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 at the door as the train moved on. In the era of Cloud and Wi-fi communications, I hope you will like them.
The deserted railway stations of Nizamabad, Baigowal, Aggoki and Sambrial depress anyone who has seen trains in good times. After moving past these stations, the rail enters the city of Sialkot. Established in 1880, this station was once a busy junction of trains going to Jammu or coming from Gurdaspur. During the pre-monsoon season, when Punjab turned into an oven and people rushed to the mountainous Kashmir, this station was a busy place.
With the Hindu Pani, Muslim Pani echoing around the whistling trains, the British officers were escorted by their native staff. Making ways for the masters and ensuring the maintenance of their 'untouchability', this staff was the best protocol of its time. The train, no more plies between the two seasons now; it is more of a transit between two parts of the city. The feeble railway line finishes abruptly after crossing the cantonment and no more connects to Jammu, even on the map.
Sialkot is home to such a successful lot of people that it appears as the “Promised Land” of God. Poets like Iqbal and Faiz, authors like Rajinder Bedi and Zulfiqar Ghose, journalists like Nayer and epic writers like Narendar Kohli, jurists like ZafarUllah Khan and politicians like Gulzari Lal Nanda, screen heroes like Waheed Murad and real life heroes like Rajendar Kumar, sportsmen like Zaheer Abbas and Shehnaz Sheikh don the mosaic of the city with over-achievements. Before one is taken aback with the awe of the city, a mob, and an unruly one at that, is heard. A group of deaf and dumb cannibals making incomprehensible voices, charge at two of the city’s own sons, Mughees and Muneeb. The mob lynches them and one is instantly reminded of the balancing act of God.
The history of the city is told in many versions and in many dialects. Someone links the hooked nose to Greek features; others take the Scythian coins to support their version. The name of Raja Sill and Raja Salwaan also echoes in between the mentions of references from Mahabharat. Too many stories are supported by too little exhibits and in Sialkot, its only one, the Fort. Dating back to 2nd century, the fort decays at a fast pace. The local population has been constantly drawing bricks from the thick walls, now there is hardly anything left to be taken out.
In one part of the fort, Lady Anderson High School celebrates its 85th anniversary. The school was founded in 1927 in the area known as Tibba Jalian. The net weavers dwell in the place. The red painted countenance of the school exhibits the blue board on the top with the name of the school written in Urdu. Inside the headmistress office, a long list of names covers the eventful nine decades; names like Miss Mukhan Lal scroll down a spate of 85 years, just few inches away from Miss Fazeelat Choudhary. The school was named after the wife of the Deputy Commissioner Anderson and saw many curricular and extracurricular activities. The city is lucky to have a rich history of educational institutions.
Murray College is one such institute where the hollow corridor awaits the brilliance of its former students’ to-date. The other educational pride of the city is the Jesus and Marry Convent, which was established in 1856. This was the first mission school in Punjab and the second in British India. The artificial, glossy yet thought-provoking system of education it introduced, influenced the cultural sphere of India at large. These institutes, much like the residents, radiate calmness and antiquity.
The temple of Shahwala Teja Singh is an important landmark of Kashmiri Muhallah. Before 1947, it was an eventful place with a general ambiance of prayers and religiosity. The temple and its surroundings beamed hope, afforded comfort and transacted needs and blessings. Now, the days of Dusehra, Deewali and Holi are just like ordinary days in the solitude of these bricks, where kids play cricket with wickets drawn on these walls. Wary of their significance, these walls once stood arrogantly and admitted unsaid prayers. The city harboured many religions but provoked lesser sects. It once proclaimed the peaceful co-existence of medieval times. The cathedral built in 1852 stands alongside the Gurudwara Bairi Saheb. The Gurudwara was built at the meeting place of Baba Nanak with Hamza Ghose, a local saint, some parts of the Gurudwara were damaged in the aftermath of Babri mosque.
The streets with the name of Rangpura, Zafarwal and Naikupura are a meshwork of memories and no one can get out without help. Perhaps, even now, there are some people who are so deep struck within the nostalgia that they do not want to get out. In the heart of the city, all streets converge on the Clock Tower. On one side, the raised platform displays a board, Bhishmbar Das and Sons Furniture house. The customers and the keepers both have long gone, only the words inscribed on the wall stand as a reminder of the past …
A road from the Clock Tower leads to the cantonment. Sialkot has a special affinity for the military, and indeed a meaningful one. Few soldiers have their homes and fewer have their hearts stuck in the city. But, more about the cantonment and its history later, now the Qissa of Pooran.
Going to Chaprar, is a place called Gulbahar. A well here is the focus of many needy and childless couples. This is called Pooran’s well (Pooran Di Khuee). The Raja of Sialkot, Salwaan, who is said to have restored the fort, had two wives namely, Loona and Ichran. Ichran gave birth to a prince who was named, after much consultation, Pooran. The pundits told the king that to avoid bad fortune; Pooran needs to stay away from the palace for 12 years. The prince was sent to a deserted place, along with the requisite staff. After a period of 12 years, Pooran returned to palace. He went to his mother and then to Loonan, the stepmother. Mesmerised by the young man Pooran had grown into, Loonan lost her heart and tried to seduce him. Pooran refused and left Loonan, desperate and angry. When Raja Salwaan returned, Loonan made up the story of how Pooran had tried to rape her and filled the gaps with tears. The Raja, anguished by the story, ordered Pooran’s limbs to be amputated, and the mutilated body thrown into the woods.
Pooran was thrown in this well after the gruesome torture. For 12 years, Pooran stayed inside the well. One day Guru Gorakhnath, the famous Jogi, on his way back from Shiwalak, passed by the well and heard Pooran. His apostles took out the dying prince. Guru healed the limbs of Puran and exalted him spiritually. After a few years, Pooran was a bhagat – his spiritual powers earned him the fame of a saint. The word was out and it made its way to Loonan, who was still, without child. On hearing about Pooran Bhagat, she along with the Raja, walked up to the well. The Bhagat prophesised the birth of the prince, simultaneously asking Loonan about the reality of Pooran. Shocked and grateful, Loonan revealed the truth and eventually Pooran revealed his identity. The Raja begged Pooran to return to the kingdom but he told them that the kingdom was now the right of the prince to be born. He spent the rest of his life near the well. Raja Salwaan constructed a large compound in the vicinity of the well of which only ruins remain. Childless women travel from places as far as Quetta and Karachi to put Pooran’s well to the test. Faith, in the hour of need, divorces reason.
The rail now moves to Shakar Garh, Zafarwal and Chawinda. It sits for a while on the banks of River Ravi, in the confines of Darbar Sahib Kartarpura, much like a confession box, recalling past times and shedding tears in the waters of Ravi, before puffing smoke in the quests of newer destinations.
Oh Qadir, how my father treated me Nobody does that to real sons (Qadir yar – Qissa Pooran Bhagat)
Note: The citizens of Sialkot and its businesses reflect each other. These reflections gain clarity on the surface of life in the Cantonment. The train will stay for some time to see these images.
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.