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 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.
This river like all others is known by many names and the most common of them is Chandra Bhaag. It is not the water that flows through the banks but a tear shed by Himalaya, carried with care, across to the Indian Ocean. Now that the immigrants have changed addresses too frequently to remember, fewer things about the river and this land do not fade away. These emotionally displaced people might take up residences in Maryland, Canberra or Quebec, its almost impossible to get over the nights of this place as well as its stories.
The tale of river Chenab is also one of its kinds. In ancient times, as local myth goes, Chandra, the daughter of the moon god and Bhaga, the son of the sun god, fell in love with each other. Both of them took to the northern highlands to get married, where now the highway between Manali and Laddakh now treads. Bhaga, confident of his power, pointed into the far off haze and declared that whosoever will reach the place first will carry the name in this relationship. Chandra, having grown up in dark, knew the area too well so she hit the mark first. Bhaga reached later, only to discover that he had been beaten by Chandra before the relationship could actually start. The place is now famous as the tourist resort of Tandi. The communion between these lovers was an episode of tears. Chandra still believes that Bhaga cried out of joy, how can someone tell her that men don’t cry in joy but yes, they do not hold it back when defeated. The 20,000 lake resorts also add to the serenity of place. The two lakes, Surya Taal and Chandra Taal, named after the sun god and the moon god also exist en route and conform to their name and divine affiliation.
Passing through Kishtwar, the river converts silently and enters into the folds of Islam before stepping into the land of pure. Chenab is its baptised name.
Criss-crossing Kashmir many hearts beat with the river – the tales of Heer Ranjha and Sohni Maheenwal are incomplete without these waters. The care free tillers of the land make it a point that the river remains significant in their emotional pursuits. The famous saying is still very valid: Sindh Sadiqaan, Ravi Rasqaan, Chenab Ashiqaan.
Before it crosses the river, the rail stops for a while, this is to present the credentials to the river which is as close to Punjabs heart as the Nile to Egyptians.
Instead of heading to Gujranwala of Ranjit Singh, the train whistles to Wazirabad of Avitabile. The age old city is not raised of clay and bricks but of time, and a time well spent. At fewer places the decay has set in and at others, the ruins of grandeur are still apparent. A few hundred years ago, it was a mailing station rather a post and housed an octroi as well. Caravans passed this place, paid ocroi, changed horses, freshened themselves up and spent a night to leave early morning. The Bhatiaran (a traditional character of a woman who would run a dining facility) here offered them savory meals and equally savory stories. In the backdrop of paying octroi, getting receipt, inquiring about the routes ahead, discussing past experiences and conversations of the bhatiaran, one sentence could be heard clearly and repeatedly … “Times have changed a great deal” … This mailing post of Sher Shah Suri is still in place and has been included in the archeological heritage list.
The city was raised by one Ilm-ud-din, a minister of Shah Jehan. He built the royal quarters here, known as Musaman Burj or Saman Burj (in the public dialect). Though the might of the structure has not receded by all those years gone by, however, the altering lifestyle of the inhabitants can be observed. Year after year, the city spread out and the buildings came up. In the initial days of the Sikh rule, anarchy prevailed but when Ranjit Singh conquered Punjab, the city started prospering. He constructed a mighty Gurudwara, at the place where Guru Har Gobind Singh used to stay while travelling to Kashmir. The Maharaja’s administration of justice brought peace to the whole of Punjab, and more so to Wazirabad. The finest of his men from Europe, Avitabile was made the Governor of Wazirabad. Avitabile’s commitment to the development of the city is so profound that today, the history of Wazirabad and Avitabile compliment each other.
Paolo Avitabile was born to a family of farmers in Italy. He served sometime in the levies of Naples and finally fought under Murat, when Napoleon swayed across Europe.
After a few years, the war in Europe ended and peace prevailed. Those who had learnt the art of survival, prospered and those who had mastered the killing craft went broke. This was the time when the mercenaries of European war hit Iran, Turkey and the principalities of India looking for employment.
Avitabile sailed for the US but a ship wreck changed his mind and he joined the Iranian army, in the service of the Qachar Dynasty. As always, Iranians offered him the titles and decorations but did not pay well. He met Ventura, an aide of Ranjit Singh, who spoke about the kingdom of Sikhs and Avitabile instantly fell in love with Punjab. Soon, he joined the service of Ranjit Singh and was made the governor of Wazirabad. He planned, constructed and developed the city by building wide lanes, markets, residential areas and gardens. His next assignment took him to Peshawar where as a governor; he gained the name of Abu Taveela, the Muslim version of Avitabile. These few good men, Ventura, Claude and Avitabile can be accredited for organising and training the Sikh army to the standard that they held the British at arm. Culturally too, they left permanent marks at Khalsa Darbar such as the title of “Baron of Fauj-e-Khas”.
Before luck left the house of Ranjit Singh, Avitabile managed to return. He commissioned skilled artist to build his house at Naples and married a local woman. Within a few years of the wedding, he died and left a sorry tale of litigation. His property attracted scores of distant relatives and eventually the popular slang “Avitabile’s cousin” was drafted. The second time, the clan of Avitabile took a new name was when they got down at Ellis Island as immigrants and the settlement clerk made the wrong entry.
The city also had a garrison which was relocated to Sialkot, on grounds of a health hazard to soldiers. The last historical building in the city is Kothi Sheikh Niaz Ahmed. Amidst gridlines of small streets and alleys, this building is a warp-zone with no time dimensions.
Kothi Shiekh Niaz Ahmed, Rail Galla, Sheesh Mehal, Katra, Ghat, Haveli of Badri Das, Krishan Chandar, mosque of Zafar Ali Khan, the Moghul Inn, Ladoo’s Pullee and the cutlery world … it is not a city but a wonderland, too magnanimous to be covered in fewer lines.
Despite this history, Wazirabad has the character of a small time town. Everyone knows almost everyone with a reference or incident. On one side of the city is a large number of grandiose marriage halls and on the other side the population dwells in a large number of small houses. Those who could not establish themselves as illegal immigrants in Italy have returned home to open pizza outlets but the fish from Rail Galla continues to define Wazirabad cuisine.
As October sets in and Oktoberfest hits the headline, the narrow street of Rail Galla is filled with the rich smell of frying oil and noise. Amongst the heated arguments, one can clearly hear the shopkeepers telling the customers … “Times have changed a great deal” …
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.