For whom the bell tollsThe 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 few pleasant memories associated with train travels. These memoirs are the dialogues I had with myself while sitting by the windows or standing on the doors as the train moved on. In the era of Cloud and Wi-fi communications, I hope you will like them.
The city of Gujrat is captivating enough to take over all and any sensations. Shrines, legends and unaccomplished love are the anchors which hold the city. Besides dynamic human beings, the city is inhabited by aspirations and sighs.
The history of Gujrat remains a routine affair with a passing reference to Surya Vanshi (Born from Fire) Rajputs and King Bachan Pal. There is a mention of a 2500-year-old town of Uday Nagar, a warrior prince Ali Khan who founded the city and our very own Akbar, who built the fort. Khawas Pur of Sooris and Behlol Pur of Lodhis also serve as milestone in the rich chronicle.
The last three centuries are the episodes of destruction, development and prosperity by Durranis, Sikhs and the British Raj respectively. Then on, the revenue record preserved on the white cloth called Latha tells the official history of the city. This Gujrat, however, is entirely different from the Gujrat of Chaudharies, Nawabzadas and the Non-residents. From the shrine of Shah Dola to the Palace of Ram Piari, it’s a long ballad of love, the lost love.
The city had four entrances, a deep well for fresh water, a recreational bath and a fort. The deep well is probably lost in the maze of narrow streets but is surely guarded by some vigorous red pump. The fort is buried in the concrete jungle that has grown around it. The Turk rulers loved the heritage of harem, baths and language and took it along wherever they went. A similar bath with geysers underneath the floor was constructed by Akbar in Gujrat. The keepers of the bath proclaim the magical medicinal effects of bath and mint money in the name of unnamed diseases.
Away from the city is the lost settlement of Shah Jahangir. It houses the shrine of a saint, the tomb of a king and a few graves of soldiers. When Jahangir died, Noor Jahan concealed the news for some political reason. She carried out the surgical procedure and buried all the internal organs susceptible to decay, here at this place. The death was made public at Shahdara, where the transfer of power took place according to the design. This story, however, is the narrated version of history; the documented version indicates this burial somewhere in Kashmir. The place is also known for a saint, Jahangir Shah. After the battle of Chillianwala, the British chased the Sikhs and the final battle for Punjab was fought here. The Sikhs were defeated and Punjab was finally part of Raj. The remains of Sikh soldiers laid in the open, and decayed to the tune of time. The fallen British soldiers were buried in this small graveyard. As long as white men ruled this land, the Union Jack fluttered and the bugles called. After the fall of the British Empire, the carved angels, from the mini crosses erected as tombstones, left and the psalms faded away. Time is such an unfaithful aide.
The city boasts the traditional Zamindara College, where, almost every Gujrati has studied once in his lifetime. The land was provided by the famous Nawabzada family, who has now taken it to court to reclaim the property. Impulsive charity on the part of the elders has cost them too high. The industrial base of the city evolved around pottery, ceramics and electric fans. Furniture also remains a specialty in the area. These days the city is more into power fragmentation rather than assembly lines.
The Circular Road was once known as Sohni Road. Prior to this renaming, it was called Ram Pyari Road. The famous Ram Pyari Palace stood on this road. This astounding beauty was the wife of Sundar Das Sibal, the entrepreneur from Dinga. The building is a confluence of the British, Greek and Roman style of construction. Amongst imported Italian Chandelier and Murano glass, Ram Pyari was the lone local beauty. The city saw the first car driving in because of her. At the time of partition, she chose to migrate to India. The palace initially housed a training institute for administrative officers but was subsequently converted into a hostel for a local girls’ college. The fate of neighboring Kedar Nath Haveli also remained the same.
Sir Syed called this place Greece because of the wonderful men and women it produced. The beauty of the land is not only confined to Sohni, but it posses the bewitching eyes of Sabiha Khanum and the melodious voice of Tasawar Khanum. Men of unmatched talent like Inayat Husain Bhatti and his brother Kaifi and vocals like Shoukat Ali hail from Gujrat. The sights and sounds here filled in the locales of novels of Abduallah Hussain and theatre of Rafi Peer.
Sohni remains the emotional brand ambassador of Gujrat. How she carved those delicate pots and how Izzat Baig fell for her craft and beauty? How he gave up his caravan only to tend her cattle and how she floated across the ravaging river? This all is but a trivia; the fact remains absolute and that is from Chenab, in Gujrat, to Indus, in Shahdad Pur, the story of these lovers is writ large on sprawling waters.
Gujrat now expands limitlessly. The lush green fields have given way to multi-storied colorful houses. Everything has changed less the emotional attachment of Gujratis with shrines. The city remains imbued with the prayers and hopes at mausoleums that dot the whole city. There is hardly any street without a shrine and hardly any house without a devotee. From the three villages of Syeds including Moeen ud Din Pur to the small town of Gondal, devotion is channeled through a series of graves, madressahs, mentors and followers.
On this tight rope stretched between the aspiration and capability, desperate men trapeze with devotion. The evening sets on these shrines before it blankets the city. The arrangements are made at Shah Dola for visitors, water is sprinkled at Hafiz Hayat's and incense is lit at Kanwan Wali Sarkar.
Frantic and needy, men and women flock these places in search of comfort, solace and calm. They walk with calculated steps looking either into the ground or up in the skies, sit down with the wall or hold the mesh-work around the grave. They pray not with their words but with shivering lips and trembling hands, drop something into donation box and walk away.
If you move around in the city, it looks like God attends this city diligently and answers all prayers, but if you visit the shrines there, it dawns upon you that no prayer has ever been answered.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.