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.

Derawar Fort, Cholistan Desert.
Derawar Fort, Cholistan Desert.

After Bahawalpur, the train shunts for Samma Satta. Like most good things, this centurion railway station is said to have been closed since July 2011. Moving past this now silent junction, the rail sounds its trademarks whistle across the wilderness of Rohi, echoing through the vastness reaching far and away.

The Nawabs were wise about developing another city, Dera Nawab Saheb, in the vicinity of Ahmed Pur East. The tasteful Abbasids, rightly credited for embellishing this part of Punjab, had developed beautiful cities for the public and elegant palaces for personal residences. The Sadiq Garh Palace is one of the series. Away from the flurry of the state capital, Bahawalpur, this residency had a mosque, as well as a cinema. It was built to house royal paraphernalia, and function as a camp office. The palace, more than a century old now, had 99 rooms, just one short of a hundred. Staying short of perfection was a lesson, the Abbasids learnt from Noor Mehal. Besides being home to the royal families, it also housed memoirs of dignitaries, the likes of the Shah of Iran, Prime Minister, Viceroy and the Field Marshals.

However, the year 1947 took away much of the grace of the princely states. As times changed, Ahmedpur East too developed a new outlook but Sadiq Garh chose to dwell in its past. In the chaos that saw the departure of regality, the large family of the Nawabs started telling the tale. Feuds for inheritance exceeded a receding estate. At last, there came a day when the residents abandoned the palace. Ironically, the building that once extended jurisdiction over Bahawalpur was now closed over sub judice. The large palace has decayed into an enormous vestige. It’s violated boundary walls and unkempt lawns are a sight of sorrow. The chandeliers are gone but the signature of majesty is still writ large on the empty hooks. The chess-patterned floor has lost its shine in rooms, where the wind enters and leaves through broken panes, unchecked. The frequent dust storms cover and uncover the city intermittently as memory jogs back to the story of the other sleeping beauty.

As this sleeping palace exists in the vicinity of a city wide awake, the towns of Liaqatpur, Feroza and Khanpur Katora, breathe in the proximity of a desert that lies still. On one side, the sand slips coolly into the sight and on the other, the greenery soothes the heart. A mustard field brings forth the desert and the sand dunes baptise the vegetation. In between, a silent agreement in the form of a small water channel runs calmly.

Right from this point, the magic of Cholistan starts taking over. Its name is derived from the Turkish word chol, which literally means sand. This sea of sand has some flashing islands of sand dunes, known locally as tibbas. Matching the destiny of an explorer, these dunes change their place and shift their location but never alter their temperament. If it rains, the earth is hardened and before turning white, it stays green for a little while. The drying pool of water can also be spotted, provided the under-ground water tanks built by Arab Sheikhs are not in close vicinity. With this magical metamorphosis, it is given an equally mysterious name “dhaar”.

Experiencing the strange life of the Cholistan nomads is subject to an obsession with the wild spirit of hitchhiking. While it envelopes the stranger with mystifying silence, the sand grains continue to whisper the secrets of survival into the ears of native residents, telling them to be more patient for the rains. From the AC coupe of the train, to the magical realm of a dhaar, this is all set like an opera of thrill, bliss and feral.

The tracks emanating from the main road cast a strange scene. Dripping with extended hours of stay, the residents file in their cattle and then herd them towards the desert. These cattle not only graze without a shepherd but also turn back from a certain point, without caution. God alone knows the rope they hold tight to; for neither do they distract nor disappear. These cattle follow an almost divine tradition of the one of the salah and continue grazing with only propriety brandished on their bodies.

These branding shepherds, ordinary owners and landlords who have long given up on a sense of inferiority or superiority, distribute the grazing areas amongst each other where they dig wells for sweet water. Having lived through 58 dry monsoons, Ashraf is a shepherd who owned the cattle counting upto 3000 heads. He did not know the exact rakats of the Isha prayer but stopped every passerby to offer them water. His grandfather had mastered the craft of foretelling the location of sweet water, partly due to his knowledge of metals and partly, his common sense. Based on his instinct, a party of six men, equipped with shovels and a ton of lime took six days to dig a well. The seasoned of them all, dug the earth and the skilled of them all, applied the lime, while the other four collected the earth and evenly spread it out nearby. After every 10 hands, they expanded the hole by half a hand and as they touched the water, the hole gradually took the shape of a well. Ashraf did not remember how they treated the lime to get the desired effect of cement.

If rains abandon Cholistan, the dhaars dry up like parched lips. The dunes symbolise barrenness and with every breath, the vastness of the desert sinks in. The entire desert is reminiscent of an Arafat, filled with imposing silence and the calmness of the final Day of Judgment.

The interspersed skeletons of animals died during quest for water, and intermittently grown shrubs are telling of a prayer that rose up to the sky but returned unsanctioned.

As the evening falls, the silhouette of small caravans can be traced in the far distances. Their convoys sink in and out of sand dunes and hark back the curse of Sassi and Sehti to the camel hoarder. The sacred silence of the desert and its consecrated winds prompt an inspiration in responsive souls, but transposing the desolate desert into the bustling cities, merely by melodies, remained the sole strength of Reshma…

The tales of Rohi and the travels of the camel hoarders are yet to unfold…

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