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.
Next to Nankana, is the railway station of Buchiana, a small grain market, where life is all about fields and yields. Here, in this vicinity is a village, far more fertile than the lands of the bar. Though, the divinity of Ganga is restricted to the other side of the border, any resident of Ganga Pur can see beyond the futile divisions of colour, caste and creed. This, devout disciple of Ganga and Ram was Sir Ganga Ram, who built Lahore as we see it today.
Fondly remembered as “man of all the seasons”, this Sufi is close to every Punjabi heart. Those who spend their days and night, practicing medicine at the Ganga Ram Hospital and those who wait for their visa to fly abroad know him alike; no one escapes his signature. Whether posting a letter at the GPO or answering a summon at the High Court, visiting the courts of Faisalabad or benefitting from the powerhouse of Renala Khurd, walking around the Saigol Hall of the Aitcheson College or waiting at the Albert Victor wing of Mayo Hospital, the name of Ganga Ram finds a reason to leave a footprint on your heart, just like these buildings.
Born in 1851 to Daulat Ram, a police official in Mangtanwala, Ganga Ram was eldest of his siblings. He spent his initial years at Amritsar and after graduating from Government College, Lahore, joined Thomson Engineering College, Roorki. He was appointed Assistant Engineer at Public Works Department, Lahore employed on completion of his education.
I asked the old man about the definition of “Rizq”, he replied. “Those with the worldly vision take Rizq as mere subsistence whereas, in the actual essence, every good thing that comes your way, be it a fellow passenger, qualifies for “Rizq”.
Whether Ganga Ram thought this way or not, here at PWD, he met Kanhayya Lal Hindi and Bhai Ram Singh. The aristocratic grandeur around the Mall, which now defines the Raj era, was christened by this trinity. These three men were not only gifted in their craft but knew well how to fuse one culture with another duly supplementing the inherent beauty of each.
On retirement, he was made the Governor of the Imperial Bank of India. After a few months, he found it too boring to continue and joined the Patiala State Service. As head of constructions, he administered historical works like Ijlaas-e-Khaas and the new Moti Bagh Palace.
Despite his life in cities, the countryman inside him refused to settle down. Lahore, with all its vastness, had failed to charm him. Far and away, Chenab Colony awaited him and the life he brought along. Originally the revenue record, on that white cotton latha, registers this place as Chak 591 G B (Gogera Branch) but since Ganga Ram acquired it from the British authorities and rehabilitated it, the village has been named Ganga Pur, a tribute to Sir Ganga Ram. This vast expanse of land stretches over thousands of acres laid barren. Gogera Canal flowed through this area but irrigation was not possible because of difference in the water level. After analyzing the situation, Sir Ganga Ram decided to lift irrigate the village through a heavy motor. The machinery was transported through rail from Lahore to Mandi Buchiana but could not be brought to the village. A special 3 km long track was laid which was completed in 1898 but the train that traversed this track was different. Instead of puffing engine, it was pushed by huffing horses. After the motor was installed, the metamorphosis began and within six months, everything turned green. The efforts of Ganga Ram had converted the barren land to fertile fields. These 90,000 acres of arable land were the largest private enterprise of its time.
An engineer at heart, he carved a heart of gold for himself. After he turned the sand into gold, he started sharing the bounties with the lesser children of God. Built in 1921 by an amount of Rs 1,32,000, the Ganga Ram Hospital to-date remains the last hope of many poor patients. Alongside the hospital, he built the first widow house in Lahore and, here too, religion remained a non issue.
Ganga Ram died in 1927 in London. He was cremated there and his ashes were brought back to Lahore, where the whole city mourned this great philanthropist of his time. On the banks of Ravi, a baradari, with a dome atop, marks the burial place of Sir Ganga Ram. It was the site of Baisakhi celebrations, pre-partition. After 1947, however, there is no such gathering. Festivities go on but the spirit has faded away.
On the right side of the track, lies Khurdianwala, a town about to grow into a city. The town has an amusing story. Sher Shah, the Suri King, ordered a well to be dug at the site of the rubble. Once both the words combined, the name of the city was carved. It is now famous for textile mills, heavy industries and a warning shot for Lyallpur or Faisalabad.
Apart from temples, there was a marhi, which has now been converted into a girls’ college. A sizable population of the city resides abroad. Fewer are those expats whose parents lived here prior to partition and still miss this grain market.
When the train rolled from Ganga Pur to Buchiana, many locals benefitted. The water reached the fields and travellers hit their homes. After functioning for almost a century, it broke down. Residents of Ganga pur looked up in the sky and towards the state but neither the God sent any Ganga Ram, nor the state formed a committee. They decided to help themselves and within a few weeks, the horses pulled it again, last year.
On arriving at Ganga Pur, I realised the difference between the urbans and the rurals. Ganga Ram brought water to this village and the villagers gave up their name for him; he spent his life beautifying Lahore but the citizens could not take care of even a statue.
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