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.
Regardless of its resolve, the train cannot afford to bypass Jhang, a city revered by so many for so many reasons. Geographically, it is located on the banks of river Chenab, at almost equal distances from Gojra and Smaundri, but virtually and emotionally, wherever the sands sip the water, it is Jhang.
Though some ancient coins, Buddha inscriptions and hooked noses trace the city, back to Maurian times but the recorded history is almost eight centuries old. A sizeable majority believes that it was founded by Rai Sayal, on the orders of his spiritual mentor, Jalaluddin Surkh Posh Bukhari towards the end of 13th century. In the next few hundred years, all important clans like the Naul, Sayal, Bhong and Kheva ruled this land, eventually passing it over to the Sikhs. With the treaty of Bherowal in place, Jhang fell to British Empire and formed part of Pakistan in 1947. But from the Sials to Syeds, no ruler has done anything to develop the city.
Due to the proximity of Chenab, most of the residents drew their livelihood from land. The devoted farmers tilled the land and prayed for rain with inimitable desperation. But, the rains did not only bring greenery and prosperity but also floods and destruction. Besides the pleasant evenings, the river often offered floods. This cyclic pattern of construction and destruction affected the public mood. The subtle pain in the Jhangochi dialect is in fact a reflection of the sufferings inflicted on these dwellers by the rains they so painfully ask for.
The story of Heera and Chander Bhan is best told in this dialect. In the mohallah Bhabhrana Thalla of Jhang, the Hindu population lived peacefully. Kaushaliya was the daughter of one of the wealthy businessman of Jhang. Due to her gifted beauty and inherited wealth, she was famous all around the pattan (vicinity of the river).
Love stories in Punjab are somewhat incomplete without the river, and that is where Heera and Kaushaliya saw each other for the first time, when the two families were on their way to attend the annual religious festival of Masan, across Chenab. The platonic love between the two was kindled by the dreamy desert night of Thall and the cool breeze of Chenab. While at the river both took the same boat and before they rowed across, they had already fallen for each other. The two continued to see each other before word got out. Ultimately Kaushaliya’s family raised the question of honor and locked up their daughter. With no Kaushaliya in sight, Heera’s insight headed in another direction. This introvert, self-minded lad transformed to a pain-stricken poet whose every word came straight from the heart.
When things moved beyond repair, Heera’s family sent a formal proposal for Kaushaliya but it was turned down on account of bad stars. Due to the farce reasons of religion and society, the two were separated from each other. Heera was a pampered child and this debut rejection prompted his creative self. His poems about Kaushaliya became instantly famous in the small town and soon, hers was a household name. Kaushaliya’s family requested Heera not to dishonor their daughter with his poems.
Adhering to the request, he chose another name, Chander Bhan. While his verses celebrated Chander Bhan, the intended listener was always Kaushaliya. His songs dedicated to Chandar Bhan struck a chord at Kaushaliya’s heart. A few old men in Jhang clearly remember Heera Singh standing in the fields surrounding the Bhabhrana mohallah, reciting the Dohra (local genre of song) for Chandar Bhan. Besides the romantic tragedy and pain, the story also carries many inaudible cries and invisible tears that fell inside the heart rather than outside.
To avoid any trouble, Kaushaliya was married off to a distant village. When there were no sight of his beloved, Heera wrote following lines:
Raat kaali, taang yaar waali, sukhan yaar da badan wich teer khardkay Ik dar band, dooja darbaan dushman, turaan tez tey peri zanjeer khardkay Sutta waikh darban noo dar kholaa’n, dar kholaa’n tey dar bay-peer khardkay Heerya jehno maraz hay ishq wali, sanay haddian sara sareer khardkay
The night is dark and I have a promise to keep which pierces my body like an arrow, Firstly, the door is closed, secondly the doorkeeper is an enemy and thirdly, the chains make noise as I walk briskly, When I see the gatekeeper sleeping and attempt to open the door, the door makes the noise, Oh Heera, when afflicted by the sufferings of love, the whole body, including the bones, shiver.
While all this was happening, the freedom movement was at its peak. Like the four directions of a compass, Akali, Congress, Muslim league and the Unionists were herding Punjabis in four differing directions. For Heera and Kaushaliya, freedom, autonomy and revolution were meaningless words.
After few months, it became increasingly taxing for Kaushaliya to co-exist in the two worlds. Loving someone while living with someone else had started taking its toll and she soon withdrew to her parent’s house in Jhang.
On the other hand, parting from Chander Bhan had devastated Heera. The love that pulsated in his veins alongside his blood had now slowed down. Every second pushed him away from life and one day, after staying awake for the whole night, he slept for eternity. The same old men clearly remember that while Heera’s dead body was being carried for cremation, Chandar Bhan ran out of her house and stood in front of the procession. She embraced the lifeless body of her lover, which society and religion had never let her touch. As long as the pyre burnt, she kept on wailing and crying but then when everything burnt to ashes, she went quiet.
The story could have graduated to folklore but then India was partitioned. While Jhang formed part of Pakistan, all the Hindus of Bhabhrana mohallah left for India. God knows whether Chandar Bhan still mourns the death of Heera or if the partition itself gave her new reasons to grieve. There can be a possibility that she might have started her life afresh but regardless of these assumptions, the dusty noons and the lonely evenings of Jhang, still whisper the dohra of Heera Singh and the wails of Chandar Bhan.
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