For whom the bell tolls
The 16th day of April in 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.
A conflicting interplay of soil and water is experienced as the city constellates the rivers at Panjnad and the river separates the city from Bahalpur and Muzaffargarh. This maze of water and land produced carefree dervishes like Musa Pak and worldly kings like Nadir Shah Durrani.
When time lapsed to the 20th century, Multan’s story took a new turn. A city that was home to people from all over the world had closed the door to its own residents. The madness of the partition spared nothing between the cotton fields and mango orchards. Muslims made up most of the city, leaving the Hindus and Sikhs in lesser proportions, so following the pattern of the 1947 violence, nothing stood against the furies of the majority.
The Rawalpindi riots of March 1947 had come to haunt Multan. The Hindu and Sikh students were protesting against Muslim League ministries in Punjab when they were attacked. The mob was led by one Syed Saheb, who rode his white charger and rallied his faithful to wage war against the infidels (something to be repeated half a century later by Fazlullah in Swat). While the police chose to stay indifferent, the mob proceeded to Hindu and Sikh colonies and set them on fire.
Driven by the communal mindset and the stories from Calcutta, the mob knew no compassion. Next was the TB Hospital, where the death-stricken patients ran to save the miserable life, they had once detested.
Dr Saif-ud-Din Kichlew, a famous politician, was visiting his friend Seth Kalyan Das of Multan when the assailants reached Seth’s house. Kichlew came out to his host’s rescue. But Kichlew’s brothers in faith heard little; no one survived from the fire that burnt the house of Kalyan Das. Being a Congress leader, Kichlew was relieved that the communal brutality had only come back to haunt Pakistan. Months later, when his own house in Amritsar was burnt, he realised that hatred had no religion, and violence no country.
The fire from Multan engulfed the bordering settlements of Shujabad and Muzaffargarh. Villages like Basti Aheer, Bhojaywala and Qasba Maral, that had seen the best of life together, were destined to sufferings when the line of communal politics was drawn. Since they fell on the other side of faith, history was nothing but a smoldering fire.
The 15 L, a canal which was the lifeline to this area and prefix to almost all the neighboring villages, was now choked with corpses. Many Seetas from Seetapur were lost to riots and those who were left, jumped into the well to save their honor. Anand left Anandpur and Kartar must have lost interest in Kartarpur that summer. Amongst the Sikhs of Mian Chunno and the Hindus of Mailsi, many crossed the line and left for India. Those, who did not leave, constantly feared for their lives and businesses. The complaints they wrote to officials enjoyed a safety in dampened record rooms and can still be viewed.
It was not the life of men, or the honour of women, or the sanctity of the places of worship that was lost, but the meaning of human trust, love and respect; this crevice of hatred was to widen with every coming day.
India did not experience a geographical partition only, a cultural revolution also knocked at her door. The new political experience demanded fresh references and interpretations of centuries old human experiences. All things old … had to go.
After years of obscurity, Multan reclaimed its limelight but no numbers of flyovers and dynastic politics could revive the old fame. The famous four of Multan were merely other victims of a new age. Its graveyards were lost to housing societies, the faqeers had acquired democratic flavor, summers were conditioned and the destiny of dust settles in slums only.
The difference between the new and old Multan can be told by the slums across the railway line, which are home to a handful of Hindus. After the attack on the Babri Mosque, the residents have picked up names that conceal their religion. From forced conversions to a lack of employment, their list of grievances is long. They opine that the Muslim state has not done much for its non-Muslim citizens, only if someone could tell them what the state had to offer to its Muslim citizens. Having lived a life of discrimination, death brings even more misery as they opt to be interred for lack of cremation sites.
Inside the narrow streets that open in a small courtyard, a Banyan tree is graced by images and idols of deities, reminisce of Multan from the days of the Prahlad temple. When the sun sets, the place slowly fills with devotees. Once the point of origin of Holi, Navratri in today’s Multan is as quiet as Eid in the Austrian city of Graz.
Of all that is lost, very few in Multan still remember Shakuntala, a voice that had lent melodies to many patriotic songs played in the Garrison. Unlike many Muslims who are Muslims first and Pakistanis after, Shakuntala represented the Multani Hindu community, which is Pakistani first and Hindu after.
Read this blog in Urdu here.