Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

‘I have seen Lahore!’

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Darshan Singh was eight years old in 1947. He was born in village Klasswala near Pasrur where his family was comfortably well off. His father ran a thriving restaurant I n Rawalpindi’s Gwalmandi and the family lived in a rented house near the restaurant. In 1944, Darshan joined Standard High School, not very far from Snatam Dharm High School. He remembers how he daily used to walk back and forth between his home and the school. He remembers the streets, the large pipal tree under which he and his mates played marbles, and the teachers who taught him.

The house on the left could possibly be Darshan’s childhood home

Then one day young Darshan’s world exploded in flames – an event whose cause and meaning his young mind failed to fathom. Though his immediate locality was untroubled, but from the roof of their home, he and his family could see the eerie glow of the fires raging in other areas. Presently his father, Varyam Singh, announced that they had to leave Rawalpindi.

The train brought them to Pasrur from where the family went to their ancestral home in Klasswala. Though he was unable to identify it then, he felt the coldness of fear that raged through the air like a material thing. Every where there were people on the move, people carrying tin trunks and cloth bags, kitchen things and bedrolls, leading cattle and elderly relatives walking, walking, walking ever eastward.

Since his family owned a large house, several Hindu and Sikh families of the neighbourhood gathered there for safety. The word was that this part of Punjab would soon be Pakistan and that the non-Muslims would have to go across the Ravi to the east. This made no sense to the young mind of Darshan Singh. Klasswala was home, he had friends here, Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu. There was Chaata, the barber, who lived nearby and whose children sometimes came around to play with Darshan. And there were the Muslim families in the neighbourhood whose names he does not remember, but who had always been good to him.

Nevertheless, they had to leave. The Sardars Satnam Singh and Gurdial Singh, two influential Bajwa landlords of the village, organised army trucks to transport the Hindu and Sikh families of Klasswala to Pasrur railway station for the journey across the new line drawn by history across the heart of an ancient land. Darshan Singh remembers that when the train arrived it was crammed with people with little room for anyone else to get in. The women, children, and elderly were stuffed in the crowded cars while the men rode on the roof.

The train was to go southeast from Pasrur through Narowal and Jassar across the magnificent steel spans of the bridge over the Ravi and deposit its manifest of humanity at Dera Nanak. Now, the bridge at Jassar sits wholly in Pakistan but its piers on the left bank of the Ravi tread the border between the two new countries that were to hate each other for decades to come. And the locomotive driver being a Muslim, refused to go into the country that was killing his co-religionists.

Outside the train, in the drizzle of a wet August night, the people on the train saw an armed host. If young Darshan Singh also felt the terror that coursed through the passengers of the train, he did not talk of it. But it is doubtful that he did for how can an eight-year-old understand that a place that had always been home could suddenly turn into enemy country, its people ready to kill their erstwhile neighbours.

Now, the Bajwas of Klasswala who were respected and well known in the area too were on the train to leave the homes they had known for centuries. The train stopped just short of the bridge and the men outside waited for the refugees to alight. The noise was about killing the refugees in retaliation because Muslims fleeing westward across India had been massacred. For the first time Darshan Singh became truly terrified.

No one moved. Darshan Singh does not remember how long that situation lasted, but then the Bajwa elders got off. Addressing the gathered host one of them called out, ‘Hold you your ground, do not advance on us for we are unarmed. The driver refuses to take this train across the border, permit us therefore to cross on foot. Do no mischief to anyone of us.’

In that one instant, something went very right. Something inexplicably human took place: the inherent goodness that lives, even if in small measures, in all human beings came to the fore. The gathered crowd armed with guns, clubs, swords and farm implements ready to kill and rape quieted down. The terrified refugees got off the train and made their uncertain way in the thickening drizzle across the bridge to safety on the other side of the Ravi. The men who would have murdered them as compensation for the death of Muslims elsewhere watched them leave.

Darshan Singh recalls that once across the Ravi the entire trainload of people sat down for no one knew where to go in the dark of the rainy night. Day broke and they found the riverbank and surrounding fields littered with hundreds of human corpses – the unfortunate Muslims whose cruel massacre these poor people almost paid for with their own lives. On the walk to Dera Nanak and beyond to Batala, Darshan Singh saw the country similarly littered with the dead – the tragic harvest of partition.

Sixty-two years and four months went by. Darshan Singh finished his education, went to work, retired and grew old but the memory of the home in Klasswala, the school in Gwalmandi and the harrowing journey in August 1947 did not leave his mind. Surely, he would have preserved those memories by telling his stories to his children, but I do not know if he had ever met a Pakistani to ask of the land that he was forced to abandon as a child. Sixty-two years and four months went by before I met Darshan Singh.

Shabnam and I were in Aali Mohalla in Jalandhar hoping to find her father’s home. Our dear friend Kuldip Oberoi who rules the area as a councillor of good reputation took us around asking for the old butchery that no one seemed to remember ever having seen. From one friend to the other, Kuldip led us until we ended up in Darshan Singh’s home. But this too turned up a blank.

Even if he was unable to help us, the kindly faced, short-statured Darshan Singh with his bright eyes and merry smile wanted us to stay for tea. But we were in a hurry to find the old family home. As we were walking away through the bazaar, Kuldip said someone wanted to speak with me. There he was, Darshan Singh again with his twinkling eyes able to walk only very slowly with a shuffling sort of gait. He came up, took me by the elbow and said, ‘I have seen Lahore. I once went to the zoo with my father and brothers.’

For sixty-two years Darshan Singh had nurtured this memory yearning to talk to someone who lived in the city that he had seen only once as a child and which had left a deep impression on his mind. The look in his eyes, the happiness in his smile and the way he had delivered that simple sentence about having been to Lahore was full of emotion. But I was in a hurry and poor old Darshan Singh could not keep pace with me. I apologised and left him standing there in crowded Rainak Bazaar as I hurried on to catch up with the others.

Done with the search and learning that the house we sought had been pulled down some years ago, Shabnam and I returned to Darshan Singh’s home. If ever I have done anything worthwhile in my life, it was this. If ever I have brought real happiness to anyone it was to Darshan Singh by the simple act of returning to talk to him. His eyes twinkling, he did not tire of telling his family that we had returned ‘especially to talk’ with him. Now he could tell me of the Lahore he knew; now we could bond.

But a six or seven year-old can hardly be expected to remember anything. Of the zoo Darshan Singh only remembered ‘one scene.’ An aquarium in which a frog, he said, repeatedly swam to the top before subsiding again.

Having heard the story of his family’s exodus, I asked him what it was that kept the Muslims from turning on them at the bridge, ‘The Parmatma dwells in the soul of all humans. There He kept those people from doing evil.’ But what, I asked, of all the dead he saw on the trek from the Ravi. ‘It was a crime against humanity and the Parmatma. Those who killed the Muslims tried to kill Rub who dwells in our souls.’

Back home, I drove to Klasswala to photograph the home that bore the names of Hukam Singh, Deva Singh and Varyam Singh, Darshan’s grandfather, uncle and father respectively. But the house is gone. Gone too is the barber Chaata and his memory. Darshan Singh had also mentioned a certain Khalil, about fifteen years his senior, who lived next door in a large haveli. But Klasswala elders could only recall one man of this name and age, a confectioner, who died some time ago.

When I return to Jalandhar, I will not have the promised photos of the double-storeyed house that Darshan Singh remembers in Klasswala. I have been fortunate to visit the homes of both sides of my family in Jalandhar and be feted by the kindest people ever who now live there. But poor Darshan Singh’s connection with Klasswala is a tenuous one that exists only in his mind.

Postscript. In Klasswala, Abdus Sattar, one of the older men who I quizzed about Khalil and Chaata, was not a native. His family had migrated from village Ugala in Ambala district. As a three year-old at that time he did not remember anything of the turmoil save what he had been told by his elders. I asked him if his family had been in any peril at any time during the long journey across the Punjab plains.

He spoke of the same goodness of the soul that had overcome the mob waiting to do in Darshan Singh and his fellow travellers. His parents had told him that in that time of hatred and madness their Hindu and Sikh neighbours and friends came forward with courage to stand by them. Many offered Sattar’s family refuge in their own homes while they waited out the madness. Once it was over, they were told, they could return home and continue to live as they always had.

But other forces were at work and Abdus Sattar and his family were moved to the camp and then to the railway station. Until they were safely on the train, their neighbours who did not have to leave because they were not Muslims, remained by their sides to see that no harm befell them.

That goodness of the soul among one set of people of one religion that preserved the family of Abdus Sattar in Ambala was no different form that that kept Darshan Singh and his fellows from harm on Jassar bridge. Surely if things had only taken just a slightly different turn, this goodness would have prevailed across the board. Then this, the greatest human transmigration, accompanied by dreadful bloodshed would not have happened.

Related: [Another partition story from] Across the Border

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 5 September 2013 at 20:06, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think we need to let this case rest now. Everyone need to accept the reality.

At 5 September 2013 at 20:32, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How touching!

At 6 September 2013 at 08:15, Anonymous Gursharan Singh Ajeeb said...

Jnaab meri jnam-bhoomi Gujraanwala di eemarat vikhay k jaan kaddh lyee je !

At 6 September 2013 at 08:50, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Our choice of which stories to consume is more crucial than ever now. They need to be as useful and relevant experiences.

At 11 November 2013 at 00:14, Blogger syed akbar said...

brings tears to ones eyes

At 9 March 2014 at 06:48, Blogger Amardeep Singh said...

What a touching story. Thanks Salman Ji for sharing.

At 9 March 2014 at 10:41, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

The last time I met Darshan Singh in Jalandhar was March 2010. How he longed to be able to travel home. Just once before he passed on.

At 23 July 2017 at 13:55, Blogger MUHAMMAD ASIM said...

I am also from Klasswala. And my Grandmother is famous as Pipalwali as there use to be a big house with a pipal tree in centre. Where everyone use to play. Thanks for sharing your past....




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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

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