For whom the bell tolls
The 16th day of April in 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.
Pre-partition Khanewal was interesting in its own way. The city comprised of 16 blocks and at every four blocks, a well or a place for worship served its residents and guests alike. Besides the gurudwaras, mosques and temples, a church built by William Roberts also invited men towards divinity. The residents of Khanewal had fair space for other approaches to God too, so apart from religions, they looked upto jogis, who frequently visited Khanewal. Chup Shah was one such man who sat silently under the Peelu tree in the Quli Bazar.
During the evenings, Jagdish Babu, the owner of the only printing press of the city would come and sit with Sunder Singh from Kot Ala Thing in the Civil Club. An hour later, Wazir Chander Lal would join them for discussions about Unionist government, while Kora Ram cribbed about the changing times. The majority of the Muslims resided in Kuhna Khanewal. From the fewer Muslim houses in new city, Malik Muhammad Hussain was also active in these gatherings. On the other side, Teerath Das and Tek Chand, the two prominent businessmen, spent their evening walking in Gol Bagh and complaining about the youth. In this almost cyclic life, whenever spring graced the city, a fair was held at the outskirts of the city, called the “Chakro wala Mela”.
Between 3rd June and the last week of August in 1947, the majority in Khanewal thought that partition was a temporary political thing. They hoped, because of their proximity to Toba Tek Singh, that everything would settle down in a few days time. But as days passed, all hopes succumbed to reality. Kot Beerbal was the first settlement to be vacated, followed by Jaswant Nagar and Bheni Sadhu Ram. A plague stalked the city to daringly hunt its prey hence house after house, Khanewal was vacated. Karrar Muhallah was the last one to fall. The lush green fields between Makhdoom Pur and Khanewal, once tilled by Hindus and Sikhs, turned barren.
During partition, the young Muslims of Khanewal had formed an armed group that recovered women abducted by the mob. Saqlain’s father was 23 then, and was a part of this group. Even after 66 years, he clearly remembers that everyone left with a promise to come back. In fact, his neighbors were so confident about returning that they took their house keys with them, so they wouldn’t have to wake up the neighbours. After a decade of stalemate, they reviewed their illusion and returned to take back their precious belongings. Though all these years had seen a Martial Law, some religious violence and a lot of loot, they were still able to find most of their effects.
Across the border, few displaced idealists arrived at Khanewal in quest of place and solace. The magnificent station misled them about the splendor of the city, so many of them left the train at Khanewal and never returned. Muhammad Naqi was one such idealist from Soni Path, once known as Son Prasath. The epic of Mahabharata mentions Son Prasath as one of the five villages demanded by Yudhister from Daryodhan, as the price of peace when things settled down between the Kaurava and Pandoa tribes; the name, however, literally meant the city of Gold. As sandy winds blew around in Khanewal, Muhammad Naqi missed Soni Pat but gradually with his glorious resolve, he turned the sand into gold. His family is now settled all the way from Khanewal to Lahore and Connecticut to Boston but for all of them, Soni Pat is just another old name from Khanewal.
With Independence, the metamorphosis of Khanewal started. Gurudwara Bazar was named Akbar Bazar and Nanak Bazar was renamed Liaqat Bazar. The wells were converted into water pumps which gave way to mosques, and subsequently the madressahs along with their residential quarters. The primary school Sardar Pur said its farewell to Master Lala Kishan Ram and welcomed Maulvi Ghulam Rasool. The orchard of Jodh Singh near Marzi Pura and the adjacent arena were soon isolated. Colonies of Jodhpur and Sham Kot were so quick to disappear that within a decade no one knew if they ever even existed. The same was the case of men like Jeevan Das and families like Ram Singh’s. When so much had happened, Gol Bagh too had little reason to exist. Within a few years, its floral beds were leveled and it was made the seat of DCO.
At the junction of Baans Bazar and Liaqat Bazar, there stood an old well guarded by heavy chains. Eventually the well was turned into a mosque. With the increase in population, the rifts between cycle riders and car drivers also grew. In 1958, the mosque was demolished to construct a crossroad and regulate traffic. Because of the chains, the crossroad was called Sangla wala chowk. As Deobandi influence grew, the chowk was renamed Ya Rasool Allah Chowk. Soon the Ahl-e-Hadees school also gained prominence, registering their objection on the name. Shortly, new signboards of the names of all four Sahaba also appeared at the chowk. Despite all this, the locals still refer to it as Sangla wala chowk, with a naive smile.