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.
This place marks the time zone of Pakistan. Arore Hindus initially settled here and converted to Islam by a saint Shah Shams of Multan. A man named Naro decided to set up a city. The Brahmins warned that the city might not see the light of the day unless the foundations were laid by a Syed Muslim. Strangely enough, a few miles away at Qila Sobha Singh, Muslim blood had inaugurated construction. The quest of a Syed willing for the task, took Naro to another saint, Habib Ullah Shah, who accompanied him back to this place. On one of the mound settled the family of Habib Ullah Shah and on the other, the children of Naro. The history of Narowal is all about these two families.Nothing ancient remains in the city. The buildings have been razed, temples caved and the Guruduwaras demolished. All public offices are now housed in a large compound on Shakar Garh road. This small haven of government officials and their families, away from the masses, is growing fast. Upon failing to find anything historical, I asked a school teacher about the ancient buildings. He brushed the dust off his worn out waist coat, once a trade mark of teachers, and replied, “Where individuals did not survive, how could the buildings?”
I gave up on buildings and picked up on personalities. A triangle of love, truth and expression emerges, which has Jassar, Narowal and Kala Qadir at its three corners. Narowal is the first angle and Hashim Shah is its identity. His mysticism shadows the description of Sassi’s plight. When left to the cruel dunes of the desert, which changed shapes with the wind, Sassi lost her way to death but found her course to eternity.
The second corner of this triangle is the abandoned city of Jassar, an important railway station that was once the rail and road crossing for Ravi River. The waters were still shared and the division had yet to step in the physical and mental domains. Jassar Bridge was blown up in the 1965 war. One wonders, that despite the three wars, ideological issues, Ghauris vs. Prithvis, Ajmal Qasabs and Bal Thackereys, whenever an Indian comes across a Pakistani whether on the banks of River Seine, malls of Hamburg or the ruins of Rome, there is an involuntary acquaintance in the eyes. Before the enmity takes over, there is a moment of friendship. When the sun starts to fade, and twilight engulfs everything, a Pakistani and an Indian miss their mothers alike. Some have traded family jewelry, while others have mortgaged skills and academic excellence but the diaspora acquired by both is emotionally painful, yet materially rewarding.
Besides the destroyed bridge, there is another connection between these people of hostile governments: Punjabi. On this side of the triangle, the poetry of Afzal Ahsan Randhawa binds the two. The vicinity of the river and the association with the fields has granted his words the strength that influences decisions.
Main Daryawan daa hani saan, Tarnay pay Gayay Khaal nee Mayay
I grew up treading the oceans … Alas! I am confined to seasonal streams.
The anonymous town of Kala Qadir sits at the apex of this triangle. Dusty streets, busy cross-roads, fields and straw-shelters with interspersed electric poles best describe the village. It wears the humility personified by Faiz. His life and time were as simple, yet illustrative as this village. From the military service to the conspiracy case and the editorship of progressive papers to heading the arts council, Faiz was every bit a glory.Another reference to Narowal is Dr Imam ud Din Shahbaz. He is famous for the Punjabi translations of Psalms and has composed many carols. Every Christmas, in the small rural churches, those who sit at the organ revere him for the service.
The road from Jassar is accompanied by the border and the rail line. Next is Kartar Pura, a city set up in the name of God by Baba Nanak. Rarely has anyone taken to lay the city in the name of God, though everyone is eager to fight for His cause. Baba Nanak stayed at this place in his last years and died here. As with all great man, he left the legacy of faith and conflict. His Muslim followers wanted to bury the remains while the Hindus wanted to cremate him. When tones got louder and daggers were to be drawn, somebody indicated the absence of the body beneath the sheets. There lay a bunch of flowers but the body of Guru Nanak Dev had disappeared.
Contemplating the divinity, the faithful divided the sheet and distributed the flowers amongst themselves. Muslims buried their part of the sheet and flowers and Hindus cremated their share. Inside the compound, a marble grave is decorated with sheets, on which are couplets written in Shah-Mukhi script and inside the building, the Samadhi with the same marble has couplets inscribed in Gurumukhi.