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 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.
When everything failed, Boota sold his ancestral land and holding Tanveer (now Sultana) by her hand, he crossed the border, illegally. Zenab meanwhile, had moved to her village, Noorpur near Burki, Lahore. When he reached Noorpur, Zenab was getting married to one of her cousins. He tried to contact Zenab but was beaten by her family and handed over to police, who charged him for illegally crossing the border. Boota was produced in the court of a sympathetic judge whom he informed that he was the lawful husband of Zenab. The court summoned Zenab, on the condition that if she recognised Boota and agreed to leave with him, the court would ensure their departure. Her family on the other hand, had threatened her that an unfavorable statement on her behalf would not only cause the death of Boota Singh but also that of Sultana.When Zenab appeared in court, the room heaved under all the life sentences, pardons and allegations it had existed to date. Boota Singh stood in one corner with his pleading eyes, Sultana in another with her craving eyes for her mother and lastly, Zenab’s family, with their angry glares occupied another corner. On repeated questioning, Zenab recognised Boota Singh but refused to go with him - never had the judge seen a Jaat so helpless. With swollen eyes, he took out a bundle of money, handed it over to Zenab and told her to take good care of Sultana. Zenab looked up towards the same corner, where her brothers were shaking their venomous head in the negative. In that instant, she saw Sultana living her whole life as a second rate convert, marked with apathy. A mother crucified once again and Zenab denied the ability to take care of Sultana.
Boota left the courtroom with a pierced heart and a crying daughter. Lahore appeared strange that day, indifferent and distant. A memorable city, where once his battalion was stationed, now looked as isolated as a seamless stitch. He wanted to run away, to unknown lands but was cut short on his choices. He could not go back and live with his people. Nothing, but the graves belonged to him in that village. The bustling city could only offer the shrines for solace and calmness, so he came to Data Saheb; the place had a soothing effect. Heartbreaks and shrines have a connection which runs deeper and subsurface. He cried all night sitting next to a pillar. Besides him, Sultana slept calmly, oblivious of what was to come. The next day, Boota took her through the streets that enveloped the shrine. He bought her new clothes and shoes from the market which is today more famous for food, garlands and Islamic books. Sultana thought they are going to see Zenab again. They crossed Ravi and reached the tomb of Jehangir.
The children playing around the gardens saw them both. Sultana stood silently while Boota Singh wrote a letter. He wept and wrote simultaneously, looking down at Sultana occasionally. The railway line at Shahdara was quite a sport for the kids from Mohallah Sang Tarashan. They would put the coin with George V’s image, facing the sky on the track and when the rail passed over it, the coin turned into a magnet. A child had acquired the coin from his widow mother after incessant pleading. Sitting beside the track, the child was caught between the choices. Abject poverty demanded that the coin be preserved, while childhood curiosity provoked the possession of a magnet. The train sounded close and he tried to think of it for another day.
The train was picking up speed when he saw a man coming from the other side. He held a baby girl, newly dressed in one of his arms. Before he could say anything, the man had jumped in front of the train. The girl miraculously lived but the man, now recognised by a few as the one who wrote the letter sitting at the tomb, was dead. Feet apart, the blood soaked letter was held tightly in his hand. This was Boota Singh’s last letter to Zenab.
Finally, you have succumbed to your relatives. I wish that could be best for you. I am leaving. I have a last wish if you can fulfill it. We could not live together in this world but, if you can, please bury me in Noorpur. In one of the days, while you pass by my grave you can stay there for a while.It was a small letter which ended with forgiveness.
Since Lahoris are known to be flamboyant, even before dusk set in, Boota Singh was famous. When his dead body was taken to the hospital, it looked as if the whole city had showed up at the hospital. But Boota was still not granted his last wish. When on 22nd Feb, 1957, his body was taken to the village, the residents of Noorpur refused to grant the two yards required for burial. But the city administration valued the sentiments of lovers and so, Boota was buried in Miani Saheb, the old graveyard of Lahore. Today, those who know where Boota is buried, occasionally leave fresh flowers by the lover.
Sultana was adopted by a lawyer from the high court and now lives in Libya with her husband.
For decades, talking about this issue at Noorpur was considered a taboo. But the journalistic instinct has prompted many a brave soul. A journalist went to Noorpur and waited for an appropriate time to ask Zenab about the incident. Her large eyes had dark circles now. Her perched lips opened, and a velvet voice ruggedly said,
"When I was with him, he would fan me throughout the night. Now, my husband beats me up and taunts me. When you are in love, even death seems appealing and when you don’t find love, every single day is a fatigue".
My father told me that he gave up the idea of turning that coin into a magnet. A train that had killed Boota could never do good to a coin. He returned home and gave the coin to his uncle and demanded a storybook in return. When his uncle returned from Lahore the next day, he handed over the book he had bought from the stalls outside Anarkali. The title written in bold ink, read:
Qissa Boota Singh Nau Muslim Jamil Ahmed, Almaroof Shaheed-e-Muhabbat (The story of Boota Singh converted as Jamil Ahmed, ALIAS the martyr of love).
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.