally I wandered across the road to stare up at the façade of Habib Manzil. On the third time, the gentleman in the bottled gas agency in front of which I stood in my trance, invited me in. He said he had seen so many passers-by glance up to admire the workmanship on the house, but I was acting strangely. I told him and without letting me finish he asked, ‘Are you Dr Badruddin’s grandson?’
Kailash Sehgal was too young to have ever known my grandfather; he only remembered him from what he had heard. He knew the family had perished in the riots but he did not know how or their number. He specifically mentioned just one aunt and did not know if my grandmother and her father were also there. Six decades is a long time for memory to become confused, particularly when it is second hand.
I returned to Iqbal’s store and parked myself in the same chair to stare at the road again. Of a sudden Iqbal put his hand on my arm and asked, ‘Was your grandfather a doctor?’ I was utterly taken aback: how could he know when his family had moved to Jalandhar sometime after the Holocaust when the bones of my family had long been scattered. And then he told me he had heard the whole ghastly tale of the end of my family. He said he had been told of someone being pitched over from the roof into the courtyard below.
Who, I asked, was the teller? Iqbal Singh smiled his slow smile and said he could not remember, but it was an elderly customer of his. He was, he said, sure to recall in due time and before I left Jalandhar he would see to it that I met this man. Thereafter I spent most of my waking hours with Iqbal, forever pestering him until I felt I was making a regular nuisance of myself.
On the third morning the thought crossed my mind that Iqbal, not certain how I would react were I to meet the murderer of my grandparents, was perhaps pretending to have forgotten, but I could not get myself to confront him. Instead, telling him I would be in my ancestral village Uggi in the morning, I once again stressed upon him to try and recall.
I had planned to take a bus to Uggi, but Kailash Sehgal would have none of that. He organised an auto rickshaw which I was not to pay for. Beyond the last houses of Jalandhar we were in countryside where the wheat was somewhere between green and gold with buffaloes wallowing in the ditches by the road. I counted the eucalyptus and sent up a silent curse for Indian foresters much as I do for their Pakistani counterparts. ‘Just like home,’ I thought to myself. But this was home, I checked myself quickly. I was on my way home to Uggi where heaven knows how many generations had lived and died – forebears whose blood runs in my own veins.
Bakshish Singh who I had been introduced to in Jalandhar by the good Gurmeet Singh of Desh Bhagat Hall was waiting for me by the Muslim shrine just outside the village. When I had said I wanted to see the Muslim graveyard, young Bakshish had somehow believed this was what I wanted. The only other graves, he said, were outside the compound in a small graveyard. There among half a dozen graves was just one headstone with the inscription ‘Allah di Jeeri Mastani’ who died on the fourth day of the fast in the Hijri year of 1357, that is, about sixty-nine years ago.
I had come to the graveyard to read the headstones in the hope that there will some names of long-dead patriarchs that I know from a family tree that goes back seven generations. But here was just a handful of graves and only one headstone. Bakshish said that the graveyard spread over roughly twenty-five acres of land until it was bulldozed some years ago and the grain market built over it. I was denied the chance to read the tombstones, the last vestiges of my ancestors.
Bakshish Singh’s elderly father whose parents had left home near Shahkot in the district he still remembered as Lyallpur broke in a wide grin when I told him that I of the clan Arain and he a Kamboh were after all brothers: we descend from a common ancestor. As we sat talking, old Saudagar Singh told me that two of the oldest Hindus in the village were members of an original Uggi family.
Off we went to meet with Faqir Chand and his cousin Banarsidas. Both octogenarians, they were upper-caste Pundits surnamed Sangar. Both remembered my grandfather well. But it was Faqir Chand who was in school in nearby Nakodar when my grandfather was in charge of the hospital there. Dr Sahib was a kindly man, said Faqir Chand, but something came over him in 1943 or thereabouts when he began to sympathise with Muslim League: he became prejudiced against Sikhs.
He remembered my grandfather as an elegant man dressed in smoke-white cotton suits and pastel neckties. ‘He knew everyone in the village by name. This was strange because Dr Sahib hardly ever lived in the village,’ said Faqir Chand. Our family home, he told me, was in Lammian di Patti which he took me outside to point out in the distance. But the old home had been replaced about twenty years ago.
Back in the Singh home just as we were sitting down to lunch, my cell-phone rang. Iqbal Singh was almost breathless, ‘Bhai Ji, leave off whatever you have on hand. Get back to Jalandhar for I have found your man. And he wants to speak to you!’ Lunch sat heavily with me because I now wanted only to get back to Jalandhar and when we were done eating, Bakshish kindly drove me to Lamra in order to cut my journey time back.
Directly upon my return Iqbal Singh got on the phone and within five minutes we had the very energetic seventy-four year Mahendra Pratab Sehgal with us. He spoke fast and with great ardour. ‘Dr Badruddin was too good a man to deserve the end he got,’ he said. And then he broke into mild invective calling someone stupid and with a ‘narrow heart’. He took me by the hand and we went into Krishna Gali to find old harpy sitting on the threshold dressing vegetables.
‘Who do you think you are that you won’t let this man in his grandfather’s home?’ Mahendra Pratab asked the woman without preamble and rather angrily.
Then he kicked open the door and told me to go in and see what I had come to see. That was the first time I saw my grandparents’ home in any detail. Done with that I asked my new-found friend where it had all happened. Not here, he said. Because everyone knew of Dr Sahib’s and Lala Bheek Chand’s friendship, it was thought he would be safe in the home of the Chopras in the lane behind.
‘Come let me show you where it happened,’ said Mahendra Pratab Sehgal taking me by the hand and leading me away from my grandparents’ courtyard. Outside we turned left in Krishna Gali. ‘See, Eidu was in this room where he lived with his family,’ said the man pointing to a door at the back of our home. ‘When the mob came howling into the lane, he took fright. Together with his two year-old son in his arms he bolted making straight for the Chopra home.’
The mob followed, the Chopras stood aside and my family violently went into their long night. How? I asked. How did it all happen? And what became of my young aunts? Mahindra Pratap Sehgal looked hard at me for a few seconds before he spoke: there was a hole in the timber of the door through which a rifle was fired which got my grandfather in the eye. A panel of the door was broken, the door unlocked and the others cut up. My grandmother, her father, my two aunts, Eidu’s wife and four children all passed away from this life in the room where the family now had a kneading machine to prepare dough namak paray.
Finding the door locked, Eidu had raced to the roof. From there his two year-old son was pitched into the courtyard below before Eidu too was cut up. Once again Mahendra Pratab broke into invective about the narrow-hearted people. Who, I asked, were these people? Mahendra Pratab glared at me for not having been listening carefully. ‘My stupid father, who else. That’s who threw Eidu’s son over and did the poor man in. That fool joined the hooligans to commit this horrible sin against innocent people.’
I was speechless. I had never heard anyone speak like this about one’s father. In our part of the world, what we or those near us do, no matter how gross, is always right; it is always someone else that is in the wrong. Yet here was Mahendra Pratab roundly berating his father for the grave sin he committed against good people. I could not have doubted his story for who could have known about Eidu, the servant, and his children. Back in Lahore my mother confirmed Eidu did indeed have a toddler and that he did live in a backroom opening into the street.
‘Then they hauled the corpses of your family to the taal and cremated them. For days after, my foolish father wept and rued his folly. But it was too late. It is directly from him that I got these details.’ Thus spoke Mahendra Pratab. He said his father may have wanted to rid himself of his guilt through confession; but he lived with it to the last day.
I found myself wondering if, by narrating that ghastly story, Mahendra Pratab was trying to exorcise the demons that were born from his father’s remorse and had tormented him since and if he knew I too suffered from demons only slightly different. I wonder now if Mahendra Pratab had felt any better getting his load off by telling me, a descendent of those who died at the hands of one whose guilt he had inherited. We were, in a way, connected by our respective legacies: he had guilt and I grief that we had each inherited from those that went before us.
If I had believed the discovery of truth would dispel my inherited grief, I was entirely wrong. It only became more pronounced. But having discovered the truth I now wanted to leave knowing fully well that not many weeks after getting back to Lahore, I would want to return home to Jalandhar.
Postscript: Just before I left Uggi, I walked into a wheat field and gathered up a fistful of dust to bring home. Some of that was sprinkled on Chan’s and my father’s graves. The remainder now sits in a bottle on my desk. When I die and if I get a decent burial, the first dust to touch my white shroud will be the dust of Uggi. That is where they lived whose blood courses through my veins.
Another Partition Story