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By the banks of the Ravi

Published Mar 15, 2015 03:11pm

By Sohail Abid

Hitting the road

When you travel across the plains of Punjab, the first thing to strike you is the heterogeneity of the region. In popular imagination, Punjab is about great plains, green fields, and a network of rivers and canals all around. That’s there, but there is lots more.

Take a road trip on a narrow, single road from Saddar in Rawalpindi to Chakri or from Mandara to Chakwal, and you will see a beautiful plateau landscape. More pastures than fields, more shepherds than farmers, and a general absence of men if you enter village. Most of them are serving in the armed forces.

Take a trip from Minawali to Bhakkar to Jhang, and you’ll find yourself in a desert (Thal). If you thought the only desert in Punjab was next to Bahawalpur and Rahim Yar Khan, then get ready for a surprise and a once-in-a-lifetime experience if you can get to spend a night at the outskirts of Mankera, a town in the middle of a desert.

In the north of Khushab lies a hill station, the Soon Valley. Better than Murree, if I may add.

When you look close enough, there is much diversity in the hues and shades of the province of five rivers. This is reflected in change of language too: rivers in Punjab have defined the dialects of language, goes the wisdom in Punjabi folklore. When travelling in the province, it is beautiful to speak one dialect in one town or city and another in the next.

This trip was prompted by the desire to explore the diversity of dialects on a road less travelled: the border with India in Punjab. From Eminabad to Sialkot to Shakar Garh to Narowal and back to Lahore, the journey along the Eastern Loop was more about people — their languages, attitudes, stories — than about places.

Each destination on the map had some significance: Eminabad to know more about the largest Baisakhi mela in Pakistan jointly celebrated by Sikhs and Muslims. Sialkot, to see the two places that have spurred one of the greatest legends in Punjabi language, Qissa Purab Bhagat, or the Legend of Loona if you are a feminist like me.

This was followed by a ride along the much-troubled Indo-Pak border from Sialkot to Shakar Garh—the sleepy old town left to be forgotten, for the amazingly beautiful tibbay (dunes) outside the city along the border. And finally towards Narowal, visiting Kartarpur the village Guru Nanak made his home during the last years of his life, Kartarpur.

And so we set off, my motorbike ‘Bakki’ and I, on discovering the Eastern Loop. These are our stories from the road-trip along the Indo-Pak border in Punjab.

God’s own shop

“Remember to take the first U-turn after Kamonki, it should be right in front of Miraj Shaadi Hall, then be on the service road until you get to the main road on your right; that’s the way to Eminabad, otherwise you’ll end up in Gujranwala.” These were the detailed instructions my Phupha in the village of Tamoli had given me. It was the first time I had visited them, having met for the first time at a family wedding a month back, where he had insisted — a lot — that I visit them.

The U-turn was taken. Also the service road along the right. But that’s when I saw a lively little tea stall in the open.

After taking a couple of photos, I hinted that I’d like a cup of tea too. As he was putting the kettle up, I asked him how business was. “Rab da shukar hai (I’m grateful to God).” When he was done serving, another man came and took charge from the person I was chatting with. He left. “Is this shop yours?” I asked him. “Rab di hai, jee (No, it belongs to God).”

Incidentally, I discovered that I was out of change when it was the time to pay. So was he. I asked him if I should go around looking for change. (That was going to be trouble since it was a not-so-populated area on G.T. Road.)

“Koi na. Fer kadi langhe te de jana (It’s alright; pay whenever you pass by here again.).”

God’s own shop, indeed.

Pindi Bhago

The Sialkot Fort, possibly one from the time of Raja Salwan.
The Sialkot Fort, possibly one from the time of Raja Salwan.

When planning this road-trip, I noticed a village on Google Maps named Pindi Bhago along the border when going from Sialkot to Shakar Garh. That was enough to raise my curiosity. Punjab’s history remembers a hero with that name, Mai Bhago.

Mai Bhago was a Punjabi woman who invigorated a group of 40 people, who had deserted and renounced Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh, when they had to face severe starvation during the Mughal siege of Anandpur, and subsequently lead them to rejoin the guru for the battle of Muktsar.

I thought this village may have a connection to Mai Bhago. But then I read that she was from the village Jhabal Kalan and was married into village Patti — both in district Amritsar — while this village on my route was all the way up north, on the other side of Ravi. So maybe there was no connection.

I still wanted to visit it.

On my way, when I stopped to take pictures of school kids giving an exam out in the open, the teacher there told me that Pindi Bhago was known for its ‘ustanian’ (female teachers). He would know, I thought and smiled.

When I asked him why that was, he said that it yields the best and the most amount of women teachers in Punjab.

Best women teachers in a town that shared a name with a strong woman from history? There must have been a connection.

Then I went to see Pindi Bhago for myself. It is relatively large for a village. And clean. Spotting a dera, I went inside and had huqqa, 7up, and a little chat with two elderly men sitting there.

“Sunya ae eh pind ustaanian layi bada mashoor hai?” (I hear that your village is known for its women teachers?) I initiated the conversation.

“Bilkul sahi sunya ae. Parhdian hi enna nein ke poora Punjab naukri denda hai,” (Yes, that’s right; they study so much that the whole of Punjab is compelled to give them jobs.) one of them said.

“Acha! MA teekar?” (Really? Do they all do MAs?) I acted surprised.

“Ik MA kih hunda ae? Ethe har kudi ne double, triple MA keeta hoya ae,” (What’s one M.A.? Every girl here has done double or triple M.A.) He wasn’t impressed with my assumption.

They didn’t know anything about the name of their village but they had a story about the origins of the village: “It is said — we have been told by our elders — that many centuries ago, a man passing by this area saw a lion and a goat drinking from the same pond, and he thought he must settle here, for this was going to be a land of peace. That’s how this village came into being.”

“Maybe it was a woman, Bhago, the one this village is named after?”

“Maybe it was.”

Punjabi Muhajirs

There’s is a certain charm to road-side tea stalls for bikers like me who make long road trips. They provide quick and rapid bursts of energy (in the form of overly spiced tea) for the long, and winding journeys that lay ahead.

It was one such tea stall. I had left Shakar Garh about half an hour back for Narowal. Just before Noorkot, right on the road next to a tyre shop, there was this lonely tea stall. A cup was due.

I asked the only person there for tea and sat on the charpoy that probably belonged to the tyre shop. The tea was readily served. It was so good that I didn’t even notice when a baba jee came and sat next to me. It was only after he remarked that I was getting grey hair before “the age limit” that I noticed his presence. I smiled and that’s how we got to talking.

Called Behak, this is a temporary farm house built in the fields after the month of Poh (bearing extreme cold). The huts are called Chhann.
Called Behak, this is a temporary farm house built in the fields after the month of Poh (bearing extreme cold). The huts are called Chhann.

He had retired some time back from Pakistan Railways and took it upon himself to tell me about the glorious past of the railways. There was a time when there once were eight trains to Narowal. Now, there are only two, with the news of a third circling around. “The Railway just couldn’t make enough money out of the many trains that it was running. And to top that off, a transporter was appointed as minister. He crippled the Railway to get his business up.” He was, of course, talking about Ghulam Ahmad Bilour, the former federal minister of railways.

While he was telling me the gloomy tales of the railways, I had something else on my mind.

Just the night before, a close friend of mine — upon seeing on Facebook that I was in Sialkot/Shakar Garh area — requested that I visit her ancestral village, Massad Garh, as it was known before Partition. Despite my best efforts, I had failed to locate it on Google Maps. So I asked the baba jee if he knew where Massad Garg was. He knew all that and much more.

In Sialkot, one of the better architectural imitations of Masjid-i-Nabvi.
In Sialkot, one of the better architectural imitations of Masjid-i-Nabvi.

“It is a village of the displaced,” he said. “It used to be a Sikh village, so almost every house was occupied by a family who had moved from the Punjab across the border. I have been there many times. It was on our way to school and college,” he began telling his tale, “We were based in Qila Sobha Singh back then. That’s where we got an allotment in ’47.”

“Oh, your family also immigrated during Partition! How old were you?”

“I was about nine-years-old, I think.” he said.

“Did your family ...” I paused for a while because I knew this wasn’t an easy question to answer, “come safely?”

“Yes, we were fortunate. We were living just across the other side of this river, Ravi, in Pathankot. So it wasn’t a long journey. We got ourselves and our animals into boats and arrived here safely.”

“Thank God. I have heard so many stories.”

“They are true. It was a horrible time to be alive.”

“Do you remember anything about what was it like just before Partition? Did people know what was going to happen? Or were you, like my ancestors, also forced to move only because the riots had erupted?”

I had a lot of questions …

He paused for a while and then blurted: “Eh [Partition] angrezan ne karayi si (Partition was a scheme of the British).”

Suspicious Shakar Garh

Shakar Garh is a town that for some reason considers itself a city.

It acts surprised when a stranger arrives, for not many visit this town. It’s close to the border; not in anyone’s way. The paths that lead here go nowhere. And it is cautious of “Indian spies.” Maybe that’s why it’s still kept under-developed. ‘Why would a traveller come here?’ It wonders.

There are police and army check-posts at the entry points to the town. They don’t understand the point of travelling without a purpose. They ask questions you don’t have a truthful answer to. The answers you have don’t satisfy them. “Main aap ko janay tau doon lakin meri tassali kar dein. Mujhe aapki samajh nahi aa rahi (I could let you go, but at least, satisfy my queries first. I don’t understand you),” the well-meaning police officer had asked.

The same thing happened at the hotel I am staying at. The sole four-room hotel of the town. “Main aakhir kya likhun aap ke aanay ka maqsad?(What should I write is the purpose of your visit?)”

Sometimes small secluded towns make you ask big questions about who you are.

Tea’d off

Shakar Garh is a small city, so small that apparently there’s only one hotel where you can spend the night and only a handful of restaurants. After I managed to get myself checked in at the city’s only hotel, I went outside for a walk and entered the Taj Mahal restaurant for dinner. After having what was a delicious biryani by Punjabi standards, I asked the attendant if they serve tea.

“Hai te sahi par dabbay aali hai...(We have tea, but its packaged),” he said, apologetically.

Confused, I asked if he was speaking of tea bags.

“Nai sir, dabbay aali (No sir, it is the boxed one),” he repeated the answer.

Having no clue what he meant, I further asked: “Kih keh reha aen? Chulhay te nahi pakanday? (What are you saying? Don’t you make tea on a stove?)”

“Chulhay te hi pakanay aan (Yes, we make it on the stove),” his tone turned apologetic again, as if he was ashamed of what was to follow, “par majh da dudh nahi hai, dabbay da hai (but the milk isn’t from a cow, it is packaged milk).”

Chownk vs Chowk

The TV in my room in Shakar Garh is tuned to a local cable channel, playing a mix of Nusrat saab’s qawwalis and Bollywood songs. In between the songs and qawwalis, it plays a very local ad for a newly-opened local money changer. Except the language, which isn’t Punjabi but Urdu. But at the end of the ad, when it’s time to tell the location, the voiceover girl says in her sweet accent: Chownk Farooqia.

Puran’s well

Puran’s Well outside Sialkot city.
Puran’s Well outside Sialkot city.

By the orders of the king, the prince was sentenced to death for he had crossed a line. He had dared to touch his step-mother. That, at least, was the account the king was lead to believe in.

Salwan was the king of Sialkot. Puran — the prince — was his only son. The legend states that Salwan married a second time when he got older. The girl, Loona, was half his age and the age-fellow of Puran. She — perhaps dissatisfied with the king or perhaps angry because she was married against her will — finds herself attracted towards the prince instead. We don’t know what the reason was. The legends don’t say. But we do know that she asked Puran to love her back.

He refused. She got angry. The rest is a Yousuf-Zulaikha story. Except that Puran’s hands and legs were chopped off and he was thrown into a well.

A few kilometres from Sialkot city, that well still exists. My Sialkot plan included a visit to the ruins of the fort that’s associated with King Salwan and to see the well associated with Puran.

It wasn’t going to be a straight-forward path — for there lies a cantonment between Sialkot city and Puran’s Well. The people I asked for directions all knew the place quite well. It was well known, but also known by a few different names: Sidhan di khoyi (The well of the righteous jogis), Jogi da khu (Jogi’s well), and Puran Bhagat di pulli (Puran’s well).

That well turned him into a Bhagat. That’s the second part of the legend and the reason why people still revere him and his well after so many centuries have passed.

After he was thrown into the well to die, a master jogi passed by and heard his cries. It was Guru Nath himself, the guru from the ancient and famous jogi dera near Jhelum, the people say. The guru saved him and made him all well again and took him as a disciple. He became a jogi and a bhagat under the guidance of the guru.

After many years, Puran was to return to his home town as a jogi. Fate would have it that Salwan and Loona were still childless. When they heard of a bhagat in the city, a visit was paid. Puran said that he would bless Loona but they need to repent for the sin they had committed. She and Salwan did. Puran blessed them and they were in turn ‘blessed’ with a son.

Kids playing cricket next to Puran’s well.
Kids playing cricket next to Puran’s well.

Taking a bath in the holy water of the well that Puran was thrown into still holds the same power, people have believed since then. And still do. The well has a high boundary wall and there are six or seven buckets tied to the well. Women from near and far still come to the well. For they too want a child.

Studying in the line of fire

Studying in the line of fire—at Indo-Pak border in Punjab, near Harpal, Sialkot.
Studying in the line of fire—at Indo-Pak border in Punjab, near Harpal, Sialkot.

The route I had selected for the trip was adjacent to the infamous Indo-Pak border in Punjab known for irregular exchange of fire. It’s the road from Sialkot to Zafarwal.

The trenches near Harpal.
The trenches near Harpal.

The closest one to the border is near a village called Harpal. So close that — at places — you can see the houses on the other side from the road.

Something that stands out are the many army trenches along the road, close to the border. It looks like a permanent stage of a war. One could shoot a film there, no pun intended.

Another thing you can’t help but notice is a three-four-feet-high mud-wall some 50 or so metres away from the road, probably for protection from incoming bullets. Not a pleasant sight if you ask me. So it was a surprise to see school kids sitting for an exam out in the open, on the stretch of land between the road and the protective mud-wall.

I stopped the bike and talked to the teacher there.

“It isn’t as dangerous as it looks, we know when there is trouble on the border,” he said.

“And besides, this is life here. We are used to it,” he added.

Sohail Abid is a traveller and writer, exploring tradition, art, and the music of the ordinary. You can follow him on Twitter @SohailAbid

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 15th, 2015

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