For whom the bell tollsThe 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.
The deserted railway stations of Nizamabad, Baigowal, Aggoki and Sambrial depress anyone who has seen trains in good times. After moving past these stations, the rail enters the city of Sialkot. Established in 1880, this station was once a busy junction of trains going to Jammu or coming from Gurdaspur. During the pre-monsoon season, when Punjab turned into an oven and people rushed to the mountainous Kashmir, this station was a busy place.
With the Hindu Pani, Muslim Pani echoing around the whistling trains, the British officers were escorted by their native staff. Making ways for the masters and ensuring the maintenance of their 'untouchability', this staff was the best protocol of its time. The train, no more plies between the two seasons now; it is more of a transit between two parts of the city. The feeble railway line finishes abruptly after crossing the cantonment and no more connects to Jammu, even on the map.
Sialkot is home to such a successful lot of people that it appears as the “Promised Land” of God. Poets like Iqbal and Faiz, authors like Rajinder Bedi and Zulfiqar Ghose, journalists like Nayer and epic writers like Narendar Kohli, jurists like ZafarUllah Khan and politicians like Gulzari Lal Nanda, screen heroes like Waheed Murad and real life heroes like Rajendar Kumar, sportsmen like Zaheer Abbas and Shehnaz Sheikh don the mosaic of the city with over-achievements. Before one is taken aback with the awe of the city, a mob, and an unruly one at that, is heard. A group of deaf and dumb cannibals making incomprehensible voices, charge at two of the city’s own sons, Mughees and Muneeb. The mob lynches them and one is instantly reminded of the balancing act of God.
The history of the city is told in many versions and in many dialects. Someone links the hooked nose to Greek features; others take the Scythian coins to support their version. The name of Raja Sill and Raja Salwaan also echoes in between the mentions of references from Mahabharat. Too many stories are supported by too little exhibits and in Sialkot, its only one, the Fort. Dating back to 2nd century, the fort decays at a fast pace. The local population has been constantly drawing bricks from the thick walls, now there is hardly anything left to be taken out.
In one part of the fort, Lady Anderson High School celebrates its 85th anniversary. The school was founded in 1927 in the area known as Tibba Jalian. The net weavers dwell in the place. The red painted countenance of the school exhibits the blue board on the top with the name of the school written in Urdu. Inside the headmistress office, a long list of names covers the eventful nine decades; names like Miss Mukhan Lal scroll down a spate of 85 years, just few inches away from Miss Fazeelat Choudhary. The school was named after the wife of the Deputy Commissioner Anderson and saw many curricular and extracurricular activities. The city is lucky to have a rich history of educational institutions.
Murray College is one such institute where the hollow corridor awaits the brilliance of its former students’ to-date. The other educational pride of the city is the Jesus and Marry Convent, which was established in 1856. This was the first mission school in Punjab and the second in British India. The artificial, glossy yet thought-provoking system of education it introduced, influenced the cultural sphere of India at large. These institutes, much like the residents, radiate calmness and antiquity.
The temple of Shahwala Teja Singh is an important landmark of Kashmiri Muhallah. Before 1947, it was an eventful place with a general ambiance of prayers and religiosity. The temple and its surroundings beamed hope, afforded comfort and transacted needs and blessings. Now, the days of Dusehra, Deewali and Holi are just like ordinary days in the solitude of these bricks, where kids play cricket with wickets drawn on these walls. Wary of their significance, these walls once stood arrogantly and admitted unsaid prayers. The city harboured many religions but provoked lesser sects. It once proclaimed the peaceful co-existence of medieval times. The cathedral built in 1852 stands alongside the Gurudwara Bairi Saheb. The Gurudwara was built at the meeting place of Baba Nanak with Hamza Ghose, a local saint, some parts of the Gurudwara were damaged in the aftermath of Babri mosque.
The streets with the name of Rangpura, Zafarwal and Naikupura are a meshwork of memories and no one can get out without help. Perhaps, even now, there are some people who are so deep struck within the nostalgia that they do not want to get out. In the heart of the city, all streets converge on the Clock Tower. On one side, the raised platform displays a board, Bhishmbar Das and Sons Furniture house. The customers and the keepers both have long gone, only the words inscribed on the wall stand as a reminder of the past …