Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The White Trail

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The story behind a poem by a young woman about a time long before she was born, when people were maddened by hate

I visited my ancestral Jalandhar for the first time in March 2008. Until then, my family did not know what had become of my grandparents (paternal), two aunts, a great grandfather, the family's servant and his wife and five children.

My grandfather had not thought it necessary to leave hearth and home and move the family to Pakistan. But they did not remain in Jalandhar either, as my uncle learnt in September 1947 when, as an intern at Irvin Hospital, Delhi, he volunteered to serve in the refugee camps of Jalandhar.

The Settlement Commissioner told him that no Muslims remained in Jalandhar. My uncle did not have the courage to check out the home in Railway Road that was named after him. He never found out what had happened.

In 2008, I went to Habib Manzil in Bhagat Singh Chowk, Jalandhar. I introduced myself to the man minding his hardware store. His name was Iqbal Singh. We spent some time together. At one point, he suddenly asked me if my grandfather was a doctor. Then he said he had heard what befell my family. It took Iqbal three days to remember who had mentioned that dreadful event to him. And so by a unique quirk of fate I met Mahindra Pratab Sehgal.

That is the story I recounted, invited by Prof. Rajmohan Gandhi, on the fourth day of a conference on 'Making Democracy Real' that my wife Shabnam and I attended last month in Panchgani, a blissfully peaceful hill station in the southern state of Maharashtra, east of bustling Pune. The session was titled 'Memory, Justice, Healing'.

Before a hall full of people from around the world, I talked about my experience of meeting Mahindra Pratab whose father had led the mob that killed my family in August 1947. I told the story as Mahindra Pratab Sehgal had narrated it to me in March 2008.

Having heard it again and again from a repentant father, he was not only like an eyewitness but had also inherited the murderer's remorse. Listening to him it was clear that he wanted to talk to someone from the family that had been wronged in order to wash his guilt away.

His father had taken this guilt to his pyre four decades earlier. To know that the elder Sehgal was remorseful for his deeds - and that he bore his remorse to the last day of his life - shows that he was very human even if he was momentarily swept away in the tide of politically generated communal hatred.

I don't know how much the talking of that distant event helped Mahindra Pratab, but his willingness to unload showed me that the catharsis did him good. When he passed away in March 2011, I felt a deep sense of personal loss, as my last connection to that past was now gone. Although the foul deed could never be undone, for me the knowledge that the perpetrators had repented was wages enough for the grief the surviving family members -- my father, uncle and aunt -- had borne with exceptional and unbroken fortitude all their lives. It was another thing that I was too late. Those who had directly been wronged were no longer around to know that someone was sorry for what had happened.

I don't know how long it took me to finish my story, but I know that of the two hundred odd people in the hall, it was a rare person with a dry eye. I also don't know how I kept my emotions from running away. I almost broke down when I said my last sentence, 'We [the people of India and Pakistan] are, after all, brothers.'

After the session many participants came up to speak with me. An hour later I noticed Rhea D'Souza from Mumbai leaning against a doorjamb, waiting for me to finish. I realised she had been there since the end of the session. Shabnam and I had already befriended this delightful, profoundly sensitive young woman who wrote poetry. We had spent a good deal of time with her. With an emotion-choked voice Rhea said she had something to say to me. Taking me by the hand, she led me back into the now empty hall.

Taking a deep breath, looking into my eyes with tears glinting in her's, she said, 'I am very sorry.' Then a sob broke through and like a wave swept away her self-control. She wept. I held her and she sobbed repeating again and again, 'I'm very sorry.' She wept so uncontrollably that she made me cry with her. For five minutes, perhaps more, we clung to each other letting the tears flow.

The next morning at breakfast Rhea gave me a slip of paper. She said she had written a poem shortly after waking up, and titled it The White Trail. The title, she said, came from the white lines left by her tears as she wept herself to sleep. The poem is about the story I told, about a time long before Rhea was born, before I was born, when in one moment a nation of people was maddened by hate. This poem is about being human and feeling the pain of a fellow human. I share it here.

The White Trail
The white - that was not so pure
Rough coarse
Almost invisible
Trying to camouflage
But definite.
Its path.
On a rampage
It corroded everything
The carefree hearts
The innocent smiles
The trusting hugs
The dreams..
Of Colourful wooden tops
Left its taste
In the mouth
Of the future
The White of anger
Of Blind righteousness
Of Absence
Of Loss
Of Hopelessness
Of the void &
Of displacement
Of tears
I look up
Taste the salt on my lips
I am surprised
By the intensity of pain
It s not mine
Or maybe,
It is.
The white trail
Has found its way to me
Across the Borders
After all.
A deep realisation
A coming Home
A Finding
I am just another you.
A Silent Prayer
Dear God let me never forget this.

Rhea D'Souza
Jan 11, 2014

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 11:29,


At 20 February 2014 at 09:31, Anonymous Rajmohan Gandhi said...

What a mighty piece. Many will find hope and healing through this. Thank you and God bless you and Shabnam. Stay well.

At 13 May 2014 at 11:09, Blogger Unknown said...

sometimes tears are needed to wash to old memories and heal ourselves, and yet tears don't look good in eyes of those on joyous mission.. please don't cry.. :)

At 13 May 2014 at 12:33, Anonymous nadeem said...

Excellent piece as usual, bravo!

At 13 May 2014 at 15:23, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Nadeem!

At 13 May 2014 at 15:27, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Noorinder! Sometimes tears do help. They make you richer; they make strong bonds. My bond with the wonderful, lovely Rhea is stronger than it would ever have been without the tears.


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My Books

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

Books of Days