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.

This is part 2 of two-part series. Read part one here.

Kori Wala Dhaar
12 April 2002

As our jeep disappeared into dunes of Fareed’s Rohi, the sun also set into the folds of earth. The journey that started this morning from Sola Khoi had ended at Kori Wala Dhaar, after a brief stopover at Giglaan Wala Toba. Like me, a pair of desert sparrows has also chosen the lone tree in this Dhaar to spend the night.

Life in the desert has disciplines of its own and does not take much to adapt. The magnanimity of the local heart and it’s yearn for simplicity is yet to be scathed by the current civilities of our urban world. Raised on brackish water and salted camel meat, the sturdy bodied shepherds and colorfully attired dusky women, converse in the lyrical local dialect – a rhythm that can only be comprehended in the desert.

Ages ago, when the human wish list extended from living under the sun and over the earth to caves and structures, these nomads were fascinated by the idea of a house. The conflict, however, was not over the household but the very gypsy nature of these wanderers. They loved their land yet never wanted to commit. The earth would never let them go and they would never build a house on it, so a makeshift home was developed. A hedge raised in a circle served as wall and weeds woven into a sheet formed the roof that stood on a pole. This one room house is called a Ghopa and is, considerably, a world in its own. The props like clothes hanging from the hooks, rations stacked up in booths and water-filled earthen pots buried in earth alongside a pile of memories, establish that someone has just left, while the lonely smell of sadness lingers. The colonies of these hutments amply suit the nature of these wayfarers.

Most of the water reservoirs in Cholistan are filled by the first rain. These initial monsoons serve the residents for almost weeks before the reservoirs dry up. The residents, then, move to some other water sources, leaving behind the memory infested Ghopas, destined for a yearning wait. Despite the meager water availability, they do not forget to fill up a water pot and bury it in the Ghopa, for a thirsty traveler who might have lost his way.

Tired from constant travel under the sun, the rare sight of a Ghopa is no less than a miracle to dehydrated convoys. What is more human, than divine, is the fact that despite the parched lips and bodies drained due to thirst, the travelers still exercise selflessness. They enter the huts but leave the filled water pots for somebody more deserving; a phenomenon that keep the Ghopas water-ready.

Amidst these dunes, the oasis of Nawan Kot is situated at a crossroad of four sand highways. One track leaves for Bijnot, the other leads to the city and the other two navigate around local dunes and dhaars.

On one side of Nawan Kot, lies the centuries old Mughal fort. Located by the riverside, it was one of the series of forts built at Khan Garh, Islam Garh and Khair Garh. As time lapsed, all arches, elephant gates, tunnels and Mughal grandeur caved in while the boundaries, minarets and stories survived to tell the tale. On the other side, stands the mosque maintained by the Hobara Bustard hunters. Centered around a pond that sits at the crossroads of these sand highways, the oasis of Nawan Kot has the ability to transcend through the physical dimensions of time and space. Between the mosque and the fort, the water pond serves the cattle of Rohi, the soldiers of the Rangers, the residents of Rohi and the plants that compose the fabulous world of Cholistan.

The place is comparatively livelier because of the constant existence of water. The real beauty, however, is the immaculate trimming of the trees. The plants are so precisely manicured that the use of an accuracy instrument cannot be ruled out. At the outset, this phenomenon remains a mystery that is until the locals explain that the trimming is a result of the grazing cattle that eat the dropping leaves, maintaining the linear silhouette.

In this chowk-city of Nawan Kot, where Rangers and gypsies are always in transit, Haq Nawaz is the most permanent resident. Every morning, a vehicle from the Abu Zahbi Palace Office imports this cleric of the Nawan Kot mosque from the neighboring city. Haq Nawaz only returns after he has preached the message and has completed the long day’s journey, including five divine stopovers. Besides the meager palace office salary of Rs8,160, he also runs the lone grocery shop of Nawan Kot.

Despite his devout manner of ablution, Haq is far and away from the rigid dialectics of religiosity. His conversation is free from the vanity of serving his faith in a desert for the last 20 years. His deep set eyes, framed with Gandhi-glasses tell of a faith that was born out of redemption.

Though the cash box at the shop and the devotees at the mosque are mostly discouraging, Haq is persistent. The unseen devotion of this cleric-entrepreneur with his Lord closely resembles the invisible umbilical cord that ties the calf with its mother. Haq shows up to open the shop and the mosque, regardless of customers and the faithful.

Note: This second story of Rohi is a page from my diary. The writing might have faded but the memories of that bleak night are as fresh as a recently filled reservoir.

Read this blog in Urdu here.
Listen to this blog in Urdu:



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