Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

A Punjab odyssey

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Shabnam and I crossed the border on a cold winter morning to a warm reception on the far side of the gates at Wagah. We were not part of any delegation; this was a purely private trip, a follow-up of my March 2008 yatra. The earlier visit, my first ever to India, was an attempt to discover the fate of one part of a family I had never known.

One day about the fourteenth of August, 1947 my grandfather Dr Badaruddin who lived on Railway Road, Jalandhar and his wife, two daughters and father in law together with their servant, his wife and five children were lost to the world. They became part of the one million mostly Punjabi people, Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims, who died for the division of India. From living beings, these people suddenly became statistics.

This time around, I hoped to find cases among Sikhs and Punjabi Hindus whose families had migrated from what became Pakistan and whose stories were similar to mine. We found people, we heard their stories, and together we became misty-eyed putting on brave Punjabi faces to show that we did not cry. As I wept privately at night, I am sure others did too. The grief of that event 62 years ago continues to haunt those like Darshan Singh in Jalandhar who was just a child when his family migrated from Klasswala near Pasrur. Others like Mohinder Pratab Sehgal, then just in his teens, who remembered my grandfather and the slaying of the family, still feels the guilt of that terrible time.

And there are those of us born a few years after Partition who only inherited the grief from our families. If I were to speak for myself alone, my quest to discover the fate of the family in the Railway Road home was somewhat peculiar. In our home neither my father nor uncle ever spoke of Partition. Nor indeed did my aunt, the sole survivor among the three sisters. They did not mention it in an attempt to perhaps mitigate the sense of loss and grief; perhaps even to try to forget that horrendous memory.

As I grew older, I came to be haunted by images of bloodshed and violence in a place that I had never seen. I wanted more and more to discover the fate that befell my family. Visa rules under normal circumstances are odd for our two countries and require kin in the other country to be visited. Tourist visas do not exist between India and Pakistan. I had no relatives in India and so I never got a visa. Not until the good Satyabrata Pal, when he was the High Commissioner in Islamabad, heard out my story, and said I should send him my passport.

The first visit in March 2008 was like being in a film. It was almost an out-of-body experience; as if I were watching a film with me in it. But the sequences sped past too quickly and I had neither a stop button nor a replay to go over things a second time. Despite keeping my ears open and listening, at times I did not hear and had it not been for my recording machine, I would have lost many important items and nuances.

One thing happened without any shade of doubt: the strong bonds I made with the people I met. From university professors to storekeepers to farmers, to journalists and ordinary people, I discovered the connection of a shared language and culture. It was almost as if the people I met were long-lost family. As I had longed to see, what could have been home had history taken only a slightly different turn, there were people in Amritsar, Jalandhar and Delhi who yearned to visit homes in Pakistan.

Every one of them, I offered, could enter in the visa form my name as the cousin from Lahore with whom they would be staying. Now I needed to return to renew the bonds. Ramesh Yadav was at the border to receive us. This remarkable man is among the pioneers of the peace movement in Punjab and can rightfully be credited with the monument by the gate on the Indian side. But of this, after my next visit in March. Suffice it to be said here that one good man, a former head of the Border Security Force, who lives in retirement in Jalandhar, permitted the raising of this monument at the spot by the gateway.

Amritsar was a flurry of seminars -- one on women's issues and the other on environment. Evenings were party time. The inimitable, soft spoken Rajendar Sharma alias Raja delved deep into the whisky and quietly announced, yet again, that the doctor had ordered him to lay off because of his liver condition. So, why didn't he quit, I asked. Well, said he, he had talked to doctor into permitting just a sip or two in the evenings. "But, you know, once I've had my few sips, there's no stopping. And it does not necessarily have to be evening." Whatever else they may say about us Punjabis, our most remarkable trait is our fatalism.

Our friend Talwinder, the writer, took us to a memorial service for a teacher and a poet. In the course of the dead man's eulogies, a public address system suddenly came on with film songs from the other side of the boundary wall. It turned out we were next to a wedding hall where a Sikh wedding feast was about to begin. Some way through our recital Talwinder said we ought to check out the wedding.
We went around, and uninvited walked into the celebration and sat at a table with Sikh gentlemen who wanted to know the difference between their wedding festivity and ours. The only difference that I could see was that they drank openly, while in Pakistan everyone took their spirits surreptitiously from concealed hip flasks and bottles. Having made everyone else's business our own and having turned ourselves into moral policemen, we condemn openly what we do in privacy. We are unspeakable hypocrites with grandiose pretensions of piety.

We were then off to Jalandhar to seek the house where Shabnam's father lived in Aali Mohalla. The house had been pulled down, but we met some wonderful friends we had not known. In Amritsar, I used Ramesh's phone to call the Jalandhar hotel to confirm if they had kept a room for us. It turned out that their website had been hacked and they had not received my email. We were due to leave in a little while and therefore worried where we would put up. Ramesh resolved the problem by calling the press club to keep a room for us. "Five star facility it was," he said.

R.N Singh, retired photojournalist and President-for-Life of the Jalandhar Press Club, is a dead ringer for our own well-known journalist Imtiaz Alam. When Shabnam remarked on the likeness, he told us the story of travelling with Imtiaz to Kashmir. At some point, he was caught by the Srinagar pressmen alone and taken for his look-alike. He was hard put to convince them he was not who they thought he was. A UP man, R.N Ji, as everyone seemed to call him, has lived long in Jalandhar, but has not yet mastered the language. He still speaks with a heavy UP accent. Rather cute, I must say.

The club boasts of six rooms for journalists and we were perhaps the first to avail of the newly finished facility. It was indeed five star just as Ramesh had said. At the end of the five days, when I asked the boy for the bill there was no response. I therefore asked the manager of the club if he could please have our bill ready by the afternoon. Still nothing. Shortly before leaving, I accosted R.N ji. He was with Satnam Manak, editor of the widely read daily Ajit. I had met Manak on my first visit and found him to be as if weighed down by some immense grief. Over time I learned that he, born in the 1950s, too was tormented by the criminality of Partition.

When I asked for the bill, the two together said there was none. Shabnam and I protested. This meant that they did not want us to come again, I said. "We'll make you pay the next time," Manak said with a smile in his typical quiet way.

Now, this side or that, Punjab is culturally homogenous and before leaving we had difficulty deciding what to take for friends. The best, we thought, was to take Sindhi ajraks and caps -- items that Indian Punjabis would not be acquainted with. With the ajrak draped over their shoulders, R.N ji and Manak could scarcely have been anyone but red-blooded Sindhis. Earlier, we had meted out the same treatment to Mohinder Pratab Sehgal, telling him that if he did not like the shawl, he could give it to a granddaughter to make a kameez that will go perfectly with blue jeans.

Ughi, my grandfather's village outside Jalandhar was next stop. I had called Bakhshish Singh to tell him we were foisting ourselves upon his family. This tall and very good-looking man had been introduced to me in March 2008 when I sought a native of Ughi. He took me home then and it was like being with kin I had not met for a long time. His nephew collected us from the press club to drive us the 30 odd kilometres to the village.

Sardar Saudagar Singh Josan, the white-bearded patriarch was about 12 when they moved from a village near Shahkot (Sheikhupura district). We arrived just when he was entertaining another gentleman. Saudagar Singh had evidently told his guest about us and the man got up to greet us with a warm salam o alaikum. It turned out that the house Gurdial Singh lived in was owned in pre-partition days by a Muslim whose grandson had gone visiting in April 2008.

Later in the afternoon, Bakhshish drove us to Gurmeet's home. A lovely old house with a huge banyan shading one side, it was built in the traditional vernacular-style with rooms around a central courtyard. The family insisted on tea, of which we had had to bursting point already. We were shown around the house and given the address and phone numbers of the Lahore visitors.

We have since established contact with Kaiser Tufail and his wife Samar and when I turn these sketchy narratives into a book, their story will be told as well. What is remarkable about Kaiser's story is the way he and Samar were treated both in the village and in Jalandhar where the current occupants of their old homes referred to the visitors as the malik (owner) of the property. What greater instance of generosity and kindness can one imagine?

In Lamyaan di Patti, where my grandfather's house stood in Ughi, we did not find the elderly Fakir Chand who had moved to Jalandhar to live with his son. This good man, now in his late 80s, knew my grandfather well. But we were not stopping in Jalandhar on the way back, so we missed our chance of touching base with him, and had to be deferred until later.

The overnight with the Josan family was an orgy of eating. They fed us endlessly, rounding off the frenzy with a huge dinner that was fortunately vegetarian. Shortly before we turned in, a glass of hot milk each was forced upon us. If I had thought we would do without breakfast, I was mistaken. That was another gourmet delight with all sorts of home goodies. When it came time to say our goodbyes, we were made to promise that we will return for a longer stay.

Four days in Amritsar, four in Jalandhar and half as many in the village was way too long to permit us the onward journey to Delhi. Our visa being only 15 days, if we went we would have had only 3 full days there. We opted against the journey hoping to make it later and headed back for Amritsar.

Postscript: As Bakhshish drove us back to Jalandhar we noticed the pipal tree standing smack in the middle of the road. Somehow we had missed it on our way out. Why had they not cut it when the road was widened, I asked. Because, said Bakhshish, cutting a tree was as criminal as killing a human. I said, Oh!

Odysseus Lahori one year ago: The Shaksgam Valley

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 13 December 2014 at 09:05, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cutting the trees is like killing the humans as Sikh said. The same Sikhs cut our forefathers like the vegetables.

At 13 December 2014 at 23:15, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My father, Mumtaz Ahmad, aged 83, is telling me about Railway Road and its Hari Singh Book Shop, features of Aali Mohallah of Muslims. He lived at Dokoha near Jallundhar
Good read Sir.

At 14 December 2014 at 07:16, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Nice to know that you family is from Aali Mohalla.


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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