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The Alexander of Samundri

Updated May 20, 2013

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 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.


enter image description hereSadhar, initially, stood away from the city, distant and disconnected, but as the population exploded, it fell into city precincts. The Sardars who migrated from Sadhar never let it go completely and it now qualifies as a Sikh sub-caste. Leaving Lyallpur and by passing Samanabad, the train halts at Sar Shameer.

A bricked house in the village stands as fresh as an early morning dream. It has been 10 years now but the image of a grey hand pump watering the paved courtyard is etched afresh in memory. The cemented walls of the house perpetually radiate the sadness of impending departure. While a father returns after completing his service, his son goes back to safeguard the land. Once a warrant officer and now a farmer, the silence of this father spoke of his inner conflict. Caught between the pride in his son’s military career and his own failure in passing on the love for his land, a mix of the feelings prevailed, though the orphaned grains sided with the melancholic father.

Sarshmeer was earlier known as Dhoop Sari or the sunburnt. Awestruck with the tragedy of Sahiba’n, the village took after the name of her brother. In 1947, Dada Ghulam Ahmed arrived here from Ludhiana, homeless and broke. The villagers helped him settle in one of the two Sarais, the inns. Abandoned by the immigrating Sikhs, the building was almost a century old and its simple layout reflected the mood of that time; four rooms, a courtyard and an old Keekar tree, which had grown up with almost everyone in the village. The tree had seen the kids toddling, the children growing up, the teens meeting secretly and then marrying off to someone else. Besides many Baraats, it had mourned many funerals and had even burnt for some pyres.

But with Baisakhi, arrived a few old men from Canada and India. They sat under its shade and stared into its branches. Later, when their eyes welled up, they would get up and leave. Before they left, they held the hands of Dada Ji and his son, the headmaster Chacha, with sheer gratitude, and thanked them for preserving their heritage. Dada ji was also greatly attached to the Sarai. Even in his last years, he walked to the Sarai for evening prayers and returned in the morning.

At the age of 104, Dada ji died in 2008 and the Sarai was abandoned for the second time. Months later, under the influence of his sons, headmaster Chacha, decided to demolish the Sarai. When the first hammer head struck the rear wall of the Sarai, many birds flew off from the keekar tree, forever.

The road on this side is embedded with memories. Those Immigrants, who could not bring their memories along, have named the villages as Jalandhar Araian and Jawahar Singh. Similarly, the villages of Theekree walah and Jagat Pur are the tags of the luggage left back home as their namesakes continue to prosper in India. The canals of Rakh Branch and Gogera Branch have distributed the left over villages amongst each other evenly.

After Jaranwala, the train halts at Tandlianwala. Named after Tandal, a local herb, the town lives under the calmness of plants. It is this artistic serenity that incited creative men like Naaz Khayalvi to write his legendry poem “Tum Aik Gorakh Dhandha Ho”.

The track heron, accompanies the road and canal for a while before parting ways. The train takes a dip and with Satiana and Awagat astride, the road leads to Samundari. North of Jaranwala is the village of Suraj Kund, though not as famous and historical as Suraj Kund of Farid Pur, Haryana. The two are separated by a few centuries and a line, frequently fostered by the blood of Sanaullahs and Sarabjeets.

Faisalabad and Jaranawala are not just two different railway lines but carry many differing stories in their folds.

The first one is of Dijkot, historically referred to as “Dich kot”. Raised from an ancient graveyard site, Dich Kot translates into a city inside the fort, but neither the city nor the fort exists anymore. Although the real politick is far more devastating than the ancient armies that marched on the cities, Dijkot had witnessed the wrath of many legions. Alexander’s army and neighboring tribes destroyed it and Chandargupt Moria and Soori Kings brought life back to the city. The British reached here at the twilight of 19th century. They built a hospital, a police station, a post office and hoisted the Union Jack till 1947. Somewhere between the lines, Muhammad Bin Qasim also finds a mention and some locals claim that he was arrested from this very place.

The next one is the story of a police officer’s son. In the Samundari of 1901, Darogha Basheswar Nath was blessed with a boy. Being a police official, he moved around a lot, but the child was kept by the grandfather Keshav Mal, who introduced him to the world of phonetics. When Basheswar Nath was posted to Peshawar and the family shifted to their house in Dhakki Munawwar Shah, the boy also moved from Lahore to King Edward College, Peshawar. By now, his passion for acting had surpassed religious epics so he ended up in the College Drama Club, where a professor was evincing his love with an English lady through dramatics. The classics of Shakespeare had its characters speak for the two. When Othello swore commitment to Desdemona, Jay Dayal spoke his heart and when Portia wept for Bassanio, Nora Richards wiped her tears. Before this love story took a turn, the boy borrowed the money from his aunt and left for Bombay.

enter image description hereHe met Babu Rao Patel here. The one-man movie journo of India’s first film magazine, Babu Rao cast a sarcastic glance and reminded him that there was no place for an uncanny brawny Pathan in this industry. The boy responded,

If there is none, I might have to swim across the seven seas and establish myself there.

But Prithiviraj was saved from swimming that far. From Bombay, he moved to Calcutta and then there was no looking back. His command over the language and unique tone that came with his Hindku accent made him a brand name of success in film and theatre. When Sohrab Moodi’s Sikander was released, the Samundri features of Prithviraj had completely taken over the Macedonian looks of Alexander. Playing Porus, as a hero, for the first time in popular culture, the movie was an instant hit. Fifty years later, while preparing for my civil services exam, I asked Baba, “what did Akbar look like?” and he brought me Khan Asif’s "Moughal-e-Azam".

From Darogha Basheswar Nath, playing the judge in “Awara” to Ranbeer Kapoor as Samer Partap in “Rajneeti”, the first family of the Hindi Cinema has been a part of the Indian daily life since five generations.

In 1995, Prithvi Theatres celebrated its golden jubilee and a postage stamp was issued to mark the occasion. The stamp carried the company logo and an image of Prithviraj without his name. The Kapoors had a reason. Few faces, they believed, were an identity itself.

After almost a century, the Kapoor household in Juhu still burn Peshawari clay in hawans and on turning 100, the Hindi Cinema still begins its history with one signature sentence:

“In the Samundari of 1901, Darogha Basheswar Nath was blessed with a son”.